Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Pollen, Leaves, Elbows, Violets, and That Bend in Buffalo Bayou

 

March 28, 2020

Spring came unusually early this year, in case you were too preoccupied with other news to notice. Which brings up the question: how is spring determined?

There’s astronomical spring. And meteorological spring. And actual spring.

And a pandemic. But that’s a different topic. (Keep your fingers out of your face!)

One way we know that actual spring is here in Houston: the mounds of oak pollen and leaves on the ground accompanied by the obnoxious sound and smell of leaf-blowers blowing the pollen and leaves (and dirt) around. (Been very windy too.)

 

Live Oak leaves and pollen. Spring 2020. Photo SC

 

Tree pollen, mostly live oak, is generally highest in March in Houston. And yes, we have had record amounts of oak pollen, which comes from the long dangling male flower of the tree spreading its seed and causing lots of alarming coughing, sneezing, and brain fog. Though it seems that based on a perusal of City of Houston Health Department records, which go back online only to 2013, tree and oak pollen in March 2019 was way worse.

The male live oak flower pollinates the much smaller female flower, but it’s the female flower that turns into acorns. (Yes, we’re talking about tree sex.)

By the way, native live oaks support 425 different species of creatures compared to our beloved but basically useless non-native crepe myrtles, which support only FOUR (4), according to Kelli Ondracek, manager of Natural Resources for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, who spoke about the City’s riparian restoration projects at a recent Houston Sierra Club meeting.

 

Not to Panic

Watching leaves fall in the spring (and pollen raining down) may be confusing to people who aren’t familiar with live oaks.  As if we don’t have enough to panic about. (Use your elbows!) But live oaks naturally lose their leaves in the spring when new, green leaves push out the old ones. (Hmm, sounds like some politician’s COVID-19 plan.)

Which brings us to meteorological spring, which meteorologists established some time ago based on temperature patterns. Meteorological spring began on March 1 in the Northern Hemisphere and runs through the end of May. Since we’ve been having record warm weather, with an abnormally warm spring predicted, they may have to change that date. Maybe eliminate winter altogether. Just go right to summer.

Astronomical spring came early too, the earliest in 124 years. This arrival of spring is determined by the vernal equinox, which happens when the sun is directly over the earth’s equator, creating a day that is the same length as the night. Astronomical spring arrived Thursday, March 19, at 10:50 p.m. CST.

 

Spring on the Bayou

So it was spring and time for the Spring 2020 photograph in our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons.

Except that due to the new and different coronavirus COVID-19, our world-renowned photographer, Jim Olive, was on general lockdown with his beloved in the state of California. So we set out to the woods on our own.

“Remember to turn your iPhone horizontal,” Jim texted helpfully from Palm Springs.

Read the rest of this post.

How the Coronavirus is Like a Flood

Flattening the Curve, Slowing the Flow

 

March 19, 2020

By now most of us have heard of “flattening the curve.” This is the effort to reduce the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases that happen all at once, exceeding the capacity of our healthcare system.

Interestingly, the graph of flattening the curve of peak cases is very similar to the graph of flattening the curve of peak flow in a flooding stream.

Slow the Flow

The goal in both cases is to slow the flow. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s to slow, reduce, and spread out the number of cases in order to save lives and not overwhelm or flood our healthcare system, specifically the number of hospital beds available to take care of people (as well as the number of masks, ventilators, tests, nurses, doctors, and other necessary equipment).

In the case of a stream during a storm, the goal is to increase the length of time it takes for rainfall to hit the ground and enter a waterway. The longer it takes, the lower the peak water level in the stream, making it less likely that the stream will flood. Slow it down, spread it out, soak it in.

Here is a graph showing the impact of flattening the curve of coronavirus cases on our ability to care for them:

Flattening the curve of coronavirus cases so that the number of cases doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system. Graphic from The NY Times, adapted from the Centers for Disease Control.

 

And here is a graph of what’s called “lag time” showing how slowing (and reducing) rain runoff with, say, plants and trees, lengthens the time it takes for the stormwater to enter the stream and lowers the peak flow:

 

A graph of the impact of slowing the flow of stormwater runoff on the peak water level of a stream. Courtesy of Slow the Flow.

