Commissioner Radack Responds

“Buffalo Bayou Not a Natural River”

Supporting Costly Engineering to Slow the Flooding River. Spending Money to Stop the River Slowing For Free.

Nov. 30, 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.

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack called to comment on our article criticizing unnecessarily costly and destructive “repairs” to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. The six-mile long park is in Precinct Three in far west Houston and Commissioner Radack is the boss there.

Radack’s main point, apparently in support of needlessly spending an excessive amount of money, was that Buffalo Bayou is not a natural river. Because the bayou is not natural, it “does not naturally meander.”

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack has been in office since 1989. Official photo courtesy of Steve Radack.

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack. Official photo courtesy of Steve Radack.

For background: the naturally meandering bayou in Terry Hershey Park was stripped and straightened in the 1940s and ‘50s. Last spring high waters from record rains and extended high flows from the federal dams immediately upstream ate away at the bank in places and damaged the asphalt hike-and-bike trail on the north side. We pointed out that this had occurred where the old meanders or bends were. The bayou, we said, was seeking out its historic meanders, adjusting to the flow.

Our point was that it would make more sense, in accordance with the most advanced river management practices across the country and around the world, to move the asphalt trail slightly away from the very edge of the water and allow the river room to move and restore itself. This would be far cheaper, prettier and more natural, and healthier for the bayou, the beneficial trees and plants and creatures that grow there, and for the water flowing through it to the bay. Doing that rather than hardening the bank in an artificial straight line is also less likely to cause flooding and erosion downstream and less likely to require expensive repairs all over again. It’s also federal policy.

But according to Radack, this doesn’t matter, because Buffalo Bayou is not natural. It’s not natural  because the Corps of Engineers “controls the flow.” The bayou “only has water in it,” Radack explained patiently, if the Corps opens the floodgates. “The water comes from the reservoir system.”

Therefore, according to Radack, the bayou is “not natural.”

Is that all true? Beg pardon, but no.

But here’s a puzzle: Radack supports spending tens of millions in public funds to carve up the banks and engineer some two dozen in-channel detention basins on the bayou in Terry Hershey Park. (See below.) But he opposes allowing the bayou to carve out for free its own detention by widening and restoring its old bends. Instead he approves spending taxpayer funds to keep the bayou from doing that.

Does that make sense? Seems contradictory to us.

Read the rest of this story.

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.

Read the rest of this story.

Dump truck and excavator at work on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park on Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive

Dump truck and excavator at work on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park on Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive

 

Frank Smith, Conservationist

A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down

October 16, 2016

The year was 1933. Frank Smith was twelve years old and he had just climbed to the 14,255-foot summit of Long’s Peak while at Camp Audubon in Colorado.

It’s an achievement that still makes him proud. But more importantly, being in the snow-capped Colorado mountains changed the perspective of a young boy born and raised in a flat, humid city, albeit in one of the leafiest, most privileged neighborhoods in Houston.

“They made us pay attention to the flowers and the trees, and study and identify the mammals,” he recalls of his summers at Camp Audubon. “It was the first time my attention was directed toward natural things.” He had learned “a lot of other things,” he says. “But I had never been taught anything about the natural world.”

Those fortunate summers in the Rocky Mountain high forest wilderness during the Great Depression set Smith on a remarkable path of conservation and environmentalism. He read the books of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, including The Mountains of California. That path would lead Smith to found and lead numerous organizations, most recently Save Buffalo Bayou, that have helped protect and preserve bayous and streams, including Buffalo and Armand bayous, Galveston Bay and its estuaries, and create public park lands around the state of Texas. He would work with virtually all of the region’s prominent conservationists, all of them becoming close personal friends. Some of them had been friends since childhood.

But first he would have to grow up, join the Navy, establish several engineering businesses, invent some things, and meet Terry Hershey.

Read the rest of this post.

