A Problem Nobody Wants to Fix
While Costly Fixes Wash Away
Update on Bayou Park Repairs and Damaging Stormwater Outfalls
Feb. 1, 2022
Recently we told you about the many drainage pipes jutting out from the banks of Buffalo Bayou and other streams that block the flow during storms. These pipes, or outfalls, violate city, county, and federal regulations by pointing directly across the channel. They act like dams, cause stormwater to back up, flood, erode, and take out banks and expensive sidewalks, leading to costly and continuous repairs.
The City of Houston is in charge of the pipes that collect this stormwater that rains down on the city. The Harris County Flood Control District is in charge of the channels and streams, both natural and artificial, that receive this runoff and send it out to the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay.
But there were still questions hanging when we published the “illegal” outfalls report a couple of weeks ago. In 2020 the flood control district spent nearly $10 million in federal funds scraping, bulldozing and “repairing” the healthy green banks in Houston’s popular Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd and Sabine. The project was meant to repair damage caused by Harvey in 2017, three years earlier. Of course, by the time the bulldozers were revved up and deployed to the banks for the “repairs,” the bayou had naturally repaired and replanted its banks with deep-rooted, stabilizing native plants. Destroying these plants removed the natural network protecting the bank, causing at least one big tree to fall (as others have following Flood Control’s previous “natural stable channel design” work in the park).
One of the hanging questions from our previous report: why didn’t Flood Control fix the many stormwater pipes in the park blasting away like cannons pointed at the opposite bank?
Same Answer: Not Our Pipes
So Many Illegal Dams on Buffalo Bayou
How Big Pipes Block the Flow in Our Streams During Storms
Jan. 17, 2022
In a city full of engineers, surely they would get the engineering right.
But somehow the banks of our bayous and streams are punctured with stormwater drainage pipes that block the flow during storms. Pointing directly across the stream, they shoot a powerful force of rainwater runoff against high flow in the channel. This acts like a dam, stopping our streams from draining, causing water to back up as much as a quarter mile, according to witnesses. It also creates damaging turbulence and erosion and increases flooding.
It’s not like we don’t have a problem with flooding. Authorities are proposing multi-billion-dollar fixes to move more stormwater faster through the pipes and streams that collect rainwater from our roofs and streets and parking lots and send it out to Galveston Bay. These are big fixes like dredging, deepening, and widening 22 miles of Buffalo Bayou from the federal dams in west Houston to downtown. (p. 111) Or building a massive flood tunnel from the dams to the bay. (p. 106) (See also here and here.)
Seems like they might fix the problem drainage pipes first.
Violating City, County, and Federal Regulations
Anything greater than a 60-degree angle to the bank is a violation of those regulations. (See Houston Public Works, Infrastructure Design Manual 2021, pp. 181, 183 and HCFCD Policy, Criteria, Procedure Manual, p. 230.) Actually, the federal requirements are even stricter. The Corps of Engineers requires the Harris County Flood Control District (and thus the City of Houston) to adhere to outfall angles no greater than 45 degrees to the bank. (Regional General Permit SWG-2009-00123, p. 3) The City of Austin, among other places, also requires an angle of 45 degrees or less. (See G.)
These regulations are at least twenty years old, if not older, according to representatives of Houston Public Works.
So how did we get all those stormwater outfalls blocking the flow in the bayous?
An Old Story
We’ve been pointing out this problem for some time. There’s the massive stormwater outfall in Memorial Park’s Old Archery Range, site of the public boat launch west of Loop 610. It was built in 2012-2013, designed by the engineering firm AECOM to point directly at the opposite bank, despite the outfall angle regulations.
Yes, We Have Alligators!
Right Here in the Bayou City!
Jan. 9, 2022
So you’re walking or skating or biking along Buffalo Bayou in the park near downtown Houston, enjoying the balmy day, watching the people. You look down at the water and what’s that?! An alligator!
An alligator swimming right in front of everyone. In fact, this one is well known. Even has a nickname: Nacho, apparently named by canoe racing friends of SBB board member and river guide, Tom Helm.