 

Do We Have the Hospital Capacity? It Seems We Don’t

Could our Houston area hospitals be overwhelmed by a flood of cases? Yes, they could, according to a recent report by ProPublica. Which is why public officials here and elsewhere have taken such extreme steps to “slow down” our social circulation by shutting down schools and the rodeo, closing restaurants and bars; why conferences and parties are being cancelled, etc.

ProPublica analyzed the impact of cases on local hospitals under different scenarios: more cases faster, fewer cases over a longer period of time, and so on. “It is estimated that about 8% of the adult population would require hospital care,” according to the report. “In a moderate scenario where 40% of the population is infected over a 12-month period, hospitals in Houston, TX would receive an estimated 430,000 coronavirus patients. The influx of patients would require 14,300 beds over 12 months, which is 2.8 times the available beds in that time period. The Harvard researchers’ scenarios assume that each coronavirus patient will require 12 days of hospital care on average, based on data from China.

“In the Houston, TX region, intensive care units would be especially overwhelmed and require additional capacity. Without coronavirus patients, there are only 650 available beds on average in intensive care units, which is 4.6 times less than what is needed to care for all severe cases.”

Slowing Down, Spreading Out, Letting It All Sink In

So think of social distancing as spreading out the flow, slowing it down as it trickles through tall grasses and pebbles, soaking into gardens, swales, and green spaces filled with trees so that it doesn’t overwhelm our system.

Instead of rushing to gather in one place as many people as possible, we pause, stand apart, wait, get out in the sun if we can, and reflect on what more we can do to help.

SC

Flood Control Citizens Advisory Group At Turning Point

Little-Known Task Force “Doesn’t Do Anything”

Future is Cloudy

 

March 10, 2020

(Updated March 11, 2020, with recent findings from Rice University on the superiority of Buffalo Bayou during floods due to its relatively natural form and condition.)

The purpose of the Harris County Flood Control Task Force, founded almost fifty years ago, was to “advise commissioners’ court on how the county flood control district was doing their job—from the citizens’ point of view,” recalls Frank Smith, an original member of the group and founding board president of Save Buffalo Bayou.

That seems like a good idea. People all over Harris County and beyond have been struggling with increasing, devastating flooding. How do we assess whether the agency responsible for protecting us is doing a good job?

But now the future of the citizens’ Flood Control Task Force is cloudy. And in fact, it appears that the task force hasn’t fulfilled its mission in some time. The task force is not listed as a task force or board on the website of Harris County Commissioners Court.

No one we spoke to could recall the task force ever advising commissioners’ court on how well the Harris County Flood Control District was doing its job.

The role and mission of the task force is currently under review, said Gabe Baker, Community Engagement Specialist for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who asked for the review.

However, it seems that the task force has been under review since at least 2017, when the task force itself formed a working group to “improve communication with the public about Task Force goals and objectives, increase membership recruiting to fill current vacancies, and develop strategies to improve Task Force operations,” according to minutes of the July 24, 2017, meeting.

One of the ideas discussed, according to the minutes, was “an annual briefing for Harris County Commissioners on the Task Force and its activities.”

“They don’t do anything,” said one longtime member.

 

History of a Good Question

The task force was created in 1973 by Harris County Commissioners Court in the wake of a long and successful battle to prevent the Flood Control District and the Corps of Engineers from stripping and straightening Buffalo Bayou and lining it with concrete as they had done to White Oak and Brays bayous and numerous other once-forested meandering streams. Many of those smaller channelized streams haven’t been lined with concrete, though they were usually lined with concrete riprap or even buried in concrete pipes.

Read the rest of this post.

Harris County Flood Control work in June 2018 on South Mayde Creek, once a winding wooded stream, which flows into Addicks Reservoir in west Houston. Photo by Diane Masterson

Turning Green Space Into Green Bucks on Buffalo Bayou

Should Land Meant for a Needed Park on Buffalo Bayou Be Developed into Needed Housing?

 

Why is a nonprofit park organization developing green space into for-profit housing?

 

February 27, 2020

A prominent nonprofit organization has unveiled a plan to profit by building mixed-income housing on open, partially forested land that had long been designated for a nature park on Buffalo Bayou east of downtown Houston.

