Engineers Caused the Flood That Led to Creation of Flood Control District
A Fact-Based Response to “Engineers’ View” in the Texas Tribune
March 6, 2017
A few weeks ago the Texas Tribune published an editorial comment written by engineers Michael Bloom and Steve Stagner responding to the excellent investigative work on flooding in the Houston region, “Boomtown, Floodtown,” published by the Tribune and ProPublica on Dec. 7, 2016. See our summary of the report here.
In their TribTalk editorial “Boomtown, Floodtown Reconsidered, An Engineer’s View,” Feb. 6, 2017, Bloom and Stagner repeat a couple of erroneous statements commonly used by representatives of the Harris County Flood Control District in support of the district’s shaky position that paving over the prairie, i.e. development, is not contributing to flooding.
According to this point of view, our native tallgrass prairie and its associated wetlands are hardly better than concrete when it comes to slowing and absorbing rainwater. These deep-rooted grassland prairies, with water-absorbing root systems that can reach 12-15 feet into the ground or more, once existed around and upstream of Buffalo Bayou, in Katy, west of Houston, for instance, source of Buffalo Bayou, as well as up and down the coastal plain. Practical people are trying to preserve and restore what remains.
In support of their argument, Bloom and Stagner summon up a point commonly made by members of the local engineering community: that the 1935 flood on Buffalo Bayou that devastated downtown Houston and led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District happened even though the Katy Prairie way upstream was then a big natural tallgrass prairie.
This argument is wrong on two points. Read why in this fact-based response by Save Buffalo Bayou to an “Engineers’ View” published as a comment in the Tribune’s TribTalk.
Or continue reading to find out the answers. With links!
Wasting Money the Old-Fashioned Way
Costly Bayou Repairs Do More Harm Than Good, Won’t Last
Nov. 21, 2016
Updated April 23, 2017 — The Harris County Flood Control District reports that repair costs through March 2017 are $1.25 million. Terry Hershey Park remains closed until construction work is complete.
See also “Commissioner Radack Responds.”
From a distance you could hear the monstrous roar of the heavy equipment in the woods. Following deep, wide tracks smashed into the bare dirt along the bank of Buffalo Bayou, passing large cottonwoods apparently cut to make way for the big equipment, we came across a scene of troubling destruction.
A gigantic articulated 30-ton dump truck with six massive wheels was slowly rolling towards us with a large load of fresh dirt and dripping mud dug up from the bayou bank. Further along a 60-ton excavator on tracks sat on the very edge of the bank, expertly swiveling back and forth, scraping up the dirt bank and dumping it into the truck, scooping up loads of white limestone rock and dropping it in a layer where the excavated bank once was.
We’d seen the eroded bank before the “repairs” began. This damage was far worse.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Enjoy Your Flood!
County Commissioner Provokes Wrath of Flood Victims
Aug. 8, 2016
Updated Aug. 9. Radack Doubles Down, Stands His Ground. Read Here.
Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack has unleashed a flood of outrage by telling an audience of several hundred citizens in an area of the city heavily damaged by flooding that “some people enjoy flooding.”
The large audience at a meeting of the Cypress Coalition Thursday, Aug. 4, gasped and groaned when Radack took the podium, waved his hands, and said that “some people frankly over the years, in the years I’ve been doing this, that frankly enjoy floods about every seven years, because they want new cars, they want their homes redone.”
Only Rain Causes Flooding!
Cynthia Neely, board member of Residents Against Flooding (RAF), was at the meeting at the Metropolitan Baptist Church with RAF Chair Ed Browne. She reports that both Radack, who’s been in office for 27 years, and Mike Talbott, retiring director of the Harris County Flood Control District, blamed Mother Nature for flooding.
Why is the City Spending Our Money to Fight This Lawsuit?
Update on Residents Against Flooding
July 27, 2016
Residents in the Memorial City area, which is in the Buffalo Bayou watershed, filed a federal lawsuit last May to try to force the city to enforce stormwater detention and drainage regulations against developers not just in northwest Houston but also across the city. The suit claims, among other things, that lack of enforcement is causing flooding of their homes. The suit also names the local Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ 17) and its Redevelopment Authority. The TIRZ 17 collects some property taxes in the zone and decides how to spend the money, and the suit accuses the TIRZ of deliberately funneling rainwater runoff away from commercial developments and into residential areas.
