Ask the County Runoff Candidates: Environmental Forum June 24

Democratic Runoff for Harris County Precinct 3 Takes Place July 14

June 20, 2020

Harris County Precinct 3 is of particular interest to residents concerned about flooding and how we deal with it. On Wednesday, June 24, voters will have an opportunity to participate in an online forum with the two candidates running to be the Democrat who will face the Republican in November for the position of Precinct 3 commissioner.

Precinct 3 includes Buffalo Bayou west of Loop 610 and many tributaries, as well as other major streams like Cypress and Little Cypress creeks, part of Spring Creek and Brays Bayou, the federal flood-control reservoirs, Addicks and Barker; and much of the Katy Prairie. It also includes parts of Memorial, Spring Branch, Bellaire, West University, and more.

The west-northwest area of the county, once farm and ranch land, has been under heavy development pressure for many years, with resulting controversies over requirements for stormwater detention and preservation of the native prairie.

Nature-based approaches to reducing flood risk—prairie grasses and wetlands, trees, parks, ponds, and gardens—slow rain runoff and absorb stormwater before it even enters and overwhelms our natural (green) and built (gray) drainage systems.  Green flood management is the most practical, beneficial, and cost-effective method of reducing flood risk.

For these reasons, local environmental groups are sponsoring an online forum with the Democratic candidates vying to take the place of retiring Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who has represented Precinct 3 since 1989.

The forum, which takes place online June 24 from 7 to 8 p.m., will focus on environmental issues. Advance registration for this event is required. To sign up go here.

The Candidates

The Democratic candidates are Diana Alexander, an educator, and Michael Moore, former chief of staff under Houston Mayor Bill White. The runoff election is July 14, with early voting starting on Monday, June 29 and running through Friday, July 10.

The winner will face Republican candidate Tom Ramsey in the general election on Nov. 3.  Ramsey is a four-term mayor of tiny Spring Valley Village in west Houston, a civil engineer and until 2015, senior vice-president of Klotz and Associates, now RPS Group, a major contractor with Harris County and the Harris County Flood Control District.

Harris County Commissioners Court is the governing body of the flood control district, and individual commissioners have specific oversight over the activities of the district in their precincts.

A follow-up discussion is planned between the Republican candidate Ramsey and the winner of the Democratic runoff election.

SC

Little Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County. This remaining natural section of the creek is to be stripped and graded by the Harris County Flood Control District. Photo Dec. 29, 2019, by SC

A Lack of Transparency

Houston Parks Board Falls Below State, National Standards

Confusion Over Public And Private Roles

June 14, 2020

The Houston Parks Board is confusing even to knowledgeable people. That’s because there are two parks boards: a public board and a private board. But the two boards, public and private, are the same people. And the problem is these people operate like a private board, making decisions in private.

As members of the public parks board, appointed by the mayor, they are required by law to have public meetings.

A parks board—our parks board—is supposed to be accountable to the general public, making decisions in a transparent way, on behalf of the community. Otherwise, it can appear that the developers, real estate investors, bankers, business lawyers, etc. who are on the board (in Houston and elsewhere) are making decisions that lean more towards profit than the health of the people.

Other Major Cities: Two Separate Parks Organizations, Public Meetings, Agenda, Minutes

Virtually every other major city in the country has two separate parks organizations: a public board and a supporting private foundation, with different sets of people.

And virtually every other major city, including every large city in Texas other than Houston, has a public parks board that announces its meetings and posts its agendas and minutes on its online website. (See Austin and Dallas and San Antonio and Galveston.) Some cities, like Minneapolis, even televise their meetings online.

Houston’s public parks board is a local government corporation required by law to hold open meetings. Its twenty members are appointed by the mayor and approved by city council. But our parks board makes no public announcements about meetings. Our public board has no website, no staff. By contrast, the private parks board, a private foundation, has a website and a staff of thirty people, including a chief executive officer who is paid almost as much (p. 18)  if not more than the mayor. The 34 members of the foundation board include the 20 members of the public parks board.

