Pushback Against Deeply Flawed Plans for Buffalo Bayou, Katy Prairie

Corps Seeking Comments, Alternatives

Here’s the Corps’ Draft Report

Here’s How to Participate in the Virtual Public Meetings Thursday, Oct. 22, 6 to 8 p.m. and Monday, Oct. 26, 1 to 3 p.m.

Here’s How to Send Comments to the Corps. Deadline Nov. 2!

Oct. 22, 2020

Seems that nobody likes the Corps of Engineers’ draft proposal for killing Buffalo Bayou. Not even the coalition of developers, car dealers, concrete makers, contractors, homebuilders, realtors and others that was pushing hard for it.

But then the vague draft report has many parts. It’s an initial stage in a $6 million attempt to figure out a solution to the disastrous flooding in and around Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries connected to the federal flood control dams during Harvey in 2017. The report looks at a future of increased heavy storms and increased development surrounding the sinking, cracking dams built by the Corps in the bayou’s upper watershed more than seventy years ago. (p. 13)

Besides deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou to an apparently uniform width of three-quarters of a football field, the proposals include building a dam on Cypress Creek and a 22,000-acre reservoir behind it. (p. 18) During heavy rains the creek overflows south across the prairie into one of the federal dams that, during Harvey, could not contain all the stormwater running into it.

The Corps of Engineers proposes lining the banks and channel of Buffalo Bayou with articulated concrete block in “areas of high erosion.” Here’s how well articulated concrete block works in Buffalo Bayou. Photo January 2018

Building the dam on Cypress Creek would probably encourage development on land that now floods, leading to more flood problems, the Corps admits. Another major drawback acknowledged by the Corps: the project would significantly degrade more than two-thirds of the remaining Katy Prairie, which serves to hold and slow stormwater. (p. 176)

Nevertheless, the Corps’ draft report is leaning towards building the dam and deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou, laying back the ancient high banks for some 22 miles from the dams to downtown. This would be done to accommodate a flow of some 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).

The idea also is to buyout property downstream on Buffalo Bayou that was inundated by the opening of the floodgates on the federal dams during Harvey in 2017, as well as possibly property upstream that flooded because they didn’t open the floodgates.

Flood stage in Buffalo Bayou differs upstream and downstream as the bayou channel naturally widens as it winds downstream. From the dams for some six miles downstream to West Beltway 8, the Corps in the 1950s straightened and narrowed the bayou, effectively reducing its capacity. According to the National Weather Service, flooding begins in this area when the US Geological Service gauge goes over 8,000 cfs. For the USGS gauge downstream at Piney Point, flooding begins around 7,500 cfs. At the Shepherd gauge closer to downtown Houston, flood stage is around 18,000 cfs.

However, the Corps, which needs to keep the reservoirs empty in order to be able to capture runoff from the next storm, operates the dams on the basis that property downstream will begin to flood when the Piney Point gauge goes over 4,000 cfs.

Total estimated cost for the dam and bayou “improvement” is upwards of $4 billion. (Correction Oct. 24: upwards of $7 billion. p. 144)

According to Brian Harper, chief of the Galveston District’s planning branch, the Corps in its cost benefit analysis did not put a financial value on the loss of environmental benefits and functions of the bayou or the prairie, which include cleansing polluted urban and agricultural runoff, not to mention the growing local (p. 105) and worldwide problem of biodiversity loss.

Misunderestimating Buffalo Bayou

The Corps would also line the bayou channel bottom and banks with articulated concrete block in areas of “high erosion,” whatever that means. Never mind that concrete block does not actually work in Buffalo Bayou. The Corps’ Project Delivery Team (PDT), most of whom are from Corps offices in other parts of the country, does not seem to be aware that bank instability in our bayou is mostly from slumping, sliding down vertically. This happens no matter the steepness of the slope. Adding the weight of concrete block, which is designed for erosion caused by horizontal flow, only increases the likelihood of collapse, according to our experts and common sense.

And would it be piling on too much to point out that the report is so sloppy that its cover photo of a flooded Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is misidentified as a flooded Interstate 10?

Read the rest of this post.

The Corps’s Interim Feasibility Report identifies this cover photo of a flooded Buffalo Bayou between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive as a “completely submerged Interstate 10 outside Houston, Texas, on August 26th, 2017.”

Bonus Bad News: Contractors with Flood Control Cut Large Tree Holding Bank Together in Buffalo Bayou Park

Oct. 13, 2020

A friend took these photos of contractors for Harris County Flood Control inexplicably cutting down part of a large holding the south bank together below the Rosemont Bridge in Buffalo Bayou Park yesterday, Oct. 12.

