Links to Discussions: Corps’ Plans for Buffalo Bayou, Katy Prairie, and Coastal Barrier
Harris County Looking for Nominees to the Community Flood Resilience Task Force. Deadline Dec. 11.
FEMA Updates Flood Policy to Support Nature-Based Solutions Rejected by Corps Plan
Nov. 25, 2020
So much happening!
Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Interim Report
We had an excellent discussion recently about the US Army Corps of Engineers’ controversial ideas for reducing flood risk in the Buffalo Bayou watershed. Mary Anne Piacentini of the Katy Prairie Conservancy and Susan Chadwick of Save Buffalo Bayou talked about the impact of the Corps’ plans and alternatives.
Engineers Be Engineers
The Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers has $6 million to come up with plans to deal with the problem of increasing storms and increasing development causing too much stormwater flowing too quickly into the federal dams, Addicks and Barker, on upper Buffalo Bayou in far west Houston. The Corps released an Interim Report in early October that focused on deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou for some 22 miles from the dams to downtown Houston. This would be in conjunction with a new dam on Cypress Creek and a 22,000-acre reservoir on the Katy Prairie.
Despite strong support for nature-based alternatives expressed at public meetings sponsored by the Corps in 2019 (p. 199), the Corps outright rejected nature-based alternatives, such as prairies, wetlands, green spaces, restored streams, etc. (p. 6)
However, environmental organizations, including Save Buffalo Bayou, have urged the Corps to reject deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou and building a reservoir on the Katy Prairie. Nature-based approaches are less costly, more practical and effective, quicker, more flexible, and produce a wider range of benefits for the community, including cleaner water and air, cooling, as well as social, mental, and health benefits.
Here is Save Buffalo Bayou’s comment to the Corps.
Here is the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s alternative plan.
Here is environmental attorney Jim Blackburn’s discussion of the plan with the Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Gray.
While the formal public comment period ended Nov. 20, the Corps says it will continue to consider public input and alternatives. The federal agency, founded during the Revolutionary War, expects to have a final draft report and environmental impact statement by late spring or early summer of 2021. There will be another public comment period then.
Here is how to send comments to the Corps about the study.
Here is how to contact federal representatives about the proposals and alternatives.
Note that the Federal Emergency Management Agency just recently updated its flood policy to support nature-based solutions in flood-risk mitigation projects. The Corps itself is under a mandate to incorporate Environmental Operating Principles in its projects and to “engineer with nature.”
Public Meetings, Public Comment: Corps’ Proposed Coastal Barrier
In the meantime the Galveston District, together with the Texas General Land office, is also working on a plan to protect the upper Texas coast and the Houston Ship Channel from a storm surge. (Buffalo Bayou becomes the ship channel four miles east of downtown.)
Recently the Corps released the Draft Feasibility Report and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Study, also known as the Coastal Texas Study.
The deadline for public comment is Dec. 14.
For a highly informed explanation and discussion about the problems and impacts of the Corps’ proposed coastal barrier, watch this Nov. 19 presentation sponsored by Bayou City Waterkeeper, the Galveston Bay Foundation, Healthy Gulf, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
Harris County’s Community Flood Resilience Task Force Seeking Nominations. Deadline Dec. 11
Harris County Commissioners Court has approved the first five members of the new Community Flood Resilience Task Force. The new task force takes the place of the long outdated Harris County Flood Control Task Force, established nearly fifty years ago and long dominated by engineers and developers, many of whom did business with the Flood Control District.
The first five members of the task force will select the remaining twelve members of the task force. Their charge is to “ensure Harris County develops and implements equitable flood resilience planning and projects that take into account community needs and priorities.”
The initial task force members were approved by Commissioners Court on Sept. 29. They are:
- Iris Gonzalez, director of the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience (CEER), appointed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo
- Dr. Earthea Nance, a professional engineer, certified floodplain manager, and associate professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, appointed by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis
- Lisa Gonzalez, president of the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), appointed by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia
- Bill Callegari, former state representative serving Katy and Cypress from 2001 to 2015, a professional engineer, and founder of W.C. Engineers, appointed by Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack
- Bob Rehak, retired communications professional, Kingwood resident, and publisher of ReduceFlooding.com, appointed by Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle
The new task force is looking for “multi-disciplinary members who are committed to serving the community and represent the geographic, gender, age, racial, and ethnic diversity of Harris County,” according to Judge Hidalgo’s office.
Anyone interested in serving on this task force should submit an application by December 11.
Facebook Live Discussion: The Future of Houston’s Katy Prairie and Buffalo Bayou
And Wild About Houston Film Festival
Nov. 17, 2020
Update Nov. 18: Here is a link to the recorded discussion.
