What Happened in 2017? Some Things We Remember Besides Harvey
Permit Issued for Bad Project. Bad Project Is Killed
Also Boy Scouts, Bottles, That Big Horrible Flood, and Alligators
Jan. 7, 2018
Updated Jan. 8 with more photos
The year 2017 started off for Save Buffalo with our editorial in the Houston Chronicle warning against the folly of believing that cutting down trees and widening and deepening our bayous and streams is the most effective response to flooding. Nobody does that any more. It’s counterproductive, damaging, and costly. The practical focus is on stopping stormwater before it floods a stream. But in Houston developer and engineering interests as well as politicians continue unwisely to call for bigger and more expensive drainage pipes and “improving” our bayous and waterways at great taxpayer and environmental expense. Widening the floodplain would be a good idea, creating Room for the River, as the Chronicle has reported as part of its excellent series in the wake of Harvey. Save Buffalo Bayou has been talking about Room for the River, working with nature, for years. That means not building in flood-prone areas and buyouts of buildings in the way, among other things.
Then in January Terry Hershey died, one of Houston’s inspirational environmental leaders, a protector of Buffalo Bayou.
In April Jim Olive went up in the air and took a stunning series of photographs, including the photo above, of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary in the middle of Houston. You can see the photos here. You might also want to look at our series, A Bend in the River, documenting the changes in a bend of the bayou through the seasons.
Later that month, after a delay of nearly two years following the last public comment period, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for the long-delayed Harris County Flood Control District project to strip, dredge, and reroute over a mile of this stretch of the river, a historic nature area and one of the last forested, publicly-accessible stretches of the bayou. We asked and waited impatiently for the Environmental Assessment required by law.
While we waited an amazing trove of bottles and broken glass from the early twentieth century surfaced on the bank below the high cliff on the eastern edge of Memorial Park, an area designated a State Antiquities Landmark. This high bluff and the rest of this historic area would have been destroyed by the flood control district’s “restoration” project. You can thank Save Buffalo Bayou that it wasn’t.
During that same month of May, Eagle Scout Paul Hung published an inspiring essay in the Houston Chronicle describing his Eagle Scout project benefiting Save Buffalo Bayou. Hung and a group of fellow scouts documented wildlife tracks on the bayou over a period of several months and created a pamphlet for the public to use to identify tracks. (Donate! We’ll send you the guide.)
The Corps Releases the Environmental Impact Statement: It’s All Good! Not
And the Corps of Engineers finally released its Environmental Assessment. Which basically reported what the flood control district said, which was that it’s all good, no environmental impact from ripping out all the trees and vegetation, digging up the channel and banks, and shortening and rerouting the bayou. It’ll be better! More natural! It’s what the bayou wants!
So our super smart geologists went to work out in the field and documented the fact that Flood Control’s Memorial Park Demonstration Project was premised on a basic mistake, a faulty analysis.
Basically, at the urging of the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), Flood Control came up with a very expensive “solution” before conducting an analysis of the “problem.” (The “solution” also happened to benefit members of the BPA board at the time.) The subsequent faulty analysis to back up this pre-selected solution was provided at taxpayer expense by a very compliant engineering consultant (who was represented on the board of the BPA by the manager for the project).
Slumping Is Vertical Collapse of Stream Banks. It’s What Happens on Buffalo Bayou
What the analysis ignored is that what we have primarily on Buffalo Bayou and elsewhere is slumping of the banks. Our banks slide down vertically. The face rotates away. The Flood Control “restoration” plan said this wasn’t happening. But it is. (Property owners on the bayou, private and public, may have realized this, especially after Harvey.) There is really not much one can do about vertical bank collapse (slumping) except stay back and out of the way, stop landscaping, stop watering, control runoff, etc. Riprap (concrete rubble) is not going to fix it, and the weight may even cause more of a problem.
We took our findings and made our case to the elected county official in charge, a very smart man whose name starts with “Cactus” and ends in Cagle. He listened. (Also the project cost had doubled — from $6 million to $12 million at least, not including maintenance.)