We’ve been told, after nearly three weeks of asking, that the parks board, public and private, meets with itself briefly somewhere twice a year.

How to Fix This and Why We Should

The north bank of Buffalo upstream of Shepherd on June 1, 2020, after trees, cane and other vegetation were scraped by the Houston Parks Board foundation.

To fix this unusual situation, the mayor needs to appoint new people to the public board. Four of the twenty positions are open, their terms having expired in January 2020. The mayor should appoint people interested in public accountability and the need for green space and nature in our city, especially during a pandemic. Fill the board with people who, in a time of declining budgets and increased demand, can guide us to low-cost, low maintenance rewilding of public spaces.

These are the kind of people who serve on parks boards all over the country. They are public officials, community activists, ecologists, even environmentalists. The kind of people interested in the social and health benefits of natural spaces in the city.

Green spaces and economic development are not mutually exclusive. It has long been understood that better public parks deliver material benefits: increased property value and investment opportunities.

Economic development is largely the purpose of Bayou Greenways 2020, the signature project of the private foundation, a project paid for with $100 million in public bond funds (p. 2) plus $120 million in private donations. City taxpayers also contribute over $6 million annually for ongoing maintenance of the Greenways. (p. 9)

What Difference It Makes

Why does it matter if our parks board is not truly public?

Our parks are public parks, and the people should know what’s being done in their name, for their benefit. But specifically, the parks board foundation recently and surprisingly announced that they were cutting down trees and razing the banks of Buffalo Bayou, a valuable and beneficial natural resource that belongs to the people. (See also this update.)

This was being done in preparation for building an artificial bank out into the channel and installing concrete riprap and metal walls to hold it up. The project is described as “restoring” the bank, filling in land lost to Harvey, although the bayou was already naturally doing that: collecting sediment, rebuilding, regrowing. The location is a narrow strip of land behind two apartment complexes on Memorial Drive, purchased by the foundation and valued at $1.15 million. The foundation is funding the “repair” project with $2.6 million in private funds, according to CEO Beth White. Their plan is to make room for some future concrete sidewalk along the bayou between Shepherd Drive and Memorial Park, part of Bayou Greenways.

The same bank of Buffalo Bayou on May 9, 2020, before scraping and cutting by the Houston Parks Board foundation.

Until this project, most of the 100-plus miles of 10-foot wide concrete hike-and-bike trails installed by the parks board foundation have been along channelized bayous, long ago stripped of nature, treeless, mowed, concrete ditches.

Why It’s a Bad Idea

If there had been some public discussion about this, we and many others would have explained why scraping and bulldozing the bank was a horrible idea, not just ugly but damaging to the beneficial functions of the stream (like cleansing polluted water), likely to cause future flooding and erosion problems, and in violation of the City’s Floodplain Management (p. 6) and Resiliency plans (p. 151) and goal of preserving and creating as much natural and green space as possible.

It also threatens to increase local premiums for flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal program gives discounts to communities “for protecting natural floodplain functions, thereby protecting or restoring wildlife habitat, some of which may be home to threatened and endangered species.”

This remarkable stretch of urban river is home to families of alligator snapping turtles, a threatened species in Texas; beaver, herons, hawks, otters, giant scaly fish (yes, they are alligator gar), dragonflies, and many more beneficial creatures that have been here much longer than we have. They can’t nest in metal and concrete. The loss of biodiversity, particularly in cities, is a global threat to our health and future.

The Solution

So the solution is simple. In order to bring Houston up to state and national standards, the mayor should appoint new people to the public parks board.

That way we can have transparency, accountability, and a balance of interests in decisions about our public parks, green spaces, and natural areas.

SC

Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in Harris County?

What Could Go Wrong?

June 12, 2020

The Houston Sierra Club reports that Harris County is considering releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment to see how that goes.

The mosquito species Aedes aegypti, originally from Africa, has been genetically modified by a British biotech company to prevent them from reproducing. The mosquito is one of several species of mosquitoes responsible for the Zika and other viruses in Harris County, according to the Harris County Public Health Department. However, the Aedes aegypti prefers to live near and feed on people.

