As Hurricane Season Begins, ‘Green’ Flood Control Finds Support in Texas

As Greater Houston Seeks Protection from the Next Hurricane Harvey, Using Natural Features Like Prairies and Sand Dunes to Control Water Is Gaining Purchase

By Tom Dart, CityLab

June 4, 2019

HOUSTON— With the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season under way as of June 1, Texas has taken a major step toward improving its flood defenses by passing a bill to tap into the state’s savings—the aptly nicknamed Rainy Day Fund—for a sum of $1.7 billion. The move comes almost two years after Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas in August 2017, killing 68 people and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage statewide.

A chance to push for green infrastructure

With its loyal support for the oil and gas industry, it’s not often that the Texas legislature gives conservationists anything to cheer. But the text of Bill 7 cites “construction and implementation of nonstructural projects, including projects that use nature-based features to protect, mitigate or reduce flood risk.” Environmental advocates see a chance to push for green designs in a state better known for exploiting natural resources than preserving them.

Lawmakers still envision a significant role for traditional “gray” engineered solutions, such as pipes, levees, drainage channels, and retention basins. But Laura Huffman, state director for The Nature Conservancy, thinks politicians are “recognizing that green infrastructure can scale just like gray infrastructure,” she said.

“Engineering companies want to do the most expensive thing they can do,” complained Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a local advocacy group. Her group argues that chopping down trees and vegetation reduces the land’s stability and potential to absorb water and capture pollution; adds to repair and maintenance costs; and has a negative impact on residents’ wellbeing.

The detention project feels like a compromise between natural and artificial flood-control techniques. “After Harvey, they needed to bring some stuff off the shelf and show they are ready to do something,” Chadwick said. She is skeptical that a city that used concrete to conquer swamps, marshes, and prairies can learn to restore green spaces—or just leave them alone.

Read the whole story in CityLab.

 

Aerial view of the flood-control work on the Buffalo Bayou, which falls somewhere between “gray” and “green” approaches. (Courtesy of Save Buffalo Bayou)

Detention We Hardly Knew You!

An Essay on Nature, Raindrops, and Stormwater

 

By Brandt Mannchen of the Houston Sierra Club

April 16, 2019

Now, particularly in these days after Hurricane Harvey, we hear the word “Detention”, almost like a chant or mantra.  Flood control experts, agencies, public officials, developers, and many citizens talk about “Detention” like it is the solution to our flood problems.  They usually only envision two types of “Detention”.  These two types of “Detention” are digging deep holes in the ground (called basins, reservoirs, or ponds) and digging deeper and wider channels to create “in-line Detention”.

….

The reason for our failure to use natural “Detention” effectively is our lack of respect for Nature and our place in it.  This reflects our failure to work with and not against Nature.  John Muir revealed our connection to Nature when he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Aldo Leopold, the great “land ethic” thinker suggested that “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” and that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, the stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise”.  These concerns about our lack of vision and our head-long pursuit of development caused John Muir to rage, “Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.”

These quotes reveal that if we are going to survive and coexist with Nature in the Houston Area, we must stop our war against Nature.  Leopold saw this battle as deeply rooted in our existing Society, “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

It is my belief that unless we acknowledge our pointless, harmful, and self-defeating struggle against Nature and change how we approach flood control and development we are doomed to fail.  I don’t want to leave our children with this negative legacy.  I now understand what Leopold meant when he said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”  No mas!

Read the entire essay on the Houston Sierra Club website.

After a $14-Billion Upgrade, New Orleans’ Levees Are Sinking

A Cautionary Tale About Big Engineering Fixes

Sea-level rise and ground subsidence will render the flood barriers inadequate in just four years

By Thomas Frank, E&E News,

The $14 billion network of levees and floodwalls that was built to protect greater New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a seemingly invincible bulwark against flooding.

But now, 11 months after the Army Corps of Engineers completed one of the largest public works projects in world history, the agency says the system will stop providing adequate protection in as little as four years because of rising sea levels and shrinking levees.

The growing vulnerability of the New Orleans area is forcing the Army Corps to begin assessing repair work, including raising hundreds of miles of levees and floodwalls that form a meandering earth and concrete fortress around the city and its adjacent suburbs.

Read the rest of this article in Scientific American.

New Orleans levees. Photo credit Mario Tama, Getty Images.