The long-term, multi-phase plan is to construct apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes on some 18 acres of partially-wooded green space on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s historic East End neighborhood. The Houston City Council last week voted to approve the first phase of the project known as Lockwood South: 120 apartments including 90 units for low-income tenants and 30 market-rate units.

But in a city, and in particular a neighborhood, severely lacking the beneficial access to natural areas (baseball fields, water slides, and running tracks don’t count), might it not be a better idea to locate the housing development elsewhere and develop a bayou park with trees and natural habitat instead?

That was the plan for the property dating from at least 2002. The planned 52-acre park, including adjacent industrial land, was to be named West Lockwood Park, and it was supposed to have been developed by now. (pp. 133, 140, 149)

 

The 2002 proposal for the land now to be a residential development would have created a large nature area called West Lockwood Park to the east of Tony Marron Park. (Mid right side of the graphic.) From the Buffalo Bayou Partnership 2002 East Sector Plan, p. 2. (Also p. 81)

This image from the 2019 Buffalo Bayou Partnership East Sector Plan shows the housing development, including the apartment project called Lockwood South. (p. 6)

 

Community Priorities: More Nature

Experience of nature was a priority expressed by members of the largely working-class community who attended packed community meetings about plans for the neighborhood in 2018.

While residents expressed concerns about the increasing cost of housing and preserving one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, their top priorities were for natural areas, access to the bayou and parks, soft footpaths focused on nature, shade, bird habitat (specifically on this property), urban forest, “protect nature as much as possible,” and so on.

The neighborhood is largely industrial with heavy pollution from industrial and chemical waste and emissions. (pp 27-31) Across from the proposed development site on Lockwood Drive are an asphalt factory and recycled concrete crushing plant, both potential sources of harmful pollution. On the west side of the property is a machine parts factory.

The Second Ward, where the proposed development property is located, in 2015 had 13,139 residents and currently has some 58.99 acres of parkland, mostly mowed grass and playing fields. The City says that’s more than enough. Using the common metric and excellent goal of “living within a ten-minute walk,” the City calculates that 87 percent of Second Ward residents live within a ten-minute walk of a park, no matter what type, compared to 47 percent of Houstonians. (p. 42) However, a drawback to that metric is that 1,000 people could live in highrises surrounding a one-acre park, even a skate-park, and you would have a lot of people crowding around a tiny plot of concrete within a 10-minute walk.

The National Recreation and Park Association, which supports the Ten-Minute Walk campaign, recommends 10 acres of park per 1,000 residents. By that calculation, the Second Ward community should have some 130 acres of park.

The public can send comments on the proposed development project to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. See below.

A view from Lockwood Drive of the tangled wood on the property to be developed for residences, including single family homes, by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Photo by SC Jan. 31, 2020

Developing and Appreciating Buffalo Bayou

The land development scheme is a project of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a private nonprofit founded in 1986 for “redevelopment and stewardship of the waterfront” from Shepherd Drive to the Port of Houston Turning Basin. The organization, which has partnered with Brinshore Development of Northfield, Illinois, for the housing project, says the plan will generate funds for expansion and improvement of other parks in the neighborhood, primarily Tony Marron Park just upstream (west) of the property. The Partnership plans to spend $40 million on Tony Marron Park and expand it by 30 acres, according to a letter sent in January 2019 to the East End Management District.

Read the rest of this post.

Tracking a Legal Mystery in the Park

Not-a-Trail Signs Cite Not-a-Law

“Reference is a Mistake”

 

February 9, 2020

We have some progress on the thorny issue of the signs posted on recently closed trails in Memorial Park. The signs cited a Texas law against destruction of public property that doesn’t exist, a non-existent law—”Title 19, Chapter 191 of the Government Code of Texas”—that oddly has been cited by a variety of public agencies for years, including the Houston Parks Department, the Harris County Houston Sports Authority, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, among others.

We are not in favor of destroying public property, whether that be by developers, private foundations, individuals, public agencies, country clubs or anybody else. But can you see a problem of definition here? What constitutes destruction of public property? Walking through public woods? Bulldozing trees on public land? Installing sheet pile walls and riprap on the banks of the bayou that are known to increase flooding and erosion across and down the way?

