Changing the Houston Parks Board: How to Apply
Delays, Backlash Against Buffalo Bayou Bank Destruction
July 27, 2020
(Update July 29, 2020: The “How to Apply” link below expires and shows a “Page Removed” message. To reach the application page, go to Boards and Commissions and click on the Apply button.)
We spoke recently with the director of boards and commissions for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. We asked her about the Houston Parks Board, the process for becoming a board member, when the board meets, and other issues. Alas, she seemed just as confused as most other people.
We had proposed some potential candidates for the board, a public local government corporation (LGC) that is required to have open meetings. And we wanted to tell the Houston public how they, too, could nominate themselves or others to serve on the board. Four of the 20 positions have expired terms.
This was all in response to a damaging project the board has undertaken—without any public input—on Buffalo Bayou. Except that it wasn’t the public board, it was a private foundation acting as the board, without any accountability. And what they have done to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou above Shepherd Bridge is cut down mature trees, scrape up native vegetation, bulldoze the bank, and encounter some heavy resistance in their attempts to drive sheet pile into the bank. Progress has been slow, with weeks of no visible activity other than sediment leaking into the bayou. The contractor is NBG Constructors.
Trees and vegetation hold the bank together, cleanse and absorb runoff and flowing water, provide shade and habitat, among many other benefits. Even the Harris County Flood Control District recommends against hardened banks, which can increase flooding and erosion up and down stream. (p. 21) The private Houston Parks Board foundation, using both private and public funds, has provided much needed hike-and-bike paths for many Houstonians as part of its Bayou Greenways initiative. But most of these 10-foot wide concrete sidewalks have been placed on channelized or altered, largely shadeless streams. This is the parks board’s first project on Buffalo Bayou.
That Lack of Transparency
We had long been concerned about the lack of transparency from the Houston Parks Board, and this project forced the issue.
Maria Montes, director of boards and commissions for the last two years, said that she would be meeting with the mayor in early August to discuss whose term has expired and potential candidates for the parks board. She said there were basically three ways to become a candidate for the public Houston Parks Board: a recommendation from a city council member, making an application online, and by recommendation from a current parks board member.
When we mentioned that all twenty members of the board were also board members of the private parks board foundation, she said that only a couple of people on the public board were on the board of the private foundation.
However, a comparison of the current roster of the public board with the board of the private foundation shows that everyone on the public board serves on the private board. Most major cities have public park boards or commissions with members, naturalists and community activists, for example, who are different from the board members of the private supporting foundation.
We asked Montes how often the public board meets and how to find out about meetings. She said that notices of board meetings are posted on the board’s website. But the public board does not have a website. The website of the Houston Parks Board belongs to the private foundation, which is the public face of the parks board. There are no announcements about meetings on the website. The foundation does not hold public meetings.
How to Apply
To apply to be a member of the public Houston Parks Board LGC, go to the City of Houston Boards and Commissions page and click on “Apply.”
To learn more about the private Houston Parks Board foundation and its relationship to the City of Houston, register here for Parks Board 101, a free virtual “lunch and learn” offered by the foundation’s Rising Leaders group on Thursday, July 30, from noon to 1 p.m.
Citizens Flood Control Task to Become Community Resilience Task Force
July 22, 2020
From the mid Sixties to the early Seventies, a group of well-to-do and influential Houstonians fought to prevent Buffalo Bayou from being stripped, straightened, and covered in concrete like White Oak and Brays bayous.
In the wake of that success, in 1973 Harris County Commissioners’ Court created a Citizens Advisory Task Force to make sure that future flood protection projects incorporate environmental concerns.
In the intervening years that goal has become even more important as modern practice recognizes that nature-based methods of reducing flood risk are more effective, more beneficial, more flexible, longer lasting, and less costly. (See p. 27, also here and here and here and here, for starters.)
Yet, instead of becoming more vital, our citizens flood control task force somehow became pointless and irrelevant, and the Flood Control District continued to strip, dredge, and armor streams all over the county—even as every engineering intervention in our streams, particularly Brays and White Oak bayous, has continued to require constant maintenance and repairs. Buffalo Bayou, where the Corps of Engineers in the 1950s stripped and straightened upstream of Beltway 8 and downstream of Shepherd Bridge, also continues to require costly repairs.