Join us on Facebook live at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 18, to talk about the Corps of Engineers’ controversial plans for reducing flood risk in the Buffalo Bayou watershed from far west Houston to downtown.
Journalist Sam Oser moderates a discussion hosted by Residents Against Flooding about natural functions and nature-based engineering and why they work better than more costly, traditional, and outdated structural approaches to flood management—which can actually increase flooding and place more people in harm’s way.
Live panel includes Mary Anne Piacentini of the Katy Prairie Conservancy and Susan Chadwick of Save Buffalo Bayou. Learn about the value of prairies, wetlands, and forested, meandering streams in slowing and reducing flooding and cleansing our polluted urban waters.
The live session will be recorded in case you can’t make it.
Wild About Houston Film Festival
And after that don’t forget to watch the online Wild About Houston Film Festival, at 7 p.m.
Sponsored by the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, the festival features inspiring films by Jim Olive about Save Buffalo Bayou, Buffalo Bayou: A Right to Life and the Christmas Bay Foundation, Coastal Essence.
Corps Reconsidering Flood Tunnels. Still Focused on Outdated Ideas
Over 1,200 People at Telephone Town Hall About Deepening, Widening Buffalo Bayou
Public Comment Deadline is Nov. 20
Nov. 16, 2020
The Corps of Engineers is “going back to look at tunnels” to move stormwater from west Houston that can no longer be handled by the federal flood control dams there, said Col. Timothy Vail, commander of the Galveston District, during a telephone town hall sponsored by 7th Congressional District Rep. Lizzie Fletcher.
The conference call Sunday evening drew over 1,200 people concerned about the Corps’ proposals for dealing with too much stormwater flowing too fast into the 70-year-old federal dams, Addicks and Barker, in western Harris County north and south of Interstate 10.
During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, stormwater runoff held back by the dams flooded properties built in and behind the reservoir pools. When stormwater threatened to spill around or over the top of the earthen dams, the Corps was forced to open the floodgates, flooding thousands of properties along Buffalo Bayou immediately downstream from the dams.
In an Interim Report on its $6 million Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study, the Corps proposed as one possible solution deepening Buffalo Bayou by almost 12 feet and widening it to some 230 feet for 22-24 miles from the dams to downtown Houston (actually to 1,500-feet below Montrose—about Stanford Street). This would be to accommodate a flow of 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
In “areas of high erosion,” the Corps would use articulated concrete block to line the channel bottom and banks. However, articulated concrete block doesn’t work in Buffalo Bayou, where the primary type of bank collapse is vertical slumping. The weight of concrete block exacerbates slumping.
The Corps also suggested building a dam on Cypress Creek with a reservoir on 22,000 acres of the Katy Prairie to hold back floodwater overflowing the creek and draining south into Addicks Reservoir.
The Corps admits that deepening and widening the bayou would basically eliminate all aquatic life in the bayou, including the threatened Alligator Snapping Turtle. The report, released Oct. 2, does not explain how it would purchase the property to eliminate wide swaths of the largely privately-owned upper bank of the bayou, how it will handle the proliferation of concrete and steel erosion control structures, public and private landscaping, the natural sandstone in the channel bottom and banks, or what happens in downtown Houston when a flow of 15,000 cfs hits below the Sabine Bridge—or a storm surge coming the opposite way.
Currently at that level of flow, floodwater inundates the trails in Buffalo Bayou Park and begins creeping towards Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway. The upper channel in the park was about 120-150 feet wide, according to Google Earth, before the Harris County Flood Control District spent nearly $10 million in federal funds narrowing the channel and lining the banks with concrete riprap in the last year.
The dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek would inundate a large portion of the remaining Katy Prairie, much of it under conservation easement, and ruin the prairie’s natural ability to slow and absorb stormwater by killing off the vegetation. (pp. 175-176)
Save Buffalo Bayou, with other environmental organizations, supports green, nature-based solutions at the regional, community and neighborhood levels. We are opposed to deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou and a dam on Cypress Creek, which the Corps admits will likely only encourage more development and thus more stormwater runoff. (p. 175) (And once again place more people in harm’s way).
Deepening and widening streams increases flooding, among many other problems. Focusing on stopping and slowing stormwater, on managing flooding in place, is the modern, more effective, more practical approach. The Corps’ simultaneous Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment was supposed to be looking at a more comprehensive approach to reducing flood risk, though the scope of the study seems to have changed since it was first funded. At a recent virtual meeting, Col. Vail said that regional assessment would be considered.