 

Sign and fence on an “unofficial” trail in Memorial Park, Dec. 19, 2019

 

Researching the Appropriate Reference

In any case, the Harris County Attorney’s Office was just as puzzled as we were about the citation of a non-existent state law. The Houston City Attorney didn’t respond to several queries, likely because they had no response. We had to call in some big guns, like newly-elected City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who represents District C, which includes Memorial Park.

This took a few weeks. But the mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff James Koski graciously looked into it for us. “We are aware that the reference on the old sign is a mistake,” he wrote in a recent email. “Legal is researching what the appropriate reference to state code or city ordinance will be for signage going forward.”

In the meantime, the signs are still there.

Unofficial but Popular Footpaths

The dirt paths are unofficial trails through the lovely woods, up-and-down ravines and along the high banks above Buffalo Bayou on the southern edge of the park. They have long been used and maintained by hikers and runners, even after they were officially closed to bikers years ago.

We wish the Memorial Park Conservancy would remove the signs and fencing. The trails here are no more dangerous than official trails in other parts of the park.

It’s true the storms and flooding of the last few years have eaten away at the banks, though parts of the banks are slowly rebuilding naturally. They would be rebuilding and self-restoring even faster if contractors working for the Harris County Flood Control District hadn’t removed so many trees and woody debris from sides of the channel after Harvey.

Hardening the country club bank across the way, increasing the velocity of the flow and sending it pounding into the opposite bank, is not helping either.

 

SC

Trump Administration Rule Could Worsen Flooding by Removing Protections for Our Wetlands

By Jordan Macha and Kristen Schlemmer, Bayou City Waterkeeper

Houston Chronicle, Jan. 29. 2020

By removing protections to local wetlands under the Clean Water Act, the Trump administration’s new Waters of the United States rule exposes our region to new flood risks.

Throughout the Houston metro area and out to the coast, wetlands play a key role in protecting against floods, while also providing wildlife habitat and filtering surface water that makes its way into the city’s drinking water supplies. With Texas made up of mostly privately-owned land, rules to protect these natural landscapes, and the benefits they offer to the public, matter.

The change poses the greatest threat to the eastern parts of our region, where relatively pristine expanses of wetlands remain intact — including around Trinity Bay, the San Jacinto River’s East and West forks and Cedar Bayou. As the Grand Parkway continues to be built out to the east of Houston into Liberty County, these wetland-dense areas will be especially vulnerable to rapid development, particularly under the administration’s new rule, which amounts to a rollback. Without any other rules to place common-sense limits on this development, these remaining wetlands may be lost.

Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.

Court Rules that Century-Old Oaks Can Be Razed for Water Pipeline in Katy

Water Pipeline is Part of 39-Mile, Billion-Dollar Project to Bring Water from Lake Houston to West Side of Town

By Karen Zurawski, Houston Chronicle, January 24, 2020

[Here are the board members of the North Fort Bend Water Authority: heavy on engineers and real estate developers. And here is how to contact them.]

 

North Fort Bend Water Authority has obtained a judgment in its civil lawsuit filed in Fort Bend County Court of Law No. 3 against a south Katy-area landowner that gives it a 20-foot wide easement to install a pipeline — overriding an attempt to preserve 100-year-old Live oaks as well as some other older trees.

The water line is part of a larger project. The water authority, created in 2005 by the Texas Legislature, is building infrastructure as part of a multi-agency billion-dollar project to have people switch from using groundwater, which causes subsidence, to using surface water as required by the Fort Bend Subsidence District (FBSD.) …

As part of that conversion, the authority is working with other entities to bring water from the Trinity River to Lake Houston where it will be treated at an expanded Houston northeast water purification plant. The treated water then will travel via an 8-foot diameter pipeline to west Harris County and North Fort Bend County. The West Harris County Regional Water Authority and NFBWA are sharing the costs for that 39-mile pipeline.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

Robert Fontenot stands in front of Live oaks planted in the early 1900s on his Katy property. Photo by Karen Zurawski for the Chronicle.

