On Mud, Dust, and Rain

And Letting the Bayou Heal

Sept. 19, 2017

Rain at last! Monday morning the sky is grumbling with thunder, even as the sun shines. A sprinkle of rain will wash the pavement covered with mud from the overflowing polluted bayou waters, dried mud that billows in thick choking clouds when cars and buses drive down the streets. A light, sparkling rain will wash the leaves and plants and sidewalks in our yards and parks.

The sky had been quiet for so long, empty for a while even of the roaring of low-flying planes. But later in the afternoon the sky turns somber. The rain grows heavier. And now we all feel the nervousness of those who have been flooded and watch the sky with anxiety. We who have grown up with mighty thunderstorms, fearlessly playing in the rain, splashing through flooded streets. Now we are all afraid of what the rain might bring.

It’s been nearly three weeks without rain since the historic deluge of Harvey sent flood waters and rain runoff through sewage treatment plants, sewage pumping stations, sewer lines, chemical storage facilities, service stations, toxic waste sites, half a million vehicles (not including smaller machinery), homes, offices, parking lots, shopping malls, and more.

The Rain Went Away

The absence of rain was a blessing. We could dry out and recover. The beleaguered Corps of Engineers could attempt to empty the reservoirs on Addicks and Barker dams in west Houston on Buffalo Bayou upstream. For the first time ever the engineers had been forced to open the floodgates of the seventy-year-old dams during a heavy storm. They knew that they would flood people downstream, that the already flooding river would rise even higher. But the water was rising quickly behind the earthen dams and would soon be flowing over the low spillways at the ends for the first time. At least two people died in their homes on Buffalo Bayou; a third in the basement ceiling of a luxury hotel on the banks near Woodway.

We don’t really know what the peak high flow was in the bayou during the storm. The gauges were overwhelmed. Maybe 15,000-16,000 cfs on around Aug. 31. Maybe more. (For comparison, the flow in the West Fork of the San Jacinto River was a record 80,000 cfs when authorities there opened the dam on Lake Conroe Aug. 28.) Since the rains stopped on Aug. 30, the flow in the bayou has been dropping slowly by several hundred to nearly a thousand cubic feet per second a day. (On Tuesday morning the floodgates were closed, and the flow had dropped to below 1,000 cfs. Base flow with no rain is about 150 cfs.) But on Monday evening the floodgates on the dams were still open, and the water was still draining. And there was still some 36 billion gallons of storm water remaining in the reservoirs, down from about 129 billion at their apparent peak on Aug. 29. The two reservoirs are normally dry parks with flowing streams (including Buffalo Bayou), filled with trees, trails, and recreational facilities now covered with sediment.

We have been waiting for the waters to recede, to see what was revealed, the changes wrought to the banks. A flood in a natural setting is an awesome thing. We do not mourn the process of nature. A flood where people live and work is tragic.

Read the rest of this post.

South bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park covered with sand on Sept. 10, 2017, during very high flow from Harvey. Photo by SC

Houston Lashed by Critics Over Harvey

A Roundup of Harvey Flood Reporting and Commentary

Sept. 18, 2017

Not since the Enron scandal in 2001 has Houston faced such a deluge of criticism and bad publicity. Abundant praise, yes, for the generous and courageous response of neighbors helping neighbors and strangers. But according to our critics, flaws in the civic character—greed, incompetence, short-term thinking, a disrespect for nature—created an urban landscape that allowed maybe the worst storm ever to hit a metropolitan area to become a catastrophic flood, damaging or destroying some 136,000 homes, businesses, and other structures, maybe a half a million cars and trucks, taking fifty lives, damaging and disrupting the lives of many thousands more.

Here are links to some of the more thoughtful and informative articles published.

On Flooding Causes and Solutions and Working with Nature

Development, Drainage, and Destruction of Wetlands

Houston’s Flood is a Design Problem

The Atlantic, Aug. 28

Debo advocates that urban design mimic rural hydrology as much as possible. Reducing impervious surface and improving water conveyance has a role to play, but the most important step in sparing cities from flooding is to reduce the velocity of water when it is channelized, so that it doesn’t deluge other sites. And then to stop moving water away from buildings and structures entirely, and to start finding new uses for it in place.

