Cures Worse Than Problems

Costly, Puzzling Repairs on Buffalo Bayou: How Will This End?

May 7, 2020

There’s talk these days about cures being worse than problems. We think about that when we watch with alarm what the Harris County Flood Control District has been doing to Buffalo Bayou in our lovely public park between Sabine and Shepherd bridges near downtown Houston.

Gouging the banks with bulldozers. Heavy trucks on the bank. Dumping and pounding huge amounts of concrete riprap and dirt onto the slopes and into the channel. For those of us who value the bayou as a living stream, it’s difficult to watch this costly abuse. The bayou will fight back. “Repairs” will continue, at great expense to taxpayers.

And what about the creatures, the giant alligator snapping turtles, the beavers that live on and in the banks, the bats that live under the Waugh Bridge? The Corps of Engineers dismissed any environmental impact in its 2019 approval of this 4,540-foot long project. (p. 1)

A Long History of Abuse

The Flood Control District has been “fixing” these banks for over a decade now.

The current project, billed as fixing “erosion and bank failure caused by Harvey,” is costing the taxpayers some $10 million, virtually  all of it going to the private engineering company Primoris, with an unknown amount having been paid to Jones Carter for the design plans.

The Flood Control District was established in 1937, in large part to assist the Corps of Engineers in stripping, straightening, and concreting our creeks and bayous, then the dominant method of managing flooding, now discredited. (See also here.) But the district’s limited legal tools and authority have hardly changed. Within that narrow framework, its approach has modernized only slightly. With a capital improvement budget of $496 million in Fiscal Year 2019, (p. 2) the district’s main job, seemingly with little oversight, is handing out lucrative contracts to private engineering companies.

Who is to say whether they are doing a good job? Whether this is the most scientific, proven, cost-effective approach? (p. 26)

  • Trucks and backhoe importing heavy riprap and dirt to build base for extended south bank of Buffalo Bayou downstream from the Waugh Bridge. Photo April 13, 2020.
  • View from the Waugh Bridge of backhoes spreading dirt on riprap base extended into and pounded into the channel. Work has now progressed to just beneath the bridge. Photo April 21, 2020
  • New bank has now been covered with dirt. Photo looking downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 27, 2020.
  • Strips of turf grass laid into bank. Photo taken April 29, one day after big rain storm that blew out the riprap bench used by heavy equipment to pass in front of large stormwater drain pipe slightly further downstream.
  • View from the opposite bank of newly rebuilt south bank downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 29, 2020.
  • Turf grass has died but seeded grass is beginning to grow. Photo May 5, 2020
  • Reconstruction has begun on the troublesome south bank below and upstream of the Dunlavy. Photo May 5, 2020

Once A Wooded Stream

Like the flow in a river, the population of Houston is always changing. There are people in the city who think a bayou is a man-made drainage ditch, who do not realize that all our bayous were once forested streams winding through the prairie. They are shocked if you tell them we have alligators, beavers, otter, giant alligator snapping turtles, and more in Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries. These contributing streams include numerous other bayous as well as many small ravines and gullies that make (or made) our local landscape much more undulating than recognized. Many ravines have been filled in and paved over. But the aforementioned water creatures, who have been here longer than we have, do the same work they have always done, part of a timeless mutually-beneficial system.

This stretch of the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine streets was also once a meandering wooded stream, the vegetation on its banks naturally filtering the water for free. In the late 50s the Corps of Engineers scraped the trees and vegetation, bulldozed the banks, and straightened much of the channel, eliminating or reducing many of the meanders.

Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway in 1962 after stripping and channel realignment by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Over time, the trees and vegetation grew back, helping the banks stand firm, replanted by the flowing stream. But the bayou today continues to seek out its original meanders, as rivers will do. Many of the most troublesome areas of bank failure in Buffalo Bayou Park (and elsewhere), requiring repeated repairs, are where the meander bends once were.

