Killing the Bayou: Shocking Plan to Bulldoze, Reroute Buffalo Bayou

Historic Banks of Memorial Park to Be Radically Altered

April 6, 2021

The private organization running Houston’s great public Memorial Park on the forested banks of Buffalo Bayou is developing a plan to bulldoze and landscape the ancient high banks, channelize and reroute the bayou, cutting off long-standing meanders in a way that seems to shift a significant amount of public land to private owners.

Ironically, the alleged purpose of the project is in part to reduce the loss of public property, according to Carolyn White, the recently departed conservation director for the Memorial Park Conservancy.

The focus of this initial intervention is a little-known but historic section of the park west of Loop 610 known as the Old Archery Range, a long-neglected and poorly maintained wooded section of the park off Woodway Drive. (Some maps do not even include it as part of Memorial Park.)

A tentative plan promoted by White, who previously worked for the Harris County Flood Control District, proposes to raze and scrape nearly half of it.

Conceptual plans for the Old Archery Range in Memorial Park provided by the Memorial Park Conservancy. Purple shows land area on Buffalo Bayou to be graded and landscaped. Blue are new channels cut through meanders. Green is public parkland transferred to opposite bank of new channel.

In a recent presentation to Save Buffalo Bayou, White described the natural slumping of the high banks as lost property, though it would seem the proposed grading of the banks would result in a similar though far more drastic slope, along with considerable structural damage to the soil through disturbance and compaction by heavy equipment. (p. 14) (Not to mention the crushing loss of aquatic life and habitat.)

The high banks of Buffalo Bayou are prone to slumping (and naturally rebuilding), and there has been considerable loss of trees and widening and shifting of the upper channel in recent years. (Trees normally fall onto the slumped banks and remain there to collect sediment, naturally rebuild and protect the bank, and create habitat.) The first great meander in the archery range, which would be sliced in two by proposals under consideration, appears to have narrowed even in just the last few years.

But the general configuration of the sandstone-lined channel flowing past the park has remained pretty much the same for hundreds of years. (See, for instance, the 1898 survey on pp. 12 and 13 compared to the image above and this 1840 survey further downstream.) See also the footnote below from a letter written in 2014 by landscape architect Janet Wagner, then chair of the Harris County Historical Commission, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Slumped banks in the Old Archery Range naturally rebuilding with new growth taking hold. Fallen trees also help fortify the bank, protecting against erosion, and collecting sediment. Flat stones are a broken, underlying layer of ancient sandstone typically lining the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Photo April 6, 2021

Rumors Swirling

Rumors had been swirling for over a year about the Conservancy’s interest in “stabilizing” the bayou banks in the Old Archery Range. Once containing nature trails, a 19th century nursery and brickworks, a farmhouse, a Boy Scout camp, and the archery range for which it is named, the 20-25-acre wooded site is the location of the park’s only boat ramp, part of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s 26-mile long Buffalo Bayou paddle trail. The ramp, actually a giant, badly designed, and constantly eroding stormwater outfall, is situated near the early 19th century sandstone ford known as Dutchman’s Crossing, used by settlers heading west. (p. 5)

Cost, Length, Purpose

The Conservancy, together with the Uptown Development Authority, has hired the engineering firm Stantec at a cost of $500,000 to explore plans to “reduce channel erosion” and “improve habitat,” while landscaping and building trails, initially along some 2,700 feet of bank, according to documents provided by Randy Odinet, vice president for Capital Improvement Projects with the Conservancy.

Erosion and deposition are natural functions of living streams, and dynamic streams are healthier, cleaner and more biologically diverse.

Note also as with virtually all meanders in Buffalo Bayou, flow naturally cuts across the meanders in the Old Archery Range during high water. But the Conservancy is contemplating spending a great deal of money to cut artificial channels through the meanders, an idea rejected by the Harris County Flood Control District.

Woods of the Old Archery Range in Memorial Park. Photo April 6, 2021

Wildness Wanted

As a recent study of urban parks found, city residents want and need “wildness” in their parks. We need to be able to observe and interact with nature, to be able to study and learn about our natural history.

Stantec is a national specialist in the lucrative and controversial business of “stabilizing” and “restoring” streams, in particular using “natural channel design,” a pseudo-scientific but widely used methodology developed by Dave Rosgen in the 1990s. Natural channel design was the basis of the flawed Memorial Park Demonstration Project that would have razed the trees and vegetation, dredged, bulldozed and reshaped some 1.25 miles of the bayou past the park further downstream.

The same local Stantec team, headed by Betty Leite, is in charge of a project to “stabilize” the forested banks below the Bayou Bend, Collection and Gardens owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  We have asked for more information about this project and will have a report soon.

Heavy concrete rubble dumped on the bank of Buffalo Bayou adds weight to bank and contributes to slumping. Photo taken of the bank below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens on April 6, 2021.

Bayou Bend, just downstream from Memorial Park, is the former home of the late Ima Hogg, who donated the large home and garden, along with the 15.5-acre woods of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the opposite bank. Hogg and her family arranged for the City of Houston to purchase at cost the more than 1,500 acres that became Memorial Park in 1924. Hogg intended for the park to remain as natural as possible.

Unfortunately years of poor management practice at Bayou Bend, including planting short-rooted monkey grass and other exotics on the bank, paving the top of the bank and building on it, irrigating the bank and draining stormwater directly onto it, have contributed to bank collapse.

