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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wild and Scenic Film Festival
Jan. 12, 2020
Bats fishing. Boys and butterflies. Girls on glaciers.
The touring festival of short films is always exciting and enlightening, providing Houstonians with eye-opening insights into new places, new adventures, and new research and ideas.
The festival features ten short films, with different films shown each night from 7 to 9 p.m.
The popular event is sponsored for the sixth straight year by the Citizens Environmental Coalition, founded almost fifty years ago by a group of women active in environmental causes and quality of life issues. Among them was Terry Hershey, who helped save Buffalo Bayou from being channelized and lined with concrete like White Oak and Brays bayous.
The festival was started almost forty years ago by activists in California determined to protect the South Yuba River. It is now the focus of nearly 250 events around the country.
A Frosty Reception on Buffalo Bayou
The Bend in Winter
Jan. 12, 2020
The grass sparkled with a rare sugary frosting as we walked across the picnic grounds of Memorial Park towards the woods of Buffalo Bayou. It was late December. Jim Olive was in town, and we were headed to photograph that bend in the bayou we’d been documenting throughout the seasons for almost six years now.
The pale morning sun slanted through the trees, highlighting the field of frost. It was below average cold, starting out in the 30s. We’d had to look for mittens and woolly stuff.
Trails Not Trails. Laws Not Laws.
Whoops! What’s this? We stopped. Our path into the woods was blocked. Wire-fenced off and a big green sign posted in English and Spanish: “This is Not a trail. Do not enter! Destroying public property is a prohibited by Title 19, Chapter 191, of the Government Code of Texas.”
Hmm. Well, it turns out this is Not a law either. More about that later.
To continue, we continued. The clanking, grinding sounds of heavy machinery rang through the wintry woods. Next we found that the soaring loblolly pine snag, long dead, had been cut down. It had been standing tall for years, slowly decaying, providing habitat and sustenance for wildlife. We counted the rings. At least 70-80 years old. The massive felled log lay across the trail that was Not a trail, blocking our path. The name “Jesus” carved into its side years ago was still faintly visible. We went around.
Talking About Local Geology and the Formation of Buffalo Bayou
Dec. 25, 2019
Geologist, river guide and Save Buffalo Bayou board member Tom Helm joins Michael Gold, founder of the Cypress Creek Ecological Restoration Project, to discuss the geologic history of Texas and our local Houston area.
They discuss Tom’s background, how he became interested in geology, the geologic formation of our state and local area, what you can see around Texas, when and how our bayous and creeks were formed, and what you can see in our bayous and creeks.
Image: Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County by Michael Gold
You Blockin’ My Bayou?
Outfalls, Right and Wrong
Dec. 16, 2019
When it rains, water falls from the sky and runs off our roofs, yards, patios, parking lots, sidewalks, roads, and driveways into storm drains, through pipes or ditches and into our bayous and creeks. The end pipe that drops that collected rainwater into our streams is called an outfall. The receiving stream, usually part of our natural drainage system, carries the rainwater away to the sea.
Buffalo Bayou, which begins far out on the Katy Prairie and runs all the way to the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay, is our central drainage waterway flowing through the center of Houston, with many tributary creeks and streams and storm pipes emptying into it.
In many cities, to avoid overwhelming the drainage system with too much water all at once, causing flooding, residents are encouraged, even required, to disconnect their downspouts or drainpipes from the city stormwater or sewer system and let the rainwater spread out and flow slowly over yards and gravel, etc. But that’s a different story.
The outfall that releases all this collected rain runoff into our bayous and creeks can be big or small, concrete or metal, round or square. But there are wrong ways and right ways to install them in the banks of our streams.
Installing them the wrong way—pointing across the stream, for example—can block the flow like a dam during storms, even causing the water to flow back upstream and out of the banks.
Outfalls installed the wrong way can also cause erosion of the opposite bank, as well as around the pipe itself.
Taxpayers end up paying to repair the damage done by improperly installed outfalls. Property owners who flood or have their banks eroded away also pay.
In our stormy Bayou City where engineers have been dealing with drainage and flooding problems for a long time, one might think that we would always get it right. But somehow we are burdened with numerous outfalls, old and new, installed in ways that block the flow during big storms, and damage the banks.
Are these outfalls in violation of local flood control standards? Are they in violation of generally accepted best practice?
Take for example the massive concrete outfall on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park just downstream from the Memorial Drive Bridge. Long ago, before the Corps of Engineers stripped and channelized this section of the bayou in the 1950s, before the construction of Allen Parkway (Buffalo Drive) in 1925 connecting downtown and River Oaks, this was a small tributary stream flowing through a deep ravine into the bayou. The tributary, like many, was enclosed and buried decades ago, and the current concrete-walled outfall was installed during renovation of the park around 2014.
The outfall, located just upstream of a bend, faces towards the opposite bank. Since the outfall was constructed, the section of asphalt sidewalk on that opposite bank, installed around the same time, has washed away, along with much of the bank, erosion that began even before Harvey in August 2017.