Blue line is the 1944 channel of Buffalo Bayou, prior to modification, superimposed on an aerial image of the altered 2016 channel in Buffalo Bayou Park between Sabine and Shepherd bridges. Red x’s mark the spots where the old meanders intersect the 2016 banks. Graphic by Tom Helm

We have written before about the endless costly repairs to the banks of the bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park. These repairs have been going on ever since the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the nonprofit corporation which manages the popular 160-acre park, teamed up with the public Flood Control District to “improve” the banks there starting around 2010. The district spent over $5 million, contracted to Lecon Inc., scraping, bulldozing, and reshaping the banks, removing trees and vegetation, all in the name of “conveyance,” using its own formulation of Natural Stable Channel Design. The result was an unnatural and unstable channel, the continued loss of trees, bank, and sidewalks, and a waste of millions of dollars, public and private.

That didn’t work. So beginning in 2019, the district began planning to spend nearly $10 million in federal funds to repair the banks again.

The Partnership normally receives over $2 million in public funds for annual operating and maintenance support for the 160-acre park from the downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone 3. Last year it received a total of $4 million from the TIRZ through June 2019. (p. 5)

The Problems

Yes, there are erosion problems in this urban park. And while erosion (and deposition) are a natural and necessary process of rivers, these problems in our much-lauded park are largely the result of a long series of misguided interventions, of which this is only the latest.

The current solution, most notably on the south bank just downstream of the Waugh Bridge, has been to pound heavy concrete boulders (riprap) into the bank and channel itself (building out the bank and seemingly narrowing the channel there). (pp. 18, 21, 35, 63, 64)  Additional heavy riprap was being installed in particularly troublesome areas below and upstream of the Dunlavy. (p. 37)

  • South bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park just upstream from The Dunlavy, December 21, 2014
  • Same south bank upstream of The Dunlavy, November 15, 2015, after taxpayer-funded repairs
  • Grass applied to bank in attempt to stabilize. Photo March 4, 2016.
  • South bank west of The Dunlavy on May 10, 2016
  • Slumping again of same south bank repaired again on May 16, 2016
  • Costly repairs lost on Dunlavy bank, June 13, 2016
  • Same location on Feb. 8, 2017.
  • Collapsed sidewalk on March 30, 2018
  • The same collapsed sidewalk on Oct. 27, 2018
  • Same bank and sidewalk on Jan. 27, 2019, after numerous failed repairs.
  • Wider view of continuously collapsing sidewalk on south bank in Buffalo Bayou Park immediately upstream from The Dunlavy. Photo Jan. 27, 2019
  • Looking upstream at the same bayou bank naturally stabilising and restoring itself with vegetation west of the Dunlvay. Photo Sept. 15, 2019 by SC
  • Sidewalk collapse upstream of the Dunlavy on April 14, 2020.
  • Construction work on the south bank upstream of the Dunlavy on May 5, 2020.

The point of these reinforcements seems to be to support the concrete and asphalt sidewalks (as well as possibly the Dunlavy building itself) that were perhaps unwisely installed too close to the edge of the bank. Most definitely installing irrigation lines next to these bankside sidewalks contributed to collapsing slopes and sidewalks. See below.

Unfortunately this bank-hardening solution has the potential to increase erosion and flooding downstream as well as future bank failure at the locations being rebuilt. (p. 4) Our banks on Buffalo Bayou slide down vertically. The weight of riprap (and water seeping into the banks from irrigation) can exacerbate that sort of bank collapse.

In addition, this troubled area around the Dunlavy, like other continuing problem areas along the bayou in the park, was once a meander. Rivers have a memory. There are profound and immutable reasons underlying the paths they take. The bayou in this stretch will continually pound away at the bank to try to get back to its natural channel. (See graphic above.)

Every Action Has a Reaction

Digging up the banks and compacting it with heavy equipment kills not just everything living in it, large and small, but also the beneficial structure of the soil, its ability to absorb and filter water and sustain root growth, in particular the natural succession of deep-rooted native plants and trees that hold the bank together, slow and cleanse the stream, and provide wildlife habitat and a healthy experience of nature for us.