We await Flood Control’s explanation.

Outrageous Plan to Deepen, Widen, Kill Buffalo Bayou

Virtual Public Meeting Tuesday, Oct. 13. Comment Period Now

Oct. 13, 2020

The US Army Corps of Engineers has come up with an outrageous plan to strip, deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou and line it in places with concrete block for 22-24 miles all the way from Highway 6 in far west Houston to 1,500-feet downstream of Montrose in Buffalo Bayou Park downtown.

Is this the 1930’s? The 1960’s? The plan is so backwards and outdated it’s difficult to believe they are serious.

The Corps even admits the project could kill all aquatic life in the bayou. (p. 178-180) And that there are no positive net benefits. (pp. 19 and 149) The cost is estimated to be from $1 billion to $4 billion, not including future continuing maintenance.

Modern flood risk management focuses on stopping stormwaters before they flood streams. On managing flooding in place, stopping raindrops where they fall, on slowing down, spreading out, and soaking in rainfall. And getting out of the way. Sponge cities. Green infrastructure. Wetlands, greenspace, trees. Both the City of Houston and Harris County have emphasized this, as have cities around the state and around the world.

Creating capacity to convey more and faster rainwater runoff encourages the production of more and faster runoff. As the excellent Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium reported in 2018, “conveyance projects can make flooding worse.” (p. 17)

Note that Harris County Flood Control just spent nearly $10 million reconfiguring the banks in Buffalo Bayou Park downtown. (See here and here.)  In 2017 the agency also spent millions “repairing” the north bank in Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Highway 6, and in 2019 spent millions more clearing trees and scraping shallow detention basins out of the park’s south bank.

Also note the Corps’ report complains that in places the bayou is naturally deepening and widening itself (p. 67-68) and this problem will have to be fixed. But at the same time the bayou needs to be deeper and wider so we are going to do that with bulldozers and billions of dollars.

Attend a Virtual Public Meeting, Send Comments

The Corps is holding virtual public meetings on the report, known as the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study Interim Feasibility Report. The first virtual meeting is today, Tuesday, Oct. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., followed by meetings on Oct. 15, 22, and 26. Here is how to join the meetings.

The public comment period opened Oct. 2 when the Corps’ Galveston District released the 210-page report. Public comment ends on Nov. 2. Here is how to send your comments to the Corps.

Graphic of the plan to deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou from the interim report, p. 112.

Purpose and Alternatives

The purpose of the study is to figure out what to do about too much stormwater flowing too fast into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the flood control dams in far west Houston that drain into Buffalo Bayou. (Note that the Harris County Flood Control District has been busy speeding up the flow of stormwater through tributary streams into Addicks and Barker reservoirs.)

Read the rest of this post.

Stormwater Recedes: Update on Banks in Buffalo Bayou Park

Bulldozed by Flood Control, Here’s How Bare Dirt Banks Fared After Storm Beta

Oct. 7, 2020

After nearly two weeks of high flow in Buffalo Bayou, the Corps of Engineers on Tuesday, Oct. 6, finally finished emptying stormwater from Tropical Storm Beta impounded behind Barker and Addicks dams in west Houston. So we went out to look at how the once-healthy banks had fared in Buffalo Bayou Park between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive.

These particular banks, three stretches upstream of the Waugh Bridge, had been naturally planted by the river’s eastward flow with deep-rooted native horseweed, goldenrod, and young willows, among other vegetation. Recently they had been stripped and graded by the Harris County Flood Control District as part of the district’s overall $9.7 million project to “repair” banks, mostly by dumping and pounding concrete riprap, in the popular park damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Flood Control managed to bulldoze these apparently stable upstream banks just in time for Beta, which in 24 hours dropped more than 11 inches of rain in places within the bayou watershed, finishing up in the early morning of Sept. 23.

Even with the dam floodgates closed, the bayou downstream flooded, swollen with rainwater running off the city’s roofs, streets, driveways, and parking lots and through drainage pipes. The US Geological Survey gauge at Piney Point measured a flow of some 7,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), increasing downstream to some 12,000 cfs at Shepherd Drive, well above flood stage in both cases.

When the Piney Point gauge fell below 3,000 cfs on Sept. 23, the Corps of Engineers opened the dam gates in order to empty the reservoirs that had filled with stormwater flowing from streams and creeks fed by rain running off developments, roads, and shopping malls further west and north.

