Who Owns the Bayou?

Rights, Responsibilities, and Flooding Your Neighbor

 

Sept. 20, 2018

Update Sept. 29, 2018: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released new rainfall statistics and adjusted rainfall frequencies in Texas and Houston.

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.

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