And what is the point of bulldozing “benches” on the sandy north bank meadow below Shepherd Bridge, for instance, where there is already a beach and cottonwoods have finally taken root, (p. 39) or carving another “bench” on the low vegetated south bank upstream of the Waugh Bridge, (p. 36) as called for in the construction plans? The bayou will certainly come back, wipe it out, reshape and landscape it the way it wants and needs, though more likely invasives will take hold in the disturbed soil. (And if we could get easy answers for you from Flood Control, we would. But the agency has become notoriously uncommunicative. Only after weeks of prompting did they respond by putting the repair plans and federal permit on their website.)

This sweet sandy bank of the meadow below the Shepherd Bridge is to be graded to create a “bench,” according to the construction plans. Looks like a bench already. Photo looking downstream from the bridge on May 5, 2020

Bats, Beavers, Turtles

While we’re on the subject of wildlife habitat, like others we’ve been worried about the giant alligator snapping turtles that live right there in Buffalo Bayou (and elsewhere in our streams). Back in 2017, in that stretch of the south bank now being dug up, we helped trap and tag some of these prehistoric creatures, a threatened species in Texas.

Jordan Gray, outreach coordinator for the Turtle Survival Alliance, which conducted that study, assures us that the big snappers would sense the vibrations of the heavy equipment and flee. Somewhere. A safe haven may be increasingly difficult to find as more and more landowners harden the banks with concrete and metal.

Sad Note: We have received word that the Houston Parks Board intends to use riprap and sheet pile to harden the bank of the bayou on its property upstream of the Shepherd Bridge. This is to “restore” the bank to its “pre-Harvey condition,” according to the press release.

We don’t recall that the bank was encased in heavy concrete and metal prior to Harvey.

We’ll have more on this soon.

As for the bats that live under the Waugh Bridge, contrary to rumor, the repair plans do not call for them to be moved, and in fact the plans required the contractor to modify work hours to protect the bats. (pp. 5, 22) In fact, as required, work was finished immediately downstream of the Waugh Bridge by the beginning of May, which is the start of the maternity season for the bats, points out Diana Foss, wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Urban Wildlife Program in Houston.

Note that these Mexican Free-tailed bats, along with numerous other bat species, live in cities all over Texas, provide beneficial services like mosquito control, and are not associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

Beavers are considered nuisance animals by many people, but they are in fact a keystone species, critical to the survival of other species in the ecosystem. They provide many ecological benefits. Pruning willows and cottonwoods along the bank, for instance, is part of nature’s cycle, stimulating lusher growth.  (Unlike the wanton chopping and clearing of trees by humans along the bayou banks.) In Buffalo Bayou beavers live in burrows in the bank, where they would be raising babies (kits) this time of year. Here’s a recent video of beavers courting in Buffalo Bayou Park.

More Complaints: Irrigation, Stormwater Pipes, Missing Plantings

We were concerned to see that new irrigation lines were being installed on top of recently rebuilt banks in the park. Even the Flood Control District, in its Policy, Criteria, and Procedure Manual (p. 213) lists irrigation as a cause of erosion, as water seeping down into the bank can destabilize the soil. We communicated our concerns, and explained them, to the management of the park, where irrigation on the slopes have long been a feature.

Moreover, in the park and elsewhere, virtually every old and new stormwater outfall (concrete or metal pipes draining city streets into the stream) violates the district’s owns standards (pp. 136, 213) as well as its Regional General Permit (p. 3) from the Corps of Engineers, which prohibits outfalls at greater than 45 degrees. This is because the rain runoff gushing out of the big pipes at straighter angles blocks the channel flow during heavy rain, raising the water level, causing turbulence and erosion.

Usually this sort of riprap project would have willow stakes and deep-rooted grasses planted into the rebuilt banks. The plans, as far as we can tell, instruct the contractor, Primoris (formerly James Construction Group) only to apply “hydro-seeding and mulch.” After the recent heavy rain last week, we went to check on the new riprap and dirt bank extended out into the channel just below the Waugh Bridge. Someone, presumably the contractor, had laid down a couple of long strips of turf grass, now dead, though seeded grass appears to be growing.