Here is what the denuded banks in Buffalo Bayou Park looked like on Oct.7 after the flow in the bayou dropped to near normal flow:

Looking upstream from the Jackson Hill pedestrian bridge over Buffalo Bayou on Oct. 7, 2020. This south bank on the left, just downstream from The Dunlavy restaurant, recently had been bulldozed and stripped of vegetation by the Harris County Flood Control District.
The same bank on Sept. 9, 2020, before stripping by the Flood Control District.

Update: Growing Eagle Scout, Growing Plants on Buffalo Bayou

Oct. 4, 2020

Then Boy Scout Austen Furse, working with a group of fellow scouts, planted 200 buckets of eastern gamagrass on the upper bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park at Woodway to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. That was in March of 2018, and Furse, now an Eagle Scout, is applying for a Hornaday award for “distinguished service in natural resources conservation.”

Eastern gamagrass, a distant relative of corn, is a deep-rooted native plant valued for its stabilizing properties on the banks of streams, as well as for forage in fields. Stabilizers are one of two basic categories of riparian plants that naturally work in succession to fix a sandy bank. There are colonizer plants that spread out near the water’s edge, sending out shallow roots. They prepare the way for the stabilizers with stronger, deeper roots. Stabilizers, which can be grassy or woody, help dissipate the erosive flow of the water and collect sediment to incorporate into the bank and hold it together.

We visited recently with Furse at the Woodway site, a popular boat launch for paddling on the bayou. Like the gamagrass, Furse, a member of Troop 55 of the Sam Houston Area Council, has grown in the last two years. Now a high-school senior, Furse says he is interested in a potential career in biology. Excellent! We need more scientists.

But it wasn’t just the gamagrass that had flourished. The area was a stunning garden, jammed with useful grasses, forbs, woody plants, vines and trees planted by nature, including the flowing bayou itself, most though not all of them native, many of them edible and medicinal.

Here is a partial list of the plants and trees we noted besides gamagrass:

Flowering boneset

Ragweed, giant ragweed, or horseweed

Wild cowpea

Trailing wild bean

Big Bluestem

Beggar’s ticks

Wild grape vine

Morning glory (tievine)

False nutsedge

Knotweed

Johnson grass (invasive)

Canada goldenrod

Prairie tea (croton)

Texas lantana

Coffeeweed

Texas sage

Hackberries

Loblolly pines

Willows

Live oaks

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Furse with his Hornaday adviser, Janice Walden, a board member of Save Buffalo Bayou and co-founder of the Don Greene Nature Park.

Nature-Based Flood Management Works Best, Costs Less, Benefits Everyone

Sign Bayou City Waterkeeper’s Petition!

Oct. 1, 2020

Bayou City Waterkeeper, a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, has started a petition to encourage City of Houston officials to invest in green and nature-based projects “that improve drainage, reduce flooding, and keep people out of harm’s way for generations to come.”

The nonprofit organization points out that “Houston’s focus on getting water quickly to the bayous places too much emphasis on traditional flood management techniques, at the cost of natural infrastructure projects that can provide multiple benefits to communities across our watershed.”

We agree!

Sign the petition here.

Houston Parks Board’s Greenway Bank Collapses

Controversial Project on Buffalo Bayou Not Going Well

Oct. 1, 2020

Updated Oct. 2 with comment from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, about plans to stabilize the bank below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens.

A large section of Buffalo Bayou bank has slumped away below an apartment complex where the Houston Parks Board foundation for the last four months has been “restoring” the bank in preparation for a possible Bayou Greenway trail.

One resident of the Left Bank apartments on Memorial Drive west of Shepherd Drive said she was concerned the bank collapse following Tropical Storm Beta threatened the foundations of the building.

Collapsed bank below apartments where contractors for the Houston Parks Board foundation had removed native cane and bulldozed the bank, also driving sheet pile into the bank visible lower left. Photo looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou taken Sept. 23, 2020, after Tropical Storm Beta.

Heavy equipment used by the parks board contractor to strip and grade the bank flooded during the Sept. 22 storm. The equipment, including backhoes and front loaders, was parked in the floodplain next to the complex.

The parks board foundation scraped the native cane and cut down mature willow and cottonwood trees on the bank in late May. In July the foundation’s contractors began attempting to pound sheet pile into the bank. More recently they scraped chunks of concrete out of the bank in preparation for placing new chunks of concrete riprap on the bank.

Willows, cane, and other vegetation holding the bank in place before being removed by contractors for the Houston Parks Board foundation. Photo May 9, 2020.