The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages. They request that the City and the TIRZ simply do their jobs.
Recently attorney Charles Irvine of the environmental law firm Irvine and Conner spoke at the annual meeting of Residents Against Flooding, which filed the lawsuit. He provided an update on the lawsuit in the wake of a recent Texas State Supreme Court ruling against a similar lawsuit filed by homeowners in the White Oak Bayou watershed.
Watch Irvine speak to the meeting in this 17-minute video. Among other things, he points out that the City could avoid litigation, and he questions who in the City is approving development plans without the required slowing and catching of stormwater runoff that results from increased impervious surface such as parking lots, apartment complexes, and shopping malls.
Dammed If They Do, Dammed If They Don’t
The Conundrum of the Buffalo Bayou Dams
Why so much water for so long in Buffalo Bayou?
May 26, 2016
The water in the normally empty reservoir had dropped only a few feet by the time we stood on the earthen dam looking down at the dark, opaque blue-gray surface. After almost a month, the rippling water below was still some twenty-three feet deep, and extended as far as we could see along the thirteen-mile long dam and far into the thousands of acres of flooded woods.
It had taken only a little more than twenty-four hours for the rains that began on April 18 to fill the vast flood control reservoirs in west Houston with a record amount of water: a total of more than 206,000 acre feet, a massive amount of water. Imagine 206,000 acres covered in a foot of water. Enough to cover more than eight times the acreage of both reservoirs to a depth of one foot. That much water would take an estimated four weeks to drain, according to reports at the time.
But that was only if there was no more rain. There was more rain, and it was taking much longer. The reservoirs, vast wooded parks with recreational facilities and nature paths, are still draining. As of May 24, the combined total of the two reservoirs was still about 90,000 acre-feet, down to a little less than half.
And Buffalo Bayou was still flowing high and fast, higher and faster for longer than ever before. Property owners upstream had flooded and property owners downstream who had hoped for more moderate flows were instead seeing long-standing trees falling into the fast-flowing stream, banks eroding, sediment collecting, debris causing water to back up onto their property.
Why was this happening and is there a way out of it?
Paving, Flooding, and Loss of Wetlands: Making It Easier to Build More Roads
Public Comment Needed by May 7
May 3, 2016
The Texas Department of Transportation wants to make it easier to build roads over our vital prairie wetlands by creating a one-size fits-all statewide stormwater discharge permit. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is considering the 53-page proposal, known as Permit No. WQ0005011000.
The new permit is opposed by wetlands activists such as Galveston Baykeeper, which would like to see the state Department of Transportation do a better job of protecting wetlands and enforcing federal law.
Highways and paved surfaces are a major source of flooding as they rapidly collect and funnel rainwater that can no longer soak into the ground. Wetlands detain, absorb, and cleanse stormwater, which is why they are protected under the federal Clean Water Act – if they have a connection to a federally protected waterway.
Coastal Prairie Different from Edwards Aquifer
Environmental attorney and Galveston Baykeeper board member Jen Powis says the organization has been watching the state transportation department move toward “one big statewide permit” for about two years. Until now permits were issued based on the specific conditions of each community, Powis told writer Janice Van Dyke Walden in the May/June 2016 issue of Gulf Coast Mariner magazine.
“I’m a strong proponent of local solutions for specific places,” says Powis. “We all know that Houston looks very different from the Edwards Aquifer.”
You can read the proposed Permit No. WQ0005011000 here. And here is how to make a comment about it to the TCEQ. Comments are due by May 7.
No Changes in Operation of Buffalo Bayou Dams
Release Rates May Be Looked At in Future
March 13, 2016
It was a dark and stormy night. Thunder boomed and heavy rain pelted the roof as a small group of us sat nervously in the middle of the rising Addicks Reservoir in far west Houston listening to the district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers tell us Addicks and Barker dams are safe.