There are some 56 varieties of mosquitoes buzzing about the county. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant or very slow-moving water, slower than the bayou, which is why we don’t have mosquitoes on the bayou. Also turtles, fish, dragonflies, bats, birds, frogs, toads, lizards, and other creatures eat mosquitoes.

Frank Blake of the Sierra Club writes about modified mosquito project that “there are social and environmental justice concerns around the lack of transparency, the release site of the mosquitoes, the fact that Harris County residents cannot consent to essentially being human experiments and the impacts this may have on our local environment.”

He notes that environmental advocates suggest that “there are existing, less risky methods of mosquito control that have documented and demonstrated effectiveness.”

Find out more.

You can keep track of mosquito-borne disease in Harris County through the this online map. These diseases include the Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, Saint Louis Encephalitis, and West Nile viruses. On June 10, the county reported that mosquitoes had tested positive for the West Nile virus in northwest Harris County. The Mosquito Control Division was treating the area.


Aedes aegypti. Photo by James Gathany, Center for Disease Control Public Health Image Library

Bank Destruction Update

Private Parks Board Bank Project Temporarily Stymied By Lack of Bank

Bayou Bend Bank to Be Armored Too

June 8, 2020

We bring you some recent before and after photos from the Houston Parks Board foundation’s $2.6 million project to remove the trees and vegetation and build an artificial bank of concrete riprap, dirt, and sheet metal. Described as “restoring” the bank to its “pre-Harvey condition,” the project purpose is to support a future concrete hike-and-bike trail on the edge of Buffalo Bayou.

After cutting down large trees and scraping the vegetation from the north bank of the bayou upstream of Shepherd Drive, contractors were forced to cut down cane and other greenery by hand where the remaining bank apparently was too narrow to support heavy machinery. Heavy machinery should never be used on the bank of a stream anyway, (p. 14) despite this being a common practice of the Harris County Flood Control District. For that matter, lining a stream with concrete riprap and sheet metal is also discouraged in enlightened communities. Doing so increases flooding and erosion upstream and downstream. (p. 3 and p. 17)

Work on the project seems to have been suspended since early last week.

The north bank of Buffalo Bayou stripped and graded with large trees cut by the Houston Parks Board as part of a Bayou Greenways project upstream of Shepherd Drive. Photo June 1, 2020.

The private parks board foundation purchased $1.5 million worth of land along the bayou below two apartment complexes on Memorial Drive, according to Harris County records. The eventual plan is to install a 10-foot-wide concrete sidewalk along the bayou edge as part of the foundation’s Bayou Greenways project, which is supported by $100 million in public bond funds (p. 2) plus $120 million in private donations. The sidewalk would extend from Shepherd to Westcott Street in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park.

Contractors working for the Houston Parks Board foundation cutting a large tree and removing cane and native vegetation from the bank of Buffalo Bayou on May 22, 2020.

Extending the sidewalk will require the further removal of large cottonwoods and other trees in order to build a bridge across a ravine fed by several large stormwater outfalls. According to a resident of the neighborhood, the ravine becomes a “raging river” during heavy rains.

Many large trees would have to be cut to build a bridge across a ravine and extend the hike-and-bike trail along the north bank of the bayou. Photo May 21, 2020

The parks board foundation filed a pre-construction notice for the project with the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers in August of 2018, according to documents provided May 22, 2020, by Beth White, president and chief executive officer of the foundation. White said the current project, funded with private tax-deductible donations, is 620 linear feet, although the notice to the Corps describes work along 1,102 linear feet.

The required notice was filed in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which apparently plans to bring in heavy equipment and armor its bank for nearly 1,500 linear feet below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, the former home of conservationist and philanthropist Ima Hogg, who also donated the land for the bird sanctuary across the bayou.

As seems to be standard practice these days, the Corps did not actually review the pre-construction notice or plans to restore the bank to its “pre-Harvey” condition but simply let lapse the six-week time period to respond, automatically “verifying” the project. The Corps is responsible for protecting our streams and waters under federal law.