A Community Resilience Task Force And An Opportunity To Comment
Now Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has proposed a Community Resilience Task Force to replace the Flood Control Advisory Task Force. The purpose is “to act as an advisory board to Commissioners Court on matters related to planning, projects, and other efforts concerning infrastructure resilience in Harris County that includes a wide range of stakeholders reflecting a diversity of experience and geographic, socioeconomic, and demographic attributes.”
From now until July 30 Hidalgo is inviting the public to comment on the proposed bylaws for the task force either by email, through a virtual focus group meeting, or by speaking at the July 28 Harris County Commissioners’ Court meeting.
Here are links to the proposed bylaws.
The first of two focus group meetings takes place Thursday, July 23 at 3 p.m. Here is how to register for that Zoom meeting as well as another that takes place July 30 at 10 a.m.
Make Up of the Task Force
The task force is to meet at least six times a year and have 17 members who “represent the geographic, racial, gender, age, and ethnic diversity of Harris County.” Five of the members are to be appointed by commissioners’ court, who in turn appoint the remaining 12 members.
Of those twelve, there must be one each from the following categories:
8.Other Regional Infrastructure
The draft of the bylaws also proposes, among other things, that:
Appointed members must be residents of Harris County, have a demonstrated interest in serving the community, and meet one or more of the following qualifications:
•Represent one or more larger Harris County communities impacted by flood and infrastructure disruptions and resilience efforts
•Demonstrate knowledge of or interest in equitable and sustainable infrastructure resilience or flood mitigation
•Demonstrate knowledge of or interest in the socioeconomic and demographic factors that affect the resilience of communities
Plastic Free July
July 19, 2020
Houston’s Citizens’ Environmental Coalition is recognizing Plastic Free July with several free fun and educational events. These include an online showing of the film The Story of Plastic, available for viewing July 21 through July 23, followed by online panel discussions July 23 at 12 and 6 p.m.
In addition there’s an online Trivia Night July 29 during which you can test your knowledge of plastic. Starts at 6:30 p.m. Prizes from the Houston Chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers! Wonder what those prizes could be? Find out!
Going Round the Bend in Summer
July 19, 2020
We had planned to meet for an early morning float down Buffalo Bayou. This meant rising with the sun. And since we needed our summer photo of that Bend in the River, it seemed a good idea to head out to the woods first.
Every season since the summer of 2014 we’ve been documenting the same bend in the bayou from a high bank in the woods of Memorial Park. Of course, the bank changes, the woods change. The path of the bayou, however, remains remarkably stable.
You can see the entire series here. But our summer 2020 photo had been delayed because our great photographer Jim Olive was still on lockdown in California by order of his beloved. Texas in the time of Covid was too dangerous, even though it was way hotter there in the desert, with an actual high of 121 later in the day. (Not a typo.)
The woods were not exactly cool. Only slightly steamy at 7 in the morning. The temperature was already over 80 degrees. With the humidity it was going to feel like 110. However, it’s always cooler on the water.
It was surprising to hear so many human voices in the woods early in the morning, despite the fact that the Memorial Park Conservancy claimed that the unofficial trails were closed. People were talking to each other as they jogged and hiked along the narrow footpaths through the tall trees and over and around the ravines.
The banks at the water’s edge were heavily lined with giant ragweed, a native that helps protect against erosion. The water had only recently receded after ten days of flow well over 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). (Normal or base flow is about 150 cfs.) The Corps of Engineers had been releasing the stormwater pent up in the federal flood control reservoirs behind Barker and Addicks dams far upstream in west Houston. There had been some heavy rain in the western part of the county – over eight inches in 24 hours — above the dams near the end of June.
During the final days of emptying the reservoirs, the water flowing down the bayou was a dark gumbo color, almost black, and there was some concern about that. We were unable to get an explanation from the Corps, but our geologists theorized that this was likely decomposed organic matter from the bottom of the reservoir pools.
We put in at the public boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway just west of Loop 610. We were all wearing masks, slipping and sliding in the mud. Actually the boat launch, once part of a popular nature trail through the woods, is a giant concrete stormwater outfall draining Post Oak Road. Badly designed by global engineering giant AECOM, the faux-stone structure shoots stormwater directly across the stream, a violation of Flood Control District and Corps policies, blocking the flow, creating turbulence, clogging with sediment, etc. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of the storm pipes emptying into the bayou, old and new, are improperly installed.
We were five people in three kayaks and a wooden canoe, including Bruce Bodson, Save Buffalo Bayou board member and founder of Lower Brazos River Watch; Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, and musician and composer Paul English, an experienced white-water paddler on his first float on Buffalo Bayou.