So Many Illegal Dams on Buffalo Bayou

How Big Pipes Block the Flow in Our Streams During Storms

Jan. 17, 2022

In a city full of engineers, surely they would get the engineering right.

But somehow the banks of our bayous and streams are punctured with stormwater drainage pipes that block the flow during storms. Pointing directly across the stream, they shoot a powerful force of rainwater runoff against high flow in the channel. This acts like a dam, stopping our streams from draining, causing water to back up as much as a quarter mile, according to witnesses. It also creates damaging turbulence and erosion and increases flooding.

It’s not like we don’t have a problem with flooding. Authorities are proposing multi-billion-dollar fixes to move more stormwater faster through the pipes and streams that collect rainwater from our roofs and streets and parking lots and send it out to Galveston Bay. These are big fixes like dredging, deepening, and widening 22 miles of Buffalo Bayou from the federal dams in west Houston to downtown. (p. 111) Or building a massive flood tunnel from the dams to the bay. (p. 106) (See also here and here.)

Seems like they might fix the problem drainage pipes first.

Violating City, County, and Federal Regulations

Drainage pipe extending beyond south bank in Buffalo Bayou Park and pointing directly at the opposite bank in violation of regulations. Photo taken Oct. 7, 2020, after major bank repairs by Harris County Flood Control District.

In fact, stormwater pipes (or outfalls) that point directly across the stream are a violation of City of Houston, Harris County Flood Control District, and even Corps of Engineers regulations.

Anything greater than a 60-degree angle to the bank is a violation of those regulations. (See Houston Public Works, Infrastructure Design Manual 2021, pp. 181, 183 and HCFCD Policy, Criteria, Procedure Manual, p. 230.) Actually, the federal requirements are even stricter. The Corps of Engineers requires the Harris County Flood Control District (and thus the City of Houston) to adhere to outfall angles no greater than 45 degrees to the bank. (Regional General Permit SWG-2009-00123, p. 3) The City of Austin, among other places, also requires an angle of 45 degrees or less. (See G.)

These regulations are at least twenty years old, if not older, according to representatives of Houston Public Works.

So how did we get all those stormwater outfalls blocking the flow in the bayous?

An Old Story

We’ve been pointing out this problem for some time. There’s the massive stormwater outfall in Memorial Park’s Old Archery Range, site of the public boat launch west of Loop 610.  It was built in 2012-2013, designed by the engineering firm AECOM to point directly at the opposite bank, despite the outfall angle regulations.

The large stormwater outfall on Jan. 16, 2015, shortly after it was completed on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park’s Old Archery Range south of Woodway. Stormwater shoots directly across the stream, blocking the flow, collecting sediment, and causing erosion. Photo by Bill Heins

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2 thoughts on “So Many Illegal Dams on Buffalo Bayou”

  1. Ethelyn Kuldell says:

    Thank you so much for standing up to these people!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Bill Owens says:

    I hate to get personal but we really need to investigate the qualifications of the City and County engineers. For example, the engineer in charge of City flood mitigation is the same guy who signed off on the Barker-Addicks flood-pool debacle that cost people their homes and resulted in millions of dollars lost. He never faced any responsibility for that. The Texas Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors website allows for information about the qualifications of engineers and outstanding complaints. It also allows the public to file complaints. Save Buffalo Bayou should check it out. It is possible that there is incompetence and conflicts of interest in the decision-making process. A big problem with engineering solutions is that they are very narrowly focused and don’t include all the information necessary to develop a sustainable response. It is likely that they are not qualified to be deciding on these projects. There are other professionals that need to have input. Geomorphologists, geologists, soil scientists, and stream ecologists to name a few sources of meaningful input.

    Bill Owens

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