Yes, we have alligators in Buffalo Bayou. They were here before we were. Some people might think that our alligators escaped from aquariums or something. Some people even think that Buffalo Bayou is an artificial ditch.
Nope. Buffalo Bayou is a river thousands of years old. Alligators are even older.
Alligators Been Here for Millions of Years
Alligators are a keystone species, meaning they create habitat and help sustain an ecosystem upon which other creatures depend. They’ve been around for millions of years. Amazingly, the bayou is crowded with very large, prehistoric creatures, though their habitat is increasingly diminished as Harris County Flood Control and property owners bulldoze and harden the banks with concrete and steel. (See also a proposal to engineer the natural banks in Memorial Park here.)
This relatively young, five-foot alligator was maybe looking for some turtles to eat, maybe even an alligator gar. Maybe just enjoying the sun.
A friend took this short video of the ‘gator swimming near Taft Street.
See for yourself.
Looking for Holiday Gifts? Buffalo Bayou Art Now Available Online
Support Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene
Dec. 18, 2021
Now you can easily purchase photographs and artwork online from the fabulous exhibit, “Buffalo Bayou: River of Life,” curated by Geoff Winningham. The benefit exhibit ended Nov. 28, but sales continue to raise much needed funds for Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene.
Here is a link to view and purchase the photographs and artwork.
We need your support! And still available at very reasonable prices are prints from Winningham’s acclaimed book, Along Forgotten River, which documented Buffalo Bayou from the ship channel to its source in the Katy Prairie.
Buy Buffalo Bayou Art. Support Nature in the City. Just in Time for the Holidays!
In addition to photographs by Winningham, there are stunning photographs of Buffalo Bayou by Houston photographers Jim Olive and George O. Jackson available, as well as historic photographs, maps, and prints discovered and printed by Winningham.
Artwork about the bayou by Janice Freeman and Houston schoolchildren can also be purchased. The latter participated in a photography and drawing project organized by Winningham, with the help of Freeman, that resulted in the 2017 publication of the book, In the Eyes of Our Children: Houston, an American City. The prints and photographs the children produced are astonishingly inventive and creative.
All proceeds, other than a share going to the young artists, benefit Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene, both 501c3 nonprofit organizations.
Or Just Donate!
Don’t want to buy anything? Just donate to Save Buffalo Bayou. Your gift is tax deductible. And we need your support. Save Buffalo must raise another $4,000 in individual donations of less than $1,200 by Dec. 31. Help us meet that goal!
Harris County Flood Task Force Looking for New Member
Applications due by Jan. 31
Dec. 18, 2021
The recently formed Community Flood Resilience Task Force is looking for a new member.
The task force, a project of Harris County Commissioners Court, is looking for “multi-disciplinary members who are committed to serving the community and represent the geographic, gender, age, racial, and ethnic diversity of Harris County,” according to an announcement emailed Friday.
The task force is especially interested in candidates from the Greenspoint and Aldine areas. However, all Harris County residents are invited to apply, according to the email from task force facilitator Leah Chambers.
Deadline to apply is midnight Jan. 31, 2021.
The task force has seventeen positions, of which five are appointed by commissioners’ court. Those five are responsible for appointing the remaining twelve members.
The task force was created in August of 2020 to replace the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force. Established nearly fifty years ago, the old task force was criticized for being engineer-dominated and do-nothing.
The new task force is charged with working with the county Infrastructure Resilience Team to develop “an inclusive and equitable Flood Resilience Plan for Harris County. This plan is intended to be data-driven, nature-based, and identify specific projects and initiative as well as policy and guidance,” according to the county website.
Regional Flood Planners Seek Small Business Rep
Group is Developing Flood Management Strategies, Also Seeks Public Input
Dec. 13, 2021
The group developing a regional flood management plan is seeking a member to represent small business.
The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group is one of fifteen volunteer organizations formed by the Texas Water Development Board to help identify specific flood risks around the state and develop strategies to reduce them.
The San Jacinto Region includes all or part of eleven counties and extends from Galveston in the south to Huntsville in the north.
