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?
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.