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?
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.
How Old Is Buffalo Bayou? Where Does It Come From?
Geology Lessons on the Bayou
March 27, 2016
Want to learn about the geology and natural history of Buffalo Bayou?
Save Buffalo Bayou is partnering with professional geologist Tom Helm, who also happens to be an outstanding naturalist and river guide, to offer floating classes on the geology of our 18,000-year-old mother bayou.
Paddle with Tom on a two-hour canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou and see some of our Pleistocene natural history right here in the middle of Houston. Learn all about the formation of the bluffs and sandstone rocks during the last ice age. See examples of depositional environments and fluvial processes. Find out why the banks are sandy and how sand moves downstream, why the river looks the way it does, and much more.
Where, When, Cost
The classes start at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park and float past the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, through the historic natural area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District. Multiple stops will be made along the way to examine features of interest.
The schedule depends on class size. One to four persons can be scheduled any day of the week, usually with no more than 48 hours’ notice. Groups larger than four persons (up to 30 persons maximum) are accepted only on weekends. These larger weekend groups need to schedule at least one month in advance.
Cost is $50 per person, which includes canoe and equipment, and light refreshments at the end. Discounts are available for academic faculty and students.
Note that the classes will be not take place if the flow of Buffalo Bayou is greater than 300 cubic feet per second (as measured by the Piney Point USGS gauge). At water levels above this, the sandstones are mostly obscured. If a trip is cancelled due to high water, students have the option of rescheduling or receiving a full refund.
For more information, contact Tom Helm.
Some Things We Learned Already: Why Mud Stinks
We floated with Tom recently for a preview of the geology class. Among the things we learned is why some of the mud stinks. The mud and the sand are filled with layers of organic matter, leaves mostly, and as the organic matter decomposes, it smells like … decomposing stuff. But it also builds soil for future vegetation. This process produces the mysterious oily sheen that you see floating on top of the mud sometimes.
We also learned to tell mud from sand from silt. (Hint: it’s a matter of the size of the grains.) Tom showed us how geologists rub the mud between their thumb and fingers to feel the size of the grains.
We studied the patterns in the sand, watched the grains of sand moving in the water, and learned about eddies and sediment deposition and transport. We saw a lot of animal tracks.
We learned to put the constantly changing bayou in the context of its natural process.
In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
― Rachel Carson
Reminder: The Threat is Still Alive
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou II
March 14, 2016
Okay, so we harshed the mood a little with our small, silent reminders that regatta contestants were paddling through a historic natural area still threatened with destruction.
“Thanks for polluting my day,” yelled one paddler in the crowd of hundreds of Buffalo Bayou boaters playing loud music and stopping to pee in the woods. We were watching from the sandy bank of the lovely middle meander, forested with young willows and box elder that would all be cut down, the meander filled, graded, and planted with grass.
The event was the 44th Annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta on Saturday, March 12. And once again we hung our beautiful Save Buffalo Bayou banner (Night Heron by Houston artist Frank X. Tolbert 2) from the railroad bridge and set out small white signs alerting participants to the fact that the wild stretch they were passing through would all be bulldozed under a plan proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA).
The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do. (See Buffalo Bayou Park and Fonteno Park.) It would raze most of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the 18,000-year-old bayou as it passes by Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. These trees and vegetation and even the sand are part of the riparian zone, essentially wetlands, that hold the banks together, cleanse and filter the water, slow and absorb storm runoff, provide wildlife habitat, among many other important ecological functions. The $6 million “natural channel design” project, financed with $4 million in county and city taxpayer funds, would dredge and reroute the bayou and plug tributaries, obliterate ancient cliffs, destroy 250,000-year-old sandstone formations, and fill in our lovely meander (a natural detention area). Killing the bayou’s ecosystem in the name of “restoration.” And landscape design.
And no, contrary to rumors, the project, although holding its breath, is not dead. The Army Corps of Engineers is still deciding whether to issue a permit for the project, which is otherwise a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The Bayou Preservation Association first formulated the plan for the project in private meetings in 2010 and former BPA president Kevin Shanley, then a principal with the landscape architecture firm SWA Group, was the primary promoter. SWA Group is the design firm that is also responsible for the landscape design of Buffalo Bayou Park downstream east of Shepherd.
So this is why we had signs up warning of landscapers lurking. In Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, we set out a few signs pointing out that landscaping has washed away (several times actually) and that removal of vegetation has caused erosion problems, and that repairs were $$$$ (paid with City funds). Yes, we were bad! Those signs did not last long, however.
