Raising Bridges, Building Meander Bypasses on Buffalo Bayou Doesn’t Reduce Flooding, Study Says

New Idea is to Strip and Widen Bayou Channel in Terry Hershey Park Above Beltway 8

New Problem: Increased Flooding Downstream

 

Oct. 20. 2019

A study commissioned by the Harris County Flood Control District has found negligible flood-reduction benefits to building bypass channels through meanders or raising bridges on Buffalo Bayou.

But the District is instead contemplating stripping the trees and vegetation and digging out the engineered banks of Terry Hershey Park to widen the channel by fifty feet on both sides for some six miles below the dams in west Houston. The District is still in the process of scraping out new overflow basins on the south bank in the park.

These findings were presented at a packed public meeting Thursday, Oct. 17, in the Memorial area of west Houston. The study, the result of public pressure from property owners who flooded in neighborhoods adjacent to Terry Hershey Park, was conducted by the engineering firm Huitt-Zollars and funded with $350,000 in Harris County flood bond funds.

Buffalo Bayou originates in the prairie near Katy, Texas, and flows for some fifty-three miles through the center of Houston, emptying into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay. It is the main river flowing through the city and a central part of the region’s natural drainage system. Below Beltway 8 to Shepherd Drive just east of downtown, Buffalo Bayou remains a mostly winding, wooded stream, and it was these many meanders that some residents upstream of the beltway blamed for flooding their homes when the floodgates on the dams were opened during Harvey.

 

Graphic courtesy of the Biomimicry Institute

 

The Meeting and The Findings: Is Nature a Better Engineer?

Alan Black, director of operations for the Flood Control District, opened the meeting by explaining what the district does and why the region floods (reasons which did not include the fact that so much of the city is covered in impervious surface). The first priority for the district is still “deepening and widening bayous,” said Black. Unfortunately that is a futile, never-ending pursuit, like building bigger freeways. It also leads to bank collapse, lifeless streams filling with silt and polluted water, a barren landscape, and continuous costly maintenance.

Modern flood management, rather than collecting and moving as much water as fast as possible, focuses on stopping stormwater before it floods a stream and on managing flooding in place. For instance, “lag time” is the amount of time it takes for rain to fall on the ground and enter a stream. The shorter (faster) the lag time, the higher the peak flow (flooding) in the stream. Trees, deep-rooted vegetation, detention basins, rain gardens and more can help increase the lag time and reduce flooding. There are many ways that neighborhoods and individuals can take responsibility for slowing, spreading out, and soaking in stormwater. (See also here.)

The district, which has limited legal tools dating from 1937 when it was founded, does focus also on building detention basins to temporarily hold stormwater, as well as on moving people out of harm’s way through buyouts.

 

Bridges

Michael Tehrani, vice-president of Huitt-Zollars, explained the study findings, which were “not that promising,” he told the large crowd, which included politicians and representatives of the Corps of Engineers. Buffalo Bayou is relatively flat, a “lower velocity channel” with a lot of trees; the channel itself “controlling the water and determining the Water Surface Elevation, not the bridges.”

Read the rest of this post.

Public Meeting: Bridges and Meander Bypasses on Buffalo Bayou

Date is Oct. 17 to Find Out Study Results

And More

Oct. 13, 2019

 

In the wake of disastrous flooding along Buffalo Bayou during and after Harvey in 2017, particularly on upper Buffalo Bayou after the opening of the floodgates on the federal dams, some west Houston residents urged the Harris County Flood Control District to look into whether meanders downstream and bridges across the bayou had blocked the flow, causing them to flood.

In response, using up to $350,000 in public funding from the 2018 Flood Bond election, the District in November of 2018 hired the engineering firm Huitt-Zollars to study the thirty-three bridges and four pipelines that cross the bayou between Highway 6 at Barker Dam and Congress Street some twenty-six miles downstream in downtown Houston.

More controversially, the study also examined the possibility of constructing bypass channels or culverts in thirteen locations, cutting through natural bends in the river. This would be below Beltway 8 where the bayou twists and turns, as rivers naturally do, for good reason. (p. 36) Meandering streams are longer and carry more water. Meanders also help dissipate the force of the stream during floods. Such is the power of the underlying geology that even if altered or straightened, rivers will seek to return to their natural channel, breaking through concrete if necessary. (See Tropical Storm Allison, Tranquility Garage, 2001.)

