Supermoon Rising Tonight
April 7, 2020
Updated April 8, 2020, with a photo of the Pink Supermoon
Tonight is the full moon, the first full moon of spring. A supermoon. It’s also the closest the moon will be to the earth for the entire year. So that might be another reason to feel crazed.
But by the time you read this, that precise moment, known as the perigee, already happened from our perspective in Houston. The perigee occurred at 1:08 post meridiem (this afternoon). The moon was 221,771 miles away. But you wouldn’t have been able to see that anyway, because the moon was below the horizon. Duh. Also it was cloudy, and it may still be cloudy tonight when the actual fleeting moment of fullness occurs at 9:35 pm.
Look to the east-southeast (109 degrees on your compass). The moon will still be fairly low on the horizon.
Update April 8: And here’s what Philip Pavlich captured with a cell phone and a spotting scope.
A Pink Supermoon But Not Actually Pink
A supermoon occurs when the moon is full at the same time that it’s closest to the earth.
In case you forgot how this works, we have a full moon every month, sometimes two, which is why we have months. The moon makes a full revolution around the earth every 29.53 days, traveling at a speed of 2,286 miles per hour.
But the moon’s path is elliptical, so once a month it’s farthest away (apogee) and once a month it’s closest (perigee).
The April supermoon is traditionally called the Pink Moon because it comes with the spring blooming of moss phlox or moss pink, a wildflower native to eastern North America, though not to Texas. We do have several other species of phlox in Harris and surrounding counties, says Katy Emde, native plant expert and member of the Save Buffalo Bayou advisory board.
April’s supermoon has also been called the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and the Fish Moon.
We do have sprouting grass, eggs, and fish, so there’s that.
Calendars and Disputes About Elections
It seems that public officials have always had disputes about how to measure days, months, and years. Our current calendar, the Gregorian calendar, was adopted by a decree of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, replacing the old Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, who ordered a new calendar to replace the Roman Calendar, because the priests or pontiffs responsible for adding or subtracting days to make the calendar fit with the seasons were “open to bribery in order to prolong the term of elected officials or hasten elections.”
So maybe there’s nothing new under the sun.
Good News: Boy Scouts Help Nature, Plant Willows on Buffalo Bayou
A Wonder Tree Containing One of the World’s Most Essential Medicines
April 2, 2020
Working with Memorial Park Conservancy Forestry Supervisor Danny Walton, James and his volunteers harvested over 150 willow saplings from another part of the park and pounded them by hand into a sandy embankment. As part of his project, James studied willows, learning willow growth, harvesting techniques, site location and how to place the stakes.
Nature’s Engineering, Vital Services, Vital Medicine
Willows grow naturally on Buffalo Bayou, planted there in good time for good reason (bank stabilization, among other things). This is part of nature’s ancient engineering and landscaping program. Willows, like many plants, contain a growth hormone, Gibberellic acid, which is also produced commercially to stimulate plant root growth. So willows grow well without any help—except perhaps for the beavers who come along to prune the branches, creating denser growth. Yes, we have beaver providing that essential service on Buffalo Bayou.
In addition, willows (salix) contain salicin, which produces salicylic acid, known to us as aspirin, considered one of the world’s essential medicines. Here is more info on the benefits of willows from Foraging Texas.
A Photo Update
James’ Eagle Scout advisor was Save Buffalo Bayou board member Janice Walden, who is also a paddling program leader for Troop 55 and a co-founder of Friends of Don Greene and the Don Greene Nature Park. Recently she went out to check on the progress of the young willows. “All the willows have taken root and are doing well,” she reported.
Spring in the Time of Coronavirus
Pollen, Leaves, Elbows, Violets, and That Bend in Buffalo Bayou
March 28, 2020
Spring came unusually early this year, in case you were too preoccupied with other news to notice. Which brings up the question: how is spring determined?
There’s astronomical spring. And meteorological spring. And actual spring.
And a pandemic. But that’s a different topic. (Keep your fingers out of your face!)
