Houston Has to Get Out of the Floodplains. Now.
Important commentary about how we should be using potential bond proceeds from the Aug. 25 election to get out of the way of flooding and let our natural drainage system — our bayous and streams — work the way they are supposed to. From Dr. John Jacob, board member of Bayou City Waterkeeper and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou.
Commentary by Dr. John Jacob, the Houston Chronicle, July 24, 2018
Houston has in place a natural flood detention and conveyance system that could handle another Harvey, sitting right here in plain sight.
Our bayous, creeks and streams, and their associated floodplains, have carved out, over millennia, a very robust and capacious system. This legacy system did not fail during Harvey. We failed, over the years, because we put so many people in harm’s way.
In fact, more than 40 percent of all FEMA-designated floodplains in Harris County have been developed to one degree or another, with more than 500,000 homes and apartments in these hazardous zones. Few floodplains within Beltway 8 are undeveloped.
Where we saw boat rescues, where we saw four to six feet of water and more in homes, these were houses deep in harm’s way that should not have been there.
This legacy floodplain system was given to us free of charge. All we had to do was to protect it, to keep homes and commerce out of the low-lying valleys. Now here we are after Harvey, trying to reduce the size of the floodplains, trying to keep water out of the floodplains, because people and their homes are in the way now. Many great and beloved neighborhoods have sprung up in the floodplains. People don’t want to leave. And so they stay, hoping Harvey, Tax Day and Memorial Day floods are just an anomaly.
Reminder: Buffalo Bayou Watershed Flood Bond Meeting July 30
Also Barker Reservoir Meeting on Aug. 1
July 23, 2018
The Harris County Flood Control District and members of county commissioners’ court continue to hold meetings around the county to present proposals for projects attempting to reduce the hazard of flooding.
The meeting about projects proposed in the Buffalo Bayou watershed will be held on Monday, July 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 12955 Memorial Drive in Houston. A meeting to present projects proposed for the Barker Reservoir watershed is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Memorial Parkway Junior High, 21203 Highland Knolls Drive in Katy. Buffalo Bayou flows from its headwaters near Katy into and through Barker Dam.
The projects are to be funded with the proceeds of a $2.5 billion bond issue should the voters approve on August 25. The bonds would be issued over a period of ten to fifteen years, according to the flood control district, and repaid through a property tax increase of no more than two-three cents per $100 of home valuation. Homeowners with an over-65 or disabled exemption and a home worth $200,000 or less would not pay any additional taxes, according to the district.
Most of the projects proposed are projects that had long been planned. For instance, a controversial project to remove forest and excavate basins to capture and temporarily hold overflow on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park is listed with a $10 million cost estimate. The project in its initial stages would allegedly create 60-100 acre-feet of temporary storage alongside the bayou. The linear detention, siphoning flow out of the bayou, is planned to compensate for eventual additional City of Houston drainage into the bayou from neighborhood streets.
Barker and Addicks dams both drain into Buffalo Bayou, and overflow from Cypress Creek on the rapidly developing Katy Prairie in northwest Harris County also drains into the overburdened Addicks Reservoir, adding to the pressure of runoff into Addicks and the bayou.
Other than the Hershey Park detention project, some $21 million is slated for a new detention basin north of John Paul’s Landing on Upper Langham Creek, which drains into Addicks.
However, most of the projects listed for these watersheds mainly focus on repairing channels and improving conveyance – making more stormwater flow faster into and through the reservoirs. This has the potential to cause more problems and more flooding. Modern practice elsewhere is to focus on slowing the flow, making room for the river with wider floodplains. We would hope for more money to be spent on land aquisition, buyouts in floodplains, preservation of undeveloped land, forest, wetlands, prairies, and riparian vegetaton; creation of green space, restoring meanders, and programs to encourage slowing of rain runoff beginning with individuals and neighborhoods.
There are also funds proposed to be used in collaboration with Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates Addicks and Barker, to evaluate the effectiveness and operation of those 70-year-old dams.
A complete list of projects can be found on the flood control district’s website. The website also offers a way to make comments about the projects.
