Cool Off With Geology Classes On The Bayou

A Good Time for Floating with Tom Helm

August 13, 2016

You may think it’s way too hot to go outside. But it’s actually much cooler down on the bayou, thanks to the water and the shade from overhanging trees.

Also it’s free of mosquitoes since the damselflies eat them up. Nature works that way. Bats eat mosquitoes too. Mosquitoes don’t breed in flowing water anyway.

So now is the perfect time (unless it’s raining) to cool off and learn about the amazing geology of one of the last natural stretches of our 18,000-year-old Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park.

Canoeing on Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park. Photo Aug. 4, 2016, by Jim Olive.

Canoeing on Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park. Photo Aug. 4, 2016, by Jim Olive.

Float for a couple of hours through this historic nature area with geologist, naturalist, and river guide Tom Helm. Tom will explain the ancient sandstone formations and high Pleistocene bluffs, the patterns in the sand, why the river changes course and how sediment taken away from one side gets deposited on the other. And much more. See mole cricket tracks and watch diving hawks! Witness the grace of a great blue heron flying in front of your canoe!

Right here in the middle of Houston.

Tom takes care of everything. Look under Classes at the top page of this website. Or contact Tom directly. Scheduling is flexible so arrange a time that suits you and your family and friends.

Get outside, have a good time, and learn something new! The water is low now so the sandstone formations and sandy banks are visible.

But if it’s raining or the flow is too high, classes will be postponed.

Enjoy Your Flood!

County Commissioner Provokes Wrath of Flood Victims

Aug. 8, 2016

Updated Aug. 9. Radack Doubles Down, Stands His Ground. Read Here.

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack has unleashed a flood of outrage by telling an audience of several hundred citizens in an area of the city heavily damaged by flooding that “some people enjoy flooding.”

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack telling flood victims that some people enjoy floods because they get new cars and remodeled homes. Image courtesy of Cynthia Neely, Aug. 4, 2016.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack telling flood victims that some people enjoy floods because they get new cars and remodeled homes. Image courtesy of Cynthia Neely, Aug. 4, 2016.

The large audience at a meeting of the Cypress Coalition Thursday, Aug. 4, gasped and groaned when Radack took the podium, waved his hands, and said that “some people frankly over the years, in the years I’ve been doing this, that frankly enjoy floods about every seven years, because they want new cars, they want their homes redone.”

Only Rain Causes Flooding!

Cynthia Neely, board member of Residents Against Flooding (RAF), was at the meeting at the Metropolitan Baptist Church with RAF Chair Ed Browne. She reports that both Radack, who’s been in office for 27 years, and Mike Talbott, retiring director of the Harris County Flood Control District, blamed Mother Nature for flooding.

Read the rest of this post.

It’s Not Dead Yet

Flood Control Still Pushing Costly, Destructive “Stabilization” Project on Buffalo Bayou

July 31, 2016

It’s a pointless, wasteful, ill-conceived, and maybe illegal project to rip up and raze trees and plants and wildlife habitat, dig up the banks, plug up tributaries, dredge and reroute the channel along one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. This is a dreamy stretch of the river in the middle of the city, filled with beaver, otter, alligators, fish and flying creatures, and even edible plants.  It flows for more than a mile past our great public Memorial Park, a natural detention area and significant geologic site that features very old high bluffs and sandstone formations. All of which would be obliterated.

And after almost three years of adamant public opposition, the Harris County Flood Control District is still promoting the project, which will cost the taxpayers at least $4 million plus, not including future costs of maintenance and repair.

It’s mystifying why they want to do this, why they think it would even work, why they don’t realize that the bayou would wash it away or that it would simply all slump away, as has happened in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, where taxpayers are footing the ever-mounting bill for constantly repairing the banks dug up and stripped of trees and vegetation by Flood Control.

Do They Not Have More Urgent Problems?