One way we know that actual spring is here in Houston: the mounds of oak pollen and leaves on the ground accompanied by the obnoxious sound and smell of leaf-blowers blowing the pollen and leaves (and dirt) around. (Been very windy too.)
Tree pollen, mostly live oak, is generally highest in March in Houston. And yes, we have had record amounts of oak pollen, which comes from the long dangling male flower of the tree spreading its seed and causing lots of alarming coughing, sneezing, and brain fog. Though it seems that based on a perusal of City of Houston Health Department records, which go back online only to 2013, tree and oak pollen in March 2019 was way worse.
The male live oak flower pollinates the much smaller female flower, but it’s the female flower that turns into acorns. (Yes, we’re talking about tree sex.)
By the way, native live oaks support 425 different species of creatures compared to our beloved but basically useless non-native crepe myrtles, which support only FOUR (4), according to Kelli Ondracek, manager of Natural Resources for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, who spoke about the City’s riparian restoration projects at a recent Houston Sierra Club meeting.
Not to Panic
Watching leaves fall in the spring (and pollen raining down) may be confusing to people who aren’t familiar with live oaks. As if we don’t have enough to panic about. (Use your elbows!) But live oaks naturally lose their leaves in the spring when new, green leaves push out the old ones. (Hmm, sounds like some politician’s COVID-19 plan.)
Which brings us to meteorological spring, which meteorologists established some time ago based on temperature patterns. Meteorological spring began on March 1 in the Northern Hemisphere and runs through the end of May. Since we’ve been having record warm weather, with an abnormally warm spring predicted, they may have to change that date. Maybe eliminate winter altogether. Just go right to summer.
Astronomical spring came early too, the earliest in 124 years. This arrival of spring is determined by the vernal equinox, which happens when the sun is directly over the earth’s equator, creating a day that is the same length as the night. Astronomical spring arrived Thursday, March 19, at 10:50 p.m. CST.
Spring on the Bayou
So it was spring and time for the Spring 2020 photograph in our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons.
Except that due to the new and different coronavirus COVID-19, our world-renowned photographer, Jim Olive, was on general lockdown with his beloved in the state of California. So we set out to the woods on our own.
“Remember to turn your iPhone horizontal,” Jim texted helpfully from Palm Springs.
How the Coronavirus is Like a Flood
Flattening the Curve, Slowing the Flow
March 19, 2020
By now most of us have heard of “flattening the curve.” This is the effort to reduce the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases that happen all at once, exceeding the capacity of our healthcare system.
Interestingly, the graph of flattening the curve of peak cases is very similar to the graph of flattening the curve of peak flow in a flooding stream.
Slow the Flow
The goal in both cases is to slow the flow. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s to slow, reduce, and spread out the number of cases in order to save lives and not overwhelm or flood our healthcare system, specifically the number of hospital beds available to take care of people (as well as the number of masks, ventilators, tests, nurses, doctors, and other necessary equipment).
In the case of a stream during a storm, the goal is to increase the length of time it takes for rainfall to hit the ground and enter a waterway. The longer it takes, the lower the peak water level in the stream, making it less likely that the stream will flood. Slow it down, spread it out, soak it in.
Here is a graph showing the impact of flattening the curve of coronavirus cases on our ability to care for them:
And here is a graph of what’s called “lag time” showing how slowing (and reducing) rain runoff with, say, plants and trees, lengthens the time it takes for the stormwater to enter the stream and lowers the peak flow:
Do We Have the Hospital Capacity? It Seems We Don’t
Could our Houston area hospitals be overwhelmed by a flood of cases? Yes, they could, according to a recent report by ProPublica. Which is why public officials here and elsewhere have taken such extreme steps to “slow down” our social circulation by shutting down schools and the rodeo, closing restaurants and bars; why conferences and parties are being cancelled, etc.