Also known as Region Six, the group includes 15 voting members and 11 non-voting members. The voting members represent municipalities, the environment, water and electric utilities, industries, agriculture, and more. The non-voting members are drawn from various public agencies such as Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Houston Galveston Area Council, and Port Houston.
The ultimate goal is to develop a regional flood plan and deliver it to the state water board by Jan. 10, 2023. The official description of the process so far has been to gather and analyze existing data, identify existing and future flood risks, review floodplain management practices, and evaluate flood management strategies.
The group has hired the engineering firm Freese and Nichols as technical consultants and to oversee public engagement. The firm is also working with several other regional groups around the state. A “technical memorandum” is due to the state board by Jan. 7, 2022. Here is the draft technical memorandum presented at the last meeting of the planning group on Dec. 9.
The firm has developed a website to encourage public input. At the December meeting the environmental representative, Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, voiced concern about the lack of public response. As of the meeting, 31 people had responded to the survey.
Here are links to all the planning documents and meetings so far.
Here is a link to the nomination form for the representative of small business.
The next meeting of the planning group is Jan. 13, 2022.
Why You Should Donate to Save Buffalo Bayou
Nov. 30, 2021
Since everyone else is asking on Giving Tuesday, most likely you have already given. Maybe you’re annoyed. Maybe you already purchased a photograph or artwork at our recent benefit, Buffalo Bayou: River of Life. (If you’d still like to buy something, we’ll be posting remaining photos and art online for purchase. Stay tuned.)
Here are some reasons why:
Environmental Advocacy in the City
Nobody else is doing what we do. We are a small organization with a big punch. Environmental advocates doing journalism, investigating, listening, researching, explaining, asking hard questions about how we manage nature in the city.
Important questions like: Is the Harris County Flood Control District doing a good job? How do we know? Who’s monitoring the performance of the flood control district? Note that the district was founded in the 1930s when “controlling” flooding meant stripping trees, straightening streams, and covering them in concrete. Move as much stormwater as fast as possible.
That approach has long been discredited. Not only is it environmentally damaging, it also increases flooding! But the flood control district is still doing it, destroying our last remaining winding, wooded streams, wiping out forests, even though they are legally obligated to conserve our forests. (See page 1.)
Why? Because somebody makes money scraping and bulldozing and installing sheet pile and concrete rubble. Paid with public funds. And then paid to fix it when it fails.
After Harvey, numerous committees and public officials are busy making plans to manage flood risk. Save Buffalo Bayou attends these meetings on your behalf, making comments, taking notes. (It’s a virtual world!)
Buffalo Bayou is the main artery of our natural drainage system in Houston. Yes, many people think it’s an artificial drainage ditch. But it’s a living river, filled with wildlife.
Big Drainage Pipes That Block Drainage
And here’s another report we’re working on: why does the City of Houston continue to install massive stormwater drainage pipes that violate their own regulations and block the flow of Buffalo Bayou (and other streams)? Do we not have a flooding problem?
We’ve written about this before. But questions remain unanswered. And we have one about this new project: just recently the City installed a massive new drainage pipe on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou just upstream of the Shepherd Bridge. It sticks straight out, shooting stormwater directly across the flow of the bayou and onto the opposite bank. This blocks the flow, acting like a dam, and pummeling the opposite bank. It’s a violation of the City’s own regulations. Violates flood control district guidelines too, as well as requirements of the Corps of Engineers.
How does this happen? Answers coming up.
But we need your help. Every donation helps, no matter how small.
Save Buffalo Bayou is a 501c3 nonprofit.
Final Weekend “Buffalo Bayou: River of Life”
Last Chance to Buy Buffalo Bayou Art, Support Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene
Flatland Gallery and Café Brasil, Westheimer and Dunlavy, Houston
Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 27 and 28, noon to 6 p.m.
Nov. 26, 2021
We’ve had great turnout for the fabulous show of art and photographs old and new curated by Geoff Winningham. But we still have amazing prints to sell. So come and buy this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and help support Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene.
All the work in the show focuses on Buffalo Bayou, from maps and postcards promoting the health benefits of 1836 Houston to recent photographs documenting flora and fauna.