Reminder: Comments Due on Buffalo Bayou Flooding Study

Send to Corps of Engineers by Friday, May 31

 

May 28, 2019

(Updated May 29 with correct email address for sending comments to the Corps)

Should we spend billions to dig a gigantic concrete tunnel to drain stormwater from the west side of Houston directly east into Galveston Bay? (At the same time that we spend over $1 billion to build a 39-mile giant pipe to bring drinking water from the east to new development in the west.)

Or should we buy up land, protect it as greenspace, and use it for natural stormwater detention, slowing the runoff before it overwhelms the dams and adds to flooding in Buffalo Bayou? And maybe buy flood-prone houses and other structures, move them out of harm’s way.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is asking for public opinion as it studies ways of reducing flood risk along Buffalo Bayou and its many tributaries. This includes upstream and downstream of the federal flood control dams Addicks and Barker, both of which drain into Buffalo Bayou. Homes, schools, and businesses were badly flooded upstream and downstream of the reservoirs during Harvey.

Public comments are due by Friday, May 31. The study is known officially as the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study (BBTRS). Comments received will be used in the development of an Environmental Impact Statement in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the Corps.

The diverse measures being considered by the Corps in cooperation with the Harris County Flood Control District include tunnels, bypasses, levees, a new reservoir/dam, detention, “channel improvements,” as wells as “property acquisition,” flood proofing, signage and flood warning systems, public education, increasing storage capacity within the existing reservoirs, and more.

A study recently released by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium concluded that a Third Reservoir on the Katy Prairie near Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County would do little to reduce flooding.

BBTRS@usace.army.mil is the email address for asking questions and sending in your comments and suggestions about what the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District (and Fort Bend County) should be doing about flooding. Note that this does not include what the City of Houston could or should do.

You can also mail your comments to the Corps. Be sure they are postmarked by May 31, 2019.

Send to: USACE, Galveston District, Attention: BBTRS, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX  77553-1229.

The three primary problems being addressed by the Corps are:

  • Flooding downstream of the reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou
  • Performance and risk issues related to flow around and over the uncontrolled spillways
  • Flooding upstream of the reservoirs

In April and May the Corps held several public meetings in west Houston and Katy to explain the study and the process and to gather public input. Here is a link to the Corps’ presentation at the meetings. Here is a link to the storyboards presented at the meetings.

Save Buffalo Bayou is in favor of stopping and slowing stormwater runoff before it floods our bayous and streams. This is modern floodplain management. That means more trees and greenspace, more wetlands and prairies, more detention in neighborhoods and shopping malls, more permeable surface. Focusing on collecting and conveying more stormwater faster—and destroying our natural landscape and drainage system in order to do it—only leads to more flooding. Dredging, deepening, and widening the bayou and other streams only leads to bank collapse, constant maintenance and repair, and more flooding.  (See here and here and here.) It’s like building bigger freeways: it doesn’t work.

Preserving old stands of trees, natural swales, wetlands, oxbows, vegetated riparian areas, and meanders; building small weirs, sediment structures, wet gardens, and setback levees; lengthening streams, and accepting large woody debris in the channel are useful techniques. Using these practices to work with the natural motion of the river is more effective – and less expensive – in reducing flood damage and helping us realize benefits from the water.

Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era, p. 137

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Buffalo Bayou flowing past the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, Bayou Bend Collection parking lot, and the River Oaks Country Club golf course. Flow was relatively high, around 700 cubic feet per second, covering the banks. Photo May 5, 2019, by Jim Olive.

Houston City Council Approves New Development In Katy-Area Floodplain

More Stormwater Running Off into Addicks Dam and Buffalo Bayou

Keep in mind that the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium recently found that stormwater detention requirements for new development were not working. But we knew that. If they were working, we wouldn’t be talking about billion-dollar flood tunnels and deepening and widening our bayous.

The vacant land is located west of Addicks Dam

By Jen Rice, Houston Public Media, May 24, 2019

Houston City Council approved a new municipal utility district in the 100-year floodplain, despite opposition from some members who say additional development could make flooding worse.

More than 600 acres of vacant land in the Katy area will be developed for single family residential and commercial use. The land is located west of the Addicks dam, which flooded surrounding neighborhoods during Hurricane Harvey. The nearest major drainage facility is South Mayde Creek, which flows into Buffalo Bayou, then the Houston Ship Channel.

Councilmember Brenda Stardig, who represents parts of West Houston, voted against the measure based on guidance from flooding experts.