ProPublica analyzed the impact of cases on local hospitals under different scenarios: more cases faster, fewer cases over a longer period of time, and so on. “It is estimated that about 8% of the adult population would require hospital care,” according to the report. “In a moderate scenario where 40% of the population is infected over a 12-month period, hospitals in Houston, TX would receive an estimated 430,000 coronavirus patients. The influx of patients would require 14,300 beds over 12 months, which is 2.8 times the available beds in that time period. The Harvard researchers’ scenarios assume that each coronavirus patient will require 12 days of hospital care on average, based on data from China.
“In the Houston, TX region, intensive care units would be especially overwhelmed and require additional capacity. Without coronavirus patients, there are only 650 available beds on average in intensive care units, which is 4.6 times less than what is needed to care for all severe cases.”
Slowing Down, Spreading Out, Letting It All Sink In
So think of social distancing as spreading out the flow, slowing it down as it trickles through tall grasses and pebbles, soaking into gardens, swales, and green spaces filled with trees so that it doesn’t overwhelm our system.
Instead of rushing to gather in one place as many people as possible, we pause, stand apart, wait, get out in the sun if we can, and reflect on what more we can do to help.
Flood Control Citizens Advisory Group At Turning Point
Little-Known Task Force “Doesn’t Do Anything”
Future is Cloudy
March 10, 2020
(Updated March 11, 2020, with recent findings from Rice University on the superiority of Buffalo Bayou during floods due to its relatively natural form and condition.)
The purpose of the Harris County Flood Control Task Force, founded almost fifty years ago, was to “advise commissioners’ court on how the county flood control district was doing their job—from the citizens’ point of view,” recalls Frank Smith, an original member of the group and founding board president of Save Buffalo Bayou.
That seems like a good idea. People all over Harris County and beyond have been struggling with increasing, devastating flooding. How do we assess whether the agency responsible for protecting us is doing a good job?
But now the future of the citizens’ Flood Control Task Force is cloudy. And in fact, it appears that the task force hasn’t fulfilled its mission in some time. The task force is not listed as a task force or board on the website of Harris County Commissioners Court.
No one we spoke to could recall the task force ever advising commissioners’ court on how well the Harris County Flood Control District was doing its job.
The role and mission of the task force is currently under review, said Gabe Baker, Community Engagement Specialist for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who asked for the review.
However, it seems that the task force has been under review since at least 2017, when the task force itself formed a working group to “improve communication with the public about Task Force goals and objectives, increase membership recruiting to fill current vacancies, and develop strategies to improve Task Force operations,” according to minutes of the July 24, 2017, meeting.
One of the ideas discussed, according to the minutes, was “an annual briefing for Harris County Commissioners on the Task Force and its activities.”
“They don’t do anything,” said one longtime member.
History of a Good Question
The task force was created in 1973 by Harris County Commissioners Court in the wake of a long and successful battle to prevent the Flood Control District and the Corps of Engineers from stripping and straightening Buffalo Bayou and lining it with concrete as they had done to White Oak and Brays bayous and numerous other once-forested meandering streams. Many of those smaller channelized streams haven’t been lined with concrete, though they were usually lined with concrete riprap or even buried in concrete pipes.
Turning Green Space Into Green Bucks on Buffalo Bayou
Should Land Meant for a Needed Park on Buffalo Bayou Be Developed into Needed Housing?
Why is a nonprofit park organization developing green space into for-profit housing?
February 27, 2020
A prominent nonprofit organization has unveiled a plan to profit by building mixed-income housing on open, partially forested land that had long been designated for a nature park on Buffalo Bayou east of downtown Houston.
The long-term, multi-phase plan is to construct apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes on some 18 acres of partially-wooded green space on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s historic East End neighborhood. The Houston City Council last week voted to approve the first phase of the project known as Lockwood South: 120 apartments including 90 units for low-income tenants and 30 market-rate units.
But in a city, and in particular a neighborhood, severely lacking the beneficial access to natural areas (baseball fields, water slides, and running tracks don’t count), might it not be a better idea to locate the housing development elsewhere and develop a bayou park with trees and natural habitat instead?