Frank C. Smith Jr., founding president of the board, Save Buffalo Bayou, in Memorial Park on a high bank above Buffalo Bayou. Photo taken May 5, 2016, by Jim Olive.

Frank C. Smith Jr., founding president of the board, Save Buffalo Bayou, in Memorial Park on a high bank above Buffalo Bayou. Photo taken May 5, 2016, by Jim Olive.

State of the Bayou

Downed Trees. New Channel. New Riprap. Washed Out Sidewalks, Beavers, and Turtles

But Some Banks Naturally Rebuilding

Does It Make Sense to Repair?

Sept. 1, 2016

Updated Sept. 11, 2016

You could not step twice into the same river. Heraclitus

We finally had a chance recently to float down beautiful Buffalo Bayou to see how things have changed. Our trip took us past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. We also biked along the bayou through Terry Hershey Park far upstream in west Houston below the dams to see what was happening there.

The good news is that some of the high banks that had slumped in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary during the Memorial Day 2015 flooding are naturally rebuilding.

The bad news is that the River Oaks Country Club has added more riprap to the south bank, hard armoring the bank with ugly, damaging concrete rubble, including where it should not be.

Nature’s Miraculous Way of Restoring. For Free.

Houston has had multiple record-breaking rains and flooding since the spring of 2015. When Buffalo Bayou overflows its high banks, as it did in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, the banks in places sometimes slump or slide away. This happens when the overflowing water seeps through the ground and saturates layers of sandy clay that liquefy, sometimes causing the bank to give way. Buffalo Bayou is 18,000 years old, and this has been happening for a very long time.

This natural tendency to slump is one reason why we think attempting to engineer these banks as proposed by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project won’t work. It’s also the reason why we think building and repeatedly repairing sidewalks at the bayou’s edge is wasteful and foolish.

Read the rest of this story.

The same high bank three months later on August 4, 2016.

The south-facing high bank of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary collapsed during the Memorial Day flood in 2015. Now self-restored. Photo on August 4, 2016.

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.”

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack telling flood victims that some people enjoy floods because they get new cars and remodeled homes. Image courtesy of Cynthia Neely, Aug. 4, 2016.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack telling flood victims that some people enjoy floods because they get new cars and remodeled homes. Image courtesy of Cynthia Neely, Aug. 4, 2016.

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.

Read the rest of this post.

It’s Not Dead Yet

Flood Control Still Pushing Costly, Destructive “Stabilization” Project on Buffalo Bayou

July 31, 2016

It’s a pointless, wasteful, ill-conceived, and maybe illegal project to rip up and raze trees and plants and wildlife habitat, dig up the banks, plug up tributaries, dredge and reroute the channel along one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. This is a dreamy stretch of the river in the middle of the city, filled with beaver, otter, alligators, fish and flying creatures, and even edible plants.  It flows for more than a mile past our great public Memorial Park, a natural detention area and significant geologic site that features very old high bluffs and sandstone formations. All of which would be obliterated.

And after almost three years of adamant public opposition, the Harris County Flood Control District is still promoting the project, which will cost the taxpayers at least $4 million plus, not including future costs of maintenance and repair.

It’s mystifying why they want to do this, why they think it would even work, why they don’t realize that the bayou would wash it away or that it would simply all slump away, as has happened in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, where taxpayers are footing the ever-mounting bill for constantly repairing the banks dug up and stripped of trees and vegetation by Flood Control.

Do They Not Have More Urgent Problems?

Surely, the flood control district has more urgent problems that require our hard-earned tax money. Harris County is one of the most flooded places in the country. And this project, billed as a “stabilization” and “bank restoration” program, will do nothing to address flooding and could even make it worse. The county should focus on the hundreds of miles of channelized bayous and streams unwisely covered in now-aging concrete that should be restored to something more natural and beneficial.

The project, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was first proposed in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association under then board chair, Kevin Shanley, landscape architect and principal with SWA Group, the firm responsible for the ugly, obtrusive bridges, collapsing sidewalks, poorly-functioning dog park and non-functioning faux Hill Country fountain and stream in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Read the rest of this post.

