Costly, Collapsing Gray? Or Practical, Natural, Low-Budget Green?
Developing and Funding Local Strategies Against Flooding
Regional Flood Planning Group Has First Public Meeting Oct. 28, 9 a.m. to 12
[Updated with better links.]
Oct. 27, 2020
Newly created regional flood planning groups are an opportunity to prioritize green and nature-based flood mitigation strategies—capturing rainwater where it falls and reducing runoff—that will be adopted and funded by the State of Texas.
The recently appointed members of the flood planning groups representing the fifteen major Texas rivers and coastal basins are now beginning to have their first public meetings. Representing agricultural, environmental, industrial, commercial, public utility and other interests, they are tasked with coming up with recommendations to the Texas Water Development Board by January 2023.
San Jacinto Region 6
Most of the Houston region, including Harris, Montgomery, and Galveston counties as well as parts of Fort Bend, Waller, Grimes, San Jacinto, and Liberty counties are in San Jacinto Region 6. The San Jacinto region includes Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries, Cypress, Spring, and Clear creeks, and many other bayous and streams, including, of course, the San Jacinto River.
Here is a map of the flood planning regions.
The 12 voting members of San Jacinto Region 6 will have their first meeting Wednesday, Oct. 28, from 9 a.m. to noon.
Here is the agenda and how to attend that virtual public meeting and/or send in public comments.
If that link doesn’t work, try going to the Texas Water Development Board website and click on the links for the Public Notice and Meeting Materials for Region 6.
Voting Members of Region 6
The twelve voting members of the San Jacinto group include:
Elisa Macia Donovan, a board member of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, representing agricultural interests
Sarah Bernhardt, President and CEO of the Bayou Preservation Association, representing environmental interests
Paul E. Lock, manager of local government relations for Centerpoint Energy, representing electric generating utilities
Timothy Buscha, President of IDS Engineering, representing industries
Gene Fisseler, owner of GP Fisseler Strategies and former director of public affairs for Apache Louisiana Minerals, representing the public
Alia Vinson, attorney, partner with Allen Boone Humphries Robinson, representing water authorities
As well as Russ Poppe, Executive Director of the Harris County Flood Control District, Alisa Max, Chief Operations Officer for the Harris County Engineering Department, and Matthew Barrett, division engineer with the San Jacinto River Authority.
Slow the flow!
Managing Flood Risk. What to Do?
Backwards Plans for Buffalo Bayou, Cypress Creek and Katy Prairie Prompt Discussion About Flooding and Smart Solutions
Virtual Public Meeting Happening Now!
Here’s How to Participate in the final Virtual Public Meeting Monday, Oct. 26, 1 to 3 p.m.
Here’s the Corps’ Draft Report
Here’s How to Send Comments to the Corps. Deadline Nov. 2!
Oct. 26, 2020
Earlier this month the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers took the unusual step of releasing an interim draft report detailing their ideas for dealing with the problem of too much stormwater flowing too fast into the cracking, sinking dams the Corps built on Buffalo Bayou and some of its tributaries.
The dams, Addicks and Barker, were built more than seventy years ago way out west of Houston, back when the Katy Prairie was mostly prairie and cow patties.
Since then development moved in and around the normally dry federal reservoirs, even into Barker reservoir. Rainstorms have become heavier and more frequent. Interstate Highway 10, passing between Addicks on the north and Barker on the south was built in the late 1960s. With the active support of the West Houston Association, the highway became the world’s widest freeway as it passes from Houston through Katy.
But building a bigger freeway only created more traffic and more congestion. (And more stormwater runoff.) And the same dynamic applies to the Corps’ proposal to widen and deepen Buffalo Bayou for some 22 miles from the dams to downtown: a bigger bayou will only attract more runoff and create more flooding. Deepening and widening the bayou is also supported by the West Houston Association.
In addition to buying out property above and below the dams, the Corps is proposing building a dam and 22,000-acre reservoir on Cypress Creek and the Katy Prairie. During storms, Cypress Creek overflows south across the prairie into Addicks reservoir, creating more pressure on the dam.
Discussing the Proposals and Alternatives
Independent journalist Sam Oser and Michael Gold of the Cypress Creek Ecological Restoration Project separately conducted interviews exploring the Corps’ proposals prompted by the disaster of Hurricane Harvey, the ideas behind them, and alternative approaches.
Michael Gold talks with Bob Freitag and Susan Chadwick, President and Executive Director of Save Buffalo Bayou on Oct. 22, 2020. Freitag is the lead author of Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era and Director of the Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research at the University of Washington. Here’s the link to the podcast.
