Houston Has to Get Out of the Floodplains. Now.

Important commentary about how we should be using potential bond proceeds from the Aug. 25 election to get out of the way of flooding and let our natural drainage system — our bayous and streams — work the way they are supposed to. From Dr. John Jacob, board member of Bayou City Waterkeeper and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou.

Commentary by Dr. John Jacob, the Houston Chronicle, July 24, 2018

Houston has in place a natural flood detention and conveyance system that could handle another Harvey, sitting right here in plain sight.

Our bayous, creeks and streams, and their associated floodplains, have carved out, over millennia, a very robust and capacious system. This legacy system did not fail during Harvey. We failed, over the years, because we put so many people in harm’s way.

In fact, more than 40 percent of all FEMA-designated floodplains in Harris County have been developed to one degree or another, with more than 500,000 homes and apartments in these hazardous zones. Few floodplains within Beltway 8 are undeveloped.

Where we saw boat rescues, where we saw four to six feet of water and more in homes, these were houses deep in harm’s way that should not have been there.

This legacy floodplain system was given to us free of charge. All we had to do was to protect it, to keep homes and commerce out of the low-lying valleys. Now here we are after Harvey, trying to reduce the size of the floodplains, trying to keep water out of the floodplains, because people and their homes are in the way now. Many great and beloved neighborhoods have sprung up in the floodplains. People don’t want to leave. And so they stay, hoping Harvey, Tax Day and Memorial Day floods are just an anomaly.

Read the rest of this commentary in the Houston Chronicle.

Flooding in the developed floodplains of Buffalo Bayou after release of impounded Harvey stormwater threatening to overwhelm Barker Dam. Photo on Aug. 30, 2017, by Jim Olive

Reminder: Buffalo Bayou Watershed Flood Bond Meeting July 30

Also Barker Reservoir Meeting on Aug. 1


July 23, 2018

The Harris County Flood Control District and members of county commissioners’ court continue to hold meetings around the county to present proposals for projects attempting to reduce the hazard of flooding.

The meeting about projects proposed in the Buffalo Bayou watershed will be held on Monday, July 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 12955 Memorial Drive in Houston. A meeting to present projects proposed for the Barker Reservoir watershed is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Memorial Parkway Junior High, 21203 Highland Knolls Drive in Katy. Buffalo Bayou flows from its headwaters near Katy into and through Barker Dam.

The projects are to be funded with the proceeds of a $2.5 billion bond issue should the voters approve on August 25. The bonds would be issued over a period of ten to fifteen years, according to the flood control district, and repaid through a property tax increase of no more than two-three cents per $100 of home valuation. Homeowners with an over-65 or disabled exemption and a home worth $200,000 or less would not pay any additional taxes, according to the district.

Most of the projects proposed are projects that had long been planned. For instance, a controversial project to remove forest and excavate basins to capture and temporarily hold overflow on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park is listed with a $10 million cost estimate. The project in its initial stages would allegedly create 60-100 acre-feet of temporary storage alongside the bayou. The linear detention, siphoning flow out of the bayou, is planned to compensate for eventual additional City of Houston drainage into the bayou from neighborhood streets.

Barker and Addicks dams both drain into Buffalo Bayou, and overflow from Cypress Creek on the rapidly developing Katy Prairie in northwest Harris County also drains into the overburdened Addicks Reservoir, adding to the pressure of runoff into Addicks and the bayou.

Other than the Hershey Park detention project, some $21 million is slated for a new detention basin north of John Paul’s Landing on Upper Langham Creek, which drains into Addicks.

However, most of the projects listed for these watersheds mainly focus on repairing channels and improving conveyance – making more stormwater flow faster into and through the reservoirs. This has the potential to cause more problems and more flooding. Modern practice elsewhere is to focus on slowing the flow, making room for the river with wider floodplains. We would hope for more money to be spent on land aquisition, buyouts in floodplains, preservation of undeveloped land, forest, wetlands, prairies, and riparian vegetaton; creation of green space, restoring meanders, and programs to encourage slowing of rain runoff beginning with individuals and neighborhoods.

There are also funds proposed to be used in collaboration with Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates Addicks and Barker, to evaluate the effectiveness and operation of those 70-year-old dams.

A complete list of projects can be found on the flood control district’s website. The website also offers a way to make comments about the projects.

