Buyouts: Best Practices for the Best Flood Response

Experts Gather in Houston for Public Discussion, Tuesday, Feb. 6


Feb. 5, 2018

Interested in how buying out hopelessly flood-prone buildings can help with our flooding problem?

Experts on this issue from across the country will be gathering in Houston tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 6, for a public discussion titled “Buyout Best Practices in the Wake of Harvey.”

The free public program is sponsored by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. The conference is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. at the BioScience Research Collaborative, 6500 Main Street in Houston. Though free, registration is required. Register here.

A house that flooded during Harvey in a neighborhood on Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Landrum Wise, Sept. 2017

According to a statement from the nonprofit Consortium, “there is a broader opportunity for buyouts to be a part of a comprehensive multi-purpose strategy for assuring more resilient and livable neighborhoods, through coordination with flood control infrastructure, parks, and housing.”

The discussion topics will include:

  • How to work with (and around) federal requirements
  • How to coordinate with different agencies
  • How to utilize buyouts as part of an overall neighborhood strategy
  • How to address housing issues
  • How to build community support

Experts on the panel are:

  • Dave Canaan, Mecklenburg County
  • Tom Chapman, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
  • Molly O’Toole, PE, Molly O’Toole & Associates, LTD.
  • Gavin Smith, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Rachel Wider, New York State Homes and Community Renewal



Letter to the Editor: Corps Study of Rainfall and Drainage is Necessary

To Fix Our Problem We Need to Understand What It Is

Letter to the Editor published in the Houston Chronicle, Feb. 1, 2018

Photo by Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle staff


Flood patterns

Regarding “Enough flood studies!” (Page A12, Jan. 26), John Moody, chairman of the West Houston Association, wrote a letter complaining about a Corps of Engineers proposal to study flooding in the region.

It should be noted that the third reservoir in the Corps’ original 1940 plan was on White Oak Bayou, not Cypress Creek, as described by Moody. That nearly 80-year-old plan included a levee running next to Cypress Creek. A great deal has changed in 80 years.

The Corps’ proposal to study the overall pattern of rainfall and drainage in the region is an excellent and necessary project if we are to understand our problem, prioritize our solutions and get the most flood reduction benefit for our tax dollars. The study will analyze the impact of impervious surfaces – such as roofs, roads and driveways – and the usefulness of widespread individual actions to hold back and soak in rainwater. The Corps conducted such a study in New Orleans after Katrina.

The idea, proposed by the West Houston Association, of channelizing Buffalo Bayou to accommodate a massive, pre-development flow of 15,000 cubic feet per second is an absurd pipe dream. A flow above 4,100 cfs already floods property on the bayou. The executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, Russ Poppe, has pointed out that merely purchasing the right-of-way on the banks would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the cost of digging out the channel, mitigating the environmental damage to the waterway, and then continuously repairing the banks and dredging the sediment that will naturally fill in the artificially deepened river. Oh, then there’s the damage that would be caused by the massive flooding downstream from such a fast, powerful flow.

Focusing on bigger channels, faster flows and big engineering projects is outdated and counterproductive. Modern flood risk management emphasizes slowing the flow, spreading out and soaking in rainwater before it floods a stream – and staying out of the way.

The West Houston Association wants to develop more of west Houston, including the land surrounding Cypress Creek. That means adding more runoff to Cypress Creek and to our reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou. It means moving people into harm’s way.

Susan Chadwick, executive director, Save Buffalo Bayou

Read this letter in the Houston Chronicle.

County Commissioners to Vote on Removing Forest for Detention on Buffalo Bayou

Also Voting on New Development at the Same Time

(Updated with What We Said to Commissioners.)

Jan. 29, 2018

Harris County commissioners will vote Tuesday on a controversial contract for the removal of public forest and excavation of ponds that will divert a modest amount of flow from upper Buffalo Bayou when it floods.

Commissioners will at the same time consider approving hundreds of acres of new residential and commercial development on land draining into Buffalo Bayou through Addicks Reservoir, one of two overburdened federal dams on Buffalo Bayou in west Houston. An excess of stormwater flowing into Addicks as well as Barker Dam from Harvey in late August of 2017 forced the Corps of Engineers to open the floodgates on the two dams for the first time during a storm, causing massive additional flooding and deaths downstream on Buffalo Bayou.