In the 1960s, environmentally-minded property owners on the bayou, including Terry Hershey and Save Buffalo Bayou’s founding president, Frank Smith, joined forces to stop the Corps of Engineers from stripping, straightening and covering in concrete this winding, wooded stretch of the bayou—as the Corps had done earlier, destroying White Oak and Brays bayous.

The Flood Control District is holding a public meeting to discuss the results of the meanders and bridges study on Thursday, Oct. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, 11612 Memorial Drive, in Houston 77024.

 

Comparison of Buffalo Bayou at Beltway 8 in 1944 and during Harvey in 2017. Note the engineered channel bypassing the original meander and flooding along the oxbow remnant. Graphic by Diane Masterson

 

Maligning Meanders

In the early morning of Aug. 28, 2017, after the peak of the flooding from Harvey had passed downstream on Buffalo Bayou, the Corps of Engineers made the unprecedented decision to open the floodgates on Barker and Addicks dams in far west Houston. Rising water flowing from the rapidly developing north and west of the city threatened to overwhelm the earthen dams. When the gates were opened, residents living along the six-mile plus channelized stretch of the bayou just below the dams were badly flooded. This stretch of the river had been narrowed and straightened by the Corps in the Fifties, essentially reducing its capacity.

But a popular belief continues that the meanders below Beltway 8 caused the bayou to backup and flood homes upstream adjacent to what is now Terry Hershey Park, hence the push to construct channels to bypass or cut through meanders. (Another popular belief, which also persists, is that the “rich people downstream” did not flood. There was, of course, massive flooding along Buffalo Bayou all the way through downtown Houston during Harvey. But that flooding, fed by the rapid accumulation of rain runoff from the city and suburbs below the dams, occurred before the floodgates were opened.)

In October of 2018 Save Buffalo Bayou published a report in response to this widespread mistaken belief about meanders downstream. The report explained why people flooded upstream and how meanders are beneficial and actually reduce flooding. You can read the full report here.

Read the rest of this post.

That Bend in the River, Fall 2019

Oct. 13, 2019

 

For a brief moment it was cool, which should have been a relief. But there we were staring dispiritedly at the mound of dirt piled up on the opposite bank of the bayou. Jim was back in town, and we were taking our fall shot of that Bend in the River from the same high bank in Memorial Park. Well, not really the same bank: nature changes, the river changes, the bank slumps and comes back again.

But these changes were most unwelcome. For the past six months or so, the River Oaks Country Club has been cutting down trees, grinding up, digging, scraping, pounding the bank, hammering large sections of heavy sheet pile into the bank, dumping  massive amounts of concrete riprap onto the bank and using a backhoe to pound it into place.

Instead of the soothing sounds of nature, the awful sounds of growling machinery and clanging metal shook the woods, accompanied by the occasional splash of blocks of sediment calving off the inside bend of the meander, collected there on the opposite bank during Imelda, no doubt having washed down and out from the dirt mound and from the stripped and graded bare bank upstream.

Fall 2019 on that bend in the bayou with heavy equipment and a mound of dirt dug up from the country club bank upstream. Photo by Jim Olive on Oct. 12, 2019

The country club’s “bank repair” project, said to cost some $18-24 million, has been spearheaded by club member Steven J. Lindley, who was also responsible for the renovation of the club’s golf course. The bank project has three parts totaling some 1,700 linear feet opposite Memorial Park, private residences, and parts of the Hogg Bank Sanctuary.

Save Buffalo Bayou has filed a complaint with the US Army Corps of Engineers about the irregularities and deficiencies in the club’s application for a special federal permit to “restore uplands” lost to Harvey. Among other problems, the permit application contained none of the required documentation of the alleged uplands lost to Harvey. And in fact, it would have been difficult to document the minor, if any, loss of upper bank in Area 1 upstream from where we stood. The steep high bank there has been standing in virtually the same place for at least a hundred years, which is why the bayou makes a sharp turn there.

Area 1 of the River Oaks Country Club slope repair project on April 7, 2017, before Harvey. Photo by Jim Olive

Area 1 in August 2018, one year after Harvey. Photo by George Parker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The application also misrepresented the length of the project, claiming it was only 1,499 feet. Documents presented to the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District showed it was much longer.

But Jim took a lovely photo of the crime scene.

See the entire series documenting this same bend in the bayou throughout the seasons since 2014.

