Bayou City Sitrep: What’s Been Happening
It’s All About Flooding
Open House public meetings, May 24, 26, and 31. Tell your flood stories to the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group
List of committees, groups, studies, projects, etc., focused on regional flooding
May 10, 2022
Well, a lot has been happening in the past few months. And we’re talking about here in Houston. Though we haven’t been posting much, we have been attending numerous meetings, following developments, taking notes, and making comments.
The big topic is flooding, of course, and what to do about it. From the federal government on down through the state, region, county, and city, as well as local community and business groups, at every level there are projects, task forces, committees, and meetings about flooding in the Houston region.
The main issues are figuring out where flooding occurs (so far little focus on why), what to do about it, and how to spend public money to protect people (or structures?) in a fair and equitable way. Who needs flood protection the most? How to protect the most people? And what about critical structures like hospitals, fire stations or even grocery stores?
In the past the benefit/cost calculation for projects has been based on dollar values. In recent years there has been a general recognition that that’s not fair. A home is a home, no matter the appraised value.
So far the focus remains vaguely centered on “projects,” which would imply “engineering.” However, state (pp. 87-88) and county guidelines mandate the use of non-structural (including buyouts) and nature-based solutions. A recent federal flood assessment of the region also urged a greater reliance on green, nature-based, and small-scale solutions.
Nature-based methods are prioritized not only because they are the most beneficial and cost-effective. But also because nature moves. Storms change. Hard structures don’t. So spending billions on building and maintaining massive engineering projects like flood tunnels, ripping out trees and widening, deepening streams and bayous may not be the best investment. In fact, recent studies have shown that green infrastructure, which includes trees, parks, and green space, wetlands and prairies, adds value to property. (See here and here.)
Dams and Flood Tunnels
Some two years ago the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers released its Interim Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study. This was in response to the massive flooding that occurred during Harvey in 2017 upstream and downstream of the federal dams on Buffalo Bayou in west Houston.
Almost a year later the Corps released its draft study of the entire regional watershed. Known as the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment, its main finding was that the metropolitan region needs a coordinating body “across all levels of government,” including highway, railroad, and utility agencies, to “set priorities” and plan for flood protection. (pp. 75-76)
It was not the first call for an overall coordinating body. And with the plethora of active committees and studies, it’s perhaps too soon to tell how much duplication of effort might be going on, what sort of coordination might occur, or how effective their plans might be.
Here is a list, current as of May 2022, of committees, groups, studies, projects, etc., focused on regional flooding and what to do about it. (See also our page of Rainfall, River Flow Gauges, Flood Maps, Tree Benefits, and Other Useful Links.)
Shocked Into Action
The initial Buffalo Bayou draft report shocked community groups into action. That first study rejected as too costly a massive flood tunnel to carry stormwater from the (normally dry) federal flood control reservoirs in the upper Buffalo Bayou watershed out towards the bay. The study also rejected, among other things, nature-based approaches to slowing and absorbing stormwater runoff before it enters our pipes and streams, as other cities are doing.
Interestingly, the Corps’ subsequent regional watershed assessment recommended holding rain where it falls, which is modern stormwater management. (See here, here, and here pp. 32-33 and here. And also here.) It also recommended a greater reliance on green and nature-based features, including pervious surfaces, and small-scale individual and neighborhood efforts to “reduce risk to downstream communities and broaden awareness of shared responsibility.” (p. 77)
So far we have seen little focus on these enlightened, cost-effective, and generally beneficial approaches during the many meetings we continue to attend and monitor. We’ve not yet even seen much focus on why different areas flood or whether current methods are working, though there are numerous ongoing attempts to figure out where flooding occurs, including efforts to reach out to the public.
Spring on the Bayou
April 7, 2022
Yes, it has happened. Spring has sprung. It seemed to take longer this year.
We were also late getting our spring shot of that bend in the bayou, the same high bank in the tangled woods of Houston’s Memorial Park we’ve been documenting throughout the seasons for the last eight years.
Our devoted photographer, Jim Olive, has high-tailed it to the California desert with his beloved in order to escape the unhealthy air here. Never mind that it is often too dangerously hot there even to walk outside.
So the assistant had to take over, enlisting an assistant-assistant. We braved the clouds of yellow tree pollen (“extremely heavy”) and only slightly impaired, fought our way into the woods through the wire and branch obstacles erected by the Memorial Park Conservancy.
Fortunately we made it down the well-traveled dusty path and out again before the start of the red flag warning of fire hazard and high winds. The sun was barely up over the trees.