Flanking Col. Richard Pannell last Wednesday, March 9, was a panel of officials from the Corps’ Galveston District office, as well as representatives from the Harris County Flood Control District and Granite Construction, the company awarded the $71.9 million contract to replace the leaky conduits in the 70-year-old earthen dams. The audience was a small crowd of about thirty hardy citizens who had braved the heavy traffic and heavy rain and managed to find the Bear Creek Community Center in the middle of a dark, wet forest despite the wrong address in the Corps’ public notice.
Col. Pannell made a thorough and convincing presentation of the history of the dams, the current problems, and what is being done about them. Among other work, the conduits in the two dams will be entirely replaced by new conduits in separate locations. This process will take about three years. He emphasized that the dams were in no immediate danger of failing and explained that the dams are labeled “extremely high risk” because of the potential consequences to Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, in the unlikely event that the dams failed.
Dams Operating Normally Despite Leaks
There were several questions about the capacity of the dams and the impact of repairs on the rate of future releases of water impounded behind the dams. The pattern of extended high releases and rapid drops has been criticized for damaging property on the bayou and killing trees and vegetation that control erosion.
After the enormous Memorial Day storm last year, the Corps began releasing impounded stormwater at 3000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the first time. Normally the release rate is limited to 2000 cfs as measured by the Piney Point gauge. The Corps does not release water from the dams during a rain event, and the high releases began on June 1 and continued for ten days, finally dropping on June 12. The banks were already saturated from the storm, and the damage from the extended high flow was plainly visible up and down the bayou.
Once-a-Boat-Launch at Woodway to Re-Open by Mid-December
Meanwhile Buffalo Bayou Busy Replanting, Beautifying
Sept. 5, 2015
A contractor has been found at last to take down the heavy-duty chain-link construction fencing, put up some railing, spread some gravel and sod, and restore the informational sign in that western part of Memorial Park that was once a popular boat launch and is now referred to by public officials as a drainage outfall.
Closed to the public for more than two years, including more than a year after the $1.36 million taxpayer-funded solar-irrigated “erosion control” project was completed, the ugly, massively enlarged outfall draining Post Oak Road is still officially a Texas Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail boat launch. Previously it was also a forested area with a nature trail.
But officials with the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) 16 now seem genuinely eager to do “what we can to get it open to the public,” said John Breeding, administrator, at the Uptown board meeting in a Galleria high-rise last Wednesday, Aug. 26.
The board voted without discussion to award a contract for $219,272.10 to Jerdon Enterprise, LP, which was the sole bidder for the long-delayed project. With “add-ons” the cost could go to $335,615.10. That seems like a lot of public money for taking down some chain-link fencing, putting up some standard railing, laying down some loose gravel, etc. But apparently no one else wanted to do it.
Work on the Outfall Phase II is now scheduled to begin this month and be completed by December 15, 2015.
And if you’re confused about why a TIRZ and not the parks department or the city council would be making these decisions, well, it is confusing. But the TIRZ has control of the money.
Permeable Paving Can Help Save Us and Our Bayous
Impervious Surface Is A Major Cause of Flooding in Houston
June 17, 2015
Yes, porous paving does work in Houston. We need to use more of this, on our hot, sunbaked parking lots, on our sidewalks, driveways, patios, and more. (It’s cooler too!)
Storm water runoff is a major problem for our bayous (especially those that have had protective trees and plants stripped from their banks). And impervious surface is the major cause of flooding and contributes to water pollution too. Instead of soaking into the ground (or being deflected by trees and leaves), filtering naturally and slowly through the soil and being cleansed of pollutants, storm water runoff gathers quickly, racing through toxic streets and highways, into drainage systems and pouring all at once into our bayous and creeks.
Here is an interesting and timely article in the Houston Chronicle by the founder of Houston-based TrueGrid, a permeable paving company that even creates permeable grass parking lots.
(Note to Houston park and street planners: we don’t need to have ugly, hot impermeable concrete or asphalt sidewalks to accommodate wheelchairs and runners. TrueGrid makes ADA compliant, permeable sidewalks.)
There is, in fact, also a permeable asphalt, recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But here’s another interesting fact: in a typical urban residential area, rooftops account for 30-40 percent of the total impervious area. What can you do about that? Individuals can do a lot!
As the EPA says, “Slow it down, spread it out, soak it in.”
We don’t need to keep flooding and destroying our bayous, making them into bigger, uglier drainage ditches.