Houston’s Flooding Made Worse by Unchecked Urban Development and Wetland Destruction

Quartz, Aug. 29

The Harvey-wrought devastation is just the latest example of the consequences of Houston’s gung-ho approach to development. The city, the largest in the US with no zoning laws, is a case study in limiting government regulations and favoring growth—often at the expense of the environment. As water swamps many of its neighborhoods, it’s now also a cautionary tale of sidelining science and plain common sense. Given the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protections, it’s one that Americans elsewhere should pay attention to.

Houston’s ‘Wild West’ growth

How the city’s development may have contributed to devastating flooding

Washington Post, Aug. 29

Houston drainage grid ‘so obsolete it’s just unbelievable’

AP, Aug. 29

Experts blame too many people, too much concrete, insufficient upstream storage, not enough green space for water drainage and, especially, too little regulation.

“Houston is the most flood-prone city in the United States,” said Rice University environmental engineering professor Phil Bedient. “No one is even a close second — not even New Orleans, because at least they have pumps there.”

The entire system is designed to clear out only 12 to 13 inches of rain per 24-hour period, said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice University: “That’s so obsolete it’s just unbelievable.”

Also, Houston’s Harris County has the loosest, least-regulated drainage policy and system in the entire country, Bedient said.

Houston’s development boom destroyed wetlands that naturally absorbed flood water — and left thousands in Harvey’s path

New York Daily News, Aug. 30

Read the rest of this post.

Looking upstream from a high bank in Memorial Park on Sept. 11, 2017, at around 2:30 p.m. Flow was still about 7,000 cubic feet per second.

Know How High The River Flows

Get Alerts on Bayou Rise and Decline

Sept. 4, 2017

Updated Sept. 6, 2017, with a new tool from the Corps of Engineers for projecting inundation levels on Buffalo Bayou going forward.

Updated Sept. 7, 2017

Update Sept. 14, 2017: The Harris County Flood Control District has reported that at least eighteen gauges were damaged by extreme high waters from Harvey. As of Sept. 11, the district had repaired twelve of them. The Corps of Engineers also reported that the US Geological Survey gauge on Buffalo Bayou at Piney Point was temporarily knocked out of commission by high waters.

As of this writing a great many people living along Buffalo Bayou have been forced out of their homes by the flooding river. On Friday, Sept. 1, those who remained in their flooded homes below Addicks and Barker dams in west Houston were asked to leave by the mayor, a request that became mandatory the next day. Offices, apartments, hotels, parking lots, parks, country clubs, and sewage treatment plants built next to the bayou also have been flooded.

Many people were taken by surprise, it seems. Knowing when and how fast the bayou was rising might have helped more people prepare. Knowing when the waters might recede might also help people plan.

Here is how people living and working along Buffalo Bayou below Addicks and Barker dams can receive real time alerts about a dangerous rise in the flow of the bayou. This is for the gauge at Piney Point, which is the gauge the Corps of Engineers uses to monitor the flow in the bayou and regulate storm water releases from the reservoirs behind those two federal dams in west Houston.

And here is a link to the interactive inundation map, just released to the public by the Corps of Engineers, that can help people see when and where the bayou might go down.

Read the rest of this post.

Barker Reservoir on the left and flooded streets and homes on the right. Buffalo Bayou runs through the middle. Google image 8.30.17

$12 Million Bayou Project Based on a Mistake

A Fundamental Error

August 17, 2017

The instability of riverbanks is generally divided into two types: banks that collapse vertically and banks that are worn away laterally or horizontally by the erosive force of the water flowing downstream.

Vertical collapse is called slumping or sloughing. The face of the bank slides or rotates away, often leaving a concave scar or scarp in the bank and a clump of sediment at the base. Sometimes the slump takes trees and vegetation with it. The vegetation can continue to grow in the collapsed sediment, which creates a sort of terrace or beach at the foot of the high bank.