SC

 

Looking upstream towards Area 1 of the country club’s “slope repair” project. Photo by Jim Olive on Oct. 12, 2019

 

Public Meetings About the Streams Flowing Into Addicks and Barker Reservoirs

 

Sept. 27, 2019

Update Oct. 12, 2019:

Here are links to the Facebook video of the Oct. 3 meeting about dredging streams flowing into Addicks Reservoir and to the slide presentation.

Here are links to the Facebook video of the Oct. 7 meeting about dredging streams flowing into Barker Reservoir and to the slide presentation.

 

The Harris County Flood Control District is holding public meetings in the next two weeks to talk about dredging and clearing channels and streams, including Buffalo Bayou, that flow into Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston.

Addicks and Barker are the federal flood-control reservoirs behind the dams constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s. They both feed into Buffalo Bayou, and they are both parks, normally empty, with the dam floodgates standing open, unless there are heavy rains downstream.

Streams flowing into Addicks Dam, which is north of Interstate 10, include South Mayde Creek, Bear Creek, Horsepen Creek, and Langham Creek. Buffalo Bayou and Mason Creek flow into Barker Reservoir south of Interstate 10.

Upstream of the boundaries of the federal reservoirs, these streams, including Buffalo Bayou, have been largely stripped, straightened, and channelized (as well as the six-mile long stretch in Terry Hershey Park below the dams). But inside the reservoirs they have remained relatively wooded and natural.

Dredging streams for the purpose of reducing flooding is controversial, as the practice can lead to increased flooding and erosion, increased sedimentation and therefore increased maintenance.

Too much stormwater flowing too quickly into the reservoirs, particularly Addicks Reservoir, forced the Corps of Engineers to open the floodgates during Harvey, causing additional disastrous flooding downstream. Modern flood management practice focuses on slowing and stopping stormwater before it floods a stream.

Addicks Meeting

Flood Control’s Community Engagement Meeting for the Addicks Reservoir Watershed will be Thursday, Oct. 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Richard and Meg Weekley Community Center, 8440 Greenhouse Road in Cypress.

 

Trees cut by Harris County Flood Control along the natural channel of Langham Creek in Addicks Reservoir. Photo Dec. 9, 2018, by SC

 

The District invites interested citizens to view the presentation online through a live feed hosted at www.facebook.com/hcfcd. An open house will follow the presentation, where interested citizens are invited to review informational exhibits, discuss the Addicks Reservoir Watershed Channel Rehabilitation Project with Harris County representatives, and provide comments to the Harris County Flood Control District.

For questions, contact the Flood Control District at 713-684-4000, or fill out the comment form online http://www.hcfcd.org/F53 by October 17, 2019, for inclusion in meeting documentation.

Barker Meeting

The Community Engagement meeting for the Barker Reservoir Watershed will be Monday, Oct. 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the James E. Taylor High School Main Cafeteria, 20700 Kingsland Blvd., in Katy.

Interested citizens are also invited to view this presentation online through a live feed hosted at www.facebook.com/hcfcd.

For questions, please contact the Flood Control District at 713-684-4000, or fill out the comment form online http://www.hcfcd.org/F52 by October 21, 2019, for inclusion in meeting documentation.

 

And The Winner Is: The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

Sept. 25, 2019

 

The Houston Audubon Society has announced the winner of the Bird of Houston contest. The winner, of course, is the Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

The handsome heron beat out the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken in the final round for the win.

You can read all about it on the website of Houston Audubon, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with Bird Week, a week-long schedule of special bird events that continues through Saturday, Sept. 28.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron by Frank X. Tolbert 2.

 

Kontribution Kickball Benefiting Save Buffalo Bayou

 

Sept. 22, 2019

A local running club with a long and interesting history is hosting a benefit for Save Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park next Saturday.

The Houston Ankle Biters Hash House Harriers is a social group, open to all ages, that meets monthly for non-competitive runs through woods, tunnels, parking garages, or wherever their leader, known as the hare, takes them.

They regularly hold benefits and this time they are honoring Save Buffalo Bayou with a Kontribution Kickball event on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in a field next to the rugby pitch south of Memorial Drive on the southside of the park.

The event is free and open to the public, with beer and grilled food. All donations benefit Save Buffalo Bayou.

The Hash House Harriers is an international organization formed by British officers in 1938 in what is now Malaysia. Members of these clubs, who use pseudonyms, traditionally refer to the group as “a drinking club with a running problem.”