View upstream of Buffalo Bayou from the Waugh Bridge on April 27, 2020. The bank on the left was to be graded for a “sediment bench,” according to Flood Control’s construction plans.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership, has a mandate to landscape with native plants in the park, (p. 3) a very practical consideration since native plants work better (p. 46). Anne Olson, president of the Partnership, said in a recent email that they would “very much like to do planting” on the slopes, but they had been told by Flood Control that they would have to “wait a year because the work is under warranty with the contractor.”

Note that Primoris, the contractor doing the work, also has the $49 million contract to replace bridges and modify the channel as part of the never-ending project on Brays Bayou, which was stripped, straightened, and concreted by the Corps and Flood Control in the late 50’s and 60’s. This new Brays contract is one of the largest construction contracts ever awarded by the Flood Control District.

Will Repairs Last? Who is Monitoring?

Will these “repairs” last? Will they help or make matters worse? We worry, like many others, that these repeated futile interventions in pursuit of a controlled, manicured park, using controversial and pseudo-scientific concepts of the ideal bank shape, will eventually result in the complete de-naturalization of our beautiful bayou, imprisoned in a coffin of concrete and metal, even as other cities are working to liberate their rivers.

The Flood Control District has an annual base budget of $120 million for maintenance and operations funded by Harris County property taxes. In Fiscal Year 2019, boosted by $2.5 billion in voter-approved bond funds and grants from federal agencies, among other sources, the District expected to spend $496 million on capital improvement projects, more than half of the total capital improvement budget of Harris County.

That’s for repairing channels (concrete and dirt) largely created out of stripped and altered natural bayous and creeks, repairing bridges, building and rebuilding detention basins, dredging, bulldozing, razing trees and vegetation along the few relatively natural streams that remain. Just a partial list. Of which some $365 million in contracts were up for bid by private companies, mainly engineers.

That’s just the beginning. Starting in January 2019 the District expected to spend $3.6 billion. Some of that is for buying out flood-prone properties and expanding the floodplain, a good thing.

Theoretically, Harris County Commissioners Court oversees the Flood Control District and approves the contracts the district awards. This happens weekly at commissioners’ court meetings normally packed with representatives of engineering companies. It’s unlikely that anyone at commissioners court actually questions the assumptions or studies these contracts, plans and designs, routinely approved by city and county engineers.

There are numerous environmental groups in the city advocating for green, non-structural and nature-based solutions to flooding issues (p. 27):  the Katy Prairie Conservancy, Save Buffalo Bayou, Bayou City Water Keeper, Bayou Land Conservancy, the Houston Sierra Club and more, including the American Society of Civil Engineers. This “restoration” work in Buffalo Bayou Park is not, however, a flood management project.

Engineering companies don’t make money standing on the sidelines watching nature do the important work. And the Flood Control District doesn’t look productive if it’s not handing out big-ticket construction contracts.

Meanwhile, there is a growing recognition that nature is the best engineer, and that we have much to learn from studying nature’s systems.

We Are Responsible

So it’s up to us, the citizens, to educate ourselves and our elected representatives about what works best and what we want. Citizen participation requires understanding and education. Sadly, a lot of people just think nature is a mess without a purpose. That a tree falling down is a design failure. That we can deepen and widen our bayous, a primary mission of Flood Control, install bigger pipes, make more water flow faster, and everything will be better. Not true.

The Flood Control District does listen. It holds community meetings. Solicits comments. Responds to pressure from neighborhood groups. It needs our support.

Back in the 70s, in response to a long fight over federal plans to channelize Buffalo Bayou and smother it in concrete, the county set up a Flood Control Task Force, composed of citizens, environmental groups, and engineers, that was supposed to report to county commissioners on how well the Flood Control District was doing. It rarely, if ever, did that, and today that task force, now dominated by contractors, seems on the verge of being disbanded. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the role of a citizens’ flood control task force.

Here is how you can submit a comment to the Flood Control District about this project.

Individual county commissioners are responsible for what the Flood Control District does in their precinct. Buffalo Bayou Park is mostly in Precinct 1. Here is how to contact Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But the north bank of the park between Montrose and Sabine is in Precinct 2. Here is how to contact Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Buffalo Bayou Park is in Houston City Councilmember Abbie Kamin’s District C.

But the mayor is largely in charge in Houston. Here is how to contact Mayor Sylvester Turner.