This is the large cottonwood that was cut down and the vegetation scraped by the Houston Parks Board foundation as part of its project to “restore” the bank of Buffalo Bayou to its “pre-Harvey” condition. Photo May 9, 2020

The Museum of Fine Arts has hired Stantec Engineering to devise a plan for hardening its bank with metal or concrete riprap or both below the woods at Bayou Bend, said Willard Holmes, chief operating officer for the museum.

The Bayou Bend gardens feature towering loblolly pines, sycamores, oaks, and other trees along the bank. The estate and its gardens, home to families of alligator snapping turtles, a threatened species in Texas, is named for the lengthy bend in the bayou that will be scraped and artificially rebuilt if the museum board approves.

“Our property is falling into the bayou,” said Holmes. “Our plan is to properly address all the nature and wildlife issues that we can.”

This section of Buffalo Bayou downstream from the Bayou Bend footbridge is part of a planned Museum of Fine Arts project to remove trees and vegetation and harden some 1,500 linear feet of bank with metal or concrete riprap or both. Photo June 2, 2020

SC

Bayou Greenway Not So Green

Parks Board Bulldozing Buffalo Bayou, Cutting Trees, Installing Sheet Pile and Concrete

May 14, 2020

The Houston Parks Board has begun scraping vegetation, cutting native willow and cottonwood trees, and bulldozing the north bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream of Shepherd Drive. The plan, according to an announcement, is to widen the bank to its “pre-Harvey” condition and install concrete riprap and sheet pile walls.

The “slope repair” work is part of a four-phase Parks Board project on the bayou bank from Shepherd to the Memorial Park golf course, according to the City building permit.

The area, though partly landscaped, is one of the few stretches of “living” bank in the highly urbanized bayou, home to families of threatened alligator snapping turtles, beavers, alligators, and more. Hardening the bank with concrete and metal destroys wildlife habitat as well as the bank’s natural ability to cleanse and absorb polluted stormwater and sediment. Bank hardening increases erosion and flooding up and down the stream, displacing flow onto other property.

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Large cottonwood, small willow and cottonwood saplings, canebrake and other vegetation being razed by the Houston Parks Board on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream of Shepherd Bridge. Photo May 9, 2020




Because of these negative impacts, the project violates the City’s Floodplain Management Plan (p.6), which requires the protection of the “natural and beneficial function” of our floodway and floodplains, and thus has the potential to reduce the City of Houston’s Community Rating from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (see also here), potentially raising the cost of flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.

Nevertheless, the City’s Floodplain Management Office issued the project a floodplain development permit.

The increasing number of bank hardening projects downstream and upstream (here and here) threatens the life and health of our ancient river, the city’s main waterway, as well as the people who live near it.

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Looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou over the willows, cane, and other native vegetation growing on the narrow strip of land being razed by the Houston Parks Board. Sheet pile walls surrounding the extensive property on the opposite bank in the distance were installed after Harvey by the property owner, a former member of the Parks Board and the current chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. Photo May 9, 2020.




Where is the Greenway?

The Parks Board’s April 30 press release stated that while the project “preserves the potential for a future Bayou Greenways 2020 trail,” the Board “at this time” is “not constructing a greenway or hike-and-bike trail.”

Bayou Greenways 2020 is the Parks Board’s signature project: the installation of 150 miles of wide concrete sidewalks along our mostly mowed, treeless, channelized and concreted bayous. The project has provided Houstonians with much needed areas to bike, jog, and walk, connecting bayous, parks, and neighborhoods. We do wish that more native trees and vegetation would be planted on these shadeless, lifeless bayous. The City’s Natural Resources Management Program, a part of the Parks and Recreation Department, does have projects to restore prairies and the riparian areas of some bayous in city parks.

However, destroying the natural greenery of a bayou in order to create a “greenway” seems counter-productive, to put it mildly. Biodiversity loss is a profound issue worldwide, in urban areas in particular, considered a threat to human health and survival, a factor in epidemics.