The area of development on both sides of the Grand Parkway (Highway 99) is near the general location of a proposed $300-400 million Third Reservoir that county and city officials have been advocating to reduce flow into Addicks Reservoir and Cypress Creek during storms. Thousands of acres of fields and farmland in the vicinity of Cypress Creek have already been platted for development.

Save Buffalo Bayou advocates detaining stormwater before it enters a stream as well as the preservation and restoration of urban forests, prairies, and wetlands.

A 2015 image of the proposal by the Harris County Flood Control District for the Katy-Hockley reservoir, known as Plan 5, below Cypress Creek. Like most of the rivers and streams west of Houston, Cypress Creek flows east towards the bay. Image courtesy of HCFCD.

The detention basin project in Terry Hershey Park below the dams is part of a controversial plan that residents and conservationists have been fighting since around 2012. The plan was resurrected after Harvey caused major flooding of homes and businesses along the bayou both below and above the federal dams. Some property owners near the park blame the trees for flooding their homes.

Terry Hershey Park is located along 500 acres of land owned by the Harris County Flood Control District between Highway 6 and Beltway 8. As part of a now generally abandoned approach to flood management, this stretch was stripped and straightened by the Corps of Engineers in the late 1940s as part of the dam project. Trees and vegetation have since grown back.

The detention project initially would create two to three basins capable of holding some sixty acre-feet of flood water on the south side of Buffalo Bayou between Wilcrest and Eldridge, said Alan Black, director of engineering for the flood control district. More detention basins are envisioned. The original plan created some 280 acre-feet of detention.

For context, the maximum capacity of the flood pools of Addicks and Barker reservoirs on government-owned land (not flooding development behind the reservoirs) is 213,124 acre-feet.

Regarding new development in unincorporated areas that ultimately would drain into Buffalo Bayou, Black also explained that “in accordance with Harris County regulations, all development must prove no impact to the receiving channel and this would be no different.”

Harris County Flood Control District 2012 proposal for detention basins on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park.

Removing Sediment is Expensive

In addition to the $632,499 contract with RG Miller Engineering to design the initial detention basin plan, county commissioners are also likely to approve a $13 million contract to excavate the basins along Buffalo Bayou in this 6.2 mile stretch as well as remove sediment and make repairs in several miles of channelized streams flowing through developed land into Addicks Reservoir, which is north of Interstate 10.

Vegetation Survey

The initial survey of vegetation in Terry Hershey Park, a preliminary step to removing it, was begun in 2013. A new vegetation survey began in the fall of 2017. RG Miller engineers are expected to analyze the results of the vegetation survey as well as design the plan to remove the vegetation and excavate the detention ponds.

Black said that the district is expecting to present the results of all these plans to the public between March and May.

The Harris County Flood Control District is legally responsible under its 1937 founding charter for the “conservation of forests,” among other things.

Trees and vegetation, including leaf litter, provide significant rainwater absorption and detention, as well as erosion control, among other vital ecological services such as cleansing the water.

Something Weird About Detention Basins

Oddly, it seems that detention basins in Houston are considered impermeable surface, apparently because they are designed with hard clay bottoms. This seems weird. The water should soak into the ground. So, if you build a detention basin, then do you have to build more detention to compensate for the impermeable surface of the detention you created? We’ll get to the bottom of this eventually.

Date and Time and Place

Harris County Commissioners Court begins at 9 a.m. at 1001 Preston Street, Suite 934, in downtown Houston.

Magic Fish and Failed Erosion Control

On Buffalo Bayou

Jan. 28, 2018

We paddled down Buffalo Bayou recently to see what we could see. It’s been a hard winter, and the worst flood in history, so it wasn’t glamorous. We did encounter a couple of fish, a lot of trash and mussel shells still, some fallen trees and wayward telephone poles, and numerous examples of expensive landscaping and erosion control projects gone wrong.

Note to property owners, public and private: we have slumping on Buffalo Bayou. Banks will slide down and away, especially if you remove trees and vegetation, landscape, irrigate, and build too close to the bank. Not much to be done about slumping, which is vertical erosion. Try to convince your neighbor not to armor their banks with concrete, rubble, or sheet metal, which will only make things worse for you and everyone else.

We put in at muddy Woodway in Memorial Park for a trip all the way past the park, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, and Buffalo Bayou Park, taking out below the Sabine Bridge. It wasn’t easy getting our canoes there. Some cursed coincidence (cold weather?) had caused all kinds of vehicles to break down at the last minute.

Where Does All That Sediment Come From?