Left for Dead

Harris County Flood Control District uses its own version of “natural stable channel design” as an excuse to strip and channelize streams all over the county. The district’s “natural stable channel design” project in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream of the Shepherd Bridge has resulted in endless repairs and a once vibrant stream now lined with concrete chunks like a dead drainage ditch.

This initial project in the Old Archery Range is no doubt only the beginning of an effort to bulldoze and landscape the historic banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Soon there will be no life remaining in the bayou. With the massive crime perpetrated on the bayou by the River Oaks Country Club opposite the park, the Houston Parks Board’s recent pointless project downstream of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, the museum’s planned work at Bayou Bend, and the vast amount of the bayou now lined with concrete rubble by Harris County Flood Control and countless private projects, there will soon be little left of our living bayou.

Footnote:

On August 4, 2014, landscape architect Janet Wagner wrote the following about Buffalo Bayou to the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

The alignment of Buffalo Bayou, fronting along the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and upstream along Memorial Park, exhibits a historic land formation documented in 1840 Harris County Surveyor George H. Bringhurst.  He traveled several days along the north side of Buffalo Bayou (now Memorial Park) beginning at Shepherd Drive to beyond Dutchman’s Crossing (near Woodway Bridge).  Bringhurst’s survey mapping along the bayou ridge matches the current alignment of Buffalo Bayou meanders, giving rise that the present bayou bank pattern is well over 175 years old.  The alluvial nature of the old Archery Range dates the Range alignment to 12,000 years.  A canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou or visit to Memorial Park reveals a step back in time that is outstanding for stream preservation, education and reverence to historic vistas.  

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Marked pine in Old Archery Range. April 6, 2021

Community Flood Resilience Task Force Membership Finalized

Replaces Old Harris County Flood Control Task Force

Also: New State Flood Group to Meet Thursday, April 8

April 5, 2021

The initial five members of Harris County’s new Community Flood Resilience Task Force have now selected the remaining twelve members of the task force. The new task force replaces the outdated Harris County Flood Control Task Force, founded nearly fifty years ago in the wake of discontent over flood control practices and plans to channelize Buffalo Bayou.

The first five members of the new task force were appointed by Harris County Commissioners’ Court last fall. The county describes the task force as a “multidisciplinary, community-driven body that Commissioners Court established to ensure Harris County develops and implements equitable flood resilience planning and projects that take into account community needs and priorities.”

Here are the current members of the task force. Here are the bylaws.

The task force, which is not subject to the Open Meetings Act, is to hold meetings at least every other month or at least six times a year.

However, the first official meeting of the task force will be in May and will be open to the public, according to Vanessa Toro, senior policy advisor to County Judge Lina Hidalgo. Toro will be joined in supporting the task force by Lance Gilliam, who previously worked with Commissioner Rodney Ellis on flood control, disaster recovery, housing, and community development policy.

Part of the mission of the task force is to advise the County’s Infrastructure Resilience Team and Commissioners Court on equitable resilience planning efforts and flood resilience projects, wrote Toro in a recent email announcing the new members of the task force.

Here is how you can sign up to join the mailing list for the task force.

San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group Meeting

The newly formed San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group will have its online monthly meeting on April 8 at 9 a.m. Known as Region 6, the group, a project of the Texas Water Development Board, is still in the process of acquiring members.

Here is information about the meeting agenda and how to join.

Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe is the chair of the San Jacinto group.

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Private Parks Board Presents Director of Public Boards and Commissions

Declines to Take Public Questions

March 30, 2021

Updated April 13, 2021, with date of next Houston Parks Board public meeting: June 22

The private Houston Parks Board foundation recently presented the City Director of Boards and Commissions Maria Montes in a virtual Zoom meeting. As usual with Zoom meetings, there was a Chat and a Question and Answer feature that allows participants to post questions and comments for all to see.

But the private board declined to take any public questions, oddly directing that questions be sent to another website that required a code to sign in, a first in our experience with virtual meetings. We signed in and typed in our questions. They were not asked or answered.

This was disappointing. We wanted Montes to explain publicly the difference between the private Parks Board foundation and the public Parks Board, a local government corporation. We also wanted Montes and/or the foundation to tell us when the public parks board has public meetings, as required by law, and how the public is notified about them, also required by law.

In addition, we noted that there are seven expired terms on the twenty-member public board. When was the last time the Mayor appointed a new member to the Parks Board and how does one become a member of the board? All twenty members of the public board also serve on the private board, effectively a two-thirds majority of the private board. Most other major cities have separate public parks boards or commissions and private supporting foundations, with the former often populated by experts and people whose communities benefit socially and environmentally from parks and the latter generally dominated by people who benefit financially from improved real estate values.

In July of last year Montes told us that she would be meeting with the mayor in early August to discuss whose term has expired and potential candidates for the public parks board. Apparently that was an unproductive meeting, if it occurred, because there are now more expired terms on the public board (7) than there were then (4).

Last week’s presentation featuring Montes was sponsored, as noted,  by the private Houston Parks Board foundation as part of their regular Rising Leaders Lunch and Learn series. The private foundation also runs the Houston Parks Board website. The City of Houston lists the private foundation’s website as the website of the public board. There are no notices of regular meetings, past or future, agenda, or minutes to be found there.

No Notice or Reports of Public Meetings

Montes, who has been Houston’s director of boards and commissions for nearly three years now and previously worked for real estate development and investment company Transwestern, did vaguely answer a question about ethics training, referring generally to boards and commissions. She apparently did not have time to mention that public board appointees are required by Texas law to have training in the Open Meetings Act as well as the Public Information Act.