While the Parks Board’s announcement says that the “stable” bank will be “planted to match the adjacent landscape,” whatever that means, concrete riprap and metal walls destroy the natural, beneficial functions of the bank and stream. These functions include naturally adjusting and stabilizing itself. In the last three years since Harvey, the bank has done that with deep-rooted plants, native trees and a wall of sturdy cane, now being ripped out.

The Board’s plan to extend the bank and harden it is clearly an attempt to support a wide concrete sidewalk on the bayou’s edge, always a foolish idea.

Safe Route Needed for Hikers, Bikers, Joggers. Access to the Bayou is Good.

Beth White, president of the Parks Board, did not immediately respond to questions about the route of the future “trail” that would connect joggers, hikers, and bikers headed to and from Memorial Park from Buffalo Bayou Park below Shepherd. Certainly a safe path is needed. The sidewalk along Memorial Drive west of Shepherd is narrow, broken, and dangerous. However, along the bayou, the land is narrow, wooded, and other than Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, mostly private.

Recently the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private foundation managing the public park, closed public access to the popular but unofficial trails through the bayou woods on the southeastern side of the park, citing vague safety issues.

Streets for the People

White also did not respond to an invitation to consider less costly and destructive solutions to the trail connection problem. These could include a simple crushed granite path along the existing natural bank, perhaps for pedestrian use only, as heavy bike traffic could be destabilizing. And/or perhaps dedicating a portion of the six-lane Memorial Drive to hikers and bikers. Cities all over the world and the US are setting aside streets for hikers and bikers, particularly in response to the increased pressure to be outside—and in nature–resulting from the pandemic.

Once an Urban Wonderland

The current project is under construction on land behind the Left Bank apartments at 5353 Memorial Drive. The Parks Board around 2018-2019 apparently purchased some 28,000 square feet of bayou frontage behind the apartment complex now valued at around $1.5 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District. Note that that was after Hurricane Harvey.

Read the rest of this post.

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Looking downstream at the vegetated bank and trees being razed to install riprap and sheet pile, potentially to support a future concrete hike and bike trail. Cottonwood surrounded by orange netting is to be saved, though survival is uncertain without supporting vegetation. Photo May 9, 2020

Watch the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Five Days for Free!

Sign Up Now to Watch Online May 11-15

May 7, 2020

The Wild and Scenic Film Festival is one of the year’s most exciting film events. We always look forward to it. Living here in the city, we can learn about, explore, and vicariously adventure all over our wild world.

Locally presented by the Bayou Land Conservancy—and sponsored by Save Buffalo Bayou (among others)—this year’s film event has gone online, like so many other events. Living in a virtual world now.

It’s easy to watch. We recommend it. All you have to do is sign up for the Bayou Land Conservancy’s newsletter, which you would want to do anyway, and they’ll send you a link to watch the films.

The Bayou Land Conservancy works to preserve the natural floodplains along rivers, bayous, and streams in our metropolitan area. We need that. They do an excellent job.

Award-Winning Texas Film

The festival was started almost 20 years ago by a group of activists in California who had succeeded in protecting their river from dams. The South Yuba River Citizens League was founded in 1983 by grassroots activists determined to protect the South Yuba River. Ultimately, they won permanent protections for 39 miles of the South Yuba River under California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

And then they created this film festival.

Among this year’s winners is the Texas-produced The River and the Wall, in the category of Most Inspiring Adventure Film.

So sign up to watch and enjoy. Be informed about what is being done to protect our regional rivers and streams and the vital lands adjacent to them, and why that is important.

Cures Worse Than Problems

Costly, Puzzling Repairs on Buffalo Bayou: How Will This End?

May 7, 2020

There’s talk these days about cures being worse than problems. We think about that when we watch with alarm what the Harris County Flood Control District has been doing to Buffalo Bayou in our lovely public park between Sabine and Shepherd bridges near downtown Houston.

