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!
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.
The Flood Czar Answers His Own Phone
But What Causes Urban Flooding?
July 12, 2016
Steve Costello explained for probably the hundredth time or more that he is not really the flood czar of Houston but the chief resilience officer.
The soft-spoken Costello, a civil engineer, former member of the Houston City Council (serving six years), former president and current board member of the Memorial Park Conservancy, and former candidate for mayor of Houston, was speaking at a meeting of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood in west Houston a few weeks ago. Buffalo Bayou runs through the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood.
Appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner in early May, Costello has been making the rounds, speaking at public meetings, attending others, such as the highly emotional town hall meeting with US Rep. John Culberson in June. Costello also has been giving interviews. Recently he flew off to Washington D.C. with the mayor and members of the Houston City Council to meet with officials of the Army Corps of Engineers about a multi-billion dollar plan to dredge and deepen Lake Houston in order to enlarge its capacity and alleviate flooding in northeast Harris County. Lake Houston is a major source of Houston’s drinking water.
But back in late June he was explaining to the Briar Forest crowd of about twenty-five neighborhood activists that while his sole mission was to do something about flooding, and his wife liked the idea of being a czarina, really he was the chief resilience officer. The concept, he explained, was a response to the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project. Mayor Annise Parker had applied to the program for funding and support for a resilience officer, who would have focused not just on flooding but also on broader social issues like unemployment and transportation. Mayor Turner decided he wanted to focus on drainage and flooding, and the Rockefeller Foundation decided not to fund a position for Houston, said Costello.
No Staff and No Budget
As a result, Costello answers his own phone and emails himself. He has no staff. Apparently he has no funds or budget. (He also said in a later email exchange that he wasn’t sure where the funds for his salary were coming from and didn’t answer how much he was being paid.) Yet he has been bravely handing out his card, offering his cell phone number and email to myriad people in a city drowning in outrage and misery over increasing and repeated flooding, lost homes, cars, property, savings, and lives.
Harris County One of the Most Flooded Places in the Country
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.
Proposed Roads to Damage Katy Prairie Preserve
Urgent Notice of Public Meeting and Comment Deadline
May 1, 2016
Updated May 3, 2016
The Katy Prairie Conservancy has announced that the Harris County Engineering Department has corrected the email link for commenting on proposed changes to the Harris County Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan that will damage the Katy Prairie.
The correct email address is:
Update May 8, 2016
The comment period has been extended until May 13.
The Katy Prairie Conservancy has sent out an urgent notice of a Harris County plan to build new roads in and around the Katy Prairie Preserve. The preserve is a nonprofit land trust project to restore and protect historic wetland prairie in Waller and western Harris counties.
Buffalo Bayou originates in the Katy Prairie. Prairie wetlands, rapidly being destroyed and paved over by development, are vital for clean water and flooding mitigation, as are forested riparian zones along the banks of streams such as Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries.
When, Where, and How
The Harris County Engineering Department is holding a public meeting Monday, May 2, 2016, on proposed changes to the Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan (see particularly pages 25 through 29) that will “degrade the Katy Prairie Preserve System,” according to the conservancy.
The meeting takes place from 5:30 to7:00 pm at the Hockley Community Center, 28515 Old Washington Road, in Hockley, Texas.
The conservancy urges that if you cannot attend the meeting, please submit your comments in writing by May 13, 2016, via email to email@example.com or by mail to:
Harris County Engineering Department
10555 Northwest Freeway, Suite 120
Houston, Texas 77092
Attn: Fred Mathis, P.E.
The conservancy says that while Harris County is proposing to dispense with parts of the one-mile road grid through some of the preserves, the county also recommends constructing new roads in sensitive and/or inappropriate areas.
Here are some of the conservancy’s main objections:
- In general, the plan does not effectively take into consideration the importance of the Katy Prairie preserves in reducing flooding, improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, and offering recreational opportunities for the residents of the Greater Houston area. Roads should go around the Katy Prairie preserves and not through them. Roads can move, nature cannot.
- KPC does not support the new proposed east-west road through the upper third of the Warren Ranch; it will cause fragmentation and impair ranch operations.
- KPC does not support the new proposed north-south road through the conservation easement lands owned by KPC’s conservation easement donors; this land provides sensitive habitat and flood protection as well as other environmental benefits. It should be protected.
- A number of the proposed new roads, if built, would be under water during flood events if the most recent flood event is any indication of where floodwaters go on the prairie.