After the virtual event we received a polite email from a staff member employed by the foundation (the public board has no staff) noting that our questions would be directed to someone who could best answer them. We also received an email linking to an expired notice on the foundation’s website about a meeting of the public board last September 22. The notice was posted four days before the meeting. Though we receive regular emails from the Parks Board foundation, we did not receive an email about the meeting.

If the last meeting was Sept 22, and if as we’ve been told, the public board meets twice a year, shouldn’t there be another public meeting or a notice of a meeting by now? Six months was March 23.

Update: A follow up email from the staff member said that the next meeting of the public board would be in June 22, with the following meeting scheduled for Sept. 28, and that notice would be posted on the private parks board foundation’s website. No word yet on the whereabouts of minutes of those meetings.

Major Project is Bayou Greenways

The Parks Board foundation’s major project is Bayou Greenways, an excellent and very popular concept. If only the bayous were green, or had some shade trees, like Buffalo Bayou. Or like it used to be.

Here is what the private Parks Board did to Buffalo Bayou upstream of the Shepherd Bridge in an effort to make room for a ten-foot wide concrete sidewalk: bulldozed the bank, cut down trees, drove sheet pile into the bank so that creatures large and small can no longer live there, essentially deadening that part of the stream. (This in addition to the bizarre and damaging concrete sidewalk to nowhere the foundation installed on the high bank of the bayou in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park (and parking lot) on Westscott Street opposite the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, the former home of Ima Hogg, conservationist, philanthropist, and collector, among other things, who also donated the 15.5-acre park as a nature sanctuary.

Sadly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which now owns Bayou Bend, is planning a major “bank repair” project below Miss Ima’s beloved garden and woods. We have a report coming up on that soon, along with discouraging news about the Memorial Park Conservancy’s plans to bulldoze the banks and possibly channelize and reroute Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park.

Another Path

Memorial Drive from Houston Avenue downtown to Loop 610 West is six lanes for cars, three lanes going each way. We have suggested that the City look into dedicating a couple of lanes out of those six lanes to bikers and hikers who want to go safely from Buffalo Bayou Park below Shepherd to Memorial Park and beyond.

We’d also like to see the Parks Board separate from the private foundation and follow the law about open meetings.

There are three ways to become a candidate for the public Houston Parks Board, according to Montes: a recommendation from a city council member, making an application online, and by recommendation from a current parks board member.

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The Houston Parks Board foundation’s concrete path on a high bank overlooking Buffalo Bayou in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on February 23, 2021. “Tread softly,” it says. “Look up, listen.”

Panel Discussion: Conservationist Rick Bass on His New Book of Essays

Saving Wildlife

March 18, 2021

Native Texan, conservationist, and honorary Save Buffalo Bayou board member Rick Bass will discuss his new book of essays, Fortunate Son: Selected Essays from the Lone Star State, with SBB board member, environmentalist and author Olive Hershey. The virtual event, hosted by Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, takes place Monday, March 22, at 7 p.m.

Michael Berryhill, chair of the journalism department at Texas Southern University, will moderate. Also taking part in the conversation are Dr. Michelle Lute, National Carnivore Conservation Manager for Project Coyote, and Texas wildlife advocate Pam Harte.

Registration is required. For more information, visit bluewillowbookshop.com.

Late Winter on the Bayou

Plus Houston Stronger Survey, Scenic Houston Panel Discussion About Buffalo Bayou, Flood Planning Vacancies, Resiliency, and More

March 7, 2021

Our famous photographer Jim Olive was back in town, so a few days ago we went out into the woods in the drizzle just after dawn to photograph that bend in the bayou in late winter for our years-long series documenting the same bend through the seasons. The backup photographer, fearing that winter would soon be over despite the record freeze, had taken a sunny interim photo, which received some criticism from the master. (“Too flat,” he said.)

But now we were standing in a parking lot off the Picnic Lane/Loop in Memorial Park in the middle of Houston staring at sawed-up pieces of a big, old oak tree, new wooden fencing reinforced with moss-covered oak limbs, and a pile of sawdust.

New wooden fencing in front of wire fencing blocking popular footpath through the bayou woods in Memorial Park. Photo March 2, 2021 by SC

Apparently it is a priority of the Memorial Park Conservancy to keep people off these lovely trails. In addition to a new wooden fence, there was extensive wire fencing winding along the edge of the tangled woods.

We found a way in, noting the tiny buds of green in the trees. Jim set up his borrowed tripod, and we waited for just the right light in the fog.

Jim Olive’s photo of that bend in the bayou in late winter. March 2, 2021

Conservancy Plans to Bulldoze, Smother the Bank

We couldn’t help but notice a couple of the conservancy’s Keep Out signs someone had tossed down the bank. The photographer’s helper wandered downstream a bit, contemplating the slumped, eroded bank, the colors of the revealed earth, the powerful forces that shaped the irregular mounds and valleys of the downward sloping bank. This was an area damaged by the Harris County Flood Control District when it removed the stabilizing woody debris, scraped and mucked around in the channel with an excavator and barge during its “maintenance” operations after Harvey.

Studying the slump brought back poignant memories of playing on the wild sandy bank of the bayou as a child in Houston, of being in awe of the force of nature, that early sense of the bayou as a living thing. It was a rare learning experience to have, and a privilege.