Gouging the banks with bulldozers. Heavy trucks on the bank. Dumping and pounding huge amounts of concrete riprap and dirt onto the slopes and into the channel. For those of us who value the bayou as a living stream, it’s difficult to watch this costly abuse. The bayou will fight back. “Repairs” will continue, at great expense to taxpayers.

And what about the creatures, the giant alligator snapping turtles, the beavers that live on and in the banks, the bats that live under the Waugh Bridge? The Corps of Engineers dismissed any environmental impact in its 2019 approval of this 4,540-foot long project. (p. 1)

A Long History of Abuse

The Flood Control District has been “fixing” these banks for over a decade now.

The current project, billed as fixing “erosion and bank failure caused by Harvey,” is costing the taxpayers some $10 million, virtually  all of it going to the private engineering company Primoris, with an unknown amount having been paid to Jones Carter for the design plans.

The Flood Control District was established in 1937, in large part to assist the Corps of Engineers in stripping, straightening, and concreting our creeks and bayous, then the dominant method of managing flooding, now discredited. (See also here.) But the district’s limited legal tools and authority have hardly changed. Within that narrow framework, its approach has modernized only slightly. With a capital improvement budget of $496 million in Fiscal Year 2019, (p. 2) the district’s main job, seemingly with little oversight, is handing out lucrative contracts to private engineering companies.

Who is to say whether they are doing a good job? Whether this is the most scientific, proven, cost-effective approach? (p. 27)

  • Trucks and backhoe importing heavy riprap and dirt to build base for extended south bank of Buffalo Bayou downstream from the Waugh Bridge. Photo April 13, 2020.
  • View from the Waugh Bridge of backhoes spreading dirt on riprap base extended into and pounded into the channel. Work has now progressed to just beneath the bridge. Photo April 21, 2020
  • New bank has now been covered with dirt. Photo looking downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 27, 2020.
  • Strips of turf grass laid into bank. Photo taken April 29, one day after big rain storm that blew out the riprap bench used by heavy equipment to pass in front of large stormwater drain pipe slightly further downstream.
  • View from the opposite bank of newly rebuilt south bank downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 29, 2020.
  • Turf grass has died but seeded grass is beginning to grow. Photo May 5, 2020
  • Reconstruction has begun on the troublesome south bank below and upstream of the Dunlavy. Photo May 5, 2020

Once A Wooded Stream

Like the flow in a river, the population of Houston is always changing. There are people in the city who think a bayou is a man-made drainage ditch, who do not realize that all our bayous were once forested streams winding through the prairie. They are shocked if you tell them we have alligators, beavers, otter, giant alligator snapping turtles, and more in Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries. These contributing streams include numerous other bayous as well as many small ravines and gullies that make (or made) our local landscape much more undulating than recognized. Many ravines have been filled in and paved over. But the aforementioned water creatures, who have been here longer than we have, do the same work they have always done, part of a timeless mutually-beneficial system.

This stretch of the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine streets was also once a meandering wooded stream, the vegetation on its banks naturally filtering the water for free. In the late 50s the Corps of Engineers scraped the trees and vegetation, bulldozed the banks, and straightened much of the channel, eliminating or reducing many of the meanders.

Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway in 1962 after stripping and channel realignment by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Over time, the trees and vegetation grew back, helping the banks stand firm, replanted by the flowing stream. But the bayou today continues to seek out its original meanders, as rivers will do. Many of the most troublesome areas of bank failure in Buffalo Bayou Park (and elsewhere), requiring repeated repairs, are where the meander bends once were.

Read the rest of this post.

Earth Day 2020

 

April 22, 2020

Some people we know are old enough to remember the first Earth Day in 1970. Some people we know even marched, rallied, and participated in teach-ins, along with millions of others all over the country, on that first Earth Day.

Richard Nixon was president. The unpopular Vietnam War was galvanizing social unrest. But so was concern for the environment, prompted by the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, documenting the harmful effects of chemicals in the environment, specifically DDT. Increasing awareness of dangerous pollution in our air, land, and water, among Republicans and Democrats, young and old, rich and poor, prompted passage of such landmark legislation as the National Environmental Policy Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Fuel Economy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and much more.