That was the plan for the property dating from at least 2002. The planned 52-acre park, including adjacent industrial land, was to be named West Lockwood Park, and it was supposed to have been developed by now. (pp. 133, 140, 149)
Community Priorities: More Nature
Experience of nature was a priority expressed by members of the largely working-class community who attended packed community meetings about plans for the neighborhood in 2018.
While residents expressed concerns about the increasing cost of housing and preserving one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, their top priorities were for natural areas, access to the bayou and parks, soft footpaths focused on nature, shade, bird habitat (specifically on this property), urban forest, “protect nature as much as possible,” and so on.
The neighborhood is largely industrial with heavy pollution from industrial and chemical waste and emissions. (pp 27-31) Across from the proposed development site on Lockwood Drive are an asphalt factory and recycled concrete crushing plant, both potential sources of harmful pollution. On the west side of the property is a machine parts factory.
The Second Ward, where the proposed development property is located, in 2015 had 13,139 residents and currently has some 58.99 acres of parkland, mostly mowed grass and playing fields. The City says that’s more than enough. Using the common metric and excellent goal of “living within a ten-minute walk,” the City calculates that 87 percent of Second Ward residents live within a ten-minute walk of a park, no matter what type, compared to 47 percent of Houstonians. (p. 42) However, a drawback to that metric is that 1,000 people could live in highrises surrounding a one-acre park, even a skate-park, and you would have a lot of people crowding around a tiny plot of concrete within a 10-minute walk.
The National Recreation and Park Association, which supports the Ten-Minute Walk campaign, recommends 10 acres of park per 1,000 residents. By that calculation, the Second Ward community should have some 130 acres of park.
The public can send comments on the proposed development project to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. See below.
Developing and Appreciating Buffalo Bayou
The land development scheme is a project of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a private nonprofit founded in 1986 for “redevelopment and stewardship of the waterfront” from Shepherd Drive to the Port of Houston Turning Basin. The organization, which has partnered with Brinshore Development of Northfield, Illinois, for the housing project, says the plan will generate funds for expansion and improvement of other parks in the neighborhood, primarily Tony Marron Park just upstream (west) of the property. The Partnership plans to spend $40 million on Tony Marron Park and expand it by 30 acres, according to a letter sent in January 2019 to the East End Management District.
Tracking a Legal Mystery in the Park
Not-a-Trail Signs Cite Not-a-Law
“Reference is a Mistake”
February 9, 2020
We have some progress on the thorny issue of the signs posted on recently closed trails in Memorial Park. The signs cited a Texas law against destruction of public property that doesn’t exist, a non-existent law—”Title 19, Chapter 191 of the Government Code of Texas”—that oddly has been cited by a variety of public agencies for years, including the Houston Parks Department, the Harris County Houston Sports Authority, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, among others.
We are not in favor of destroying public property, whether that be by developers, private foundations, individuals, public agencies, country clubs or anybody else. But can you see a problem of definition here? What constitutes destruction of public property? Walking through public woods? Bulldozing trees on public land? Installing sheet pile walls and riprap on the banks of the bayou that are known to increase flooding and erosion across and down the way?
Researching the Appropriate Reference
In any case, the Harris County Attorney’s Office was just as puzzled as we were about the citation of a non-existent state law. The Houston City Attorney didn’t respond to several queries, likely because they had no response. We had to call in some big guns, like newly-elected City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who represents District C, which includes Memorial Park.
This took a few weeks. But the mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff James Koski graciously looked into it for us. “We are aware that the reference on the old sign is a mistake,” he wrote in a recent email. “Legal is researching what the appropriate reference to state code or city ordinance will be for signage going forward.”
In the meantime, the signs are still there.
Unofficial but Popular Footpaths
The dirt paths are unofficial trails through the lovely woods, up-and-down ravines and along the high banks above Buffalo Bayou on the southern edge of the park. They have long been used and maintained by hikers and runners, even after they were officially closed to bikers years ago.