These memories were prompted by the sad news that the conservancy is planning to bulldoze and “restore,” smothering and landscaping the public banks of the bayou in the Old Archery Range, a small section of the park west of the 610 Loop off Woodway Drive.

We’ll have more on that soon. But as a historical note, an earlier, far more enlightened and ecologically sensitive master plan for Memorial Park in 2004 (the current plan dates from 2014-15) said that “the recommended course of action for the Bayou is simply to leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature. Possible solutions such as concrete surfacing and decreasing the bank slope would only destroy the habitat value and visual amenity of the bayou and conflict with the ability to observe natural process.” (p. 11)

Houston Stronger Survey due Tuesday, March 9

Houston Stronger is a coalition of civic groups and business associations in the Houston region that came together after Harvey in 2017 to advocate for flood and storm resiliency.  A major flood problem during Harvey was too much stormwater flowing too fast into Barker and Addicks reservoirs in west Houston. The normally dry reservoirs drain into Buffalo Bayou.

In response, last October the US Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates those flood control dams, announced a tentative proposal to build a new dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek and the Katy Prairie and deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou for some 22 miles from the dams all the way to downtown.

The Corps’ Interim Plan was widely unpopular, and while continuing to gather public input, they are working on the next draft due out in late spring or early summer. In the meantime Houston Stronger has come up with an alternative to the Corps’ proposals. It includes elements of a plan proposed by the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which is part of the Houston Stronger group. Both plans include digging a 23-mile long tunnel, perhaps 40-feet wide, to take stormwater from Addicks and/or Barker dams to the Houston Ship Channel.

Save Buffalo Bayou is opposed to a $4 billion flood tunnel, which has no ancillary public benefit, among other problems, and favors a stronger focus on slowing the flow of stormwater from commercial and residential property into streams that feed into the reservoirs. SBB supports other elements of the Houston Stronger/Katy Prairie plans, including expanding, protecting, and restoring the Katy Prairie.

Houston Stronger is asking for public feedback on its plan, called the Buffalo Bayou Community Plan. So take a look at the plan and answer the eight questions in their brief survey by Tuesday, March 9, if possible.

Here is a link to the Houston Stronger Plan. Here is a link to the survey.

Resilient Houston One-Year Update

The City of Houston has released a one-year update on the progress of its Resilient Houston Plan. The plan, released in February 2020, addressed climate, housing, health, flooding, neighborhoods, parks, and more.

According to a press release from Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office, “56 of 62 prioritized actions (90%) are in progress, five actions (8%) are paused or haven’t started, and one action (2%) is complete.”

Open Positions on Regional Flood Planning Group, Meeting March 11

The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group is looking for two new members.

In April 2020 the Texas Water Development Board set up 15 regional groups to help formulate regional and state flood plans.

The San Jacinto Region 6 includes Harris, Montgomery, Galveston, and parts of Brazoria, Fort Bend, Waller, Grimes, Walker, San Jacinto, Liberty, and Chambers counties.

The two new positions are in the Coastal Communities and Public categories. Nominations are due by March 26.

Here are the current members of San Jacinto Region 6 Flood Planning Group. See also here.

The next meeting of the group is March 11 at 9 a.m.

Scenic Houston Panel with Developers, Environmental Attorney Jim Blackburn, and SBB, March 23

Scenic Houston is sponsoring a panel discussion about Buffalo Bayou titled “Don’t Mess with Buffalo Bayou.” The free event takes place online March 23 from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m.

The panelists are environmental attorney and Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, also founder of the Bayou City Initiative; Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, Guy Hagstette, senior vice-president of parks and civic projects for the Kinder Foundation, and David Ott, Texas development director for the Hanover Company.

Marlene Gafrick, chair of Scenic Houston and director of planning for MetroNational, an investment, development, and management firm, will moderate the discussion, which will focus on the history and design of the bayou, responsible development and threats to it.

Here is how to register. Please join the discussion!

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That Bend in Winter: A Hidden Landscape

Waiting for the Return

Feb. 24, 2021

We are quite a bit late posting a winter photograph for our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons. Our devoted and generous photographer Big Jim Olive is living with his beloved in fiery California these days where the air is supposed to be better. But he still frequently returns to his native Texas for photography jobs and visits with his many friends. Founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation, he also participates with other volunteers in Texas Parks and Wildlife’s annual Abandoned Crab Trap Removal program, which takes place from February 19-28.

Last week he was on his way, driving cross country, stopping to take photos of icy cacti. But by Seguin the frozen, snowy highway was closed, and after two nights in a motel there Jim was forced to turn back, leaving behind the excellent barbecue.

He’s returning this week, despite the forecast for stormy (warm) weather. But in the meantime the backup photographer had already gone out into the forbidden woods of the city’s Memorial Park to document that bend in winter. The fear was that winter would soon be over before Jim returned, despite the historic weather that froze the city and state just a few days earlier, leaving us all in the dark.

Frozen. Still Living. Still Closed. Sighting of a River Otter. Dumping of Picnic Tables

Whether you think a bare winter landscape is lovely is a matter of personal taste. For some people, the sight of seemingly dead trees and plants can be alarming. Will they come back?  But winter, particularly a harsh and deadly winter, however disturbing, does reveal a landscape that would ordinarily be hidden.

On a happy note, we did receive after the freeze a report of multiple sightings of a river otter in the bayou across from the park around Pine Hill. And many have surely noticed the flocks of handsome cedar waxwings in the city flitting from tree to tree, often yaupon, feasting on berries.