It was a lovely day. We stood on the high bank, watching the muddy stream, listening to the birds singing to each other, wrens and cardinals. (Actual on-site recording) The flow was fairly high, over 1800 cubic feet per second (cfs), apparently mostly releasing from Addicks Reservoir in far west Houston. The gates on Barker were closed. (Here’s our page of links to rainfall and river flow gauges, flood maps, and other useful stuff.) Note that both federal reservoirs are public parks, used only for flood control, normally dry, their floodgates usually open.
The Trees Are Alright
Some of us have been concerned by the number of trees that seem to be slow to wake up. The world is confusing enough without having to go through super cold weather one day and sweltering temperatures the next. What to think?
Texas A&M urban forester Mickey Merritt is not concerned. He says that maybe we’ve just gotten used to trees leafing out earlier than they normally do. “The last couple of years have been pretty warm in February and trees leafed out early.” But we’ve had freezing weather more recently, and it’s been colder a little bit longer, he adds. Drought could play some role, but that will “really show up later when things get hotter.”
Oaks, he thinks, are ”right on time, live oaks especially.” Pecans “are always last – end of April, mid-May.” He’s not worried about sycamores either.
And it’s not unusual for a couple of the same species, red maples, for instance, in the same neighborhood, to leaf out one ahead of the other.
No studies have been done, but his observation, “just driving around,” is that he’s not seen “anything to make me concerned.”
Just a Big Ole Alligator Gar
Seen in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary
Showing Off Buff Physique
Feb. 1, 2022
Bayou lover Katy E. was enjoying the sights and sounds in the woods of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary in Houston when she happened to look down at the remains of the tributary creek that once cut across what is now Westcott.
“At first I saw him head on and I thought it was an alligator,” she wrote in an email.
“This was what I first saw and I think you can see why I thought it might be an actual alligator,” she wrote of the above photo she bravely took.
“This guy was just drifting around,” she wrote. “He was pretty big.”
But it turned out to be an alligator gar, another of the ancient creatures, including alligators, alligator snapping turtles, and beavers, that inhabit our living bayou. The ancestors of the alligator gar in Texas date back over 200 million years. They can grow more than eight feet long and live over 60 years.
A Problem Nobody Wants to Fix
While Costly Fixes Wash Away
Update on Bayou Park Repairs and Damaging Stormwater Outfalls
Feb. 1, 2022
Recently we told you about the many drainage pipes jutting out from the banks of Buffalo Bayou and other streams that block the flow during storms. These pipes, or outfalls, violate city, county, and federal regulations by pointing directly across the channel. They act like dams, cause stormwater to back up, flood, erode, and take out banks and expensive sidewalks, leading to costly and continuous repairs.
The City of Houston is in charge of the pipes that collect this stormwater that rains down on the city. The Harris County Flood Control District is in charge of the channels and streams, both natural and artificial, that receive this runoff and send it out to the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay.
But there were still questions hanging when we published the “illegal” outfalls report a couple of weeks ago. In 2020 the flood control district spent nearly $10 million in federal funds scraping, bulldozing and “repairing” the healthy green banks in Houston’s popular Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd and Sabine. The project was meant to repair damage caused by Harvey in 2017, three years earlier. Of course, by the time the bulldozers were revved up and deployed to the banks for the “repairs,” the bayou had naturally repaired and replanted its banks with deep-rooted, stabilizing native plants. Destroying these plants removed the natural network protecting the bank, causing at least one big tree to fall (as others have following Flood Control’s previous “natural stable channel design” work in the park).
One of the hanging questions from our previous report: why didn’t Flood Control fix the many stormwater pipes in the park blasting away like cannons pointed at the opposite bank?
Same Answer: Not Our Pipes
So Many Illegal Dams on Buffalo Bayou
How Big Pipes Block the Flow in Our Streams During Storms
Jan. 17, 2022
In a city full of engineers, surely they would get the engineering right.
But somehow the banks of our bayous and streams are punctured with stormwater drainage pipes that block the flow during storms. Pointing directly across the stream, they shoot a powerful force of rainwater runoff against high flow in the channel. This acts like a dam, stopping our streams from draining, causing water to back up as much as a quarter mile, according to witnesses. It also creates damaging turbulence and erosion and increases flooding.
It’s not like we don’t have a problem with flooding. Authorities are proposing multi-billion-dollar fixes to move more stormwater faster through the pipes and streams that collect rainwater from our roofs and streets and parking lots and send it out to Galveston Bay. These are big fixes like dredging, deepening, and widening 22 miles of Buffalo Bayou from the federal dams in west Houston to downtown. (p. 111) Or building a massive flood tunnel from the dams to the bay. (p. 106) (See also here and here.)