Upstream around Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary our signs pointed out where beavers live, where banks were being naturally rebuilt by the bayou, and the Pleistocene bluffs that would be graded into a slope. Interestingly, the bayou, during and after the Memorial Day flood in 2015, has already graded the lower banks of those steep bluffs into a slope.
The River Oaks Country Club is theoretically a one-third partner in the demonstration project and owns the entire south half of the project reach. But in the meantime the club in two places has armored its banks with ugly concrete riprap, one of the most environmentally destructive methods of erosion control (pdf), and also, we allege, in this case illegal, as we contend that much of the riprap was placed in public waters, also a violation of the Clean Water Act.
The club, unfortunately, is having erosion problems on its high banks in those places because it cut down a lot of trees and extended the mowed and watered grass of its golf course up to the edge of the banks.
We put out signs pointing out that riprap damages the ecosystem and is part of the problem, not the solution.
But we’re glad people had fun, enjoyed the bayou, and picked up some of trash.
Maybe they’ll think about the future of the bayou.
And special thanks to river guide Tom Helm and to Richard Hyde for extra long duty putting out and picking up our banner and picking up our signs.
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.
Support Your Forest on Buffalo Bayou
Annual District G Meeting with City Officials Thursday, March 3
March 2, 2016
Citizens concerned about our forests on Buffalo Bayou will want to attend the annual District G Capital Improvement Plan meeting tomorrow evening, March 3, 2016. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Stratford High School Auditorium, 14555 Fern Drive, and features the district’s new city council member, Greg Travis, who was elected to City Council District G last November.
Capital Improvement Plan meetings “afford citizens an opportunity to learn, voice their concerns and address their respective City Council Members and City of Houston officials regarding project planning and delivery,” according to a statement on Travis’ website.
District G extends along Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Barker Reservoir in far west Houston.
Members of Save Our Forest, which was successful last year in persuading the City of Houston to drop its plan to raze forest in Terry Hershey Park for a stormwater detention basin, are urging citizens to “show your support for the forest to our new City of Houston administration.”
“We now have a new city council representative, a new mayor and a new [Public Works and Engineering] director since we began our campaign to Save Our Forest,” wrote community activist George Crosby in an email. “It is important that they know how much you care about Buffalo Bayou.
Detention Alternatives Without Destroying Forests
“Last year there were two major rainfall events which caused structural flooding in Houston. Regional detention alternatives that can reduce local flooding without having to destroy the forested areas of Buffalo Bayou are not happening. Cooperation between the City, County and Federal governments is required for a successful regional detention initiative.
“A cooperative inter-governmental effort begins with the City of Houston understanding our support for this approach. Please help us give emphasis to Save Our Forest,“ wrote Crosby.
The public forests of Buffalo Bayou are still threatened by a Harris County Flood Control District plan to build some 24 detention basins on both banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park.
The flood control district is also waiting for a federal permit to raze the forest along more than 1.25 miles of one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.
It makes no scientific sense to destroy forests to create detention basins. Forests provide valuable natural detention by slowing, absorbing, and deflecting rainwater, in addition to many other valuable ecological services, including cleansing and filtering the water and protecting against erosion.
In October of 2015, the Obama administration issued an executive order directing all federal agencies to incorporate the value of ecosystem services in their decision-making.
In addition, the Harris County Flood Control District is obligated by state law to conserve forests. (PDF. See page 6.)
Update on the Beaver
We Tried to Find Out
Feb. 13, 2016
Many people were concerned about the mysterious death of the beaver on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou opposite the Arboretum.
The beaver’s corpse was discovered Saturday, Jan. 30, by a group of Boy Scouts documenting wildlife on the bayou as it passes by Memorial Park, an area threatened by a project proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would destroy much of the wildlife habitat along some 1.25 miles of the bayou as it passes by the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering whether to issue a permit for this project, which would otherwise be prohibited under the federal Clean Water Act.
Yes, there are beavers on Buffalo Bayou, and yes, animals do die. We mourn the loss of any creature. But the circumstances of the death of this beaver, which looked otherwise young and healthy, was puzzling, and there was good reason to try to identify the cause. So several days later, we tried.
An anonymous friend generously offered to pay for a necropsy of the beaver. We contacted a veterinarian who was ready to perform it. Where to store the body? Someone volunteered her freezer. Another member of our team went out of his way to climb down the banks and locate the beaver’s corpse using GPS coordinates. By chance a veterinarian happened to be in the vicinity, as the area was near an animal clinic on West Loop 610.