According to a lengthy analysis by geologists working with Save Buffalo Bayou, slumping is the primary type of bank collapse on Buffalo Bayou in the stretch targeted for a $12 million “stabilization” and “restoration” project by the Harris County Flood Control District.

This steep, high bank in Memorial Park slumped after the Memorial Day 2015 storm, taking plants and bushes with it. Photo by Susan Chadwick looking upstream on April 10, 2017.

Engineers Mistake Slumping for Erosion

But the engineering consultant working for the flood control district describes what is happening to the high banks of the bayou in the project area as “shear stress,” which is the lateral or parallel drag of the water flowing past the banks and down the channel.

The district’s permit application to the Corps of Engineers repeatedly refers to shear stress and shear stress only, specifically ruling out vertical instability. (“Vertical stability not an issue.” P. 39.) The Corps’ Environmental Assessment, released in May in conjunction with the granting of a permit for the project, also refers exclusively to shear stress.

“The assessments conducted by HCFCD’s design team indicated that due to the erosive nature of high flows in the bayou … hydraulic energy dissipation measures (bankfull benches, pool and riffle reestablishment, channel pattern adjustments, and in-stream structures) were necessary in the design to relieve shear stress on the streambanks of the bayou, and ultimately stabilize the channel system,” stated the Corps on page 21 of the Environmental Assessment.

The Corps’ Environmental Assessment found that the proposed project, which would use heavy equipment to raze most of the trees and vegetation and dredge, fill, reroute, and reconfigure the channel, historic high banks and meanders of more than a mile of forested Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park, would have no significant impact on the environment.

Remedy Decided Before Problem Was Analyzed

But Flood Control’s project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, is based on an error. Shear stress—lateral erosion—isn’t the primary problem in this stretch of Buffalo Bayou. Slumping—vertical instability—is what naturally happens on our 18,000-year-old bayou. (And it’s only a “problem” if you, say, unwisely took down the trees and built your house or your mowed golf course on or near the edge of a bank.)  The project will do nothing for slumping, for which there is little remedy anyway.

Even worse, the proposed “in-stream structures”—wads of tree roots to be installed to “stabilize” the toe or bottom of the banks to protect them from shear stress—will likely also slide away.

The controversial project, not yet under construction, is based on a mistake. And it probably will fail, leaving behind a wasteland of denuded and weakened banks. That has happened elsewhere with these controversial Natural Channel Design methods. (See also here.)

The promoters of the project, who include the Bayou Preservation Association and the Memorial Park Conservancy, decided years ago to use Natural Channel Design to “fix” the bayou and demonstrate what they believed to be a superior method of erosion control.

The remedy was decided before the engineering consultant, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), or apparently anyone else, had done an analysis of the problem.  Except that the same engineering firm, or its predecessor, Brown and Root (BR), had done a study in 1995, almost twenty years earlier. That study came to somewhat different conclusions: vertical stability was an issue.

Read the rest of this post.

On the Radio

Talking About Buffalo Bayou on KPFT

July 21, 2017

Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, was on KPFT’s Open Journal Thursday, July 20, talking with Duane Bradley and Marlo Blue about the organization’s campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou for no good reason.

Here’s a link to the show. The discussion about Buffalo Bayou doesn’t come on until about thirty minutes into the hour-long show.

This stretch of Buffalo Bayou would be filled and the bayou rerouted further south in the proposed Harris County Flood Control District plan. Looking upstream with Memorial Park on the right. Photo by Eric Boatman on July 15, 2017.



Summer on Buffalo Bayou

Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park, looking downstream with River Oaks Country Club property on right. Flow was about 500 cubic feet per second on the morning of July 10, 2017. Photo by Jim Olive.

That Bend in the River

July 11, 2017

We waited several days for just the right opportunity, checking the water flow at dawn. Even though there were loud, thunderous storms with angry winds and throwdown rain with cars alarmed in the afternoon, the gauge measuring the current at Piney Point, used by paddlers as well as the Corps of Engineers to track the volume of flow in Buffalo Bayou, barely popped up. And by early morning the bayou was down again to base flow, a very slow and shallow 150 cubic feet per second. For our summer 2017 photograph of the Bend in the River, we wanted a little more water in the stream. We have been documenting this same spot through the changing seasons since the summer of 2014.

