Developers Eager to Pave More Streets and Parking Lots
October 21, 2014
Raise your hand if you ever heard of the Harris County Flood Control Task Force.
Try looking on the Internet for any mention of this 31-member semi-secret committee and you’ll find almost nothing except for an occasional reference in someone’s bio and a brief note on the website of the Bayou Preservation Association. Founded in the 1970s to create “a community collaboration of engineers, developers, and interested citizens,” according to the BPA, the task force is now mostly a collaboration of engineers and developers, as is the BPA.
County Judge Bill Elliot is reported to have said at the time: “How can Harris County government adequately protect homes and businesses from the hazards of flooding and facilitate economic development, while at the same time preserving the God-given resources we have that are still in their natural state for the present and future enjoyment of our citizens?”
Last Tuesday, Oct. 15, a county task force committee looking into that question voted 5-1 in favor of spending $6 million to wreck the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, a perfectly healthy 1.5 miles of wild bayou flowing in and around our Memorial Park. The project would destroy riparian forest crucial to the health of our water, to erosion and flood control. Riparian zones are increasingly being recognized as wetlands that should be federally protected for our own health and survival.
On Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, at a public meeting in the Harris County Flood Control District headquarters, 9900 Northwest Freeway, the full flood control district task force will be voting on whether to go ahead with the controversial project. Update: The chairman of the task force, Ranney McDonough, said in phone call late Thursday afternoon to Save Buffalo Bayou that the doors of the meeting will be closed and the public will be turned away. But we are going anyway.
The flood control district declined to provide us with the names of the current members of the full task force, suggesting we contact the Harris County Commissioners’ Court since the commissioners’ court created and appoints the task force. No response to those emails by press time. Update: Courtesy of one of the members, we now have a reasonably current list of the members of the task force. And generally we know that of the 31 positions approved by the commissioners, about nine seats go to engineers and architects, another eight go to developers and builders, another two go to business groups, three or four go to government agencies, and another seven go to environmental or civic groups or individuals. Several positions are empty.
We will do our best to provide their contact information. These task force members need to be contacted and informed. Please let them know of your opposition and why. In addition, please note that Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who represents Memorial Park, is up for election on Nov. 4.
Not In. In a Meeting. On the Other Line.
As of this writing, it is unknown how many of the five task force committee members who voted in favor of the bulldozing project have seen this part of the bayou. We’ve made fruitless calls and left messages and talked to one engineer on the committee who voted in favor of bulldozing and channelizing the last wild bayou. He’d never seen the area to be destroyed; he thought there was no vegetation there.
The chairman of the flood control task force is a civil engineer, Ranney McDonough, of McDonough Engineering Corporation, a Houston firm “offering design and construction management services for commercial land and site development, municipal, transportation, industrial, and governmental projects.” McDonough’s public infrastructure projects include hike and bike trails, flood control planning, local and regional drainage plans, roadways and streets, water distribution and wastewater collection systems.
Noticing criticism of the expensive, bizarre bulldozing, dredging, and channelizing project, officially known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, McDonough appointed the six-member committee to look into it, including himself. McDonough did not return the phone calls made to his office yesterday or today (Tuesday) asking for his reasons for voting for the project and whether he’d ever seen the bayou in the project area.
The head of the committee is Rick Rice, who worked for many years as a senior vice-president for Ned Holmes at Holmes’ Houston-based real estate development company, Parkway Investments. Parkway is now apparently Holmes Investments, and Rice is now business development advisor for Edminster, Hinshaw, Russ and Associates, the second oldest engineering firm in Houston. Rice was also a board member of the West Houston Association, the Energy Corridor District, past president of the Houston Real Estate Council, and more. Holmes, banker, developer, former commissioner of the Texas Department of Transportation, former chairman of the Port of Houston Authority, and former chairman of P&O Ports North America, Inc., now Ports America, the largest terminal operator and stevedore in the country, is the power behind construction of the Grand Parkway, a massive highway system running through the Katy Prairie in West Houston.
Rice did not respond to messages left with this office yesterday or today, and the person answering explained this morning that he was “not in” and “on the other line.”
Two other committee members who voted for the project are professional engineers whose companies do major contracting work for the city and county as well as other government agencies. One is Melvin G. Spinks, president of the water resources division of CivilTech Engineering, Inc., which does drainage and stormwater projects for the city and county, as well as street and highway construction. Another is David H. Zuhlke, manager of the water resources division of LJA Engineering. Zuhlke has worked for the flood control district, among others, on channel projects, water detention facilities, commercial site drainage, and roadway drainage systems, including for Interstate 10.
Spinks was out of the office and then “on another line” yesterday afternoon and a call today went straight to voice mail. Zuhlke was the only engineer on the committee we were able to reach for comment yesterday (Monday, Oct. 20) on why he voted in favor of the project.
He has not seen Buffalo Bayou in the project area, he said. “My understanding from what was presented is that it doesn’t have a lot of vegetation.” (Here are some photos of the lush riparian vegetation in the project area.)
He voted in favor of the “demonstration” project “for the demonstration techniques,” Zuhlke said, referring to disputed Natural Channel Design methods of razing healthy natural riparian forest, including hundreds of trees and plants, and dredging up logs and roots in order to replace them with other log and root wads and create new channels that allegedly mimic the natural bayou and imagine the course that the bayou might take 200-300 years from now. The idea is to pay millions of dollars to engineers to do the damage now that the bayou might do centuries in the future.
What the Heck If It Doesn’t Work.
“Eventually these [techniques] have to be put on the ground to see how they work. Or more importantly if they don’t work,” Zuhlke said of the experiment to destroy our healthy, functioning 18,000-year-old Buffalo Bayou in order to see if it works better to artificially reconstruct the river using techniques that have already been shown to fail across the country.
The other two members of the committee are Steve Hupp, water quality director for the Bayou Preservation Association, which is the project’s main promoter as well as instigator, and Evelyn Merz of the Houston Sierra Club, who cast the lone negative vote. The president of the BPA, Robert Rayburn, works for the Energy Corridor District, the development agency for the Energy Corridor in west Houston.
In 2009 the Sierra Club filed suit against the Federal Highway Administration to stop construction of the Grand Parkway, claiming the government failed to adequately assess environmental impacts to the Katy Prairie, source of Buffalo Bayou and an important natural mechanism for absorbing, cleansing, and slowing storm water and replenishing the Evangeline and Chicot aquifers, from which much of the area’s water, is drawn. In fact, the aquifers supply nearly one-third of the city’s water. In August 2012 federal Judge Keith Ellison ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers had failed to analyze the impact of potential flooding from the highway project and ordered the Corps to consider the consequences of development in the west Houston area in the future, but he allowed the Grand Parkway to proceed.
There’s little doubt how the engineers and developers on the full flood control task force will vote Monday, Oct. 27. But we should do our best to contact the members of the task force—when we find out who they are—let them know the facts and show them photos.
In a time of austerity in the midst of so much prosperity, our government has somehow found $4 million of the people’s money for a pointless project to bulldoze our much-abused bayou’s riparian forest and destroy its ecosystem. The River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south bank of the project and is in the process of rebuilding its golf course on the river, is paying another $2 million, one-third of the cost.
The full task force meeting, open to the public, will be from 2 to 4 p.m. in the first floor conference room 100 at the Harris County Flood Control District’s headquarters at 9900 Northwest Freeway.