The meetings are not set up for the public to engage officials or voice opinions. They are informative only – with numerous stations staffed by flood control personnel to explain projects. However, paper and pencils are provided for citizens to write comments.

A house damaged by Harvey floodwaters in a still-recovering neighborhood north of Buffalo Bayou in west Houston. Photo on June 12, 2018, by SC

Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou: Slowing the Flow

Summer Down on the Bayou

July 17, 2018

In case you missed Jim Olive‘s summer shot of that Bend in the River, here is the latest addition to our series of photographs taken from the same high bank on the north side of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. The view has changed over the course of four years. In particular, since the high waters of Harvey, the bayou widened to accommodate the massive flow. Banks slid or slumped away, as they will do on the bayou when water rises over the banks and onto the natural floodplains. Trees and vegetation slide down too.

Ideally this woody debris, often still living, should be left in place to collect sediment, reinforce the banks, and facilitate regrowth and rebuilding of the banks. It’s a cycle that has been continuing on rivers for millions of years. Unfortunately, the Harris County Flood Control District hired contractors and paid them by the pound to collect as much of the fallen vegetation as possible.

Summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou. That bend in the bayou on July 1, 2018, with flow at about 280 cubic feet per second. Photo by Jim Olive, of course.


Other Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou

Known as Houston’s Mother Bayou, in large part because most other bayous and streams flow into it, Buffalo Bayou is some 18,000 years old, more or less, and one of the few natural waterways in the city that remains largely unchannelized. The beauty of it flowing past Memorial Park is that this forested stretch is one of the last accessible to the public. It’s a historic nature area, ever changing and adapting, filled with ancient high banks and sandstone, beaver, otter, massive turtles and other wildlife.

Though in the wake of Harvey there are calls to “improve” our bayous, including Buffalo Bayou, by widening and deepening, even straightening, the fact is that meandering streams carry more water — because they are longer. Artificially widening and deepening streams doesn’t last: the banks collapse and the channel fills with sediment. Rivers are living, dynamic systems and will adjust to stabilize themselves. The trees and vegetation on the banks help absorb and cleanse stormwaters and prevent flooding by slowing and diffusing the energy of the stream.

Our political and civic leaders should focus on slowing the flow with green spaces, prairie and wetlands, swales and rain gardens — stopping, spreading, and soaking up stormwater before it floods our natural and built drainage systems.

  • Outstanding sycamore on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream from that Bend in the River that we have been documenting for four years now. Photo by Jim Olive on July 1, 2018.
  • This creek flows into the bayou from the center of Memorial Park. It enters the bayou just downstream from the bend that we have been photo-documenting through the seasons. Photo by SC, July 1, 2018
  • Early morning joggers descending the bank towards the small tributary. Note the tree stump cut recently apparently by Harris County Flood Control maintenance contractors. Photo by SC
  • Closer view of the tree cut for no good reason on the bank of the creek flowing through Memorial Park into the bayou. Photo July 1, 2018
  • Looking up the creek that flows from the center of Memorial Park into Buffalo Bayou. Photo July 1, 2018
  • A big pine standing on the high bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Asking for a hug.


Watch this video of a summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, July 1, 2018.

Removing Fallen Trees More Damaging Long Term

Post-Harvey debris removal along Buffalo Bayou almost complete

By Tracy Maness, Houston Chronicle, Memorial Examiner, July 12, 2018

Since last fall, HCFCD has cleared large downed trees along nearly 25 miles of the bayou from Highway 6 to Interstate 45, according to Facilities Maintenance Department Manager John Watson. However, an official from nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou said the work will ultimately lead to more flooding and erosion of the bayou downstream.

Watson said while the flood control district typically allows trees to remain where they fall, contractors were hired following the hurricane to go in to remove the many downed trees using barges and swamp buggies, which are like large excavators on pontoons, in order to keep the flow of the waterway moving.

“Our normal operation involves just cutting and leaving trees in place, but with an event the size of Harvey and the damage that was done from Harvey, we really couldn’t just leave the downed trees there. We had to go and physically get into the channel and remove them,” Watson said.

Save Buffalo Bayou Executive Director Susan Chadwick said the nonprofit organization was started in 2014 “to oppose a plan by HCFCD to raze the forest, dredge and reroute over a mile of one of the last forested, publicly accessible stretches of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park through the middle of the city.”