“When someone that’s in the know about that dam tells me the development west of that dam has contributed to the issues, then I have to hesitate,” Stardig said. “My district would probably not appreciate me supporting this at this time because of the fact, like I said, that it’s outlined that it’s in the floodplain.”

Read the rest of this report at Houston Public Media.

Signs pointing to the future on the Katy prairie. Photo by Shannon Harrison for Houston Public Media.

 

Private Club Destroying Bank of Buffalo Bayou, Threatening Self and Neighbors, with City Permission

Money to Burn: Leaders Reject Cheaper, Less Damaging Alternatives

A Cascade of Increasingly Costly Mistakes

 

May 22, 2019

An elite private club on Buffalo Bayou has begun an $18-24 million “bank stabilization” project that will likely cause extensive damage to public and private property, including the club’s own property.

The River Oaks Country Club received a permit from the City of Houston Floodplain Management Office on May 6, 2019, to install over 1,500 linear feet of metal walls, concrete pilings, concrete rubble, wire baskets filled with rock (gabions), and other material in three locations on Buffalo Bayou below the edge of their golf course. The locations are opposite Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, as well as private residential property.

This type of bank hardening has been specifically rejected by the Harris County Flood Control District and the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, which governs the coast and southeast Texas down to the Rio Grande. Both agencies nevertheless appear to have given their approval, despite knowing that such unnecessarily costly projects often fail, damage nearby property, and even increase flooding.

 

Solutions Creating More Costly Problems

“Bank armoring at a single point of erosion has been shown to be ineffective along Buffalo Bayou,” noted the Corps in a 2014 publication specifically referring to this stretch of the river. “The isolated bank armoring installed to deflect the erosive shear stress at the point of failure, in most cases, is attacked at one or both of its terminal ends, resulting in eventual failure. This type of armoring redirects stream energy to a new spot location downstream, creating a new point of stress.” (p. 4)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (p. 8), the Corps, and the Flood Control District recommend against bank hardening projects due to, among other reasons, the “lack of shear stress reduction” and “the erosive energy transfer it would place on the opposite bank of the bayou at a downstream location.” (p. 21)

 

Heavy sheet pile walls being pounded into the south bank of Buffalo Bayou by the River Oaks Country Club. Area 3 of three locations receiving similar treatment. The water level was at base flow of around 145 cubic feet per second. The work was clearly being conducted in federally-protected waters below the Ordinary High Water Mark. There are also federally-protected wetlands here. Photo May 22, 2019.

 

The Corps and Flood Control specifically rejected bank hardening “on the outside of meander bends” for reasons that include, in addition to above, “the lack of habitat creation” and “lack of natural occurrence” on the bayou. All three locations for the “stabilization” project are on the outside of meander bends.

 

An outdated LIDAR topographic map shows an inaccurate path of the bayou channel flowing past Memorial Park on the north and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the northeast. Image from the April 2019 hydraulic analysis submitted to the City and Flood Control District by Binkley and Barfield on behalf of the River Oaks Country Club. Areas 1,2, and 3 are the “slope repair” project areas on the south bank of the bayou below the River Oaks Country Club golf course.

 

Damage to Others

The initial metals walls being pounded into the bank at the downstream end of the club’s golf course are opposite residential properties. A preliminary analysis showed that they will indeed “displace” the club’s “erosion consequences onto their neighbors,” and that the “displaced consequences will be more expensive than the ones [the club] seeks to avoid.”

The on-site analysis was conducted by a professional geologist working with Save Buffalo Bayou.

The project will similarly cause increased erosion of the forested banks of Memorial Park upstream, a 1500-acre public park currently undergoing $300 million worth of landscaping. Management of the park is under contract to the Memorial Park Conservancy. Of the 28 members of the Conservancy board, at least six are members of the River Oaks Country Club, including the chairman and vice chairman, as is a major donor.

Among other problems, the project maps use an outdated LIDAR topographic survey of the area, possibly from 2008, that shows an inaccurate path of the bayou channel.

The project maps also exaggerate the club’s property line, which only extends partially down the bank to the “gradient boundary.” The Port of Houston (the public) owns the submerged lands of Buffalo Bayou.

 

Less Damaging Alternatives

The club has other less damaging, less costly, and more effective methods of protecting its bank. In mid-April Save Buffalo Bayou contacted the club leadership with recommendations and information but received no response. The club is led by board chairman Randall B. Hale. Board member Steve Lindley has been in charge of the golf course and bank projects.