There was still a large amount of sediment piled up high on the banks. Rivers naturally deposit sediment on the banks and floodplain. It’s why floodplains are so fertile. (And why in ancient times people wisely moved out of the way of floods.) But people have been asking where all this sandy sediment comes from. Some of it washes out from landscaping and construction sites and other areas that have been disturbed. But erosion is a natural evolutionary process. Here is geologist Tom Helm, who was leading our expedition, explaining the origin of sand and the different kinds of sandstone in Buffalo Bayou.

Geologist Tom Helm explains sandstone and sediment in Buffalo Bayou. 1.21.18


Read the rest of this post.

Stewardship of Water

Bruce Bodson Speaks

Jan. 26, 2018

“Stewardship of Water” is the topic of an online talk by environmental attorney Bruce Bodson, president and executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou. The web discussion will take place Sunday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m. This event is part of a monthly webinar series titled Sunday Evening Conversations on Creation hosted by Christ the King Evangelical Lutheran Church in Houston.

Register here or contact Lisa Brenskelle at for more information.

Bruce Bodson, president and executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou.

Looking at the Big Picture of Flow

Corps of Engineers to Study Everything from Rooftops to Creeks in Houston Region

Jan. 22, 2018


Great news! The US Army Corps of Engineers is doing a very smart and important thing. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, the Galveston District office of the Corps is studying the whole system of drainage and flooding in the Houston region: where raindrops fall, how they move across rooftops and pavement and land, through drain pipes and into our bayous and streams, and ultimately into Galveston Bay.

The project is called the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment. Edmond Russo, deputy district engineer for Programs and Project Management in the Corps’ Galveston District, told the Chronicle‘s Mihir Zaveri that the unprecedented study would also analyze how development has impacted flooding and where “chokepoints” are in the city’s drainage system.

Russo suggested that the study would look at measures that individuals could take to reduce the time it takes for rain to run into our drainage systems. Slowing down the flow of rain runoff into streams is crucial to reducing flooding. The faster stormwater flows into a stream, the higher that stream will flood. Houston is behind other major cities that have shifted focus to managing flooding in place — stopping raindrops where they fall rather than after rain runoff floods a stream.

There are 22 identified watersheds in the Houston region. Buffalo Bayou is the main river running through the city of Houston, with most other bayous and streams in the county flowing into it. Buffalo Bayou becomes the Houston Ship Channel and empties into Galveston Bay. In fact, Buffalo Bayou and many of the other watersheds in the region are part of the larger San Jacinto River watershed.

A watershed is the area of land that ultimately drains into a particular water body. Houston has many creeks and ravines that have been covered up and even filled and flattened for development.

Russo told the Chronicle that the study would cost at least $3 million and take approximately three years to complete. It requires congressional approval.

Read about this in the Houston Chronicle.

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


Out on the Bayou on a Chilly Saturday Morning

Winter Photo of that Bend in the River by Jim Olive

Jan. 14, 2018

We had to wait a while for a sunrise that wasn’t foggy. Finally the skies cleared, and just after dawn we headed through the woods of Memorial Park for our winter shot of that bend in the bayou that we have been documenting since the summer of 2014.

It was cold! Barely above freezing. Fortunately Jim had brought some extra gloves for his assistant, who carried the tripod through the trees down the winding dirt path carpeted with dried sycamore leaves, carefully eyeing the leaning but stalwart trunk of the headless giant loblolly pine that had died in the drought of 2011. Several summers ago on this path we had encountered a giant rat snake curled up in the remains of a 100-year-old concrete pipe from the days of Camp Logan, the World War I military training camp that occupied the park before it was a park. No need to worry about snakes in the cold, pointed out Jim, as we stepped over a decaying log. Not that a harmless rat snake is anything to worry about. Jim, an expert naturalist, commented that the big snake was likely curled up asleep deep inside the shelter of the pipe.

The landscape was much changed. It was winter, for one thing, so there was more visibility through the leafless trees and vegetation. Also there were fewer trees and vegetation, so much having slid and fallen into the bayou with the sloughing of the banks during and after Harvey. The bayou, flowing at about 600 cubic feet per second, was much closer to the path, the flooding river having washed down the banks while at the same time piling new sediment on top of them.

We could hardly locate our regular spot, the bank was so changed. Our landmarks were gone. We walked back and forth looking for the angle, though we had taken a photo in October for our fall shot. To make things more difficult, the rising winter sun was shining directly into our eyes and into Jim’s camera. Jim was discouraged. Should we could come back later? But we waited, sheltering behind some yaupon branches. And eventually the sun hit the opposite bank, and Jim got his shot.