However, the Corps in its Interim Report said that nature-based alternatives had been “screened out.” (p. 6)
Killing the Alligator Snapping Turtles in Buffalo Bayou
(And Everything Else)
Appeal from the Turtle Survival Alliance
Nov. 12, 2020
Here’s a notice from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) about the Corps of Engineers’ proposal to deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou for some 22-24 miles from the dams in west Houston to downtown:
“The Alligator Snapping Turtles of Houston, Texas, and their habitat, Buffalo Bayou, NEED YOUR HELP!
“A proposed project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) to reduce the impacts of flooding in the Greater Houston metropolitan area would not only significantly change the natural qualities of Buffalo Bayou, but also put its unique population of Alligator Snapping Turtles at risk of extirpation. This is particularly concerning to us at the Turtle Survival Alliance as the Alligator Snapping Turtle population inhabiting Buffalo Bayou is among the largest and most demographically robust populations in Texas, and of paramount conservation value to the species as a whole. We would know, it’s the focus of our long-term population study for this State Threatened species!”
The TSA, which has been studying the turtles in Buffalo Bayou since 2016, includes this quote from the Corps’ Interim Report on the project:
“It is fully anticipated that the existing population of Alligator Snapping Turtles would decline in the years during and following construction.”
The TSA believes that in a “best-case scenario” it would take approximately 100 years for the Alligator snappers to rebound from the Corps’ project.
Find out more from the TSA, which has written a formal letter to the Corps about the impact of the project. The nonprofit is also providing a document that can be downloaded and edited and sent to the Corps before the Nov. 20 deadline for public comments.
Late Fall on that Bend in the Bayou
Jim Olive Returns
Nov. 12, 2020
We could say it was late fall by some calendar. If we actually had fall here in Houston, where the temperatures are still summerish, ten degrees above normal, and the leaves fall in the spring. Our devoted photographer, Jim Olive, has been exiled to the edge of the California desert where the temperatures until the end of October have been frequently over 100 degrees.
But recently he was able to return to take the Fall 2020 photograph of that Bend in the Bayou we’ve been documenting through the seasons for the last six years. Jim welcomed the relatively cool weather.
Just after sunrise we drove past the depressing monument that serves as the ugly new east entrance to Memorial Park on Memorial Drive. (And was not included in the 2015 Master Plan. p. 61) Apparently our beloved park is now a cemetery as well as a glorification of golf and wealthy developers, who now dominate management of the park.
While the park at some 1400 acres is frequently touted as being almost twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, with the recent expansion of the golf course and related buildings and the felling of hundreds of trees, less than half of the land is actually the park that it was when it was gifted to the city nearly a century ago on the condition that it remain natural.
The private Memorial Park Conservancy is spending some $70 million in public and private funds cutting down massive, mature loblolly pines, among other great trees, to make way for their glamorous land bridges. Neighborhood residents report seeing fleeing wildlife hit by cars and desperately seeking shelter in backyards. However, the land bridge/tunnels are sure to attract magazine publicity and landscape architect awards, helping to promote the Uptown/Galleria district, which is now actually running development of the historic park.
But for now the wild woods and trails on the south side near the bayou remain, despite efforts by the Conservancy to block public access. As the central entrance was closed for construction of the land bridges, we entered the park south of Memorial through the crowded, recently opened east gate on the Picnic Loop. We circled around the apparently no longer maintained picnic area with its moldy restrooms, boggy grass, and graceful clusters of oaks dripping with moss, wondering how many of these elegant trees will remain. According to the 2015 Master Plan, this area is to become a Pine-Hardwood Savannah. (p. 88)
We parked and made our way around the offensive fencing put up by the Conservancy to block hikers from using public trails through our public bayou woods that have been open for many decades. Trail users elsewhere in the park have expressed their displeasure with these arbitrary barricades.
Stepping along the winding, narrow dirt path, we passed the 100-year-old cement remnants of sewer lines from Camp Logan, the World War II military training camp and hospital set up in the woods and prairie next to the bayou, part of which became Memorial Park. We’d once seen a huge rat snake coiled up in the pipes. And another time we encountered a beautiful coral snake slithering across the path here.
The huge log that once lay across the path has now completely disintegrated. And a rotting loblolly snag once inscribed with the name “Jesus” inside a heart has been cut down.
Despite the elaborate fencing and many signs warning this was not a trail, the soft footpath was clearly well used and even maintained. Mushrooms were growing. Animals burrowing.
We reached our customary spot on the high bank. Part of the bank had collapsed, the face slumping down, the roots of plants sticking out. Some people think this is damage and we have to do something to fix it. Other people think this is a natural process, that the bayou can fix itself.