Michael Gold talks with Mary Anne Piacentini of the Katy Prairie Conservancy on Oct. 23, 2020, about the conservancy’s concerns and alternatives to the Corps’ proposals. Piacentini is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the conservancy. Here’s the link to that podcast.
Pushback Against Deeply Flawed Plans for Buffalo Bayou, Katy Prairie
Corps Seeking Comments, Alternatives
Here’s the Corps’ Draft Report
Here’s How to Participate in the Virtual Public Meetings Thursday, Oct. 22, 6 to 8 p.m. and Monday, Oct. 26, 1 to 3 p.m.
Here’s How to Send Comments to the Corps. Deadline Nov. 2!
Oct. 22, 2020
Seems that nobody likes the Corps of Engineers’ draft proposal for killing Buffalo Bayou. Not even the coalition of developers, car dealers, concrete makers, contractors, homebuilders, realtors and others that was pushing hard for it.
But then the vague draft report has many parts. It’s an initial stage in a $6 million attempt to figure out a solution to the disastrous flooding in and around Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries connected to the federal flood control dams during Harvey in 2017. The report looks at a future of increased heavy storms and increased development surrounding the sinking, cracking dams built by the Corps in the bayou’s upper watershed more than seventy years ago. (p. 13)
Besides deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou to an apparently uniform width of three-quarters of a football field, the proposals include building a dam on Cypress Creek and a 22,000-acre reservoir behind it. (p. 18) During heavy rains the creek overflows south across the prairie into one of the federal dams that, during Harvey, could not contain all the stormwater running into it.
Building the dam on Cypress Creek would probably encourage development on land that now floods, leading to more flood problems, the Corps admits. Another major drawback acknowledged by the Corps: the project would significantly degrade more than two-thirds of the remaining Katy Prairie, which serves to hold and slow stormwater. (p. 176)
Nevertheless, the Corps’ draft report is leaning towards building the dam and deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou, laying back the ancient high banks for some 22 miles from the dams to downtown. This would be done to accommodate a flow of some 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
The idea also is to buyout property downstream on Buffalo Bayou that was inundated by the opening of the floodgates on the federal dams during Harvey in 2017, as well as possibly property upstream that flooded because they didn’t open the floodgates.
Flood stage in Buffalo Bayou differs upstream and downstream as the bayou channel naturally widens as it winds downstream. From the dams for some six miles downstream to West Beltway 8, the Corps in the 1950s straightened and narrowed the bayou, effectively reducing its capacity. According to the National Weather Service, flooding begins in this area when the US Geological Service gauge goes over 8,000 cfs. For the USGS gauge downstream at Piney Point, flooding begins around 7,500 cfs. At the Shepherd gauge closer to downtown Houston, flood stage is around 18,000 cfs.
However, the Corps, which needs to keep the reservoirs empty in order to be able to capture runoff from the next storm, operates the dams on the basis that property downstream will begin to flood when the Piney Point gauge goes over 4,000 cfs.
Total estimated cost for the dam and bayou “improvement” is upwards of $4 billion. (Correction Oct. 24: upwards of $7 billion. p. 144)
According to Brian Harper, chief of the Galveston District’s planning branch, the Corps in its cost benefit analysis did not put a financial value on the loss of environmental benefits and functions of the bayou or the prairie, which include cleansing polluted urban and agricultural runoff, not to mention the growing local (p. 105) and worldwide problem of biodiversity loss.
Misunderestimating Buffalo Bayou
The Corps would also line the bayou channel bottom and banks with articulated concrete block in areas of “high erosion,” whatever that means. Never mind that concrete block does not actually work in Buffalo Bayou. The Corps’ Project Delivery Team (PDT), most of whom are from Corps offices in other parts of the country, does not seem to be aware that bank instability in our bayou is mostly from slumping, sliding down vertically. This happens no matter the steepness of the slope. Adding the weight of concrete block, which is designed for erosion caused by horizontal flow, only increases the likelihood of collapse, according to our experts and common sense.
And would it be piling on too much to point out that the report is so sloppy that its cover photo of a flooded Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is misidentified as a flooded Interstate 10?
Bonus Bad News: Contractors with Flood Control Cut Large Tree Holding Bank Together in Buffalo Bayou Park
Oct. 13, 2020
A friend took these photos of contractors for Harris County Flood Control inexplicably cutting down part of a large holding the south bank together below the Rosemont Bridge in Buffalo Bayou Park yesterday, Oct. 12.
We await Flood Control’s explanation.