Chadwick said Save Buffalo Bayou educates community members and leaders about how natural and manmade drainage systems work and what is ineffective to prevent flooding.

She said large debris removal projects and other efforts to speed up water flow along Buffalo Bayou are not effective long term.

“The focus on speeding up the flow leads to a cascade of poor decisions, policies and practice: removing all the woody debris in the stream, for instance, dredging, straightening, shortening and enlarging channels,” Chadwick said. “These extremely costly methods are unsustainable.”

She said because Buffalo Bayou is a natural body of water, it will always evolve and correct itself when repairs or changes are made.

“A river is a dynamic living system. It adjusts itself to the width and depth necessary to become stable. An artificially deepened stream, for instance, will fill itself with silt and sediment again. The banks of an artificially widened stream will collapse. Streams flow the way they do because of the underlying geology. Rivers have a memory. They will do what they want and need to do,” Chadwick said.

Read the rest of this article in the Memorial Examiner.

A trackhoe on a barge stuck in the sandy channel bottom of Buffalo Bayou at that bend below the high bank in Memorial Park. Maintenance contractor with flood control was removing fallen trees from the banks and channel. Photo by SC May 19, 2018

Buffalo Bayou Flood Bond Meeting

New Meetings Scheduled

June 28, 2018

Updated July 23, 2018

The Harris County Flood Control District has scheduled new meetings, including a meeting on Buffalo Bayou for July 30, to explain the proposed projects to be funded with to be funded with $2.5 billion in proceeds from the bond election to be held Aug. 25.

Officials with the Harris County Flood Control District are holding public meetings in each of the county’s 23 watersheds to receive public input about proposed flood mitigation and protection projects.

The meeting on projects related to Buffalo Bayou will be held on July 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 12955 Memorial Drive, Houston 77079.

County officials have recently held meetings on projects near Addicks Reservoir, which drains into Buffalo Bayou, and Cypress Creek, which overflows and drains into Addicks during floods. Politicians and others are proposing a new dam somewhere on Cypress Creek to deal with flooding there, although a new dam would be a federal responsibility, not a local project.

Stormwater draining into Addicks Reservoir is an acute problem as the too much runoff during Harvey forced federal authorities to open the floodgates during the storm, flooding thousands of homes and killing three people along Buffalo Bayou. The stormwater capacity of Barker Reservoir, which also drains into Buffalo Bayou, is also a problem. Among other issues, residential subdivisions were developed within the known flood pool behind the dam and many homes were flooded during Harvey.

A meeting on Barker Reservoir projects is scheduled for August 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Memorial Parkway Junior High School, 21203 Highland Knolls Drive in Katy 77450.

The location for the July 10 meeting about projects related to the San Jacinto River has been changed. The new location is Kingwood Park High School, 4015 Woodland Hills Drive in Kingwood, 77339, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Also upcoming is a meeting on projects related to Little Cypress Creek. That meeting is scheduled for July 31 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center, 8440 Greenhouse Road in Cypress, 77433.

These meetings have been declared to be special meetings of Harris County Commissioners Court so that members of Commissioners Court may attend and participate.

The purpose of each meeting is to describe some of the projects proposed for the anticipated 2018 flood bond election and to solicit residents’ input on which projects should be included.

For a comprehensive description of the types of projects the county intends to fund, as well as further information about meetings, a map of projects, and how to comment, visit the flood control district’s webpage.

Meetings are also listed on Save Buffalo Bayou’s Calendar of Events.

Channel “improvement” on South Mayde Creek by the Harris County Flood Control District. Once a natural stream, this creek flows into Addicks Reservoir. Photo by Diane Masterson on June 7, 2018

Are Costly Flood Basins Proposed Where Natural Basins Already Exist on Buffalo Bayou?

Swales Holding Overflow May Be Natural Remnants of Bayou’s Original Meanders

Numerous Large Trees Cut Along Bayou Banks

June 19, 2018

Went for a stroll in the late morning heat a week ago Saturday along the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in west Houston. Started out on the pedestrian bridge at Eldridge Parkway and walked mostly but not always in the shade downstream. This is the area where the Harris County Flood Control District plans to remove trees and build the first of three linear detention basins at the edge of the stream to hold overflow from it.

The surprising find was that a significant amount of natural floodwater detention in the form of deep swales or depressions and levees already exists in this wooded area alongside the bayou.