But hardening banks with concrete, for instance, can cause bank erosion elsewhere. It’s a good idea to observe Best Management Practices on riverbanks.
The bayou is naturally widening here, adjusting to increased flows. The river is much more visible and closer to the trail. Based on Google Earth, a rough estimate is that the top of the channel in April 2014 was around 109 feet from upper bank to upper bank. In Dec. 2019 from bank to bank the distance was approximately 150 feet.
The Corps of Engineers wants to widen the channel even further–to 230 feet, and dig the sandstone bottom nearly 12 feet deeper. Be sure to send in your comments about that before Nov. 20. We’ll have more insight for you soon.
Here is Jim’s beautiful fall photo of the bend and another photo looking upstream where the River Oaks Country Club has bulldozed the historic bank and trees and installed concrete and sheet pile, no doubt contributing to increased erosion of the banks in the park across the way.
Send your thoughts, comments and concerns about Memorial Park and the Master Plan to firstname.lastname@example.org
And be sure to check out the entire series of Jim’s amazing photographs of our living bayou, A Bend in the River.
Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries: Virtual Town Hall with Rep. Lizzie Fletcher
Corps of Engineers Will Present Their Plan for Deepening, Widening Bayou from Dams to Downtown
Nov. 10, 2020
Congressmember Lizzie Fletcher will host a telephone town hall with the public and representatives of the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers on Sunday, Nov. 15, starting at 7 p.m.
The Corps will explain their tentative proposal to deepen and widen some 22 miles of Buffalo Bayou from the dams in west Houston to downtown. The idea is to combine the deepening and widening with a dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek in order to deal with increasing stormwater flowing into and potentially overwhelming the 70-year-old earthen dams, Addicks and Barker in west Houston.
The Galveston District recently extended until Nov. 20 the deadline to comment on their lengthy and complicated solutions, which also include possibly buying out properties behind and below the normally-empty reservoirs.
Fletcher represents the 7th Congressional District, which includes Barker Dam and Reservoir and much of Buffalo Bayou and its surrounding neighborhoods through Houston to Shepherd Drive. Congress will ultimately make the final decision whether to approve and fund the Corps’ plans.
Here is how to sign up for the town hall.
Here is a link to the Corps of Engineers’ Interim Report on their Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study. Here is how to comment on the Corps’ tentative proposals contained in that interim report.
The Corps plans to have a final draft report and environmental impact statement by the late spring of next year. The public will also have an opportunity to comment then.
Local Green Film Festival Features Save Buffalo Bayou and Christmas Bay
Wild About Houston Film Festival, Nov. 18, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Nov. 10, 2020
The two short films are part of the Wild About Houston film festival sponsored by the Citizens Environmental Coalition (CEC). The festival features short films about the natural environment, issues and activism in the Houston area.
Olive’s inspiring film about Christmas Bay, Coastal Essence, is the opening film in the second night of the online festival, Nov. 18, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., which also features his film about Save Buffalo Bayou.
The first night of the film festival was Oct. 21. Here’s a link to watch those films.
Olive, a world-renowned photographer, is the founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation, a nonprofit established to protect and promote the Christmas Bay Estuarine System and its tributaries west of Galveston Bay. Located at the edge of the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, it is the most pristine bay system of the upper Texas coast and a vital part of the ecology of the Galveston Bay system.
Olive has been avidly documenting Buffalo Bayou since before the nonprofit, Save Buffalo Bayou, was established in 2014. The environmental advocacy organization was founded initially to prevent the razing and bulldozing of a stretch of the bayou flowing past Memorial Park, one of the last forested, publicly-accessible sections in the city. It now works to promote understanding of the benefits of naturally-functioning streams and modern, nature-based flood management.
Olive has generously continued his support of Save Buffalo Bayou, capturing the wildlife and changing seasons on the bayou throughout the years. Preserving the natural functions and riparian areas of Buffalo Bayou is just one of many environmental causes Olive has promoted through his photography.
Olive dedicated his film about Save Buffalo Bayou to the organization’s founding board president, Frank C. Smith Jr.
Wild About Houston Green Films
The popular film festival, entirely virtual this year, features short environmental films from the Greater Houston Area that “tell the story of local environmental issues, their champions and how you can make a difference.”
The audience will vote to determine which films will be shown along with others from around the world at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival on Tour, hosted by the CEC in January 2021.
The CEC is also providing a free link to watch the film program at any time, on demand, but this does not include a vote for films.
Deadline Extended to Comment on Proposal to Deepen, Widen Buffalo Bayou
New Deadline Nov. 20. How to Comment.