Seems like they might fix the problem drainage pipes first.
Violating City, County, and Federal Regulations
Anything greater than a 60-degree angle to the bank is a violation of those regulations. (See Houston Public Works, Infrastructure Design Manual 2021, pp. 181, 183 and HCFCD Policy, Criteria, Procedure Manual, p. 230.) Actually, the federal requirements are even stricter. The Corps of Engineers requires the Harris County Flood Control District (and thus the City of Houston) to adhere to outfall angles no greater than 45 degrees to the bank. (Regional General Permit SWG-2009-00123, p. 3) The City of Austin, among other places, also requires an angle of 45 degrees or less. (See G.)
These regulations are at least twenty years old, if not older, according to representatives of Houston Public Works.
So how did we get all those stormwater outfalls blocking the flow in the bayous?
An Old Story
We’ve been pointing out this problem for some time. There’s the massive stormwater outfall in Memorial Park’s Old Archery Range, site of the public boat launch west of Loop 610. It was built in 2012-2013, designed by the engineering firm AECOM to point directly at the opposite bank, despite the outfall angle regulations.
Yes, We Have Alligators!
Right Here in the Bayou City!
Jan. 9, 2022
So you’re walking or skating or biking along Buffalo Bayou in the park near downtown Houston, enjoying the balmy day, watching the people. You look down at the water and what’s that?! An alligator!
An alligator swimming right in front of everyone. In fact, this one is well known. Even has a nickname: Nacho, apparently named by canoe racing friends of SBB board member and river guide, Tom Helm.
Yes, we have alligators in Buffalo Bayou. They were here before we were. Some people might think that our alligators escaped from aquariums or something. Some people even think that Buffalo Bayou is an artificial ditch.
Nope. Buffalo Bayou is a river thousands of years old. Alligators are even older.
Alligators Been Here for Millions of Years
Alligators are a keystone species, meaning they create habitat and help sustain an ecosystem upon which other creatures depend. They’ve been around for millions of years. Amazingly, the bayou is crowded with very large, prehistoric creatures, though their habitat is increasingly diminished as Harris County Flood Control and property owners bulldoze and harden the banks with concrete and steel. (See also a proposal to engineer the natural banks in Memorial Park here.)
This relatively young, five-foot alligator was maybe looking for some turtles to eat, maybe even an alligator gar. Maybe just enjoying the sun.
A friend took this short video of the ‘gator swimming near Taft Street.
See for yourself.
Looking for Holiday Gifts? Buffalo Bayou Art Now Available Online
Support Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene
Dec. 18, 2021
Now you can easily purchase photographs and artwork online from the fabulous exhibit, “Buffalo Bayou: River of Life,” curated by Geoff Winningham. The benefit exhibit ended Nov. 28, but sales continue to raise much needed funds for Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene.
Here is a link to view and purchase the photographs and artwork.
We need your support! And still available at very reasonable prices are prints from Winningham’s acclaimed book, Along Forgotten River, which documented Buffalo Bayou from the ship channel to its source in the Katy Prairie.
Buy Buffalo Bayou Art. Support Nature in the City. Just in Time for the Holidays!
In addition to photographs by Winningham, there are stunning photographs of Buffalo Bayou by Houston photographers Jim Olive and George O. Jackson available, as well as historic photographs, maps, and prints discovered and printed by Winningham.
Artwork about the bayou by Janice Freeman and Houston schoolchildren can also be purchased. The latter participated in a photography and drawing project organized by Winningham, with the help of Freeman, that resulted in the 2017 publication of the book, In the Eyes of Our Children: Houston, an American City. The prints and photographs the children produced are astonishingly inventive and creative.
All proceeds, other than a share going to the young artists, benefit Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene, both 501c3 nonprofit organizations.
Or Just Donate!
Don’t want to buy anything? Just donate to Save Buffalo Bayou. Your gift is tax deductible. And we need your support. Save Buffalo must raise another $4,000 in individual donations of less than $1,200 by Dec. 31. Help us meet that goal!
Harris County Flood Task Force Looking for New Member
Applications due by Jan. 31
Dec. 18, 2021
The recently formed Community Flood Resilience Task Force is looking for a new member.
The task force, a project of Harris County Commissioners Court, is looking for “multi-disciplinary members who are committed to serving the community and represent the geographic, gender, age, racial, and ethnic diversity of Harris County,” according to an announcement emailed Friday.
The task force is especially interested in candidates from the Greenspoint and Aldine areas. However, all Harris County residents are invited to apply, according to the email from task force facilitator Leah Chambers.