Looking downstream in winter at Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park, another installment in our ongoing series, A Bend in the River. Photo by SC, Feb. 20, 2021, because JO wasn’t there yet.

The popular trail through the bayou woods on the southeast side of Houston’s Memorial Park was still fenced off and posted with the same fictitious warning signs. In fact, the gates to the Picnic Loop itself were still locked on this sunny, warm Saturday after the horrible freeze. No doubt this was due to a shortage of staff still coping with the disastrous impact of the winter weather. People were forced to park their cars in any spot they could find and squeeze with their kids and bikes and strollers through or around the gates.

Flow in the bayou was around 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) and dropping.

Looking upstream from the same high bank at the costly and damaging concrete walls and riprap needlessly installed by the River Oaks Country Club. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

Violets and Dandelions

After documenting the bend upstream and down, we ventured further down the path and reached the steep banks of the creek that flows from the center of the park, noting that there were several new spontaneous foot paths through the woods.

The ground was mostly bare, scattered with spikey sweetgum seed balls, which like pine needles (see also here), black willows, American beautyberry, and many other things growing on the bayou, have medicinal qualities. The small green leaves of edible wild violets and dandelions were peeking hopefully out of the earth. (Before the freeze, in another part of the park, we had seen some young stinging nettle, a delicacy served in the finest Parisian restaurants.) The water in the winding creek was clear and made a gentle tinkling sound as it flowed over the sand and woody debris. There were large trees fallen across the creek, and in a youthful past the backup photographer, who grew up on the bayou, might have carefully stepped or scooted across these bridges laid down by nature. Or at least watched her brother do it.

Fallen trees lying across a creek, a tributary of Buffalo Bayou that flows from the center of Memorial Park. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

The bare winter landscape revealed a haphazard pile of concrete picnic tables, benches, and grills that had apparently been removed from the Picnic Loop and tossed in the woods near the creek. We’ll ask about this thoughtless trashing of the park.

Concrete picnic tables, benches and grills tossed in the woods of Memorial Park near the creek. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

The Bayou in the Snow

Here’s the way the bayou looked on Feb. 15 after the snow.

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In the Snow

Buffalo Bayou meander in the snow, looking upstream with the east edge of Memorial Park on the right. Photo by BA, February 15, 2021
Looking downstream on Buffalo Bayou in the snow just below Memorial Park. Photo by BA, February 15, 2021.
Another view of snowy Buffalo Bayou looking downstream just below Memorial Park. Photo by BA.

Slow the Flow

What Houston and Other Cities Are Doing to Reduce Flooding

And Make Life Better

Feb. 11, 2021

Despite flooding issues that threaten lives as well as the future of the city, Houston has lagged behind other cities in the state and around the world in encouraging, implementing, or requiring basic steps that can reduce flooding. Harris County, along with six other Texas cities, scored higher than Houston on Environment Texas’ 2020 Scorecard.

But recently the Houston City Council passed a property tax incentive to large commercial developers who use green (nature-based) infrastructure to slow stormwater runoff from their new projects.

Developers are already required to prevent an increase in the amount of stormwater running off projects built on previously undeveloped land. Now Houston taxpayers will actually pay for the cost of doing that if developers use rooftop gardens (green roofs), vegetated swales, permeable paving, trees, etc., known as Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI).  Also known as Low Impact Development (LID) or even Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS), though the latter also focuses on reusing stormwater.

Slowing stormwater runoff reduces flooding. And in addition to passing the property tax incentive to large commercial developers, the City of Houston recently increased its stormwater detention requirements for new single-family residential projects. This was forced in response to Harris County requirements. No tax incentive yet.

However, the City does reduce the city drainage fee based on the percentage of pervious surface on a lot. So planting a garden on your roof, for instance, changes the roof from an impervious surface into a pervious surface and reduces your drainage fee. (See below.)

Elsewhere, cities like Toronto and Utrecht require green roofs, which can reduce stormwater runoff by more than 50 percent. (Toronto provides financial assistance.) Simply disconnecting roof downspouts from the public stormwater drainage system can help prevent the system from being overwhelmed, a practice recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.

From California to Illinois to New England, cities are asking residents to disconnect downspouts and instead allow rainwater to flow and soak into a yard, among many other things. (Directing roof runoff onto a concrete driveway, seemingly common practice in Houston, is not helping, since it runs directly into the paved street and into the stormwater system anyway.)

We’ve been gathering information for a while with the intention of eventually posting about what Houston and other cities are doing about flooding. It’s complicated!

Flooding Begins on the Land

A rooftop garden at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston.

Stormwater is rain that falls and runs across the ground into our built (pipes) and natural (bayous and creeks) drainage system. The harder the surface, the faster the runoff, the higher the flooding in our streets and streams. Also, the more polluted the water. And the uglier and hotter the city.

In recent years, experts have shown that nature-based drainage and detention systems are cheaper to build and maintain as well as more effective in reducing flood risk than pipes and dams, for instance. (See also here.) There are also more benefits, because you end up with trees and native plants, bees, birds, and butterflies, stuff that actually increases the attractiveness and value of property (and our environment).

In addition, there is increasing awareness that it is more practical and effective to manage flooding in place, to stop raindrops where they fall.  As a 2018 study of urban flooding reported, “[m]any cities and towns across the United States are giving considerable attention to plans that support the capture of rain in areas where it falls.” (p. 32)

The American Society of Landscape Architects recommends that every city have a green infrastructure plan, defining urban green infrastructure as “everything from parks to street trees and green roofs to bioswales — really anything that helps absorb, delay, and treat stormwater, mitigating flooding and pollution downstream.”