Winter photo by Jim Olive on Jan 13, 2018. Flow was about 600 cubic feet per second. Temperature was a chilly 34 degrees shortly after sunrise about 7:30 a.m. The banks were much changed after the floodwaters of Harvey, with lots of slumping, fallen trees and missing vegetation. We could hardly find our spot. Note the buildup of sediment on the opposite bank.

See the entire series of A Bend in the River under Photos and Films.

Looking Back at 2017

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

With photos!

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.

Aerial photo of Buffalo Bayou flowing towards downtown by Jim Olive on April 7, 2017. The public forest of Memorial Park is on the bottom. Property of River Oaks Country Club is on the opposite bank.

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.


Broken glass bottles, probably from the trash of the World War I military camp that was once in the area, washed out on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo May 19, 2017.


Read the rest of this post.

The Flood Czar’s Committee

Who Are They and What Are They Doing?

Dec. 29, 2017

(Update 2.19.18: The Committee has issued its Final Report. Read it here.)

(Update 1.23.18: The meeting of the Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force has been rescheduled for 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 24,  at 601 Sawyer, First Floor Conference Room, Houston 77007.)

(Update 1.17.18: The meeting of the Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force scheduled for today, Jan. 17, has been cancelled due to weather. The meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council Regional Flood Management Council also scheduled for today also has been cancelled.)

(Update 1.2.18: Link to 2017 roster of the members of the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force has been fixed.)


The flood czar for the City of Houston now has someone to answer his phone. “This is Sallie,” she says. He also has a committee. This committee has met six times already.

Who is on this committee and what are they doing?

There are 48 members of the committee, including the flood czar himself, Steve Costello, whose technical title is chief resilience officer. The committee members were selected by Costello. Costello, a civil engineer, former city council member, and former mayoral candidate, was appointed to his position by Mayor Sylvester Turner after the Tax Day flood of 2016.

Most recently Costello was in the news when the Chronicle reported on Dec. 20 that his engineering firm, Costello Inc., engineered the development of residential subdivisions in the flood pools behind Barker and Addicks dams – even after finding, in a report commissioned by Harris County, that thousands of those homes were at risk of flooding from the reservoirs.

A representative of another engineering firm involved in the development of homes in the Barker reservoir flood pool is also on Costello’s task force. Lee Lennard is president and chief executive officer of that firm, Brown and Gay, now BGE.

The official name of Costello’s committee is the Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force. Its task, according to an email from Sallie Alcorn, who now answers the flood czar’s phone in his office at city hall, is:

“To ensure the City of Houston’s design standards are conducive to responsible development which does not negatively impact drainage, and

“To empower the City of Houston to effectively and consistently apply and enforce drainage-related development rules.”

Looking downstream at downtown Houston from the Shepherd footbridge over Buffalo Bayou. Photo on Aug. 28, 2017 by Jim Olive

But What They Are Really Talking About?

Task force discussions have focused on three topics: detention, fill, and drainage right-of-way, according to a member of the task force, which is weighted towards developers and real estate interests. (See below.) The results of these discussions are to be forwarded as recommendations to the City administration and to the city Legal Department.

Read the rest of this post.

In Harvey’s wake, Dutch have much to teach Houston

Cooperating with Nature, Making Room for the River

By Tony Freemantle, the Houston Chronicle

Dec. 22, 2017

The philosophy that has defined water management in the Netherlands for the last 30 years or so is markedly different from the “brute force” protection paradigm that ruled after the 1953 flood. This softer approach is reflected in the language that is now used when the Dutch talk about flood protection — spatial planning, resiliency, Building with Nature, Room for the River, Living With Water.

In 1993 and 1995, the threat of river flooding forced the mandatory evacuation of 250,000 residents. This, and the collective acceptance that global climate change will mean increased river flows and an ongoing threat in the future, prompted the government to embark on a program dubbed Room for the River, a 20-year project that would cost $2.73 billion.

“With Room for the River, I think the interesting thing is that after, say, 800 years of only strengthening and hiking dikes as the solution, we said maybe it’s wiser to cooperate with nature,” said Hans Brouwer, a senior rivers expert with the Room for the River program.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

See also our own reporting on Room for the River.

Buffalo Bayou looking upstream from a high bank in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on Oct. 13, 2017

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