Alas, the corpse was too far gone for a necropsy.
One of our naturalist experts said that while beavers do have accidents (chopping down a tree that falls on top of them, for instance) he agreed that the strange place and position of the beaver was suspicious. He suggested that though there were no obvious signs of trauma when discovered, the beaver might have been shot and tossed. A small caliber bullet hole might not be noticed, he pointed out.
Thus ends the tale of the beaver body on Buffalo Bayou.
What Do The Candidates Think?
We Asked Them
Election is Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015
Dec. 10, 2015
What do the candidates think about spending $4 million in public funds to destroy and “restore” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston?
What do the candidates think now in light of the failing banks of Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, a signature $53.5 million project long touted by the Harris County Flood Control District and that park’s landscape designer SWA Group as a model for what should be done upstream in Memorial Park?
We asked them. And if they did not respond to our email, we called them today (Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015) to make sure that they received the email and asked again for a response.
The runoff election is Saturday, Dec. 12. Here are the responses we received. Maybe their answers or non-answers will help you decide how to vote.
Buffalo Bayou Doesn’t Like Sidewalks, It Seems
Buffalo Bayou Park Was Supposed to Be More Stable
Nov. 16, 2015
Updated Nov. 17, 2015
Update: “Endless Repairs: Buffalo Bayou Sets Its Own Terms,” Houston Chronicle, Nov. 20, 2019
Well, we can’t help but wonder if constantly scraping and repairing the sidewalks, forever reinforcing the collapsing banks somehow, and repeatedly replacing the trees and landscaping is fully covered by the $2 million annual maintenance budget for Buffalo Bayou Park paid by Houston city taxpayers.
The popular, much praised, and much needed park on the banks of the bayou between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is suffering from some serious erosion problems. And that matters to us not just because of the expense and waste. This $53.5 million project, a boon to adjacent property owners and those who live and work nearby, was touted as a successful example of what the Harris County Flood Control District, egged on by the Bayou Preservation Association, wants to do to our healthy, historic wild bayou further upstream in and around Memorial Park. Buffalo Bayou Park was supposed to be more stable! The flood control district calls it Natural Stable Channel Design, but it always looked to us like they were doing everything you’re not supposed to do on the banks of streams: dig up the banks, run heavy equipment over the banks, remove the trees and vegetation (yes, they did a lot of that), build concrete and asphalt sidewalks on the banks, plant grass and mow it.
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
Once you’ve done all that, and the banks and channel start falling apart, it’s pretty difficult to fix it. Best to let the bayou do what it will do anyway. (And eventually the bayou will rebuild and replant it all.) But it seems unlikely that the City and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership are going to sit back and patiently let millions of dollars worth of sidewalks, lamps, and bridges collapse into the bayou. Can they stop it? Time will tell.
In the meantime, it does make one wonder about all those concrete trails they are carving out of the banks and floodplains of the bayous for the Bayou Greenways project. A nice idea, but is that going to work?
Here’s what we’re talking about. What this slide show of photos of Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd and Montrose taken on Nov. 15, 2015 (and updated with later photos).
The Piles of Concrete Came Down
Country Club Armors High Banks with Chunks of Rubble
August 12, 2015
For months we watched with suspense the towering piles of concrete riprap. They hung heavily over the edge of a high bank on the south side of Buffalo Bayou near the downstream end of one of the loveliest natural stretches of the bayou in the city. It’s a long stretch of the bayou that the Harris County Flood Control District wants to bulldoze and “restore” to a “more natural state,” so we were apprehensive.
A row of small telltale colored flags had first appeared near the waterline here and upstream at the upper limit of the area targeted for flood control’s highly destructive Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
The south bank of the nearly 1.5 mile project area is owned by the River Oaks Country Club, which is a one-third partner in the $6 million public project initiated and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The club, which has nearly completed a renovation of its golf course on the bayou, had long threatened to armor its banks with riprap if the “stabilization” project didn’t go through.
And now the club has carried through on its threat, laying down black plastic sheeting on the steep banks at those two locations downstream and upstream, distributing chunks of concrete on the slopes, and covering the blocks with dirt. Club member Steve Lindley, who is overseeing the riprap work as well as the golf course upgrade for the club, said that the plastic sheeting is porous and biodegradable and that club plans to seed the dirt with grass to keep it from washing away and eventually to plant it with native vegetation such as chili pequin.