Surely, the flood control district has more urgent problems that require our hard-earned tax money. Harris County is one of the most flooded places in the country. And this project, billed as a “stabilization” and “bank restoration” program, will do nothing to address flooding and could even make it worse. The county should focus on the hundreds of miles of channelized bayous and streams unwisely covered in now-aging concrete that should be restored to something more natural and beneficial.

The project, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was first proposed in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association under then board chair, Kevin Shanley, landscape architect and principal with SWA Group, the firm responsible for the ugly, obtrusive bridges, collapsing sidewalks, poorly-functioning dog park and non-functioning faux Hill Country fountain and stream in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Read the rest of this post.

Excavate fill

This map prepared by the Harris County Flood Control District shows the areas to be excavated (yellow) and filled (orange) in the proposed Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Note also the rerouting of the channel. Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, including a tributary, are on the north, with houses in between. The entire south bank is River Oaks Country Club golf course.

Why is the City Spending Our Money to Fight This Lawsuit?

Update on Residents Against Flooding

July 27, 2016

Residents in the Memorial City area, which is in the Buffalo Bayou watershed, filed a federal lawsuit last May to try to force the city to enforce stormwater detention and drainage regulations against developers not just in northwest Houston but also across the city. The suit claims, among other things, that lack of enforcement is causing flooding of their homes. The suit also names the local Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ 17) and its Redevelopment Authority. The TIRZ 17 collects some property taxes in the zone and decides how to spend the money, and the suit accuses the TIRZ of deliberately funneling rainwater runoff away from commercial developments and into residential areas.

Attorney Charles Irvine speaking to the annual meeting of Residents Against Flooding on June 29, 2016.

Attorney Charles Irvine speaking to the annual meeting of Residents Against Flooding on June 29, 2016.

The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages. They request that the City and the TIRZ simply do their jobs.

Recently attorney Charles Irvine of the environmental law firm Irvine and Conner spoke at the annual meeting of Residents Against Flooding, which filed the lawsuit. He provided an update on the lawsuit in the wake of a recent Texas State Supreme Court ruling against a similar lawsuit filed by homeowners in the White Oak Bayou watershed.

Watch Irvine speak to the meeting in this 17-minute video. Among other things, he points out that the City could avoid litigation, and he questions who in the City is approving development plans without the required slowing and catching of stormwater runoff that results from increased impervious surface such as parking lots, apartment complexes, and shopping malls.

 

The Flood Czar Answers His Own Phone

But What Causes Urban Flooding?

July 12, 2016

Steve Costello explained for probably the hundredth time or more that he is not really the flood czar of Houston but the chief resilience officer.

The soft-spoken Costello, a civil engineer, former member of the Houston City Council (serving six years), former president and current board member of the Memorial Park Conservancy, and former candidate for mayor of Houston, was speaking at a meeting of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood in west Houston a few weeks ago. Buffalo Bayou runs through the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood.

Appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner in early May, Costello has been making the rounds, speaking at public meetings, attending others, such as the highly emotional town hall meeting with US Rep. John Culberson in June. Costello also has been giving interviews. Recently he flew off to Washington D.C. with the mayor and members of the Houston City Council to meet with officials of the Army Corps of Engineers about a multi-billion dollar plan to dredge and deepen Lake Houston in order to enlarge its capacity and alleviate flooding in northeast Harris County. Lake Houston is a major source of Houston’s drinking water.

But back in late June he was explaining to the Briar Forest crowd of about twenty-five neighborhood activists that while his sole mission was to do something about flooding, and his wife liked the idea of being a czarina, really he was the chief resilience officer. The concept, he explained, was a response to the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project. Mayor Annise Parker had applied to the program for funding and support for a resilience officer, who would have focused not just on flooding but also on broader social issues like unemployment and transportation. Mayor Turner decided he wanted to focus on drainage and flooding, and the Rockefeller Foundation decided not to fund a position for Houston, said Costello.