Nature and Nature-Based Infrastructure is Part of the Resiliency Plan

The City’s Resilient Houston Plan contains our “green infrastructure plan” and more. Creating incentives for green development is part of that resiliency plan.  (p. 36)

Also part of the Resilient Houston Plan is conserving land within the city limits as part of a goal of “increasing the area of the preserved or conserved land in the eight-county Gulf Houston region to 24% by 2040.” (p. 153)

Discouraging development in “sensitive upstream areas,” protecting and restoring prairies and wetlands are also goals of the plan. (p. 151) City boundaries do not extend into the “sensitive upstream areas” beyond the Addicks and Barker federal flood control reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou, for example, although those areas are part of the City’s Extra Territorial Jurisdiction. The  Memorial Villages, which are in the Buffalo Bayou watershed, also are not part of the City. The plan is to work with “regional partners” on resiliency goals.

The initiative to create a tax rebate for green stormwater infrastructure received widespread support. But during review of the legislation over the past year or so, there were also comments, including from a prominent engineering firm, asking why taxpayers should pay for something that essentially costs developers less to install and maintain than conventional grey stormwater infrastructure, works better, and improves the value of their property.

The tax credit is available only to new structures in greenfields (undeveloped land) or redevelopment in brownfields (land polluted by toxic waste) in a tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ). The structure must be larger than a building with four residential units, valued at $3 million or more, with at least $200,000 invested in the green stormwater infrastructure.

The credit lasts for ten years and may not exceed the total cost of the green infrastructure. (For details see Ch. 44 here.)

What Some Other Cities and States Are Doing: A Short, Incomplete List

So basically green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) is anything with soil and greenery or a container, or maybe just gravel, even permeable pavement, and, of course, trees, that can divert, absorb, disperse, hold, slow down, and filter rain runoff.  “Daylighting” streams (streams, creeks, etc. that have been buried in concrete pipes) would also be considered green, as are open ditches. We have many creeks and ravines that have been filled in (and built on, flooding as a result). Houston was never so completely flat as advertised.

The City of Houston does provide some small financial incentives to the little people for green infrastructure.  As noted above, the City’s Drainage Fee is based on the amount of impervious surface on your land. That means rooftops, driveways, patios, etc. So reducing the amount of impervious surface on your property reduces your drainage fee.

Here is what some other cities and states are doing or suggesting to make themselves more like “sponge cities”:

Atlanta, Georgia

Austin

Chicago and Illinois

Kansas City, Missouri

Fort Worth

Minnesota and here, too

Nebraska

New York City

North Brook, Illinois

Pacific Grove, California

Palo Alto, California

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Portland, Oregon

Toronto

Vermont

Wuhan, also Shanghai and other cities

We Can Do This At Home!

Some resources for understanding and using green infrastructure to help Houston reduce flooding:

City of Houston Infrastructure Design Manual, Stormwater Design, Ch. 9, 2020

Environmental Protection Agency: Green Infrastructure

Environmental Protection Agency: Soak Up the Rain

Environmental Protection Agency video: Reduce Runoff: Slow It Down, Spread It Out, Soak It In

Rain Gardens, Harris County Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service

See also:

Tending Our Garden, Tips and Resources

The Top 14 Super Trees for Houston from the Port Houston and Houston Wilderness Tree Planting Program

Three case studies from the Houston, Texas, area where green infrastructure is already in use. From Texas Community Watershed Partners.

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Some Items of Interest

That We’ve Been Posting on Facebook

Jan. 27, 2021

We’ve been working somewhat behind the scenes, researching flooding and drainage issues and Zooming to meetings. But we’ve been posting items of interest on our Facebook page. We should be posting them here too. So here ya go.

Tree Equity. Trees cool us with their shade, cleanse the air, deflect and absorb rainfall, provide habitat for birds and other creatures, and generally hold the world together. But not everybody has trees.

The First Step to Bridging the Urban ‘Canopy Gap’? Counting and Mapping Trees

Grist

Housing policies of the past, like redlining, have made trees abundant in wealthy neighborhoods, but scarce for socioeconomically disadvantaged communities of color. That’s why we need Tree Equity.

Read the rest of this article in Grist.

Related:

Volunteers and staff with Houston Wilderness plant trees in Seabrook as part of a plan to plant 4.6 million trees across Houston by 2030. Photo for the Houston Chronicle by Godofredo A. Vásquez on Nov. 20, 2020

Houston’s Newest Heroes Are Native ‘Super Trees’ with Special Eco-Powers

A plan to plant 4.6 million trees across Houston by 2030 has taken root

The Houston Chronicle

Houston Wilderness, the City of Houston, Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation and major landscape architects formed a strategy group in November to reach the 4.6 million native trees goal. They are now compiling the first-ever regional, large-scale tree planting manual to help anyone who wants to pitch in, from private developers to individuals

Read this article in the Houston Chronicle.

And here is more information about the tree-planting program from Houston Wilderness, including the list of trees studied and their ecosystem benefits, and the list of fourteen super-trees targeted for planting.

Reminder: Wild and Scenic Film Festival on Tour, Friday, Jan. 29

Join the Citizens Environmental Coalition (CEC) for a virtual Houston screening of the Wild & Scenic Film Festival on Tour.