Sounds like great fun. Come join us and meet some very fit, interesting, and jovial people.

 

Logo of the Houston Ankle Biters Hash House Harriers.

Encouraging Green Stormwater Infrastructure for New Private Development

City of Houston report recommends permeable pavement, green roofs, vegetated strips, rain gardens, rainwater harvesting, and urban forest

 

Aug. 20, 2019

 

The City of Houston’s Chief Recovery Office has released a report recommending incentives to private developers to incorporate nature-based engineering, otherwise known as Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI), in their projects.

The types of green infrastructure identified by the year-long study, funded by the Houston Endowment, include bioretention (raingardens), permeable pavement, green roofs, rainwater harvesting, soil amendments, urban forests, and vegetated filter strips to slow and absorb runoff from parking lots and other areas.

Recommended incentives to developers include property tax abatements, a program of awards and recognition, a streamlined permitting process, and offering alternative development rules, such as reduced parking requirements, if incorporating green stormwater infrastructure.

R. G. Miller Engineers, Inc. in association with Asakura Robinson, Corona Environmental Consulting, and Neptune Street Advisors conducted the study, which began in May 2018 and ended in May 2019.

Read the report here

Image from the report “Houston Incentives for Green Development.”

Vote for the Bird of Houston: Yellow-crowned Night Heron!

 

Aug. 19, 2019

Houston Audubon is in the final round of selecting the Bird of Houston. Deadline to vote is Friday, August 23.

Cast your ballot. The final contenders are the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken versus the Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

Obviously we are for the Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron pondering whether to fly or stay in the nest as long as possible. Photo on May 20, 2016, by Allison Zapata.

 

Here’s the way Houston Audubon explains it:

“While the graceful Great Blue Heron came in a close third with hundreds of votes, you’ve spoken! The final round pits two very different species against one another in competition for the coveted title. The endangered Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, though no longer found in the wild within the city, has had great support by several Houston conservation groups that are instrumental in its protection and continued survival in the wild.  This species not only reminds us of the tallgrass prairies that once graced our landscape but has grabbed the imagination of many who fight for their recovery. The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, on the other hand, has sparked interest in those who have caught a glimpse of them in local greenspaces, waterways and even some backyard trees. This species not only nests and raises its young here, but it engages Houstonians who notice its unusual plumage and propensity for fishing along our bayous.”

 

SC

Wide range of strategies address Houston flooding risk

 

By Matt Dulin, Editor

Community Impact Newspaper, Heights-River Oaks-Montrose Edition, Volume 1, Issue 5

Aug. 7-Sept. 3, 2019

Part of a series exploring e­fforts to make Houston a flood-resilient city.

Flood researcher Sam Brody is not ashamed to admit he keeps a broom in the trunk of his car at all times. If he spots a clogged street drain across Houston, he puts it to work.

“I’ll sweep those drains out,” said Brody, the director of Texas A&M University’s Center for Texas Beaches and Shores. “If these neighborhoods and associations knew how important it was, they’d be out there doing it, too. We need to make sure what we have is working before we spend billions on projects.”

Space Race

Inside the heavily developed Inner Loop, the flood control district’s options are limited. There are virtually no buy-out candidates and very little opportunity for large detention ponds. But other opportunities exist, said Christof Spieler, a researcher with the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, such as the North Canal project, which would create a bypass where White Oak and Bu­ffalo bayous meet.

“That could reduce flooding in that area by several feet alone,” Spieler said.

That project, at an estimated $100 million, is one of the priciest on the district’s bond-funded capital plan.

With large tracts of land unavailable, another solution is to think smaller.

“With microdetention, you could have several little pieces of land rather than one large pond,” he said. “Existing development, such as schools and service centers, could be retrofitted with this approach—another opportunity that has not yet been looked at fully.”

Greenways—And New Ways Of Thinking

Solutions inside the Loop will have to be outside the usual toolbox, said Susan Chadwick, the president of Save Bu­ffalo Bayou. “What is it that makes a project? Unfortunately, most of it is designed for engineering companies to come in and solve … but we could be thinking more about the natural environment,” Chadwick said.

Read the rest of this report in the Community Impact Newspaper.

 

Image courtesy of Community Impact Newspaper

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

August 6, 2019

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, that valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory–what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’” — The Site of Memory, 1995

Toni Morrison, February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019

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