But late Monday Jim Olive called and said a rainstorm was predicted during the night. And sure enough after nightfall the oak trees began wrestling with the wind. Lightning exploded overhead and a drenching rain shot out of the sky. At 5:45 a.m. the Piney Point gauge indicated a flow of some 500 cubic feet per second. We met in Memorial Park, at the parking lot for the South Picnic Loop. Jim looked at the sky skeptically. Gray clouds had drifted in. But we were there, so we walked towards the woods across the boggy picnic area, stepping around puddles, dodging the early morning cyclists whizzing around the loop road.

Here Comes the Sun

The Memorial Park Conservancy still hasn’t done anything about diverting the rainwater runoff from the park and parking lot that’s eating away at the ravines in the woods. But someone has pruned and slightly opened up the narrow dirt trail leading around the ravaged ravines, now decorated with summer greenery, and past the clay and concrete remnants of the drainage pipes from Camp Logan, the World War I military training camp and hospital located in the park before it was a park.

Our shady spot on the high bank overlooking the bend of the river has changed over the years. During the great rains of 2015-2016, high waters caused sections of the bank to slide down, taking trees and vegetation with it. But the living trees and plants and even some of the soil remain at the foot of the bank, collecting more sediment, and the vegetation continues to grow. The bank here and elsewhere was healing nicely.

Jim set up his tripod and waited for the sun to arrive. The sunlight had to be just perfect. This takes time and patience. So the photographer’s assistant had plenty of opportunity to roam through the woods looking for mushrooms. No luck. Too hot maybe. But a frog hopped on the trail, maybe a departing member of the hidden chorus of Mr. Froggies singing love songs late into the morning. A pair of nervous turtles swam in the clear, shallow stream that drains the center of the park and empties into the bayou nearby. The Harris County Flood Control District plans to dam this lovely stream for some reason as part of its $12 million restoration/erosion control/conveyance project.

A great blue heron flew slowly back and forth across the bayou, trying to get into the picture. Eventually the sun did arrive and struck the leaves and water just right. Jim got his beautiful photo.

To view the entire series, visit A Bend in the River under Photos and Films.

Sun streaming through the woods on path leading to small tributary of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on July 10, 2017.


Trees standing guard over the small tributary flowing through Memorial Park, under Memorial Drive, and into Buffalo Bayou. Photo by SC on July 10, 2017.


Free Lecture: Houston’s Self-Inflicted Flooding

We’re Number One!

Who: Sam Brody, PhD, Texas A&M Galveston

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20

Where: Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, 11612 Memorial Drive, Houston 77024

June 19, 2017

Why does Houston have such awful flooding problems? And why do they seem to be getting worse?

A citizens’ group dedicated to reducing preventable flooding caused by development in the Houston region is presenting one of the leading experts on the subject at a free public talk Tuesday, June 20.

Sam Brody, professor and director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores in the Department of Marine Sciences at Texas A&M University in Galveston, was recently featured in an article on Houston flooding in the British Guardian newspaper. The group sponsoring his presentation Tuesday, Residents Against Flooding, was featured also, along with the Katy Prairie Conservancy.

Houston “has more casualties and property loss from floods than any other locality in the US, according to data stretching back to 1960 that Brody researched with colleagues,” the Guardian reported. Brody told the newspaper that “[w]here the built environment is a main force exacerbating the impacts of urban flooding, Houston is number one and it’s not even close.”

The Causes of Urban Flooding

Prof. Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University in Galveston

Brody is conducting research for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on how to alleviate urban flooding across the United States. According to Residents Against Flooding, Brody believes “the biggest driver of this urban flood problem is human development.”

As the professor told the Guardian, and as he has repeatedly stated to audiences in Houston, each new square meter of pavement in Houston on average adds $4,000 worth of flood damage.