A selection of films from the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, North America’s largest environmental film festival, will bring two hours of beautiful, educational, and inspiring films to the comfort and safety of your own home. Preview the lineup on cechouston.org.

Three local films will be shown by Native Prairies Association of Texas, the City of Pearland’s Delores Fenwick Nature Center, and SETSVN.

Proceeds from the event will be used to support CEC programs.

The CEC has lined up unique experiences and a piece of art for this year’s silent auction which is OPEN FOR BIDS using this Google Form.

Maybe time to rethink those azaleas and camelias?

How Non-Native Plants Are Contributing to a Global Insect Decline

Yale Environment 360

The impact of introduced plants on native biodiversity has emerged as a hot-button issue in ecology. But recent research provides new evidence that the displacement of native plant communities is a key cause of a collapse in insect populations and is affecting birds as well.

….

For these reasons, [Doug] Tallamy has proposed a domestic version of Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth Project. If American homeowners converted half of their lawn to productive native plant communities, he says, they would create a “Homegrown National Park” larger than the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined.

Read the article published by the Yale School of the Environment.

Related:

Be like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.

Monarch Garden Grant Applications Open

Native Plant Society of Texas

It’s time! The 2020-2021 Bring Back the Monarchs to Texas garden grant season is now in full swing! Find the 2021 application, rules, and other information here.

Applications are due February 15th, 2021. Time flies, so don’t wait too long to start thinking about your application.

Find out more from the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Also related:

Texas Invasives

Texas Invasives is a collaborative effort among various state and federal agencies and other groups to help manage and prevent the spread of nonnative, invasive species in the state.

What Are Invasive Species?

An “invasive species” is defined as a species that is non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. (Executive Order 13112).

An invasive species grows/reproduces and spreads rapidly, establishes over large areas, and persists. Species that become invasive succeed due to favorable environmental conditions and lack of natural predators, competitors and diseases that normally regulate their populations.

This includes a wide variety of plants, insects and animals from exotic places. As invasive species spread and take over ecosystems, they decrease biodiversity by threatening the survival of native plants and animals. In fact, invasive species are a significant threat to almost half of the native U.S. species currently listed as federally endangered.

For more info about the Texas Invasives Citizen Science Program, visit Texas Invasives.

Another related article:

From the Houston Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas:

Insect Decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a Thousand Cuts

National Academy of Sciences

Many numerically abundant insects provide ecosystem services upon which humans depend: the pollination of fruits, vegetables, and nuts; the biological control of weeds, agricultural pests, disease vectors, and other organisms that compete with humans or threaten their quality of life; and the macrodecomposition of leaves and wood and removal of dung and carrion, which contribute to nutrient cycling, soil formation, and water purification. Clearly, severe insect declines can potentially have global ecological and economic consequences.

Read the article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

More Plants, Less Concrete: Houston Now Will Offer Tax Incentives for Eco-Friendly Development

[SBB is working on a follow-up about this tax abatement program, including a review of what other cities are doing to slow the flow and reduce flooding.]

The Houston Chronicle

The city last month launched a new property tax abatement program for developers who incorporate green stormwater infrastructure, a type of design aimed at minimizing the downstream impacts of development, into their projects. It also boosted incentives for LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) projects, an abatement program that has never been utilized, despite being on the city’s books for 10 years.

The stormwater strategies can take different forms, from natural landscapes and gardens with plants and other vegetation that seek to collect or slow runoff, to “green roofs” that apply similar concepts on top of buildings, to permeable pavement that allows water to seep into the ground.

Developers already must meet minimum detention requirements for how much water their projects can detain. Green storm-water infrastructure would not necessarily increase that capacity, but it could retain the water for longer than more traditional projects.

Commercial developers could save as much as 10 percent against their property tax increases when they incorporate green stormwater infrastructure into their developments. The program is open to $3 million projects that include at least an $100,000 investment in the eco-friendly strategy. The maximum abatement is the total cost of the green stormwater infrastructure, effectively reimbursing developers for including it.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

And speaking of slowing the flow. Here’s how they do it in England:

Slow The Flow

Slow The Flow is a registered charity working to advance the education of the public in Natural Flood Management, Sustainable Drainage Systems and other renewable methods of managing the environment.

This includes the exploration of alternative practices which safeguard the natural environment and its resources in a manner which best fits the specifics of a local geography.

If you want to know more, visit www.slowtheflow.net

Upcoming Virtual Meetings of Interest

Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the East End, and Tony Marron Park

Virtual Meeting February 2, 2021, 6:00 – 8:00 pm

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership wants to hear from you! The development organization recently released its master plan for Buffalo Bayou East, which includes an expansion of Tony Marron Park.The plan was developed after a series of conversations with members of the Greater East End and Fifth Ward communities.

Live or work in Greater East End or Fifth Ward? The Partnership is asking you to please join on Zoom, Tuesday, February 2 from 6-8 pm to learn about the plans and progress on Buffalo Bayou East destinations,specifically the enhancements to Tony Marron Park.

There will be an opportunity for feedback and questions following the presentation. Spanish translation will be offered at the meeting.

Here is how to register.

The Houston Climate Action Plan and Faith Communities

Interfaith Environmental Network of Houston

Sunday, February 14, 2 -4:30 pm, virtual

Join Lara Cottingham, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Houston, to learn about the Houston Climate Action Plan (CAP) and how houses of worship and their members can get involved. Lara will cover the goals of the CAP and strategies and actions to be employed in reaching the goals. The CAP is designed to address climate change, but there are many co-benefits which Lara will also highlight. She will also discuss how faith communities can partner with the City of Houston to achieve the goals, helping to lead Houston to a more sustainable future.