The parks board foundation acquired the strip of land on the north bank of the bayou below the apartments upstream of Shepherd Drive around 2018 and began work to expand and reinforce the bank in late May of 2020. The multi-million dollar plan was eventually somehow to install a ten-foot wide concrete sidewalk that would connect Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, allowing hikers and bikers to avoid the narrow, broken sidewalk on busy Memorial Drive.

However, in answer to a question about the connection at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s recent Fifth Anniversary virtual celebration, board member and Houston Parks Board consultant Guy Hagstette, who is also vice president for parks and civic projects at the Kinder Foundation, said that the private parks foundation “has not figured out how to route that trail,” and that the money for it was “not there.” He added it was “going to be a while.”

The potential trail would have to traverse an extremely narrow section of bank (now collapsed) below the apartments, cross a ravine that floods during storms, and pass by several more sections of forested bank on private property, as well as city and county property, before reaching the previously planned destination of Westcott Street, the entrance to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was also planning to engineer nearly 1,500 linear feet of bank below the historic gardens of the Bayou Bend Collection, former home of conservationist Ima Hogg, across the bayou from the bird sanctuary. The museum was reportedly expecting an engineering report from Stantec in August. Save Buffalo Bayou sent a letter to the leadership at the museum urging the use of less damaging, nature-based solutions and offered the names of consultants.

The museum’s chief operating officer, Willard Holmes, said in a recent email Oct. 2 that the museum had submitted an engineering plan to the Harris County Flood Control District for approval, as required by the City of Houston before issuing a floodplain development permit. Flood Control requested clarification, he said, and the plan would be resubmitted shortly.

Bayou Bend provides habitat to threatened alligator snapping turtles, among other creatures. For the last six years the Turtle Survival Alliance has been conducting research in Buffalo Bayou on the giant snappers, which can live longer than 100 years and reach 100-200 pounds.

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View of piles of concrete rubble and other material dredged from the north bank of Buffalo Bayou adjacent to the Left Bank apartments after mature trees were cut and native cane and other vegetation razed. Photo Sept. 23, 2020

Flood Control Scrapes, Bulldozes Healthy Banks of Buffalo Bayou

Heart-Breaking Violation of County, City Mandates. Appropriate Use of Federal Funds?

Sept. 30, 2020

We were hoping they wouldn’t do it. That Harris County Flood Control would see it wasn’t necessary. The bayou banks were healthy and stable, lush and green.

But the private consulting engineers had planned it. So Flood Control did it: scraped away the young trees and deep-rooted native plants holding the bank together, bulldozed what nature had successfully engineered, built, and planted in Buffalo Bayou Park.

They left bare dirt, disturbed, compacted, dead. Violated every established principle of good management of a riverbank, as noted by one of the federal agencies funding the project. (p. 14)

And the bare dirt washed away in the rains that followed.

Without the anchor of the surrounding network of deep-rooted plants, the remaining lone trees on the banks likely will soon fall, as happened as a result of Flood Control’s previous work.

The south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park just downstream from the Dunlavy after razing and grading by Harris County Flood Control. Photo taken looking upstream from the Jackson Hill Bridge on Sept. 17, 2020, before Tropical Storm Beta.

They did it with public funds, spending over $2,000 per linear foot, claiming the purpose was to “contain erosion and bank failures caused by Hurricane Harvey.”

These particular banks weren’t failing. We know because we climbed out of our canoes and up that gently sloping bank through the tall goldenrod and horseweed below the Dunlavy a couple of times in recent months. Flood Control’s federal grant was supposed to be used to “reshape and protect eroded streambanks.” But none of these areas was eroded. The bank shape was fine. Maybe steeper after bulldozing, with less of a beach, but pretty much the same. Though bare and unprotected.

The same location on Sept. 9, 2020. Note the north bank in the distance which had just recently been bulldozed.

Designed to Fail? Do It Anyway

Not even the private contractors paid to scrape it all away thought it was a good idea. In response to the observation that the denuded bank would fail as a result, one worker commented, “That’s what we told them.” He added, “But that’s the way Flood Control wanted it.” We responded that Flood Control had just destroyed a healthy bayou bank. The guys nodded.

Read the rest of this post.

The same bank on Sept. 29, 2020, after Storm Beta. Water was still high from releases from the federal dams far upstream.

Land Bridges in Memorial Park: They Better Be Great

Sacrificing Magnificent Pines. For Whom?

Aug. 31, 2020

So construction has begun in Houston’s Memorial Park on the $70 million “land bridges” that will cover Memorial Drive, placing the busy six-lane roadway under two arching concrete tunnels. The tunnels will be covered with 300,000 pounds of dirt and planted like a prairie. In addition, numerous mature loblolly pines and other trees have been/will be removed on the north and south sides of Memorial Drive to make room for construction and extend restored prairie.