Here is a good history and timeline of these events.

Though environmental critics have claimed that some of this legislation has been used to permit the very activities the laws were designed to prohibit, and some have gone so far to say that Earth Day should be abolished, much of the legislation, rules, and regulations are now being weakened. (See here and here  and here.)

What irony that in just a few months of a pandemic, the air and skies are cleaner and clearer than they have been in a very long time.

 

No Rallies Today

In these extraordinary and disturbing times, the streets are almost empty. Today there are no rallies or marches on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. There are digital commemorations. And you might want to spend some stay-home time reading about what the City of Houston is doing, including its Climate Action Plan and Resilient Houston Strategy.

The in-person Earth Day events that would have taken place in Houston have been cancelled. Save Buffalo Bayou, along with numerous other environmental organizations, normally took part in these events.

Read the rest of this post.

Save Buffalo Bayou’s big poster.

 

 

First-Hand Report on Improvements to the Federal Dams on Buffalo Bayou

Editor’s note:  Barker and Addicks dams are for flood-control only. Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the floodgates are closed to hold back stormwater flowing into Buffalo Bayou only when there is a major rain downstream. (See also here.)

 

By Cynthia Neely of Residents Against Flooding, Houston, Texas, April 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, I organized a meeting and tour with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to see what has been done to improve Barker and Addicks dams since Hurricane Harvey. There were eight of us, representing various HOAs and organizations. We weren’t there to criticize or talk about the past, but rather to learn first-hand about what upgrades have been made.

The tour and interview were recorded on video. [Coming up soon.]

Richard Long, the Army Corps’ Natural Resource Management Specialist, spent a great deal of time showing us maps and information on his office computer. He answered some very tough questions. Many of us had flooded when the flood gates were opened after Hurricane Harvey.

Read the rest of this report.

The view from the top of Barker Dam in west Houston. Photo by Cynthia Neely.

The Solace of Spring: Tending Our Garden

Wild and Edible Landscapes for Us and Our Companion World

Plus Resources and Tips on Dealing with Homeowner Associations

 

April 13, 2020

In the midst of our current problem, people in Houston and all over the world are finding solace in tending a garden, if they are fortunate enough to have access or space for one. It could be a vegetable garden or a wildflower garden, though it seems that, as happens during crises, our thoughts turn to growing our own food.

This is a logical response. Not only does gardening benefit mental and physical health. It’s also wiser and more practical not to rely on long-distance supply chains that can be disrupted during floods or pandemics. Or wars.

Local nurseries and seed providers, considered essential businesses during our local shut down, have reported a surge in interest.

 

Lawns Really Bad. Alternatives So Much Better

But the growing movement towards edible landscapes, as well as edible forests on public land (see also “food forest” Dallas and Austin), is not just for human food. It’s about feeding the insects and birds and the entire ecosystem without which we cannot survive. Scientists, concerned about an insect apocalypse, are urging landowners to get rid of their lawns.

The state of Minnesota is actually paying homeowners to replace lawns with wildflowers, clover, and native grasses. It’s called rewilding. Interesting historical fact: clover was the preferred lawn cover in the US up through the 1940s.

During this devastating pandemic, we might also want to consider the importance of urban biodiversity on our health. That means everything from soil microbes to plants and animals.

 

Father Meyers Pocket Prairie, University of St. Thomas, Houston, June 25, 2018. Photo by SC

 

Also Reducing Flooding, Pollution, and Temperature

It so happens that turning our lawns and vacant lots into planted gardens and prairies also helps protect us against flooding. Anything that helps slow and absorb rainwater from the time it hits the roof and the ground is going to reduce the peak flow in our streams and streets.

Planting vegetable, native plant and wildflower gardens also reduces carbon emissions, helping to protect us against climate change. Maintaining our thirsty American lawn is hugely polluting to our land, air, and water. Lawns are the number one irrigated agricultural “crop” in the US.