Outrageous Plan to Deepen, Widen, Kill Buffalo Bayou
Virtual Public Meeting Tuesday, Oct. 13. Comment Period Now
Oct. 13, 2020
The US Army Corps of Engineers has come up with an outrageous plan to strip, deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou and line it in places with concrete block for 22-24 miles all the way from Highway 6 in far west Houston to 1,500-feet downstream of Montrose in Buffalo Bayou Park downtown.
Is this the 1930’s? The 1960’s? The plan is so backwards and outdated it’s difficult to believe they are serious.
The Corps even admits the project could kill all aquatic life in the bayou. (p. 178-180) And that there are no positive net benefits. (pp. 19 and 149) The cost is estimated to be from $1 billion to $4 billion, not including future continuing maintenance.
Modern flood risk management focuses on stopping stormwaters before they flood streams. On managing flooding in place, stopping raindrops where they fall, on slowing down, spreading out, and soaking in rainfall. And getting out of the way. Sponge cities. Green infrastructure. Wetlands, greenspace, trees. Both the City of Houston and Harris County have emphasized this, as have cities around the state and around the world.
Creating capacity to convey more and faster rainwater runoff encourages the production of more and faster runoff. As the excellent Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium reported in 2018, “conveyance projects can make flooding worse.” (p. 17)
Note that Harris County Flood Control just spent nearly $10 million reconfiguring the banks in Buffalo Bayou Park downtown. (See here and here.) In 2017 the agency also spent millions “repairing” the north bank in Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Highway 6, and in 2019 spent millions more clearing trees and scraping shallow detention basins out of the park’s south bank.
Also note the Corps’ report complains that in places the bayou is naturally deepening and widening itself (p. 67-68) and this problem will have to be fixed. But at the same time the bayou needs to be deeper and wider so we are going to do that with bulldozers and billions of dollars.
Attend a Virtual Public Meeting, Send Comments
The Corps is holding virtual public meetings on the report, known as the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study Interim Feasibility Report. The first virtual meeting is today, Tuesday, Oct. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., followed by meetings on Oct. 15, 22, and 26. Here is how to join the meetings.
The public comment period opened Oct. 2 when the Corps’ Galveston District released the 210-page report. Public comment ends on Nov. 2. Here is how to send your comments to the Corps.
Purpose and Alternatives
The purpose of the study is to figure out what to do about too much stormwater flowing too fast into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the flood control dams in far west Houston that drain into Buffalo Bayou. (Note that the Harris County Flood Control District has been busy speeding up the flow of stormwater through tributary streams into Addicks and Barker reservoirs.)
Stormwater Recedes: Update on Banks in Buffalo Bayou Park
Bulldozed by Flood Control, Here’s How Bare Dirt Banks Fared After Storm Beta
Oct. 7, 2020
After nearly two weeks of high flow in Buffalo Bayou, the Corps of Engineers on Tuesday, Oct. 6, finally finished emptying stormwater from Tropical Storm Beta impounded behind Barker and Addicks dams in west Houston. So we went out to look at how the once-healthy banks had fared in Buffalo Bayou Park between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive.
These particular banks, three stretches upstream of the Waugh Bridge, had been naturally planted by the river’s eastward flow with deep-rooted native horseweed, goldenrod, and young willows, among other vegetation. Recently they had been stripped and graded by the Harris County Flood Control District as part of the district’s overall $9.7 million project to “repair” banks, mostly by dumping and pounding concrete riprap, in the popular park damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Flood Control managed to bulldoze these apparently stable upstream banks just in time for Beta, which in 24 hours dropped more than 11 inches of rain in places within the bayou watershed, finishing up in the early morning of Sept. 23.
Even with the dam floodgates closed, the bayou downstream flooded, swollen with rainwater running off the city’s roofs, streets, driveways, and parking lots and through drainage pipes. The US Geological Survey gauge at Piney Point measured a flow of some 7,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), increasing downstream to some 12,000 cfs at Shepherd Drive, well above flood stage in both cases.
When the Piney Point gauge fell below 3,000 cfs on Sept. 23, the Corps of Engineers opened the dam gates in order to empty the reservoirs that had filled with stormwater flowing from streams and creeks fed by rain running off developments, roads, and shopping malls further west and north.
Here is what the denuded banks in Buffalo Bayou Park looked like on Oct.7 after the flow in the bayou dropped to near normal flow:
Update: Growing Eagle Scout, Growing Plants on Buffalo Bayou
Oct. 4, 2020
Then Boy Scout Austen Furse, working with a group of fellow scouts, planted 200 buckets of eastern gamagrass on the upper bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park at Woodway to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. That was in March of 2018, and Furse, now an Eagle Scout, is applying for a Hornaday award for “distinguished service in natural resources conservation.”