Deadline to apply is midnight Jan. 31, 2021.
The task force has seventeen positions, of which five are appointed by commissioners’ court. Those five are responsible for appointing the remaining twelve members.
The task force was created in August of 2020 to replace the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force. Established nearly fifty years ago, the old task force was criticized for being engineer-dominated and do-nothing.
The new task force is charged with working with the county Infrastructure Resilience Team to develop “an inclusive and equitable Flood Resilience Plan for Harris County. This plan is intended to be data-driven, nature-based, and identify specific projects and initiative as well as policy and guidance,” according to the county website.
Regional Flood Planners Seek Small Business Rep
Group is Developing Flood Management Strategies, Also Seeks Public Input
Dec. 13, 2021
The group developing a regional flood management plan is seeking a member to represent small business.
The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group is one of fifteen volunteer organizations formed by the Texas Water Development Board to help identify specific flood risks around the state and develop strategies to reduce them.
The San Jacinto Region includes all or part of eleven counties and extends from Galveston in the south to Huntsville in the north.
Also known as Region Six, the group includes 15 voting members and 11 non-voting members. The voting members represent municipalities, the environment, water and electric utilities, industries, agriculture, and more. The non-voting members are drawn from various public agencies such as Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Houston Galveston Area Council, and Port Houston.
The ultimate goal is to develop a regional flood plan and deliver it to the state water board by Jan. 10, 2023. The official description of the process so far has been to gather and analyze existing data, identify existing and future flood risks, review floodplain management practices, and evaluate flood management strategies.
The group has hired the engineering firm Freese and Nichols as technical consultants and to oversee public engagement. The firm is also working with several other regional groups around the state. A “technical memorandum” is due to the state board by Jan. 7, 2022. Here is the draft technical memorandum presented at the last meeting of the planning group on Dec. 9.
The firm has developed a website to encourage public input. At the December meeting the environmental representative, Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, voiced concern about the lack of public response. As of the meeting, 31 people had responded to the survey.
Here are links to all the planning documents and meetings so far.
Here is a link to the nomination form for the representative of small business.
The next meeting of the planning group is Jan. 13, 2022.
Why You Should Donate to Save Buffalo Bayou
Nov. 30, 2021
Since everyone else is asking on Giving Tuesday, most likely you have already given. Maybe you’re annoyed. Maybe you already purchased a photograph or artwork at our recent benefit, Buffalo Bayou: River of Life. (If you’d still like to buy something, we’ll be posting remaining photos and art online for purchase. Stay tuned.)
Here are some reasons why:
Environmental Advocacy in the City
Nobody else is doing what we do. We are a small organization with a big punch. Environmental advocates doing journalism, investigating, listening, researching, explaining, asking hard questions about how we manage nature in the city.
Important questions like: Is the Harris County Flood Control District doing a good job? How do we know? Who’s monitoring the performance of the flood control district? Note that the district was founded in the 1930s when “controlling” flooding meant stripping trees, straightening streams, and covering them in concrete. Move as much stormwater as fast as possible.
That approach has long been discredited. Not only is it environmentally damaging, it also increases flooding! But the flood control district is still doing it, destroying our last remaining winding, wooded streams, wiping out forests, even though they are legally obligated to conserve our forests. (See page 1.)
Why? Because somebody makes money scraping and bulldozing and installing sheet pile and concrete rubble. Paid with public funds. And then paid to fix it when it fails.
After Harvey, numerous committees and public officials are busy making plans to manage flood risk. Save Buffalo Bayou attends these meetings on your behalf, making comments, taking notes. (It’s a virtual world!)
Buffalo Bayou is the main artery of our natural drainage system in Houston. Yes, many people think it’s an artificial drainage ditch. But it’s a living river, filled with wildlife.
Big Drainage Pipes That Block Drainage
And here’s another report we’re working on: why does the City of Houston continue to install massive stormwater drainage pipes that violate their own regulations and block the flow of Buffalo Bayou (and other streams)? Do we not have a flooding problem?
We’ve written about this before. But questions remain unanswered. And we have one about this new project: just recently the City installed a massive new drainage pipe on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou just upstream of the Shepherd Bridge. It sticks straight out, shooting stormwater directly across the flow of the bayou and onto the opposite bank. This blocks the flow, acting like a dam, and pummeling the opposite bank. It’s a violation of the City’s own regulations. Violates flood control district guidelines too, as well as requirements of the Corps of Engineers.
How does this happen? Answers coming up.
But we need your help. Every donation helps, no matter how small.
Save Buffalo Bayou is a 501c3 nonprofit.