More green space, and less concrete, helps cool the city, reducing the heat island effect, which attracts disastrous weather.

 

Gardens Everywhere: Roofs, Parks, Vacant Lots, and Prairies

The City of Houston is encouraging gardens of all sorts, and even edible forests. (p. 86)

The City’s Resiliency Plan, released in February 2020, promotes community gardens, green roofs (which include rooftop gardens), urban farms, and prairie restoration, as well as denser development—building the city up rather than out, replacing the urban sprawl that is destroying so much of our native prairie, wetlands, woodlands, and the few remaining riparian areas needed to help protect us from flooding. The Resiliency Plan, citing the Gulf-Houston Regional Conservation Plan, also has a goal of preserving as green space 24 percent of the land in the eight-county region by 2040. (p. 153)

In support of this project, the City’s goals are to conserve city parks as nature preserves, “discourage development in sensitive upstream areas” (west Houston, among other places), and restore native prairie, wetlands, and woodlands. (p. 153) This includes, apparently, planting pocket prairies in neighborhoods. (p.128)

 

Natural Area Permits, Homeowner Associations

The City’s Natural Resources Management Program, a part of the Parks and Recreation Department, already has ongoing projects to restore prairies and riparian areas in city parks along our streams like Sims and White Oak bayous. (Note also that the City in theory has been encouraging urban farming for some time. See also here.)

 

Habitat restoration in White Oak Park by the City of Houston. Photo March 13, 2020 by SC

 

Perhaps a lesser known fact is that the City also has a Natural Area Ordinance which provides permits to property owners who wish to turn their land into a native prairie or native plant garden, wildlife habitat, vegetable garden, or rain garden. The permit, however, does not override deed restrictions or homeowner association rules.

Which brings us to a common complaint: how to deal with homeowner associations that enforce conformity and environmentally unsound regulations about yards and lawns?

Here are some tips about dealing with homeowner associations when rewilding or recreating your yard:

Sway Your HOA

Homeowners Associations and Wildlife Gardens

Making Messy Look Good (Hint: mow the edges)

How to Pass Weed Inspection—A Real Life Story and Guide

 

Golf Courses and Butterflies

As an aside, note that the Audubon Society has a program, Monarchs in the Rough, to encourage golf courses to plant wildflowers to sustain monarch butterflies. So far in the region there are only four golf clubs participating: The Club at Falcon Point in Katy, Lakeside Country Club in west Houston, Kingwood Country Club in Kingwood, and Bay Oaks Country Club in southeast Houston.

 

Further Resources

And here are some further resources, tips, and guides:

Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability, University of Houston, Downtown

Clay Soil Gardening

Community Garden Program, City of Houston

Container Gardening

Edible Forest Gardens

Farmer’s Almanac Planting Calendar for Houston

Growing a Food Forest

Healthy Lawns, Healthy Waters Program, Texas A&M

Houston Urban Gardeners

Jump Starting Your Victory Garden

Leave the Leaves!

Native Plant Society, Houston Chapter

Urban Garden Program, City of Houston

Urban Harvest’s Gardening Advice

 

Native Plant and Seed Sources:

Buchanan’s Native Plants

Green Star Wetlands

Houston Audubon Natives Nursery Spring Open House, May 2, 2020

Joshua’s Native Plants

Nature’s Way Resources

Seedsource

Turner Seed

Wabash Feed and Garden

 

Native Prairies

Katy Prairie Conservancy

Houston Chapter, Native Prairies Association

 

Natural Area Permit, City of Houston

Organic Horticulture Benefits Alliance

Urban Organic Gardens

 

Rewilding Your Yard

Nine Natives for Simple Gardens

Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy

Making Your Garden a Carbon Sink

The Audubon Society Guide on How to Make Your Yard Bird Friendly

Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife

 

Roof Gardens and Green Roofs

Green Roofs, City of Houston

Starting a Rooftop Container Garden

LiveRoof Texas

 

Texas Edible Landscapes

Year Round Gardening for Metro Houston

 

SC

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