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!
Science vs Engineers
Flood Control District and Scientific Experts In Opposite Corners
“You need to find some better experts.” — Former Harris County Flood Control District Director Mike Talbott to reporters for the Texas Tribune
Dec. 9, 2016
Excellent reporting from the Texas Tribune and PropPublica on the battle over what causes flooding in the Houston area and what to do about it. The Houston Press has also published an informative follow-up interview with the current director of the Flood Control District, Russ Poppe, after the recent retirement of Talbott.
Scientists say the fundamental problem is that Houstonians have assumed they can simply engineer their way out of flooding.
They can’t. And widening and deepening our bayous and streams is the wrong answer. We need to understand and work with nature. It’s cheaper, more effective, and better for us. Storm water needs to be absorbed, slowed down, and spread out before it reaches our streams.
Houston-area officials could work to preserve green space; strengthen regulation on development; plan for a changing climate; and work harder to remove the 140,000 homes that remain in the 100-year floodplain. …
As wetlands have been lost, the amount of impervious surface in Harris County increased by 25 percent from 1996 to 2011, [Sam] Brody [of Texas A&M Galveston] said. And there’s no way that engineering projects or flood control regulations have made up for that change, he said.
Between 2001 and 2005, his research found, the loss of flood-absorbing land along the Gulf of Mexico increased property damage from floods by about $6 million — much of that outside floodplains.
“There’s no doubt that the development … that we’re putting in these flood-prone areas is exacerbating flooding over time,” Brody said. “There’s a huge body of research out there beyond Houston, across the world” supporting that argument.
Research by [then Director Mike] Talbott’s own Harris County Flood Control District points to the effectiveness of prairie grass to absorb floodwater. ‘The restoration of one acre of prairie,’ a 2015 report by the district wrote, would offset the extra volume of runoff created by two acres of single-family homes or one acre of commercial property. (The district says that data is preliminary.)
But Talbott and his successor, Russ Poppe, don’t buy the research.
And then read the follow-up interview with Poppe, the current director of Flood Control, in The Houston Press.
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.