For more information visit http://www.katyprairie.org/
Informative Articles in Response to Tax Day Flooding
A Roundup of Opinion on What Happened and Why
April 25, 2016
Houston neighborhoods shouldn’t be detention ponds
Commercial developers are dumping their runoff into our homes
By Bruce Nichols for the Houston Chronicle
April 19, 2016
Houston has a lot of great characteristics. It is open to new people, new ideas. It encourages entrepreneurs. Its energy-based economy is strong, despite the slowdown. But one big flaw is our failure to organize local government to protect homeowner investments, a big share of life savings for most of us.
The latest example of what this flaw leads to: Hundreds of homes flooded April 18. It was not a one-off event, a freak of Nature, as we have been assured. It will happen again, to more people, as more and more land is paved over without developers’ controlling their excess runoff.
Don’t blame Mother Nature for flooding. Blame City Council.
The disasters are predictable. Why aren’t we preventing them?
By Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne, Residents Against Flooding, for the Houston Chronicle
April 19, 2016
Man-made, preventable flooding has surged dirty, sewage-ridden water through Houston living rooms three times now in seven years, yet city government fails to prevent these recurring emergencies.
Really? If losing homes, livelihoods, retirement savings, health and sanity (and at least one life) aren’t reasons enough to make emergency detention and drainage improvements, what in the world does it take?
Right now, too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes. This new development is responsible for unnecessary flooding of neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood plains, weren’t prone to flooding. That new development is also responsible for flood insurance rising 100 to 200 percent (before the Tax Day flood) in these non-flood plains.
City government is allowing this to happen. Developers use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do. Is it ethical to allow a new office building to flood an entire neighborhood even if a loophole makes it legal?
Disaster by design: Houston can’t keep developing this way
We can’t stop growing. But to avoid flooding, we’ve got to be smarter about it.
By John S. Jacob for the Houston Chronicle
April 20, 2016
Let’s review the facts before this teachable moment fades away.
We live on a very flat coastal plain — much of it only a four-foot drop over a mile. And much of it with very clayey, slow-to-drain soils. We also live in the region of highest-intensity rainfall in the continental U.S. So it is going to flood. Mother Nature will continue to deliver floods no matter what we do. Don’t count her out.
Flooding does not occur uniformly across the region. There are floodplains, and areas near the floodplains. There are low areas and there are higher areas. We need to know where these are. Obviously! — and yet we don’t seem to know.
But humans have screwed things up royally.
Wrecked wetlands lead to flooding. Here’s what you can do.
By Jennifer Lorenz for the Houston Chronicle
April 20, 2016
For the past twenty years, we at Bayou Land Conservancy have watched, horrified, as the Houston region’s wetlands are scraped and filled in — directly resulting in increased flooding.
When wetlands are allowed to function, they’re the kidneys of the area’s watershed. Their special soil types are surrounded by particular wetland plants that help hold water in shallow depressions. They clean the water as they allow some of it to filter slowly into the ground, the rest to drain slowly into our bayous. That process is the foundation of our region’s ecology.
The rampant destruction of our forested and prairie wetlands is upsetting this balance, drastically reducing the land’s ability to absorb water. By allowing so many wetlands to be turned into subdivisions, we’re not just kicking them to the curb; we’re turning them into curbs. We need the ecological equivalent of dialysis.
How policy fills Houston living rooms with water
We know how to lessen flood damage. But will we take the steps?
By David Crossley for the Houston Chronicle
April 21, 2016
The flooding of April 18, 2016, was a profound experience for many reasons. The electrifying videos from drones, so quickly and easily available on Facebook, and hours of television enterprise brought us the clearest picture we’ve ever had of the immensity and the tragedy of flooding in Houston, and another reminder that all neighborhoods are not equal.
It was a spooky and historic picture; that was the most one-day rain in Houston’s history.
Extreme rain events like this are going to be more common as we slide further into climate change. Are we doing things to ease the slide or are we making it worse?
Greenspoint, poverty and flooding
Would low-income families be better or worse off if flood-prone apartments were razed?
By Susan Rogers for the Houston Chronicle
April 22, 2016
Floods, like any natural disaster, are great levelers. All of those affected suffer equally. It is in the wake of a great loss that the disparity emerges. For some, it can be easy to find the resources to rent a new apartment, to move, to turn on your utilities — or at least not extremely hard. For others, those financial challenges are overwhelming.
That division shows sharply in Greenspoint, where some of this week’s worst flooding occurred.
The mall, office towers, multi-family apartment complexes, and strip retail development are disconnected and isolated from each other both physically and demographically. Fundamentally there are two communities: one community that caters to the area’s office workers, and one community for those who call the area home. The stores and restaurants that line Greens Road and Greenspoint Drive, which cater to office workers, are closed during the evenings and on weekends, when the area’s residents would be more likely to shop.
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.