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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
Public Meeting on Buffalo Bayou Dams
Corps of Engineers to Issue Repair Update Wednesday, March 9
March 7, 2016
Updated March 14, 2016
The US Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District, is holding a public meeting Wednesday, March 9, 2016, to update the public about progress in repairing the Addicks and Barker dams on South Mayde Creek and Buffalo Bayou in rapidly developing west Houston.
The two earthen dams, completed in the 1940s, were labeled “extremely high risk” in 2009 when engineers noticed seepage around the dams’ gates and ends following a heavy storm. The “extremely high risk” designation did not mean the dams were in danger of failing soon. But the possibility of failure combined with the dams’ location upstream of a major metropolitan area lifted the dams into the urgent category.
As a result, the reservoirs, which are dry reservoirs and contain one of the region’s largest parks and recreation areas, cannot be filled to capacity during storms, which impacts the way water is released from the dams before and after storms: faster and more often. (Correction: The Corps of Engineers says that the structural problems with the dams have had no impact on the capacity limit or release rates.) This unnatural flow regime in turn impacts Buffalo Bayou downstream. (South Mayde Creek joins Buffalo Bayou just below the dams.) However, most of the flooding in Buffalo Bayou during heavy storms is caused by surface runoff from buildings, highways, streets, parking lots, and other paved surfaces below the dams, which are closed during rain events.