Who Owns the Bayou?

Rights, Responsibilities, and Flooding Your Neighbor

 

Sept. 20, 2018

Over the past several years, in the wake of extreme floods, we have received numerous complaints about damaging “erosion control” projects on the banks of Buffalo Bayou – projects damaging not only to the natural functioning and ecosystem of the bayou but also potentially to people living and working up and downstream of the projects.

Property owners bulldoze the banks, build massive retaining walls made of concrete block or sheet metal, dump piles of concrete construction debris into the bayou, strip and line the banks with concrete riprap.

This in addition to stripping the banks of trees and vegetation, reshaping the banks, gouging out pathways, and landscaping with walkways and non-native flower gardens.

Do they have the right to do this? Is it a good idea? Who owns the bayou really? What permits are required, if any, to do these things?

And does the bayou itself have rights?

 

Did Retaining Wall Make Flooding Worse?

What happens if someone installs concrete riprap or a massive retaining wall that deflects the flow of the bayou away from their property and floods neighbors or damages public park property? This has happened repeatedly on Buffalo Bayou.

In one case, a large property owner in River Oaks, whose bank is likely affected by a large stormwater outfall directly across the way, installed a controversial concrete block wall along several hundred feet of bank in 2016, initially without a permit from the City of Houston. That armoring washed away during Harvey, and the property owner has now rebuilt the eroded bank, apparently dumping material into the channel, and installed a massive sheet metal wall that has alarmed residents across the bayou and elsewhere, threatening a narrow strip of land that the Houston Parks Board has been eyeing for a hike-and-bike trail.

Is that legal? Is it right? Does it work?

  • This extensive hardening of the bank of Buffalo Bayou, installed by a private owner in 2016, failed in August 2017 during Harvey, which washed away the bank. Photo January 2018.
  • The failed concrete block hardening of the bank of Buffalo Bayou after the flood of July 4, 2018, and after reconstruction had begun. Grading, bulldozing, or generally digging up the bank and running heavy equipment over it damages the structure of the soil, makes it more prone to erosion, and increases stormwater runoff into the bayou, raising flood levels.
  • In 2018 the owner began rebuilding the bank, dredging and apparently dumping material into the channel. The channel of the bayou belongs to the public, essentially in trust through the Port of Houston, and according to Texas law property lines shift when the channel shifts. Dredging and filing the channel requires a permit from the Corps of Engineers. Photo July 2018
  • Another view of heavy equipment filling the shifted channel and rebuilding the bank of Buffalo Bayou. Photo July 15, 2018.
  • Sheet piling being driven into the rebuilt bank of Buffalo Bayou to form a retaining wall. Photo July 19, 2018
  • Another view of the extensive grading and construction work ostensibly for erosion control on Buffalo Bayou. Photo July 26, 2018
  • Reconstruction and hardening of the bank of Buffalo Bayou as of August 21, 2018. Residents across the way are concerned that this project will increase flooding and erosion of their property.

 

Shocker: The Port of Houston Owns Buffalo Bayou

This will come as a surprise to many people: The Port of Houston owns the submerged lands of Buffalo Bayou all the way from the bay to the headwaters. In 1927 the Texas State Legislature gave the Port of Houston “all the submerged lands lying and being situated under the waters of Buffalo Bayou, San Jacinto River, White Oak Bayou, Bray’s Bayou, Simms Bayou [sic], Vinces Bayou [sic], Hunting Bayou, Greens Bayou, Carpenters Bayou, Old River, Lost River, Goose Creek and Cedar Bayou, and all other streams within the authority tributary to the Houston Ship Channel, so far up said streams as the State may own same …  for public purposes and for the development of commerce only …” (See Sec. 5007.004)

Many people with property on Buffalo Bayou would think they own to the center line of the channel since the Harris County Appraisal District describes it that way and taxes it too.

Read the rest of this post.

Is the water in Galveston Bay really that clean?

Bay’s ‘A’ grade on water quality misleading, clean water advocates say

By Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 7, 2018

“I think it’s kind of misleading to label water quality an ‘A,’ ” said Brian Zabcik, clean water advocate for Environment Texas, after reviewing the [Galveston Bay] report. “But it’s a very narrow definition of water quality.”