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project is dead. Though no Flood Control project is truly ever dead, just shoved to the back of the shelf. See below.
And then came Harvey.
And now it had happened. In November of 2017 we published a new report, The Problem with Dams, describing how construction of dams can create a false sense of security and greater flood risk. In the coming year, we promise more analysis of plans for a new dam on Cypress Creek, the Third Reservoir.
In the meantime, distraught homeowners upstream on Buffalo Bayou below the dams were blaming trees (and the Corps of Engineers) for flooding their homes during Harvey, and politicians, engineers, and developer associations have turned up the volume on calls to remove the “kinks” and “bottlenecks” in the meandering, unchannelized bayou from Beltway 8 to Shepherd Drive, the beautiful stretch of the bayou that Terry Hershey and others fought to protect. Upstream of Beltway 8, the bayou had been stripped and straightened by the Corps in the 1940s. That straightened stretch immediately below the dams is now called Terry Hershey Park, and after Harvey, in a bid to do something quickly, the flood control district pulled off the shelf an old, controversial plan to raze trees in Terry Hershey Park and create basins for siphoning off flow from the bayou AFTER it was already in the stream. This made no scientific sense, but it cost less and it was a plan ready to go.
On a trip down Buffalo Bayou after Harvey, we found the gates to the public boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway inexplicably closed. We discussed this with the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the gates were opened. On our paddle we saw newly revealed sandstone formations, an abundance of mussel shells in the newly deposited gravel and sand bars, a lot of sediment, lots of fallen trees, and a lot of slumping of the banks. The small tributary stream flowing out of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary was blocked with sediment and debris.
All That Sediment
Where does all the sediment come from? Basically, it’s land that’s in transit towards the sea, and has been for eons (much faster when trees and vegetation have been removed from the banks and much more when the flow in the river is very high and strong). The sediment stops on one side of the river, washes out on another. During floods it lands on top of the banks, fertilizing the floodplain, all part of the natural process of the river and the reason why river valleys are so fertile. Possibly some of the abundant sediment is stuff that had previously dropped out of the water during prior storms when the water was held up in the federal reservoirs while the floodgates were closed. Perhaps old sediment was washed out when the gates were opened during Harvey. Then too, there is a concept called “hungry water,” which is when sediment-poor water released from dams seeks out and picks up more sediment from the banks, causing more erosion, dropping larger loads when the flow slows at bends and obstructions. (See page 34.)
But the banks above Shepherd generally held up amazing well, those that haven’t been undermined by landscaping or bizarre “stabilization” projects. (Bank armoring can cause greater instability and erosion in nearby banks — see page 4 of this 2014 Public Notice about the Memorial Park Demonstration Project from the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. See also this about riprap from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.) There has been a lot of slumping and apparent widening, and loss of trees and vegetation. But the banks are naturally rebuilding, if we let them. What’s needed is woody debris against the banks, the trees and stuff that naturally falls in, collects and cleans sediment from the stream, reinforcing the banks against erosion. Nature has a system. It provides habitat for wildlife too. All part of the plan. Living rivers are healthier, cleaner, and more beneficial for us.
Since the fall, contractors hired by Harris County Flood Control have been working to remove large woody debris in Buffalo Bayou and elsewhere. To do this, they have used heavy equipment to dredge the channel and make it deeper so that they can float barges up and down the bayou, according to Flood Control. You might have witnessed this operation near San Felipe Road, for instance. We have urged them to leave as much woody debris against the banks as possible, while recognizing the need to clear the channel for stormwater conveyance. Our bayous and streams are our natural drainage systems, and Buffalo Bayou is our main river, with most other streams and creeks running into it.
Hope for the Future
Unfortunately, dredging the channel is damaging to the ecosystem. There’s life in the bottom there. Also a lot of sandstone. But the flood control district was created in 1937 and given a limited number of tools to do what was current then: strip, dig, and straighten our streams. Times have changed. Our hope for the future is that our flood management practices will change also and evolve with the times.
And our thoughts are with those who lost so much during Harvey, who are still homeless, and who are still suffering.