These trees and bushes are growing in an apparently natural swale serving as detention on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Photo June 9, 2018

Disturbingly, we also found that numerous large trees, sycamores and oaks, on both sides of the bayou recently had been pointlessly cut down, likely by Flood Control employees or by contractors clearing woody debris from the channel. Flood Control pays maintenance contractors by the weight of the wood they collect. Trees on the banks are important for protecting against erosion and cooling the stream, as well as absorbing water, among other important functions.

Stumps of trees cut in Terry Hershey Park on the south bank Buffalo Bayou opposite Turkey Creek. Parked boat likely being used by maintenance workers for Harris County Flood Control. Photo June 9, 2018

The Natural Path of the Bayou

The swales and depressions, filled with trees and bushes, may correspond to the original path of the bayou, once a meandering wooded stream through this 6.2-mile long linear park. In the late 1940s, in conjunction with construction of the two federal dams, Addicks and Barker, immediately upstream, the US Army Corps of Engineers razed the forest and dug a straight, artificial channel for the bayou, a costly, environmentally-destructive practice long ago abandoned because it increases flooding, among other problems.

Read the rest of this post.

The Bat Trip

Happy Hour with Bats

June 13, 2018

Float with geologist, river guide, and Save Buffalo Bayou board member Tom Helm on a relaxing sunset trip to watch the hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from under the Waugh Bridge on Buffalo Bayou to catch their evening meal while evading the high-flying avian predators hoping to make a meal of them. The Bat Paddle is one of Helm’s most popular float trips. Meet about an hour before sunset for an easy paddle upstream from downtown to the bridge. Park the canoes on the beach and enjoy some locally brewed beverages. Enjoy the Houston skyline in the moonlight.  Trip lasts for three hours. All skill levels welcome. Cost is $50 per person. For more information, contact Tom Helm.

Tom Helm, geologist, naturalist, canoe guide, and member of Save Buffalo Bayou board of directors.

New Community Meetings on Flood Projects To Be Financed by Bond Election

June 11, 2018

Updated June 13

The Harris County Flood Control District and Harris County Commissioners’ Court have added several new community meetings for residents to discuss flood management projects and the upcoming bond election with county and flood control representatives. County commissioners have scheduled a county-wide vote Aug. 25, 2018, on issuing $2.5 billion bonds to finance projects. The bonds would be repaid out of property taxes.

Meetings have now been scheduled for Addicks Reservoir (June 21), Carpenters Bayou (June 14), Cypress Creek (June 15), Greens Bayou (June 16), and White Oak Bayou (June 12). Meetings have recently been held for Armand and Sims bayous.

June 13 Update: Meetings now scheduled also for Clear Creek (July 17), Halls Bayou (June 20), Hunting Bayou (June 23), San Jacinto River (July 10), and Spring Creek (June 27).

For more information visit the flood control district’s webpage. Meetings are also listed on Save Buffalo Bayou’s Calendar of Events.

Emma Richardson Cherry, Buffalo Bayou Flood Control, 1937. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Used with permission.

Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou

Floating Past the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and Memorial Park

June 4, 2018

Watch this slide show of recent photos taken during a float trip on May 28, 2018, to document Buffalo Bayou after maintenance contractors working for the Harris County Flood Control District had been through removing Large Woody Debris and cutting trees.

  • The south-facing high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, looking upstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the left. Photo May 28, 2018
  • The south-facing high bluff of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary from Buffalo Bayou. Photo May 28, 2018
  • The mouth of the Hogg tributary that drains from underneath Memorial Drive has shifted back upstream closer to where it had been over half a century ago. Here the recent mouth below a high bluff has been blocked with sediment after Harvey.
  • Looking downstream on Buffalo Bayou with the city-owned Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the left and River Oaks Country Club property on the right. Photo May 28, 2018
  • The River Oaks Country Club is still having problems with its bank on the golf course where the trees were cut down and replaced with mowed grass.
  • Egret flying on a meander of Buffalo Bayou at the downstream edge of Memorial Park in Houston. May 28, 2018
  • Wildlife tracks including beaver on the right in the bank of the meander at the eastern edge of Memorial Park. Photo May 28, 2018
  • Looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou near the eastern edge of Memorial Park. Park on the right, River Oaks Country Club property on the left. May 28, 2018
  • Paddling upstream on Buffalo Bayou with Memorial Park on the right. Photo May 28, 2018
  • Standing on the shore below that high bank looking upstream at the bend in the bayou. Maintenance contractors for Flood Control had cleared most of the woody debris from the bank. Natural Buffalo Bayou sandstone, somewhat more broken, extending into the channel. Photo May 28, 2018
  • Checking out the tributary that drains Memorial Park into the bayou. Plastic draping River Oaks Country Club denuded bank in the distance. Photo from the shore below the high bank in that bend in the river looking downstream.
  • Upright tree on north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park recently cut by maintenance contractor for Harris County Flood Control District.
  • A group of trees recently cut on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou across from Memorial Park. Pile of material dredged from the channel dumped in the foreground.
  • Regrowth above riprap installed by country club in 2015 at the upstream edge of the golf course.
  • Telephone poles leaning on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream from the River Oaks Country Club.
  • An example of how woody debris next to the bank collects sediment and rebuilds the bank. Flood Control maintenance contractors had not yet cleared this area. Photo May 28, 2018