So narrow, in fact, that Erin Kinney, a [Houston Advanced Research Center] research scientist, said researchers didn’t take into account any chemical spills in the water.

The levels of dissolved oxygen and nitrogen in water samples from rivers, bayous and the bay “were most often at acceptable levels for supporting diverse and healthy aquatic life,” the report stated. “The water quality problems that did exist — relating to high levels of phosphorus — typically occur in bayous that receive runoff and wastewater from human activity in residential, industrial, commercial, and agricultural areas.”

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

Public Comment Invited on Spending Plans for Harvey Aid

Plans, Priorities for City, County to Spend Federal Housing and Urban Development Funds

By Mike Morris, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 10, 2018

Houston area residents are inching closer to getting long-awaited Hurricane Harvey aid, and have until Oct. 6 to comment on the city of Houston and Harris County’s draft plans outlining how the governments will spend the more than $1 billion each soon will receive.

You can find the plans at this link.

In a mid-May memo to city council members, Houston’s Housing Director Tom McCasland expected the Department of Housing and Urban Development aid to be arriving in early September. Local officials now are hoping to launch their housing repair programs sometime in November.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

And The Waters Will Prevail

What if Houston’s survival depends not just on withstanding a flood, but on giving in to it?

By Henry Grabar, Slate, Aug 30, 2018

Unprecedented storms have brought three straight years of biblical floods, culminating in Harvey, which inundated 154,170 homes in Harris County—the Delaware-sized area that contains the city of Houston and another Houston’s worth of people outside it. Nearly half of those houses were in neither the 100-year nor the 500-year FEMA flood plain. Why did they flood? In part because Harvey was a leviathan of a storm swollen by a carbon-thick atmosphere, a once-in-10,000-years rainfall event. The weight of the water flexed the earth’s crust and temporarily sank the city a half-inch. And the homes flooded in part because Houston, like other cities, has reshaped its natural flood plains with concrete. Human construction now decides where the floods go.

….

Several experts I spoke to found that suggestion—that new development was not having an effect on flooding—ridiculous. As Houston has sprawled westward over the Katy Prairie, 75 percent of its flood-absorbent grasslands have been paved over, turning natural detention basins into roads and houses. In Brays Bayou, on the south side of the city, Rice environmental engineering professor Philip Bedient has found that rainfall is up 26 percent over the past 40 years—but runoff is up 204 percent. From 1996 to 2011, impervious surface in Harris County increased by a quarter, and from 1992 to 2010, the area lost almost a third of its wetlands—nearly 16,000 acres. It’s a correlation that’s been noted again and again. “There’s no question that the amount of impervious surface and the destruction of natural ecosystem surfaces has impacted the amount of runoff and flooding that we have seen,” said Shannon Van Zandt, the head of the landscape architecture and urban planning department at Texas A&M. “There’s no question about that. I don’t think it’s plausible to suggest that the detention is taking care of the issue.”

The chief risk facing Houston and Harris County is not the vulnerability of new developments, which do tend to be built higher, better, and upstream, but that of the older houses downstream, many built low to the ground and served by undersize storm drains. It may not be the case that your new neighbor upstream is making you flood. But the standards could be higher. Activists say the choice between an abandoned, flood-prone golf course and a subdivision of 900 homes was a false one. Susan Chadwick, the executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a group that opposes development in and around the river, argued in June that the city should have used eminent domain on the course to create a detention pond that would relieve Brickhouse Gully.

The engineers at the Flood Control District don’t disagree it would have been a good place for a pool. As we sat in his office going over flood plains, Todd Ward conceded it was a bit of a missed opportunity. We found the course on an enormous satellite map of Houston on the wall. In a giant city, it’s a small square. But there aren’t many undeveloped parcels of that size left. Some of the just-approved $2.5 billion bond will go toward buying out existing repeat-flooding homes downstream of the newly elevated houses at Spring Brook Village. The bond calls for $35 million of channel improvements to Brickhouse Gully to reduce the risk to 1,300 homes.

Read the rest of this article in Slate.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker for Slate. Flood map by Harris County Flood Control District, Flood Education Mapping Tool