Shocker: Save Buffalo Bayou and Corps of Engineers Agree About Something

Big Goal: Managing Raindrops Where They Fall

Feb. 20, 2018


In order to fix our very bad flooding problems, we need to understand what they are.

A wide-ranging study, proposed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, would look at where raindrops fall and how they flow across our roofs, yards, parking lots and streets, through our drainage systems and waterways and into Galveston Bay. It would analyze where the problems are and help us agree on the best solutions.

The cooperative project, first proposed to the city and county in 2015, now appears to be moving forward.

Edmond Russo, deputy district engineer for the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers, reports that federal funding for the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment is in place. The district expects to receive word from headquarters in Washington, D.C. within several weeks.

The Feb. 9 passage of the federal budget also provided funds for the long-awaited study of improvements to the troubled Addicks and Barker dam and reservoir system on Buffalo Bayou in west Houston. Engineers were forced to open the floodgates of the aging, earthen dams in August when an unprecedented amount of rain runoff from Harvey threatened to overwhelm the dams. Three people died and thousands of homes and businesses were flooded.

Russo says the two studies would complement each other.

What’s To Like

The study has the potential to move the Houston region’s outdated flood management practices into the modern era. Flooding begins on the land. The focus of flood risk reduction elsewhere – including even Fort Worth – is on managing flooding in place, stopping stormwaters before they flood rivers and streams. That means slowing the flow. It means educating people about rain runoff and helping them be stewards of their own watershed. It means swales and rain gardens instead of lawns, more trees, vegetation, and green spaces instead of impervious surface, opening up ravines and streams filled for development, buying out properties and widening the floodplains of our streams, and more.

Houston and Harris County leaders continue to emphasize bigger drainage pipes and channelizing, widening, and deepening our bayous and streams to “improve” conveyance and flush more water downstream as fast as possible. Scientific experts widely agree that this approach, costly to the taxpayers as well as the environment, causes more flooding and erosion.

Russo, in a recent telephone interview, spoke passionately about a “comprehensive approach,” a “range of ideas,” “a suite of solutions” and “actions at various levels,” including cisterns, porous concrete, green buildings, the possibility of redesigning golf courses on Buffalo Bayou for detention, water features for detaining floodwaters, “managing all this water as far upstream as we can … before it gets to the bayous.”  He pointed out that “a tiny bit of improvement across the whole drainage network could equal another reservoir.” He spoke of bringing together different planning bodies, community groups, the city and county flood control, bayou coalitions, landscape architects, hydrologists, and engineers, of using Housing and Urban Development grants and other federal funds as well as tax breaks for green infrastructure and assistance to homeowners and others to make changes to their homes and property.

Buffalo Bayou is the main river flowing through the city of Houston, the center of some 22 interconnected watershed systems, most of which drain into it. The bayou itself is part of the larger San Jacinto River watershed.

Harris County Watersheds. Image courtesy of the Harris County Flood Control District.

The Harris County Flood Control District has signed a Letter of Intent to be the non-federal partner in the project, sharing twenty-five percent of the cost.

The goal is to have “everybody singing off the same sheet of music,” said Russo.

“If we don’t do this, all the problems we have are only going to get worse.”

Personnel and Policies Change

The Corps of Engineers is not widely admired, particularly here after the disaster caused by the unprecedented opening of the floodgates of the federal dams on Buffalo Bayou during Harvey. The Corps has a reputation for ruining rivers, arrogantly ignoring natural systems, destroying the environment, and building projects that fail. “The Corps is going to come up with engineering solutions,” commented a skeptical acquaintance working on flooding issues. Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, whose Precinct 3 includes the dams, complained in a recent interview of the impact of a decade of foreign wars on the ability of the Corps to address domestic issues.

But personnel and policies can change. The Corps is under a mandate to “engineer with nature.” (See also here.)

Edmond Russo, deputy district engineer for the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers.

Russo has been deputy district engineer for programs and project management for the Galveston District since January 2014. He is a civilian employee, a native of New Orleans, and a graduate of Louisiana State University where he received his doctorate in civil engineering in 2009. While completing his doctorate he was in charge of a similar two-year, $20 million post-Katrina study called the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Project. Since then, and prior to moving to Galveston, he served as chief of the Ecosystem Evaluation and Engineering Division in the Environmental Laboratory of the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), in Vicksburg, Miss.

We Are All Part of a System

The Houston regional watershed study would cost $3 million and take three years. Watershed studies are authorized under Section 729 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, as amended. Such studies are meant to lead to a “strategic course of action,” said Russo.

The dams study, authorized under Section 216 of the Flood Control Act of 1970, also would cost $3 million and take three years. The cost of this would be split 50/50 between the federal government and the flood control district. “Ideally, we would be funded for these simultaneously for synergistic effect,” Russo wrote in a follow-up email.

The 70-year-old dams are currently undergoing some $72 million in repairs. But Harvey showed that increasing rainfall combined with development below and above the dams is now putting more water into the reservoirs than they were designed to hold. Something’s gotta give.

The Corps of Engineers, like the Harris County Flood District, is by law not allowed to lobby. Citizens who want to see policies and projects funded and carried out should contact their political representatives.

However, earmarking or designating federal funds for specific projects and political districts was banned by Congress in 2010. How the $17.4 billion recently appropriated to the Corps of Engineers for flood mitigation will be divided among districts and projects will be decided in Washington, D.C., by the Corps’ Programs Integration Division, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said Russo.