A Problem Nobody Wants to Fix

While Costly Fixes Wash Away

Update on Bayou Park Repairs and Damaging Stormwater Outfalls

Feb. 1, 2022

Recently we told you about the many drainage pipes jutting out from the banks of Buffalo Bayou and other streams that block the flow during storms. These pipes, or outfalls, violate city, county, and federal regulations by pointing directly across the channel. They act like dams, cause stormwater to back up, flood, erode, and take out banks and expensive sidewalks, leading to costly and continuous repairs.

The City of Houston is in charge of the pipes that collect this stormwater that rains down on the city. The Harris County Flood Control District is in charge of the channels and streams, both natural and artificial, that receive this runoff and send it out to the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay.

Giant outfall pointing at north bank in Buffalo Bayou Park blew out concrete riprap and concrete block installed by Harris County Flood Control in 2020. Sidewalk threatened once again. Dirt and concrete left in middle of stream. Photo taken just downstream from the Waugh Bridge, Jan. 15, 2022

But there were still questions hanging when we published the “illegal” outfalls report a couple of weeks ago. In 2020 the flood control district spent nearly $10 million in federal funds scraping, bulldozing and “repairing” the healthy green banks in Houston’s popular Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd and Sabine. The project was meant to repair damage caused by Harvey in 2017, three years earlier. Of course, by the time the bulldozers were revved up and deployed to the banks for the “repairs,” the bayou had naturally repaired and replanted its banks with deep-rooted, stabilizing native plants. Destroying these plants removed the natural network protecting the bank, causing at least one big tree to fall (as others have following Flood Control’s previous “natural stable channel design” work in the park).

One of the hanging questions from our previous report: why didn’t Flood Control fix the many stormwater pipes in the park blasting away like cannons pointed at the opposite bank?

Same Answer: Not Our Pipes

We’d asked before. The answer from Flood Control then was “not our pipes.” So we asked the City, which owns the pipes. They told us to ask the Flood Control watershed coordinator. So we sent an email and made phone calls. Sparkle Bell, director of communications for Flood Control said they’d look into it and get back to us in about a week. Recently she responded in an email:

“If we had considered full adjustment of the pipe outfalls, it would have become an even larger, more time consuming and more expensive effort, as it would also have had impacts on the adjacent trails, retaining walls, and vegetation, and would have required financial participation of the owners of the outfalls.”

Repairs, Public Money Now Washed Away. Outfall Destroys Repaired Bank

Well, they scraped away most of the vegetation anyway. And in a little over year since completion, the “repairs,” which also involved narrowing the channel, building out the banks and covering them with concrete riprap and articulated block, have now mostly washed away, leaving concrete rubble and dirt in the middle of the stream. Of particular note is the damage done to the “repaired” bank and sidewalk directly opposite a major outfall that blew it all out. (See photos above.)

So some $10 million in public money was also washed away. The project was funded with $9.7 million in federal funds through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program run by the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Unfortunately the federal funding for this project was designed and arranged by the man who was just recently appointed Harris County Engineer.  Milton Rahman was working at the time for Stuart Consulting. Most recently he has been serving as deputy chief of staff for Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

We asked Rahman about the project. Had he monitored the results? No, he said. He left Stuart once the design was done, he said.

Jones Carter was the engineering firm that ultimately designed the engineering plans and James Construction Group, LLC was the company that brought in the backhoes and carried out the work. The project received a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Maybe Worth Spending the Money to Fix the Pipes?

Harris County Commissioners Court also named a new director of the Flood Control District: Tina Peterson. Currently the deputy general manager of the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, Peterson is a professional engineer with an undergraduate degree in biology and advanced degrees in environmental engineering.

Perhaps she will bring a new perspective to the Flood Control District. And maybe she can figure out whether it’s worth fixing badly designed outfalls blocking the flow and blowing out banks and sidewalks so we don’t have to keep “repairing” them.

We can let nature restore the rest for free.

The other hanging question: how did big new outfalls designed to blast across the stream ever get permitted by the City in the first place? Still looking for answers on that one.

Endnote: Several people have asked whether the pipes at right angles to the channel couldn’t be fixed by having them curved at the end so that the outflow joined rather than blocked the flow of the stream. We asked city engineer Varshney about that.

“The option you are referring to does not seem feasible,” he replied in an email.