The meetings are not set up for the public to engage officials or voice opinions. They are informative only – with numerous stations staffed by flood control personnel to explain projects. However, paper and pencils are provided for citizens to write comments.
Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou: Slowing the Flow
Summer Down on the Bayou
July 17, 2018
In case you missed Jim Olive‘s summer shot of that Bend in the River, here is the latest addition to our series of photographs taken from the same high bank on the north side of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. The view has changed over the course of four years. In particular, since the high waters of Harvey, the bayou widened to accommodate the massive flow. Banks slid or slumped away, as they will do on the bayou when water rises over the banks and onto the natural floodplains. Trees and vegetation slide down too.
Ideally this woody debris, often still living, should be left in place to collect sediment, reinforce the banks, and facilitate regrowth and rebuilding of the banks. It’s a cycle that has been continuing on rivers for millions of years. Unfortunately, the Harris County Flood Control District hired contractors and paid them by the pound to collect as much of the fallen vegetation as possible.
Other Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou
Known as Houston’s Mother Bayou, in large part because most other bayous and streams flow into it, Buffalo Bayou is some 18,000 years old, more or less, and one of the few natural waterways in the city that remains largely unchannelized. The beauty of it flowing past Memorial Park is that this forested stretch is one of the last accessible to the public. It’s a historic nature area, ever changing and adapting, filled with ancient high banks and sandstone, beaver, otter, massive turtles and other wildlife.
Though in the wake of Harvey there are calls to “improve” our bayous, including Buffalo Bayou, by widening and deepening, even straightening, the fact is that meandering streams carry more water — because they are longer. Artificially widening and deepening streams doesn’t last: the banks collapse and the channel fills with sediment. Rivers are living, dynamic systems and will adjust to stabilize themselves. The trees and vegetation on the banks help absorb and cleanse stormwaters and prevent flooding by slowing and diffusing the energy of the stream.
Our political and civic leaders should focus on slowing the flow with green spaces, prairie and wetlands, swales and rain gardens — stopping, spreading, and soaking up stormwater before it floods our natural and built drainage systems.
Watch this video of a summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, July 1, 2018.
Removing Fallen Trees More Damaging Long Term
Post-Harvey debris removal along Buffalo Bayou almost complete
By Tracy Maness, Houston Chronicle, Memorial Examiner, July 12, 2018
Since last fall, HCFCD has cleared large downed trees along nearly 25 miles of the bayou from Highway 6 to Interstate 45, according to Facilities Maintenance Department Manager John Watson. However, an official from nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou said the work will ultimately lead to more flooding and erosion of the bayou downstream.
Watson said while the flood control district typically allows trees to remain where they fall, contractors were hired following the hurricane to go in to remove the many downed trees using barges and swamp buggies, which are like large excavators on pontoons, in order to keep the flow of the waterway moving.
“Our normal operation involves just cutting and leaving trees in place, but with an event the size of Harvey and the damage that was done from Harvey, we really couldn’t just leave the downed trees there. We had to go and physically get into the channel and remove them,” Watson said.
Save Buffalo Bayou Executive Director Susan Chadwick said the nonprofit organization was started in 2014 “to oppose a plan by HCFCD to raze the forest, dredge and reroute over a mile of one of the last forested, publicly accessible stretches of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park through the middle of the city.”
Chadwick said Save Buffalo Bayou educates community members and leaders about how natural and manmade drainage systems work and what is ineffective to prevent flooding.
She said large debris removal projects and other efforts to speed up water flow along Buffalo Bayou are not effective long term.
“The focus on speeding up the flow leads to a cascade of poor decisions, policies and practice: removing all the woody debris in the stream, for instance, dredging, straightening, shortening and enlarging channels,” Chadwick said. “These extremely costly methods are unsustainable.”
She said because Buffalo Bayou is a natural body of water, it will always evolve and correct itself when repairs or changes are made.
“A river is a dynamic living system. It adjusts itself to the width and depth necessary to become stable. An artificially deepened stream, for instance, will fill itself with silt and sediment again. The banks of an artificially widened stream will collapse. Streams flow the way they do because of the underlying geology. Rivers have a memory. They will do what they want and need to do,” Chadwick said.