Trump Administration Scraps Clean Water Rule Aimed at Protecting Streams, Wetlands

 

“Reducing protections for wetlands is a recipe for disaster when the next Harvey, Imelda, or other heavy rainstorm that has become a regular part of living in this region of Texas, comes our way.” — Jordan Macha, Bayou City Waterkeeper

 

By Perla Trevizo, Houston Chronicle, Jan. 23, 2020

The Trump administration has finalized a clean-water rule that it says strikes a balance between protecting the environment and the economy, but critics say the change will put Houstonians at greater risk for flooding and threaten the drinking water for more than 11.5 million Texans.

The rule announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eliminates Clean Water Act protections for up to half of the nation’s wetlands and one-fifth of the streams across the country under a narrower interpretation of which waterways qualify for federal protection.

Court challenges had led to the Obama-era rule being put on hold in Texas and 27 other states. Still, Anna Farrell-Sherman, a clean water associate with Environment Texas, said the return to less-stringent rules will leave waterways from Barton Creek to Galveston Bay vulnerable to pollution and degradation.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

 

Pine Brook Wetlands park in Clear Lake, Texas. Photo by Mark Mulligan for the Houston Chronicle.

Houston’s Density Revolution Is Just Beginning

And Will Help With Houston’s Flooding and Traffic Problems

 

By Kyle Hagerty, Bisnow Houston, January 9, 2020

 

For decades, Houston has been the poster child of urban sprawl, growing to nearly 670 square miles. That story is changing. Years of work from the city and redevelopment authorities are finally paying off, as high-density, mixed-use projects break ground all across the Houston urban core.

“We’re early in the urbanization cycle,” Ziegler Cooper Senior Principal Scott Ziegler said.

Even more importantly, Ziegler sees Houston’s return to our inner core as part of the solution to Houston’s chronic flooding issues. “Quite honestly, I think if we hadn’t expanded out to the suburbs so quickly, we wouldn’t have near the problem. Those developments are the ones flooding the bayous,” Ziegler said. “If Houston had girdled its growth, we would have preserved prairie, pasture and forest lands for drainage. Suburban development has really taken away our drainage capacity.”

Ziegler knows it is a controversial opinion that could get him in trouble, but he said he stands by it. “When we build in the city, we have to have retention. We’ll put in underground tanks and detention infrastructure. In addition to that, we’re going even more vertical, two feet above the 500-year flood plain. Before it was two feet above the 100-year flood plain.” Houston’s lack of zoning may make headlines, but high-rise and mixed-use development in Houston’s inner city is more stringent than single-family home development on the city’s unincorporated, vulnerable edges. As millions flocked to Houston suburbs, local officials ignored stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater, according to investigative reporting from the Texas Tribune. At the crossroads of gentrification, traffic and flooding, Houston’s densification is one of the most important trends in the city. With the city continuing to grow at a rapid pace, building a resilient and attractive city will be the responsibility of the city’s developers and architects — and they are just getting started.

Read the rest of this article in Bisnow Houston.

 

Good News: More Land Preserved on the Katy Prairie Northwest of Houston

Land Protected Near Cypress Creek

Katy Prairie Conservancy Acquires 636-acre Tract Off Pattison Road

January 15, 2020

By Shawn Arrajj, Community Impact

Officials with the Katy Prairie Conservancy announced Jan. 14 the organization has acquired 636 acres off Pattison Road in the heart of the Katy Prairie.

The conservancy is a nonprofit land trust that works to protect and restore prairie acreage by both acquiring land and working with area landowners through voluntary conservation easements. The KPC already owns about 18,000 acres in Harris and Waller counties that officials said serves as a home to hundreds of species of wildlife as well as native grasses and wildflowers.

The 636 acres, located east of Pattison Road between Hebert and Morrison roads, is located within a part of the prairie that KPC officials described as “of highest priority for conservation.”

“Protecting this area is of great urgency as these lands are heavily utilized by migratory birds such as the sandhill crane and the long-billed curlew,” officials said in a Jan. 14 press release. “If these lands are lost to development, birds will have nowhere to stop for the night and could disappear from Houston forever.”

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Cy-Fair Community Impact Newspaper.

 

The Katy Prairie Conservancy has acquired 636 acres of land referred to as the Pattison Tract. Image courtesy the Katy Prairie Conservancy and Community Impact Newspaper.

 

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