Corps of Engineers Refuses to Release Environmental Assessment
May 2, 2017
Updated May 3, 2017
Updated May 17, 2017: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment yesterday, May 16. We’ll have a report soon.
The estimated cost of the controversial project to “restore” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston has doubled to at least $12 million, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
On April 19 the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers approved a permit allowing the unpopular project to go forward. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the project would raze the trees and vegetation, grade the ancient high banks, dredge and reroute the channel, including altering the curves of the meanders, along more than a mile of the bayou flowing past the public forests and sandy banks of Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The federal permit basically allows an exception to the Clean Water Act.
Opponents of the project question the purpose of it, pointing out the lack of scientific basis and even common sense to flood control district claims that destroying a healthy riparian forest and digging up and rearranging the bayou channel and banks will improve nature and water quality and reduce erosion. In fact, the costly result will be the opposite: the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem and create more erosion and flooding, especially downstream, not to mention cause the wasting of a major, invaluable public asset.
The project, by razing the vegetation and digging up the banks, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do for controlling erosion. And it will fail, requiring expensive repairs and maintenance.
The long-delayed plan was initiated in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association, once an environmental organization and now essentially a lobbying and networking organization for engineering, landscape design, construction and building contractors, commercial and industrial architects, developers, and their agents. Two members of the board live in the project area.
The Hershey Foundation, founded by Terry Hershey and her husband Jake, issued a resolution opposing the project in May 2014. Terry Hershey, along with Save Buffalo Bayou’s board president, Frank Smith, were among the original members of the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in the 1960s to oppose a similar though much longer project to channelize the bayou and cover it with concrete from the federal dams upstream all the way to the Shepherd Bridge.
The initial estimate for the current project was $6 million, including $4 million already contributed by city and county taxpayers and $2 million to be paid by members of the River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south half of the project area. The Memorial Park Conservancy is also promoting the project. One-third of the 27 members of the board of the conservancy are also members of the country club, including the board chairman, Steve Jenkins, vice chairman, Wendy Hines, and treasurer, Mindy Hildebrand.
“The original project funding was established in 2010,” the project manager for the flood control district, Jason Krahn, explained in a recent email through a district representative. “The District’s Construction Manager speculates that the project, including contingencies, could cost double the currently funded amount. The Construction Manager expects to have a better idea of the final costs once they are allowed to formally bid the project out to the contracting community and receive actual bids to conduct the work.”
At least four major engineering firms have been involved so far. The Construction Manager is SpawGlass, which is working with Shamrock Environmental Corporation of North Carolina, according to the flood control district. Stantec, one of the world’s largest engineering firms, in 2016 acquired the previous engineering firm KBR, which had provided the design services for the project. Atkins is responsible for the Monitoring Plan. (p. 60)
A Historic Nature Area: A Public Trust
The nature area to be razed and rebuilt as a “demonstration project” is the longest, publicly accessible, forested and never channelized stretch of the bayou in the middle of Houston. It contains ancient high bluffs and sandstone formations and is considered a historic nature area. Filled with wildlife, it is one of the few places in Houston where the public can observe the city’s natural history and geology, as well as the natural process of a living river. It is extremely rare to have a public stretch of forested river running through the center of a large city.
The flood control district, the sponsor of the project, is legally responsible for the “conservation of forests” under its 1937 state charter.
Corps Refusing to Release Assessment of Impact on the Environment
The National Environmental Policy Act required that the Corps conduct an Environmental Assessment of the proposed project to determine if there were significant environmental impacts necessitating a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement. Riparian areas – the trees and vegetation and soil along the banks of rivers – are a type of wetland and serve to cleanse the water flowing over and past the banks, in addition to absorbing and slowing stormwater runoff contributing to flooding. Allowing destruction of these vital riparian wetland areas violates numerous state and federal policies protecting them.