No Staff and No Budget

As a result, Costello answers his own phone and emails himself. He has no staff. Apparently he has no funds or budget. (He also said in a later email exchange that he wasn’t sure where the funds for his salary were coming from and didn’t answer how much he was being paid.) Yet he has been bravely handing out his card, offering his cell phone number and email to myriad people in a city drowning in outrage and misery over increasing and repeated flooding, lost homes, cars, property, savings, and lives.

Harris County One of the Most Flooded Places in the Country

Read the rest of this post.

Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain.

Over one-third of houses reporting flooding on Memorial Day 2015 were outside any known flood hazard area. Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodways and floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain. Image from the Harris County Flood Control District report to the Spring 2016 conference of the Texas Association of Floodplain Managers.

Summer on Buffalo Bayou

A Bend in the River in July

July 11, 2016

Here is the latest photo from Jim Olive of that lovely bend in Buffalo Bayou we have been documenting through the seasons since the summer of 2014. This most recent photo was taken by Jim at around 8 a.m. on Friday, July 8, 2016, from the same high bluff in Memorial Park looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the opposite bank. The record high flows from the reservoirs behind Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County had finally drained the last of the waters impounded from the record April 18 Tax Day rains, and the flow in the bayou had dropped to its base flow of around 100-200 cubic feet per second, as measured by the gauge at Piney Point.

To see all the photos of this same spot since 2014, go to A Bend in the River under Photos and Films.

Summer on Buffalo Bayou after the record high water from the spring rains had finally drained from Barker and Addicks dams upstream. Taken on July 8, 2016, by Jim Olive from the same high bank in Memorial Park looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the right.

Summer on Buffalo Bayou after the record high water from the spring rains had finally drained from Barker and Addicks dams upstream. Taken on July 8, 2016, by Jim Olive from the same high bank in Memorial Park looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the right.

Empty at Last. Almost.

Buffalo Bayou Reservoirs Finally Drain Last of Flood Waters

July 6, 2016

The last of the storm water from the April 18 Tax Day floods has passed finally  through the gates of Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County. (Almost, not quite. See comment below.) The reservoirs behind those 1940s-era earthen dams on Buffalo Bayou are normally empty in order to be ready to impound rainfall and runoff that would flood central Houston downstream.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, was forced to release water through the dams at a high rate of flow – between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and more — for nearly three months in order to empty the record-high reservoirs, as frequent rains kept adding to the water level.

Base flow in Buffalo Bayou, as measured by the USGS gauge at Piney Point, is between 100 and 200 cfs. As of today the flow was still high – over 1,000 cfs.

The dams on Buffalo Bayou are classified “extremely high risk,” in large part due to the damage that would occur to the nation’s fourth most populous city if the dams were to fail. A $72 million construction project to repair seepage problems and build new conduits has been delayed due to the high water level in the reservoirs.

You can listen to what Richard Long, who manages the dams for the Corps, had to say about the situation this morning to Dave Fehling of Houston Public Matters. Long is the supervisory natural resources manager for the Corps’ Galveston District and has been working at the dams for 35 years.

And look for a report from us soon about the impact of the high waters on Buffalo Bayou. Richard Hyde, a geologist who lives in neighboring Bear Creek Village, reports that the herds of deer that roam the 25,000 acres of federally-owned wooded parkland in the reservoirs seem greatly reduced. And sadly, Buffy the Bison, rescued in April from the flooded small zoo in Bear Creek Park, died shortly thereafter.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6.

Flying Down Buffalo Bayou

The Mother Bayou from Beginning to End

June 24, 2016

Buffalo Bayou near its source in Katy, Texas, formerly known as Cane Island. Image from drone video by Connor Winn, April 2016.

Buffalo Bayou near its source in Katy, Texas, a town formerly known as Cane Island. Image from drone video by Connor Winn, April 2016.

“Visualizing Nature, The Art and The Science” was the title of a class at Rice University taught this spring by photographer Geoff Winningham, professor of photography in the Art Department and holder of the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities, and by Adrian Lenardic, professor of geophysics and planetary science in the Department of Earth Science. One theme of the class was the visual and scientific aspects of Buffalo Bayou.