In mid-April Save Buffalo Bayou also contacted the Memorial Park Conservancy, the Houston Parks Department, City officials, including the Mayor and City Council representatives, among others, about its concerns for the park. There was no response.

Read the rest of this post.

 

Study: ‘Third Reservoir’ Won’t Stop Flooding in Northwest Harris County

 

 

By Nick Powell, Houston Chronicle, May 10, 2019

A long-discussed idea for a third reservoir to prevent extreme Hurricane Harvey-level flooding in beleaguered neighborhoods along Cypress Creek might not be the flood mitigation panacea it was conceived as, according to a Rice University study.

After tens of thousands of homes flooded in the watersheds of Cypress Creek and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs during Harvey in 2017, regional planners revived an idea originally conceived nearly 80 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — a third reservoir to supplement the capacity of Addicks and Barker in the event of a major flood.

But the study by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center revealed the difficulties in attempting to eliminate flooding in the Cypress Creek watershed, which covers over 300 square miles in northwest Harris County and features over 250 miles of open streams.

….

The study also concluded that the remaining undeveloped land in the Cypress Creek area should be protected against development, specifically the Katy Prairie west of Houston, where vegetation and wetlands provide flood protection.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose northwest Harris County precinct includes areas likely to be affected by any future flood mitigation effort, believes that prairie land could be a significant component of a future reservoir.

Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.

 ….

The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium is holding a free public event, Tuesday, May 14, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at Rice University’s Bioscience Research Collaborative, 6500 Main Street, to present the findings from the Cypress Creek study as well as other recent research and reports.

Reducing Flooding on Buffalo Bayou

Corps Studying the Issue. Public Comments Due by May 31.

Last Public Meeting Tonight

 

May 9, 2019

The Corps of Engineers is studying ways of reducing flooding along Buffalo Bayou and its many tributaries, including upstream and downstream of Addicks and Barker dams in west Houston, as well as the federal dams themselves.

The Corps’ Galveston District has been conducting a series of public meetings explaining possible approaches to reducing flood risk and seeking public comment. The last public meeting is tonight, May 9, from 6 to 9 at the Cypress Ridge High School, 7900 N. Eldridge Parkway. But the public comment period doesn’t end until May 31.

Here is a link to the Corps’ presentation at the meetings. Here is a link to the storyboards presented at the meetings.

And here is the email address for asking questions and sending in your comments and suggestions about what the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District (and Fort Bend County) should be doing about flooding. Note that this does not include what the City of Houston could or should do.

The three primary problems being addressed by the Corps are:

  • Flooding downstream of the reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou
  • Performance and risk issues related to flow around and over the uncontrolled spillways
  • Flooding upstream of the reservoirs

The various suggested approaches are heavy on big engineering projects like flood tunnels, bypasses, new dams and reservoirs, increasing the storage capacity of the reservoirs, and “channel improvements” along Buffalo Bayou and other streams flowing into it.

But the alternatives also include floodproofing, better warning systems, signage, and public education; stormwater detention, and “property acquisition,” which could mean buyouts of flood-prone properties as well as preservation of forest and prairie, which help slow and absorb rainwater.

Save Buffalo Bayou is in favor of stopping and slowing stormwater runoff before it floods our bayous and streams. This is modern floodplain management. That means more trees and greenspace, more wetlands and prairies, more detention in neighborhoods and shopping malls, more permeable surface. Focusing on collecting and conveying more stormwater faster—and destroying our natural landscape and drainage system in order to do it—only leads to more flooding. Dredging, deepening, and widening the bayou and other streams only leads to bank collapse, constant maintenance and repair, and more flooding.  (See here and here and here.) It’s like building bigger freeways: it doesn’t work.

Another problem with hard structures: They don’t move. Nature does.

Preserving old stands of trees, natural swales, wetlands, oxbows, vegetated riparian areas, and meanders; building small weirs, sediment structures, wet gardens, and setback levees; lengthening streams, and accepting large woody debris in the channel are useful techniques. Using these practices to work with the natural motion of the river is more effective – and less expensive – in reducing flood damage and helping us realize benefits from the water.

Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era, p. 137

 

Image courtesy of the Galveston District, Corps of Engineers

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve Done It. For No Good Reason

Flood Control Destroys Forest on Buffalo Bayou

 

May 6, 2019

(Updated May 7, 2019, with clarification from Harris County Flood Control.)