And this slideshow documents some of the trees cut by the maintenance contractors.

  • Stump of an upright pine tree cut by maintenance contractors on the upper bank of Buffalo Bayou in the city-owned Hogg Bird Sanctuary. All photos on May 28, 2018
  • Stump of an upright tree recently cut, apparently by maintenance contractors, on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.
  • Another apparently upright tree cut on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou.
  • A group of trees recently cut on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou across from Memorial Park. Pile of material dredged from the channel dumped in the foreground.
  • Another tree cut on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou owned by the River Oaks Country Club, which apparently dumped concrete debris onto the bank in an effort to protect against erosion. Trees and their roots, including fallen trees, protect banks against erosion.
  • Stump of a sycamore, barely visible on left, recently cut among a group of sycamores on the bayou bank in Memorial Park.
  • Close up of the sycamore cut down on the bank in Memorial Park.
  • More stumps of trees cut down on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. These trees, surrounded by concrete debris apparently dumped on the bank for protection against erosion, would have helped protect against erosion.
  • Upright tree on north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park recently cut by maintenance contractor for Harris County Flood Control District.
  • More upright trees chopped by maintenance contractors on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou.
  • Another tree cut on the bank of Buffalo Bayou.

Flood Control’s Destructive Bayou Maintenance Will Lead to More Erosion, More Maintenance

Practices Fall Behind Standards Elsewhere

June 3, 2018

For months we have been receiving complaints about the damage the Harris County Flood Control District is doing to Buffalo Bayou.

Citizens have been sending us video and photographs of contract workers dredging, banging, mucking, bulldozing, slamming and damming the channel and banks; dragging, cutting, and removing large trees, live trees, trees fallen against the banks, trees fallen in the woods.

And now we have reports that they’ve done the same to Cypress Creek in northern Harris County.

The “maintenance” they have done – virtually clearing out the channel and banks — will lead to greater erosion and instability, more sediment and more flooding. And more costly maintenance.

A trackhoe on a barge stuck in the sandy channel bottom of Buffalo Bayou at that bend below the high bank in Memorial Park. Maintenance contractor with Flood Control was removing fallen trees from the banks and channel. Photo by SC, May 19, 2018

Harvey and the flooding that followed left a huge amount of woody and other sorts of debris in our bayous, our natural drainage system. Buffalo Bayou, our main river, flows from its source in the Katy Prairie for some 75 miles east through the center of Houston, becoming the Houston Ship Channel and emptying into Galveston Bay. For much of that route, the 18,000-year-old bayou remains one of the few relatively natural streams in the city. It accumulated a lot of debris, logjams and snags during Harvey, as did Cypress Creek.

The Importance of Fallen Trees

There are trees along Buffalo Bayou, great tall trees in places, and they sometimes fall into it. Trees have been doing this on rivers for over a hundred million years. Trees, before and after they fall, are a crucial part of the river’s natural system. Overhanging trees shade the water, regulating the temperature. Their extensive roots, together with the roots of riparian plants, anchor the bank, protecting the bank from washing out. When trees fall into the channel, they continue to provide stability to the stream and its banks, trapping sediment, fortifying against and deflecting heavy flows, helping the channel to maintain a healthy width and depth and to form riffles and pools, helping the stream to restore itself more quickly after a flood, and providing food and habitat for the diversity of creatures large and small that sustain the bayou’s ecosystem.

Read the rest of this post.

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