We wish the Memorial Park Conservancy would remove the signs and fencing. The trails here are no more dangerous than official trails in other parts of the park.
It’s true the storms and flooding of the last few years have eaten away at the banks, though parts of the banks are slowly rebuilding naturally. They would be rebuilding and self-restoring even faster if contractors working for the Harris County Flood Control District hadn’t removed so many trees and woody debris from sides of the channel after Harvey.
Hardening the country club bank across the way, increasing the velocity of the flow and sending it pounding into the opposite bank, is not helping either.
Trump Administration Rule Could Worsen Flooding by Removing Protections for Our Wetlands
By Jordan Macha and Kristen Schlemmer, Bayou City Waterkeeper
Houston Chronicle, Jan. 29. 2020
By removing protections to local wetlands under the Clean Water Act, the Trump administration’s new Waters of the United States rule exposes our region to new flood risks.
Throughout the Houston metro area and out to the coast, wetlands play a key role in protecting against floods, while also providing wildlife habitat and filtering surface water that makes its way into the city’s drinking water supplies. With Texas made up of mostly privately-owned land, rules to protect these natural landscapes, and the benefits they offer to the public, matter.
The change poses the greatest threat to the eastern parts of our region, where relatively pristine expanses of wetlands remain intact — including around Trinity Bay, the San Jacinto River’s East and West forks and Cedar Bayou. As the Grand Parkway continues to be built out to the east of Houston into Liberty County, these wetland-dense areas will be especially vulnerable to rapid development, particularly under the administration’s new rule, which amounts to a rollback. Without any other rules to place common-sense limits on this development, these remaining wetlands may be lost.
Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.
Court Rules that Century-Old Oaks Can Be Razed for Water Pipeline in Katy
Water Pipeline is Part of 39-Mile, Billion-Dollar Project to Bring Water from Lake Houston to West Side of Town
By Karen Zurawski, Houston Chronicle, January 24, 2020
[Here are the board members of the North Fort Bend Water Authority: heavy on engineers and real estate developers. And here is how to contact them.]
North Fort Bend Water Authority has obtained a judgment in its civil lawsuit filed in Fort Bend County Court of Law No. 3 against a south Katy-area landowner that gives it a 20-foot wide easement to install a pipeline — overriding an attempt to preserve 100-year-old Live oaks as well as some other older trees.
The water line is part of a larger project. The water authority, created in 2005 by the Texas Legislature, is building infrastructure as part of a multi-agency billion-dollar project to have people switch from using groundwater, which causes subsidence, to using surface water as required by the Fort Bend Subsidence District (FBSD.) …
As part of that conversion, the authority is working with other entities to bring water from the Trinity River to Lake Houston where it will be treated at an expanded Houston northeast water purification plant. The treated water then will travel via an 8-foot diameter pipeline to west Harris County and North Fort Bend County. The West Harris County Regional Water Authority and NFBWA are sharing the costs for that 39-mile pipeline.
Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.
Trump Administration Scraps Clean Water Rule Aimed at Protecting Streams, Wetlands
“Reducing protections for wetlands is a recipe for disaster when the next Harvey, Imelda, or other heavy rainstorm that has become a regular part of living in this region of Texas, comes our way.” — Jordan Macha, Bayou City Waterkeeper
By Perla Trevizo, Houston Chronicle, Jan. 23, 2020
The Trump administration has finalized a clean-water rule that it says strikes a balance between protecting the environment and the economy, but critics say the change will put Houstonians at greater risk for flooding and threaten the drinking water for more than 11.5 million Texans.
The rule announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eliminates Clean Water Act protections for up to half of the nation’s wetlands and one-fifth of the streams across the country under a narrower interpretation of which waterways qualify for federal protection.
Court challenges had led to the Obama-era rule being put on hold in Texas and 27 other states. Still, Anna Farrell-Sherman, a clean water associate with Environment Texas, said the return to less-stringent rules will leave waterways from Barton Creek to Galveston Bay vulnerable to pollution and degradation.
Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.