They’ve done it. Last week the Harris County Flood Control District began knocking down towering sycamores and pines in one of the last remaining forested areas open to the public on Buffalo Bayou.

This tree-cutting is not new. The Flood Control District has been razing forest next to streams all over the county for decades, mainly to excavate floodwater detention basins. Slowing down, holding back rainwater runoff is a good idea. But trees do that. And more. Flood Control is damaging the environment, destroying the limited access we have to nature in the city, while doing little to reduce flooding. Possibly even making it worse.

Their private consultants don’t consider the benefits of trees when they spend millions of taxpayer dollars on flood studies and plans. And there are significant benefits, including flood protection.

 

Because Leaving Trees in Place is Not a “Project”

The problem is, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) points out (see pp. 7-9), leaving trees in place—nature-based flood risk reduction—is not considered a “project.” There is a political bias in favor of costly, large-scale structural approaches, despite the obvious advantages to small-scale, non-structural, green or natural approaches to flood management. (Although in this case, they seem to be doing the project because it’s “cheap and easy.”)

Trees cleared on the south bank of upper Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Trees were cleared on the north bank in the Nineties. Photo by SC May 5, 2019

 

“Protection of a natural channel and adjacent river corridor, floodplain or wetland often does not meet the conventional concept of a ‘project,’” notes FEMA.

The District needs “projects” in order to look like it’s doing something, especially after county voters approved $2.5 billion in bonds for flood reduction “projects.” And contractors don’t make money from not doing or not designing “projects.”

Other factors preventing more enlightened, more effective flood management include the lack of multidisciplinary expertise, leading to a dependency on old, traditional, and familiar engineering approaches, points out FEMA.

Like spending millions repairing the channelized banks of the bayou in Terry Hershey Park where the straightened stream is attempting to restore its natural meanders. Allowing the bayou to recover its bends, thus lengthening itself, would increase its capacity naturally and for free. (p. 11)

 

Because That’s What They Always Planned to Do

The trees recently downed by Flood Control were on the south bank of upper Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park, a semi-wild wooded area beloved by hikers and bikers. The 500-acre rolling linear park runs for some six miles on both sides of the bayou below Addicks and Barker dams in west Houston.

Read the rest of this post.

Spring on Buffalo Bayou with Jim

Another Visit to Document That Bend in the River

 

April 29, 2019

Photographer Jim Olive was back in town just in time to take some beautiful shots of a springtime morning on that bend in Buffalo Bayou. For almost five years now we’ve been meeting in Memorial Park and walking across the dewy grass, dodging bicyclists spinning round the paved Picnic Loop, to document the sun rising over the trees from the same high bank on the bayou.

It’s changed some over the years, with major floods taking down some of the trees and the high banks sloughing down, only to stabilize and regrow, as is the continuous pattern. But the bayou through here is remarkably stable in its directional path. Lined with ancient sandstone on its sides and bottom, the 18,000-year-old bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary further downstream has been following essentially the same route for at least a hundred years – based on the earliest topographic maps we have. And probably for a lot longer than that.

Spring again! That bend in the bayou, looking downstream early in the morning of April 26, 2019. Jim Olive was back in town to continue our series documenting this same spot through time. Photo by Jim.

On this Friday morning the picnic grounds were still lightly littered with the colorful remains of cascarones, dyed Easter eggs filled with confetti and cracked over someone’s head.

On our way into and through the woods, we paused to consider the massive, decaying pine still somehow standing tall next to the dirt path, its headless corpse rising high into the blue sky.

The photographer went to work while the assistant, kicking aside a loose puffball mushroom, focused anxiously on glimpses of heavy machinery parked near ominous orange netting strung up behind the trees and vegetation on the edge of the country club golf course across the water. Ugly, foolish, and costly plans, with the potential to damage parkland as well as private property, are in the works for the banks there. We’ll have more about that eventually.

Looking upstream on that bend in the bayou, standing on a high bank in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim on April 26, 2019

And then suddenly a huge flock of large gray-and-white hawk-like birds took the sky, circling and circling high, possibly disturbed by groundskeepers fertilizing and watering the golf course. Even Jim, a naturalist who knows everything, even in Latin, couldn’t identify them.

Click here to see the entire series documenting A Bend in the River.

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A flock of large gray-and-white hawk-like birds flew up from the golf course across the way and circled overhead before moving on. Photo by Jim.

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