Apparently the Corps found that a $12 million project to raze the forest, obliterate cliffs, dredge and fill the channel and banks and wetlands with heavy equipment, destroy the structure of the soil, dump who knows what in there, rearrange the flow and shape of the river, kill and drive away the wildlife (and no, there is no evidence for the assumption that the wildlife returns) had no significant impact on the environment.
Save Buffalo Bayou has been asking about the Corps’ Environmental Assessment of the project since the end of February. In addition to the Environmental Assessment, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) must also approve or deny the permit. On March 31 the TCEQ approved the permit.
On April 5 and 6 Save Buffalo Bayou filed formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Corps for both the Environmental Assessment and the TCEQ document.
On April 20, the day after the Corps granted the permit, the Corps denied our request for both those public documents. Kevin Kelly, the FOIA officer for the Galveston District, claimed that the two documents were “still open documents” and stated that our requests would be “closed at this time.” He suggested that we “resubmit in two months.”
By the way, here are the Corps’ Environmental Operating Principles.
(Update May 17: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment on May 16. We’ll have a report on that soon.)
In the meantime, on April 25, the flood control district posted the permit for the project on its website. It includes the agreement or letter of approval from the TCEQ to the Corps. (p. 80) The TCEQ letter refers to the still-secret Environmental Assessment and its Statement of Findings. The Findings, according to the TCEQ, are simply that the project “will provide an overall benefit.”
Otherwise, despite hundreds of critical comments, including numerous scientific objections, sent to the Corps during the two public comment periods in 2014 and 2015, the project plan is essentially unchanged since first presented to the public in December of 2013, and contains the same glaring errors, contradictions, faulty assumptions, and outright misrepresentations.
For example, the Monitoring Plan, which will tell us how much damage the project has done to the environment after it’s finished, describes the bayou in the project area as a “large sand-bed stream.” (p. 62) In fact, the stream bed in the project area is crisscrossed with hard sandstone that for hundreds of years was used by people and buffalo to ford the river. An erosion control study conducted by Brown and Root in 1995 for the flood control district found that “the channel is now located on top of a hard clay substratum which is relatively resistant to erosion.” (p. 14)
The Corps continues to refuse to release the crucial Environmental Assessment and the now public approval from the TCEQ. “Currently, your request is being processed,” was FOIA officer Kelly’s emailed reply to us on Monday, May 1.
And What Is The Point?
The overall purpose of the “demonstration” project is generally described by flood control as demonstrating the benefits of Natural Stable Channel Design as an erosion control method, despite that fact that flood control has already built several Natural Stable Channel Design projects, some of which have already failed. See also here. (And here is a list of all so-called Natural Channel Design projects in the Houston area compiled by Stantec/KBR in 2013. See page 33. Note that the list includes the disastrous Houston Country Club project by AECOM, which resulted in a lawsuit and a $10 million-plus assessment of the club members.)
Landowners have problems with erosion when they cut down the trees and vegetation, dig up and landscape the banks. And that’s what this project is doing: it is demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control. (Here are some better ideas from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about erosion control methods. We recommend brush mattresses, a simple, low-cost method mimicking the process of nature which the Corps of Engineers has been using for a long time. Here are the Corps’ instructions for brush mattresses.)
As of yet, the district has no manual defining Natural Stable Channel Design, though the goal is regularly described as building an ideal stream that neither degrades or aggrades, otherwise known as eroding and depositing sediment. Eroding and depositing are natural and necessary functions of healthy rivers, and many scientists argue that “static banks are not the norm, and static rivers and streams do not sustain ecosystems.”
The district claims that its engineering project will improve nature, that dredging and razing and dumping fill into the bayou will “improve aquatic functions” and that the new never-changing, never-eroding bayou will “convey storm water and sediment loads more efficiently.”
We think it will cause greater flooding and erosion, especially downstream, and will likely fail.
What To Do
Complain, protest. Call and write your city, county, state and federal representatives. Tell your friends and neighbors.
Tell them you are opposed to wasting millions of dollars to destroy an invaluable and irreplaceable natural asset that we should be protecting and promoting instead.
It’s a public trust.