Excavate fill

This map prepared by the Harris County Flood Control District shows the areas to be excavated (yellow) and filled (orange) in the proposed Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Note also the rerouting of the channel. Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, including a tributary, are on the north, with houses in between. The entire south bank is River Oaks Country Club golf course.

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

Read the rest of this post.

Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain.

Over one-third of houses reporting flooding on Memorial Day 2015 were outside any known flood hazard area. Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodways and floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain. Image from the Harris County Flood Control District report to the Spring 2016 conference of the Texas Association of Floodplain Managers.

Empty at Last. Almost.

Buffalo Bayou Reservoirs Finally Drain Last of Flood Waters

July 6, 2016

The last of the storm water from the April 18 Tax Day floods has passed finally  through the gates of Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County. (Almost, not quite. See comment below.) The reservoirs behind those 1940s-era earthen dams on Buffalo Bayou are normally empty in order to be ready to impound rainfall and runoff that would flood central Houston downstream.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, was forced to release water through the dams at a high rate of flow – between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and more — for nearly three months in order to empty the record-high reservoirs, as frequent rains kept adding to the water level.

Base flow in Buffalo Bayou, as measured by the USGS gauge at Piney Point, is between 100 and 200 cfs. As of today the flow was still high – over 1,000 cfs.

The dams on Buffalo Bayou are classified “extremely high risk,” in large part due to the damage that would occur to the nation’s fourth most populous city if the dams were to fail. A $72 million construction project to repair seepage problems and build new conduits has been delayed due to the high water level in the reservoirs.

You can listen to what Richard Long, who manages the dams for the Corps, had to say about the situation this morning to Dave Fehling of Houston Public Matters. Long is the supervisory natural resources manager for the Corps’ Galveston District and has been working at the dams for 35 years.

And look for a report from us soon about the impact of the high waters on Buffalo Bayou. Richard Hyde, a geologist who lives in neighboring Bear Creek Village, reports that the herds of deer that roam the 25,000 acres of federally-owned wooded parkland in the reservoirs seem greatly reduced. And sadly, Buffy the Bison, rescued in April from the flooded small zoo in Bear Creek Park, died shortly thereafter.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6.

Barker Dam and Reservoir around midday on Sunday, June 5, 2016, as the dam gates were releasing impounded stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. The 12,000-acre reservoir is located just west of Highway 6.

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?

Read the rest of this post.

The platform containing the control panel for the gates at Barker Dam. Photo taken May 17, 2016

The platform containing the control panel for the gates at Barker Dam standing in what would normally be an empty reservoir and park. Photo taken May 17, 2016

Protecting Galveston, Houston, and the Texas Coast

Public Comment Needed By May 9

April 11, 2016

You may have heard about proposals to protect development along Galveston Bay, the Houston Ship Channel, and Houston itself from a giant storm surge. Dubbed the Ike Dike after Hurricane Ike in 2008, one leading plan is to build a 17-foot high levee for 50 miles along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, with a massive floodgate across the Houston Ship Channel.

 Buffalo Bayou Runs Through It

But the Ike Dike is only one of several ideas being considered for the Houston-Galveston region by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Texas. And in fact, in light of sea level rise (and due to subsidence, sea level is rising more rapidly on the upper Texas coast) and the potential flood damage from future storms, the Corps has been studying the entire Texas coast and gathering information for the past several years. In August 2014, the Corps issued a report called the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Project and held a series of four public workshops. And in May 2015 the Corps issued a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Study Final Reconnaissance 905 (b) Report.

Houston Ship Channel, Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

Port of Houston, Houston Ship Channel, Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

A Notice of Intent to prepare a Draft Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement for a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, dated March 23, 2016, was published on the Corps’ Galveston District website. And on March 31 the Corps published a notice in the Federal Register calling for public comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study. The public has only until May 9 to comment.

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