Don’t forget to check out the lovely large-format photos and artwork on display in the café itself, 2604 Dunlavy. The bulk of the show is hung in the gallery, located next door at 1709 Westheimer, accessible through the café or through the gate on Westheimer.
Interviews with Geoff Winningham
Winningham has been teaching at Rice University since 1969. He holds the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities and is the author of numerous photography books, including Along Forgotten River, an exploration of Buffalo Bayou from the ship channel to its source in the Katy Prairie.
Winningham continues to run the Pozos Art Project, teaching photography and art to children in Mineral de Pozos, Mexico, and in Houston. His work with children resulted in the 2017 publication, In the Eyes of Our Children: Houston, An American City. Artwork and photographs by the children who participated are for sale in the show. Anyone who purchases a print receives a free copy of the book.
Here are links to recent interviews with Winningham about the creation of the show:
Here is a transcript of Winningham’s discussion with Gray.
Looking for Fall on that Bend in the Bayou
Big Jim Back in Town
Nov. 26, 2021
It was a frosty morning on Buffalo Bayou. A white mist danced mysteriously above the stream.
We were standing just after sunrise on that high bank of the bayou in Memorial Park, waiting patiently for just the right angle of sunlight through the trees.
Well, not so patiently. The assistant wandered off as usual to check out the woods, the creek, mushrooms, wildlife, etc.
Jim Olive was back in town for the opening of our benefit photography and art sale. Jim has some great photographs in the show, titled “Buffalo Bayou: River of Life.” Come on down! Curated by Geoff Winningham, the beautiful exhibit of art and photography, old and new, all related to Buffalo Bayou, continues through Sunday, Nov. 28.
But in the meantime, always generous with his time and in support of our natural world, Jim wanted to return to that Bend in the River to see if we could get a more fall-like fall photo. Not an easy task since we don’t really have a colorful fall in Houston.
We’ve been documenting the seasons from the same high bank on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park since the spring of 2014. You can view the entire series here.
Jim’s last shot was taken a few days before the autumnal equinox, so technically it wasn’t really fall yet anyway. Tropical Storm Nicholas had just passed through, tossing trees and leaves around.
Emergency Guidelines in the Park
At the time Jim was just recovering from major surgery and was not his usual fit and vigorous self. In fact, on the way back, Jim faltered, and we had to ask staff of the Memorial Park Conservancy if he couldn’t have a ride in one of their carts, since the park gates were closed due to the recent storm and it was a long trek back to the car in the heat. They refused.
So we asked the Conservancy for clarification on their guidelines for what to do in case of an emergency in the park. Here is the response from Corri Pfeiffenberger, director of Park Operations:
While many Memorial Park Conservancy staff receive training on managing emergency situations and some of our ATVs have first aid kits and defibrillators, any Park user experiencing an emergency in the park (medical or otherwise) should call 911 immediately.
Long Distance Trading by Indigenous Peoples of Texas and Beyond
Public Talk: Dan Worrall, Author of A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas: Landscape and Culture
Nov. 16, 2021
Houston geologist, historian, musician, and author Dan Worrall will speak about the long distance trade routes among the ancient people through Texas and beyond.
The talk, titled “The Late Archaic Lower Brazos Culture and the Nature of Long Distance Exchange Networks,” is sponsored by the Houston Archeological Society.
Worrall will speak at the monthly (in person and virtual) meeting of the society on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7:00 p.m. He will bring a collection of artifacts from a site in west Fort Bend County for show and tell.
According to Worrall, people of the Late Archaic Lower Brazos Culture (4,000-2,000 years ago) lived along the lower parts of the Brazos and Colorado Rivers extending to the coast. Their territory was approximately equivalent to that of the Coco/Karankawa of the early Historic Period (500 years ago).
The meeting takes place at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Road in Houston, starting at 6:30 p.m. The program begins at 7.
Here is more information about the talk.
The meeting will be offered virtually via Zoom and YouTube Livestream. The YouTube Livestream link is https://youtu.be/xfCvhInhBp4.