Going with the Most Expensive, Least Effective Flood Plan

Brody also agrees with Save Buffalo Bayou that the current public policy of widening and deepening (and destroying) our urban streams to handle increased stormwater flow is outdated and ineffective. “We can solve the problems or treat the symptoms,” says Brody. Widening and deepening our bayous is just treating the symptoms, which will only get worse with increased development, failure to enforce stormwater detention requirements, and policies that emphasize costly engineering solutions like bigger drain pipes that collect and shunt more and more rain runoff into our streams faster and faster.

Leading experts nationally agree that the emphasis should be on slowing down, spreading out and soaking in stormwater before it hits our streams. Unlike other major cities such as Philadelphia and New York, flood-prone Houston has no plan for managing stormwater through Green Infrastructure, which typically brings greater benefits – including more parks and green space – at far less cost.

The Harris County Flood Control District project opposed by Save Buffalo Bayou would spend some $12 million to raze the trees, dig up, channelize and shorten one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in order to send more stormwater downstream faster, a practice that even the US Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges causes more flooding and erosion downstream. (See Buffalo Bayou Partnership 2001 Master Plan Project, p. 18.)

For a more enlightened “Room for the River” approach to managing rivers and flooding, see this recent article about the Netherlands in the New York Times.

Brody will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, at the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, 11612 Memorial Drive, Houston 77024.

The confluence of White Oak and Buffalo bayous in downtown Houston on April 19, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive

Breaking News: Trash Washes Up From Early Twentieth Century

Old Bottles Surface on the Banks of the Bayou

Site is a State Antiquities Landmark

Bonus: Some Geology and History

May 18, 2017

On a recent trip down Buffalo Bayou, pausing to document the springs seeping out of the banks, we stopped at one of our favorite spots: the wide sandy bank of what we call the middle meander — so named because it’s the middle meander in that 1.25-mile long stretch of the forested bayou targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District.

This sharp bend in the river is located at the eastern boundary of Memorial Park, with a small tributary flowing into it and very old high banks on the downstream side. It is a natural stormwater detention area, and elsewhere the flood control district is spending millions to build detention basins in or near our bayous. But here the district’s plan is to spend millions to fill in a detention area and dig a new channel for the bayou through the woods on the south bank of the bayou owned by the River Oaks Country Club. Why the members of the club would agree to that is a mystery. The plan also calls for grading the ancient high bank, leveling the area, and planting it all with turf grass. An access road for heavy construction equipment would be bulldozed through the public forest from the maintenance yard near Memorial Drive to the bayou.

Unusually, in this meander, the bayou deposits sediment on the outside bend, the park side of the stream, causing the bank to widen. (Normally sediment is deposited on the inside bends and picked up on the outside.) But the high outside bluff here is composed in part of very hard, resistant clay. This reversed phenomenon might also in part be the result of the blocking flow of the tributary shooting across the channel during rain events. And Geologist Tom Helm thinks that a fault running through the meander might have caused the bayou channel to shift somewhat to the southeast over time.

Here is a photo of Tom pointing to the downshifted layer of dark red clay in the strata of the face of the high bank, which is part of the tens-hundred-thousand years old late Pleistocene-era meander-belt ridges carved out of the earth at the end of the last glacial period, when giant sloths, zebra horses, and saber-toothed cats roamed through Memorial Park.  We still have American alligators (alligator mississippiensis)  and alligator gar from that period. The high cut banks of these meander-belt ridges are long-established characteristics of our west-to-east meandering streams in the Houston region and serve as as bumpers slowing the flow. The dark layer Tom is pointing to in the face of the high bank of the middle meander is offset by about three inches, possibly indicating a fault.


Invaders. Pull Them Out!

When we stepped out of the canoe onto the sandy north bank of the meander, we were dismayed to discover invasive Johnson grass growing all over the beach. In the past this lovely sand bank was naturally landscaped with native smartweed, ground cherry and young box elder and black willow, all the proper native vegetation intelligently arranged by the bayou as it worked to stabilize the sediment and plan for new growth. But now this invader was taking over. We had seen it also at the boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway. Very discouraging. Anyone who wishes to organize Johnson grass-pulling parties is encouraged to do so. The Memorial Park Conservancy unfortunately does not consider maintaining the banks or bayou woods part of its job, instead largely confining routine maintenance activities to mowing down the sedges and other wetland plants in the bogs of the park, leaving behind large, deep ruts. How nice it would be if the Conservancy respected the natural character and landscaping of our park.