Nov. 2, 2020
[Update: The Corps sent out an email notice at 5:15 p.m.]
[Incorrect and duplicate links about dredging updated. Sorry about that.]
The Corps of Engineers hadn’t exactly announced an extension of the deadline to comment on their controversial report proposing to strip, dredge, deepen, and widen Buffalo Bayou from the dams to downtown, among other ideas. But they did tell the Chronicle, which on Saturday, Oct. 31, included the information in an op-ed by members of Houston Stronger criticizing the report. Unfortunately, the Chronicle mixed up the date, describing Friday, Nov. 20, as a Tuesday, leading to further confusion.
But now, midday Monday, Nov. 2, with the official deadline looming this evening and after some prompting, the Galveston District of the Corps has changed the date on their webpage for the interim study. They also posted about it on Facebook.
So officially the new deadline for commenting on the Corps’ Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Interim Report is end of the day Nov. 20.
Note, however, that Col. Timothy Vail, Galveston District Commander of the Corps, stated in a virtual public meeting Oct. 26 that there would be “no cutoff,” and that the public should “keep those comments coming.”
Tentatively Selected Plans
The next stage in the process is for the Corps to complete a “draft feasibility report” and environmental impact statement and propose a “tentatively selected plan,” according to a graphic supplied by the Corps during public meetings. The Corps expects to have this done and ready for further public comment by late next spring, according to statements made at their virtual public meeting. Ultimately it would be up to Congress to approve and fund the final recommended plans.
The interim report suggests deepening Buffalo Bayou by about 11 feet and widening the top of the channel to some 230 feet for some 22-24 miles from the federal dams to downtown Houston. For a very rough comparison, according to Google Earth, the top of the bayou channel from upper bank to bank at Gessner is about 110-112 feet across. Downstream in Memorial Park the top of the channel is about 220-230 feet. Far upstream just below the dams in Terry Hershey Park just below Wilcrest the top width is about 75 feet.
The Corps also proposes lining the bayou channel bottom and banks with articulated concrete block in areas of “high erosion.” However, articulated concrete block in Buffalo Bayou only worsens bank collapse.
In addition the Corps also proposes a dam on Cypress Creek and a 22,000-acre reservoir on the Katy Prairie. During heavy rains, Cypress Creek naturally overflows south across the prairie into Addicks Reservoir.
The Corps owns and operates the flood-control dams, Barker and Addicks, and during and after Harvey stormwater flow into the normally empty reservoir parks was so high and so fast the Corps was forced to open the floodgates, inundating properties on the straightened stretch of the bayou below the dams for some six miles to just below Beltway 8.
A Better Solution
The problem is too much rain running off the impervious ground, through pipes, streams and creeks, and flowing too fast into reservoirs that are too small behind sinking, cracking earthen dams.
So why does Harris County Flood Control continue to spend public funds on projects to speed up the flow of stormwater into Addicks and Barker reservoirs? And why does the Corps propose doing the same by widening and deepening Cane Island Branch, a tributary of Buffalo Bayou upstream of Barker Reservoir? (p. 127)
Conveying stormwater to Galveston Bay as fast as possible is a “national value,” said Col. Vail at a recent virtual meeting, contradicting all current science about the futility of trying to do that.
Vail didn’t explain (and neither does the interim report) what happens when that massive surge of fast-moving polluted stormwater racing out of Buffalo Bayou during major storms meets a potential tidal surge from the bay. Or what the impact on the bay would be from all that toxic freshwater (much of which would otherwise sink into, sit on, or drain slowly from the ground if it weren’t covered with impervious surface, like roads, buildings, parking lots, etc.).
Oddly, the Corps refers to Buffalo Bayou as “naturalized,” as if it weren’t natural once. (p. 197)
We think the focus should be on managing flooding in place, on slowing, stopping, spreading out and soaking in rainwater before it floods our streams. Nature-based, green. Trees, prairies, wetlands, wooded parks, meandering natural streams; rain gardens, swales, vegetated ditches, porous surfaces, green roofs, etc. See our page of Books and Articles about Buffalo Bayou, Rivers, Flooding, and Nature for more information. See also the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston report and Harris County’s Harris Thrives resolution.
And maybe, if the issue is so pressing and vital, there ought to be a moratorium on new development out there until we figure it out. (p. 92)
Managing Flood Risks: What to Do? Interviews with Bob Freitag, lead author of Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era and Susan Chadwick, President and Executive Director of Save Buffalo Bayou. Oct. 26, 2020
Outrageous Plan to Deepen, Widen, Kill Buffalo Bayou, Oct. 13, 2020
Katy Prairie Conservancy’s alternatives to the Corps’ Interim Report