Engineers Caused the 1935 Flood that Led to Creation of Flood Control District

A Fact-Based Response to “Engineers’ View” in the Texas Tribune

By Susan Chadwick

March 5, 2017

In their TribTalk editorial “Boomtown, Floodtown Reconsidered, An Engineer’s View,” Feb. 6, 2017, Michael Bloom and Steve Stagner reply to the excellent investigative piece, “Boomtown, Floodtown,” published by the Tribune and ProPublica on Dec. 7, 2016. Bloom and Stagner do an excellent job of reiterating the position of the Harris County Flood Control District. As an engineer with the R.G. Miller, one of the region’s foremost engineering contractors regularly doing business with Harris County and the City of Houston, Bloom might be expected to support the arguments commonly made by representatives of the flood control district. Stagner is president of the Texas branch of the American Council of Engineering Companies, a lobbying and advocacy group.

But Bloom is also on the executive committee of the board of Houston’s Bayou Preservation Association, an organization founded in the 1960s to preserve Buffalo Bayou and prevent the kind of “channel improvements” that Bloom suggests. (“Paying $1 million to buy and remove 10 homes from the floodplain is not as cost-effective as paying $1 million for channel improvements that shrink the floodplain and effectively move 20 homes out of it.”)

Bloom and Stagner’s description of the 1935 flood that led to the creation of the flood control district is in error. In fact, the catastrophic flooding that occurred in downtown Houston was the result of faulty engineering. A 1937 report commissioned by the Texas legislature found that the sole cause of the flooding was a badly designed bridge – the Magnolia Bridge, built by the Magnolia Ice and Brewing Company in 1912. The bridge’s base was too narrow and caused the rain-swollen Buffalo Bayou to back up rapidly into downtown. (See also here.)

Furthermore, the Katy prairie at that time was not “undeveloped,” as described by Bloom and Stagner as well as other advocates for the flood control district. Most if not all of the native deep-rooted tallgrass prairie in the Katy area west of Houston, source of Buffalo Bayou, was by then agricultural land, which has far less ability to hold and absorb rainwater.

Bloom and Stagner state that tallgrass prairie cannot “prevent flooding.” No one suggests that preservation or restoration of native prairies, forests, and wetlands, including riparian wetlands along our bayous and streams, will “prevent flooding.” It is quite obvious that not even engineers can prevent flooding. The goal is to reduce flooding risk and protect our vital natural drainage and water-cleansing systems.

We support stopping storm water before it gets into our local streams. Slow it down, spread it out, soak it in. That approach, working with nature, is cheaper and more effective, better for us and environment, and the most enlightened approach to floodplain management.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study cited by Bloom and Stagner finding no increase in the frequency of extreme weather events may not present the whole picture. State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon says that climate models “predict a long-term upward trend in extreme rainfall events and temperatures in Texas.” Dr. Phil Bedient, professor of engineering and director of the Center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) at Rice University, points out that the Houston region is in fact experiencing more frequent and more intense rainfall events, leading to more damaging flooding.

In any case, Bloom and Stagner cannot have it both ways. Houston is obviously flooding in places it rarely if ever flooded before, and flooding more severely more often. Either more intensive rainfall is causing flooding, i.e. it’s just a lot of rain and “not man-made flooding,” according to Bloom and Stagner (and former flood control director Mike Talbott). Or if extreme weather events are not increasing, according to the NOAA study cited by Bloom and Stagner, something else – something not natural but man-made — must be causing more frequent and damaging flooding.

Susan Chadwick

Executive Director