Connor Winn was a student in that class, and he made a lovely fourteen-minute video using a flying drone that follows our Mother Bayou from its quiet beginnings west of Houston. The film allows us to watch the bayou evolve from its source near Cane Island Branch, a creek, one of many feeding into the bayou, that runs through the town of Katy, which in the 1800s was known as Cane Island, named after the creek filled with cane. We see the bayou growing into the mighty ship channel and joining the San Jacinto River at Burnet Bay, part of Galveston Bay, near the San Jacinto Monument just upstream of Baytown.

Watch Connor Winn’s video of Buffalo Bayou.

Can An Urban Stream Restore Itself?

Yes, With Room to Move. Free Rivers Are Healthier and Better for Flood Control

June 15, 2016

By Susan Chadwick, Executive Director, Save Buffalo Bayou

This article is adapted from a presentation made at the Southwest Stream Restoration Conference in San Antonio, Texas, on June 2, 2016.

Save Buffalo Bayou is a non-profit organization founded two years ago to fight a public project described as a “restoration” project on one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows through the middle of Houston, past 1,500-acre Memorial Park and another 15-acre public nature preserve, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. Since then our organization has expanded into broader, related issues. But today’s topic is restoration.

Here are some of the most common responses I would get when I would say that this mile-long plus stretch of the bayou is natural, along with what were some of the most common defenses of the project.

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

The river’s not natural because the river changes.

It’s not natural because it’s been altered by high runoff from urbanization.

Trees fall into it.

It has terrible erosion problems. Look at those steep high banks!

It’s terribly eroded. Look at those sandy banks!

It’s eroding terribly. Sediment from the banks in Memorial Park washes up on the sidewalks of Buffalo Bayou Park we built downstream in the floodway right next to the river.

All that sediment carries bacteria. If we stop the banks from eroding so much sediment, we will reduce the bacteria. (Although sediment-laden Buffalo Bayou is less polluted than White Oak Bayou, which runs relatively clear and extremely foul due to being encased in concrete.)

And of course the big one: the river needs to be stabilized because it moves around.

Then there’s the argument, both implied and explicit, that prompted me to select this topic for presentation today: an urban stream cannot restore itself.

A Profound Misconception About How Nature and Rivers Work

All of those statements, of course, indicate a profound misconception about nature, about how a river works and how rivers benefit us.

A river is a living symbol of change. A living system. A dynamic process of nature that works for our benefit. Even the simple grains of sand work on our behalf to cleanse the water.

Read the rest of this post.

 

Radio Talk about Natural Flood Control

Flooding on the Air

June 14, 2016

Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, and John Jacob, board chair of Galveston Baykeeper, wetlands expert, and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program at Texas A&M, were on the radio today talking about bayous, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and natural solutions to flooding. The popular weekly Tuesday program, Eco-Ology, hosted by Pat Greer and H.C. Clark, aired from 3 to 4 p.m. on KPFT 90.1.

Among other things, we talked about proposals from the city and from the county and others to buyout property owners and widen and enlarge our bayous, creeks, and streams to handle increasing rains. This prospect might be alarming to those of us who recognize the importance of trees and vegetation along our waterways — for erosion control, cleansing our water, removing pollutants, slowing runoff, providing wildlife habitat, and many other life-sustaining functions, not to mention social benefits like we need nature to be sane.

But what if they didn’t bulldoze our waterways and widen them artificially? What if they removed the built structures and created parks and allowed room for our rivers and streams to move and adjust on their own by letting them flood into their natural floodplain?

This is in fact the latest thinking in flood control worldwide. Room for the river to move. Even in the Netherlands they are tearing down their big gates and dikes, letting the water in while raising the land where people live and work. Even in Missouri.

A lot cheaper, more cost effective, and more beneficial overall.

Listen to the Eco-Ology program on KPFT 90.1.

Flooding on Buffalo Bayou, April 18, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive.

Flooding on Buffalo Bayou, April 18, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive.

 

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