A Surprise from the Past

As we inspected the springs that flowed out of the high bank, we were surprised to find a large pile of broken glass bottles and pottery embedded in the mud. The glass was thick and had an old-fashioned shape. The pieces looked very old. Geologist Bill Heins, who explores the banks of the bayou regularly with his dog, suggests that the bottles and pottery had washed out from an old trash dump in a filled gully higher up the bank.

Very possibly the pottery and bottles date from the era of Camp Logan, a World War I military training camp established in 1917, part of which would become Memorial Park after the war. Beginning in August of 1917 there was a large military hospital, as well as a landfill, operating on the north bank of the bayou, eventually occupying over 100 acres of what is now the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and extending westward into what is now the park’s South Picnic Loop, according to Janet Wagner, landscape architect and historian and former chair of the Harris County Historical Society.  In 2014 Wagner wrote to the Corps of Engineers about the archeological significance of the bayou in the proposed project area. The hospital, she noted, served some 1,500 men and continued caring for veterans after the war. In 1919 the hospital and buildings were transferred to the Public Health Service, with some of them leased to the newly formed City-County Hospital District. In 1921 the Veterans’ Bureau took over the hospital and two years later began evacuating the veterans to other facilities around the state. One year later, in 1924, Will and Mike Hogg and their real estate partner, Henry Stude, purchased the hospital grounds and then sold at cost a total of nearly 1,500 acres of what had been Camp Logan to the City of Houston for the creation of Memorial Park.

In May of 2013 the Texas Historical Commission designated the former site of Camp Logan a State Archeological Landmark, now known as a State Antiquities Landmark. The designation requires that the landowner receive a permit from the historical commission before conducting any work on the site.

Here are photographs of the glass and pottery remnants we discovered on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in April 2017.

  • Very old broken bottles and pottery shards on a bank of Buffalo Bayou in April 2017.
  • Closer view of old glass possibly washed out of a World War 1 military hospital trash dump in what was then Camp Logan.
  • Close up of broken bottles.
  • Close up of pottery piece.
  • Bottles on the bank.


Becoming an Eagle

What we found canoeing Buffalo Bayou

A group of scouts discover wildlife and a habitat worth preserving

By Paul Hung, for the Houston Chronicle, May 16, 2017

Launching canoes on Buffalo Bayou for the first wildlife excursion in January 2016. Photo by Jim Olive

Rays of Texas sunlight peeked through the riparian forest and reflected off the river current, guarded by sandy banks and high cliffs. A blue heron seemed to be following us as it soared overhead, releasing its echoing call through the clear skies. An alligator gar splashed in the water as it sensed our approach. We saw evidence of recent beaver activity: Footprints in the sand and chew marks on the tree stumps.

As our journey continued along Buffalo Bayou, the 18,000-year-old waterway, I was awed by the abundance of wildlife, the scenery that surrounded us.

I live in a subdivision in the southwest part of the city, and we were in the middle of Houston, the fourth-largest in the U.S., with a population over two and a quarter million people. And here I was floating down a dreamlike river in what seemed like a faraway land.

I had been preparing for this expedition for months. My mission was to inventory the wildlife along the bayou. This was my public service project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Eleven of my fellow Boy Scouts in Troop 55 had volunteered to help. Our plan was to photograph the animal tracks we found and carefully catalog them with their GPS coordinates. The weather conditions had to be just right, and today was the perfect Saturday to explore – sunny and clear.

We needed good weather, because we were going to canoe down the bayou, and the water level had to be low enough so that we could see the animal tracks on the sandy banks. The Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the two federal dams upstream, had assured us that the water level in the bayou would stay low throughout the weekend.

This would be the first of four trips documenting wildlife tracks on the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park. These expeditions spanned a year. In the end, more than 30 volunteers documented 225 animal tracks and logged 327 conservation hours towards this project. I published a guide that summarizes our discoveries and illustrates some of the most common tracks. But this is what we saw that day.