Learn more and register here.

Galveston Bay and the Storm Surge of Our Nightmares

Sponsored by The Houston Seminar, Thursday, Feb. 4, 5-6:30 pm

Please join Eric Berger of Space City Weather and environmental attorney Jim Blackburn for “Galveston Bay and the Storm Surge of Our Nightmares,” a conversation about hurricane storm surges, coastal defense barriers, and the mid-bay gate proposal, known as the Galveston Bay Park Plan.

Thursday, February 4, from 5-6:30 pm via Zoom. Cost is $25.

There are two more events in this series titled “Water, Water Everywhere: Strategies and Success Stories.” Local experts will discuss flood control projects on Feb 11 and low-impact development on Feb. 18.

Go here for more details and to register.

Sort of related:

What is Biomimetic Architecture?

From the Biomimicry Institute

This “biomimetic revolution” is now considered to be a major guideline towards more sustainable built environments, meaning that buildings are focused on learning from nature rather than only extracting elements from it.

Read the article at ArchDaily.

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Zooming on Buffalo Bayou and Addicks Dam

Public Online Meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 19, to Discuss Issues and Alternatives to the Corps of Engineers’ Answers to Dam and Flood Problems

Jan. 17, 2021

Neighborhood activists in the Addicks watershed in west Houston and beyond have organized an informal online meeting Tuesday, Jan. 19, to discuss alternatives to the Corps of Engineers’ much derided proposals to deal with flooding in and around the overburdened Addicks and Barker flood control dams on upper Buffalo Bayou.

Specifically the Zoom meeting was set up to answer Save Buffalo Bayou’s questions about alleged “bottlenecks” or “flow restrictions” in meandering Buffalo Bayou below Beltway 8 in west Houston. SBB has asked for a definition and the locations of these “bottlenecks.”

The Addicks Watershed Flood Mitigation Network, a coalition of property owners and neighborhood associations around Addicks Reservoir, generally opposes deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou. Nevertheless organizers have tentatively included “de-bottlenecking” as one of their remedies for speeding up drainage from the dams.

Save Buffalo Bayou is in favor of slowing drainage into the dams (and into the bayou below the dams). We are also in favor of restoring meanders on the straightened and narrowed stretch of the bayou upstream of Beltway 8. Unfortunately in the last few years, the county has spent millions of dollars reinforcing the channelized section there with riprap and scraping out the forest to build shallow overflow basins.

The Addicks network has graciously made the Tuesday Zoom meeting open to the public. It starts at 2 p.m. Anyone interested in these issues or with expertise to add is welcome to join.

Here is how to join the meeting along with an explanation of the meeting objectives. These objectives also include a discussion of a recent presentation of Houston Stronger’s Buffalo Bayou Community Plan.

Here is a description of the issues from the Addicks Flood Mitigation Network.

Not Bottlenecks

As Save Buffalo Bayou has pointed out, the issue of bayou meanders being “kinks” or “bottlenecks” was studied by Harris County Flood Control in 2019. Proposals to build artificial meander “bypasses” or even raise bridges were found to have little benefit. However, SBB also has pointed out the numerous stormwater outfalls, installed in violation of federal and county regulations, that block the flow during high water.

The issue of “de-bottlenecking” has been brought up by the Addicks group as part of their many thoughtful alternatives to the Corps of Engineers’ roundly rejected proposal to deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou and build a dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek and the Katy Prairie.

Led by One Creek West, the network is attempting to build a consensus to present to the Corps and congressional representatives. Most if not all of these property owners were flooded in 2017 by the unprecedented level of the flood pool as Harvey stormwater flowing rapidly into the reservoir through tributary streams backed up behind closed Addicks Dam. (Property owners in the flood pool behind Barker Dam also flooded but this group is addressing only Addicks Dam.)

In the very early morning of Aug. 28, 2017, the Corps, fearing that the stormwaters would overtop Addicks Dam, opened the floodgates. This flooded a great many properties along the straightened and narrowed section of Buffalo Bayou above and around Beltway 8. This stretch runs for six miles or so from the two federal flood control dams in far west Houston to just below Beltway 8.

Further downstream, the disastrous flood peak from Harvey, resulting from stormwater draining too quickly from the paved and built city, had already passed on Aug. 27, flooding many properties. This happened with the dam floodgates closed.

Stop Stormwater Before It Floods. Take Responsibility!

Save Buffalo Bayou believes the focus should be on stopping and slowing stormwater runoff before it enters the reservoirs—and before it floods our bayou, our natural and built drainage system downstream. Stopping, slowing, spreading out and soaking in runoff happens with pervious surface (gravel and dirt), disconnecting downspouts, trees, native gardens, swales, green roofs, prairies, wetlands, greenspace and parks, and more. This also cleanses the water and generally makes for a healthier, cooler, and more attractive community.

Neighborhood associations and individuals need to take responsibility for slowing the flow. Every action counts. The longer it takes for rain to hit the ground and enter the stream, the lower the peak flow in the stream. It’s called lag time.

So think of joining the Zoom meeting, which may or may not include representatives of Houston Stronger and others.

Meandering Buffalo Bayou. Memorial Park on the right. Photo by Jim Olive.
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