Eastern gamagrass, a distant relative of corn, is a deep-rooted native plant valued for its stabilizing properties on the banks of streams, as well as for forage in fields. Stabilizers are one of two basic categories of riparian plants that naturally work in succession to fix a sandy bank. There are colonizer plants that spread out near the water’s edge, sending out shallow roots. They prepare the way for the stabilizers with stronger, deeper roots. Stabilizers, which can be grassy or woody, help dissipate the erosive flow of the water and collect sediment to incorporate into the bank and hold it together.
We visited recently with Furse at the Woodway site, a popular boat launch for paddling on the bayou. Like the gamagrass, Furse, a member of Troop 55 of the Sam Houston Area Council, has grown in the last two years. Now a high-school senior, Furse says he is interested in a potential career in biology. Excellent! We need more scientists.
But it wasn’t just the gamagrass that had flourished. The area was a stunning garden, jammed with useful grasses, forbs, woody plants, vines and trees planted by nature, including the flowing bayou itself, most though not all of them native, many of them edible and medicinal.
Here is a partial list of the plants and trees we noted besides gamagrass:
Ragweed, giant ragweed, or horseweed
Trailing wild bean
Wild grape vine
Morning glory (tievine)
Johnson grass (invasive)
Prairie tea (croton)
Nature-Based Flood Management Works Best, Costs Less, Benefits Everyone
Sign Bayou City Waterkeeper’s Petition!
Oct. 1, 2020
Bayou City Waterkeeper, a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, has started a petition to encourage City of Houston officials to invest in green and nature-based projects “that improve drainage, reduce flooding, and keep people out of harm’s way for generations to come.”
The nonprofit organization points out that “Houston’s focus on getting water quickly to the bayous places too much emphasis on traditional flood management techniques, at the cost of natural infrastructure projects that can provide multiple benefits to communities across our watershed.”
Houston Parks Board’s Greenway Bank Collapses
Controversial Project on Buffalo Bayou Not Going Well
Oct. 1, 2020
Updated Oct. 2 with comment from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, about plans to stabilize the bank below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens.
A large section of Buffalo Bayou bank has slumped away below an apartment complex where the Houston Parks Board foundation for the last four months has been “restoring” the bank in preparation for a possible Bayou Greenway trail.
One resident of the Left Bank apartments on Memorial Drive west of Shepherd Drive said she was concerned the bank collapse following Tropical Storm Beta threatened the foundations of the building.
Heavy equipment used by the parks board contractor to strip and grade the bank flooded during the Sept. 22 storm. The equipment, including backhoes and front loaders, was parked in the floodplain next to the complex.
The parks board foundation scraped the native cane and cut down mature willow and cottonwood trees on the bank in late May. In July the foundation’s contractors began attempting to pound sheet pile into the bank. More recently they scraped chunks of concrete out of the bank in preparation for placing new chunks of concrete riprap on the bank.
The parks board foundation acquired the strip of land on the north bank of the bayou below the apartments upstream of Shepherd Drive around 2018 and began work to expand and reinforce the bank in late May of 2020. The multi-million dollar plan was eventually somehow to install a ten-foot wide concrete sidewalk that would connect Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, allowing hikers and bikers to avoid the narrow, broken sidewalk on busy Memorial Drive.
However, in answer to a question about the connection at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s recent Fifth Anniversary virtual celebration, board member and Houston Parks Board consultant Guy Hagstette, who is also vice president for parks and civic projects at the Kinder Foundation, said that the private parks foundation “has not figured out how to route that trail,” and that the money for it was “not there.” He added it was “going to be a while.”
The potential trail would have to traverse an extremely narrow section of bank (now collapsed) below the apartments, cross a ravine that floods during storms, and pass by several more sections of forested bank on private property, as well as city and county property, before reaching the previously planned destination of Westcott Street, the entrance to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was also planning to engineer nearly 1,500 linear feet of bank below the historic gardens of the Bayou Bend Collection, former home of conservationist Ima Hogg, across the bayou from the bird sanctuary. The museum was reportedly expecting an engineering report from Stantec in August. Save Buffalo Bayou sent a letter to the leadership at the museum urging the use of less damaging, nature-based solutions and offered the names of consultants.
The museum’s chief operating officer, Willard Holmes, said in a recent email Oct. 2 that the museum had submitted an engineering plan to the Harris County Flood Control District for approval, as required by the City of Houston before issuing a floodplain development permit. Flood Control requested clarification, he said, and the plan would be resubmitted shortly.
Bayou Bend provides habitat to threatened alligator snapping turtles, among other creatures. For the last six years the Turtle Survival Alliance has been conducting research in Buffalo Bayou on the giant snappers, which can live longer than 100 years and reach 100-200 pounds.