Read the rest of this lovely essay by Eagle Scout Paul Hung in the Houston Chronicle.

Project Cost Doubles: $12 Million to Destroy Bayou

Corps of Engineers Refuses to Release Environmental Assessment

May 2, 2017

Updated May 3, 2017

Updated May 17, 2017: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment yesterday, May 16. We’ll have a report soon.

The estimated cost of the controversial project to “restore” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston has doubled to at least $12 million, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.

On April 19 the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers approved a permit allowing the unpopular project to go forward. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the project would raze the trees and vegetation, grade the ancient high banks, dredge and reroute the channel, including altering the curves of the meanders, along more than a mile of the bayou flowing past the public forests and sandy banks of Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The federal permit basically allows an exception to the Clean Water Act.

Opponents of the project question the purpose of it, pointing out the lack of scientific basis and even common sense to flood control district claims that destroying a healthy riparian forest and digging up and rearranging the bayou channel and banks will improve nature and water quality and reduce erosion. In fact, the costly result will be the opposite: the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem and create more erosion and flooding, especially downstream, not to mention cause the wasting of a major, invaluable public asset.

The project, by razing the vegetation and digging up the banks, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do for controlling erosion. And it will fail, requiring expensive repairs and maintenance.

The long-delayed plan was initiated in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association, once an environmental organization and now essentially a lobbying and networking organization for engineering, landscape design, construction and building contractors, commercial and industrial architects, developers and their agents. Two members of the board live in the project area.

The Hershey Foundation, founded by Terry Hershey and her husband Jake, issued a resolution opposing the project in May 2014. Terry Hershey, along with Save Buffalo Bayou’s board president, Frank Smith, were among the original members of the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in the 1960s to oppose a similar though much longer project to channelize the bayou and cover it with concrete from the federal dams upstream all the way to the Shepherd Bridge.

The initial estimate for the current project was $6 million, including $4 million already contributed by city and county taxpayers and $2 million to be paid by members of the River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south half of the project area. The Memorial Park Conservancy is also promoting the project. One-third of the 27 members of the board of the conservancy are also members of the country club, including the board chairman, Steve Jenkins, vice chairman, Wendy Hines, and treasurer, Mindy Hildebrand.

“The original project funding was established in 2010,” the project manager for the flood control district, Jason Krahn, explained in a recent email through a district representative. “The District’s Construction Manager speculates that the project, including contingencies, could cost double the currently funded amount.  The Construction Manager expects to have a better idea of the final costs once they are allowed to formally bid the project out to the contracting community and receive actual bids to conduct the work.”

At least four major engineering firms have been involved so far. The Construction Manager is SpawGlass, which is working with Shamrock Environmental Corporation of North Carolina, according to the flood control district. Stantec, one of the world’s largest engineering firms, in 2016 acquired the previous engineering firm KBR, which had provided the design services for the project. Atkins is responsible for the Monitoring Plan. (p. 60)

A Historic Nature Area: A Public Trust

The nature area to be razed and rebuilt as a “demonstration project” is the longest, publicly accessible, forested and never channelized stretch of the bayou in the middle of Houston. It contains ancient high bluffs and sandstone formations and is considered a historic nature area. Filled with wildlife, it is one of the few places in Houston where the public can observe the city’s natural history and geology, as well as the natural process of a living river. It is extremely rare to have a public stretch of forested river running through the center of a large city.

The flood control district, the sponsor of the project, is legally responsible for the “conservation of forests” under its 1937 state charter.

Corps Refusing to Release Assessment of Impact on the Environment

(Update May 17: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment on May 16. We’ll have a report on that soon.)

Read the rest of this story.

Looking upstream over what is called the middle meander on the eastern or downstream edge of Memorial Park. The public forest of the park is on the right. This meander, a natural wetland and detention area, will be completely filled, a large access road for heavy equipment constructed through the wetland forest on the right, and the bayou rerouted further to the south (left in the photo). Photo by Jim Olive on April 7, 2017

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