Pile of 60-80 year old pines felled in Memorial Park south of Memorial Drive to make way for the new land bridges. Photo Aug. 16, 2020 by SC

The purpose of the dramatic land bridges, according to its proponents, is to connect the north and south sides of the park, create a scenic attraction, and provide a safe passage for people and wildlife. But the question on many people’s minds is: who or what is going to go from the woods, ravines, Buffalo Bayou banks, and wetland prairie of the south side to the new PGA Tour golf course, jogging trail, and sports facilities on the north side? Or vice versa?

A drawing of the land bridges over Memorial Drive looking westward towards the Galleria. Graphic from the Memorial Park Conservancy.

Major funders of the park’s 2015 Master Plan admit to rarely if ever having been on the south side of the park and claim that it is “hardly used.” But on any given day, any time of the day, the magical woods and trails of the south side are filled with the voices and presence of families with small children, lone hikers, couples, trail bikers, joggers, bird watchers, and others who treasure the rare experience of wild wooded ravines in the center of the city.

We can only hope that going forward this experience of nature will be preserved for the people of Houston, as the park was intended. We would be happy to accompany Mr. and Mrs. Kinder and Mr. John Breeding on a tour of these south side woods so that they can become better acquainted with them. Breeding, representing private Galleria-area real estate interests, is overseeing the expenditure of some $108 million in public funds on this $200-300 million master plan.

Note that there is already a modest Living Bridge that connects the north and sides of the park, as well as several drainage culverts under Woodway and Memorial for any coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, or possums that desire to roam discreetly on the new golf course or tennis courts. The Living Bridge is the partial result of the excellent, nature-sensitive, and unrealized 2004 Master Plan for the park.

Where the trees were south of Memorial Drive in Memorial Park. Photo Aug. 27, 2020

Trees Don’t Belong There?

This felling of 60-80 year-old pines, along with other large trees, is on top of the hundreds of mature trees that have been removed for the golf course renovation, creation of a two-level golf practice facility, and construction of the Eastern Glades. Trees in Memorial Park are not protected by city code. (p. 43)

Despite claims that pines are not native to Memorial Park, or that the pines, hackberry and other trees “don’t belong” in the landscape south and north of Memorial Drive, Harris County is part of the Pineywoods, which extends west through Memorial (see Piney Point) ending in an ancient remnant of loblollies in the Lost Pines Forest of Bastrop County. Early surveys of the bayou from 1831 through 1848 (p. 42) as well as letters from a soldier at Camp Logan in 1917 describe the pines of what is now Memorial Park.

Some Good Things

Here are some good things about the land bridges:

1. Possibly will reduce traffic noise in the park from the road, though trees and bushes do that too.

2. Creates some new greenspace above the roadway.

3. Part of a plan to re-naturalize the south side of the park used for team sports, cycling, and picnicking. Those activities are being moved to new facilities north of Memorial Drive.

Some Bad Things

1. Costs a huge amount of money ($70 million). Some people call it a “waste.”

2. Do not appear to serve any useful purpose.

3. Buries a scenic drive inside darkened tunnels.

4. Kills a lot of magnificent trees.

Read the rest of this post.

Performing a Service

New Boxes for Trash Bags on Buffalo Bayou and Spring Creek

Aug. 16, 2020

Four years ago a Houston Boy Scout built and installed wooden boxes to distribute reusable mesh bags for collecting trash on Buffalo Bayou and Spring Creek. The project was part of a statewide initiative of the Nueces River Authority called Up2U. It was also part of the Scout’s service requirement for obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout.

But over time the boxes wore out. And now another Scout, 16-year-old Edward Millard, has built new boxes for his Eagle Scout service project. And with the help of Tenderfoot Scout Luke Odom (and a little assistance from the dad), Millard has installed them at three locations: Pundt Park on Spring Creek and Briar Bend Park and Memorial Park on Buffalo Bayou, the latter two being part of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s 26-mile Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail.

All these dedicated young Scouts are members of Troop 55. And as mother Elisabeth Millard noted during the installation, in these pandemic times, with social distancing, it’s not easy to put in the service hours required for advancing through the ranks of scouting.

Thank you for your service, Edward and Luke.

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Troop 55 Boy Scouts Edward Millard, left, and Luke Odom holding the bags at Briar Bend Park. Photo Aug. 10, 2020

Mom Millard taking photo that shows their handsome, happy faces.

At work with the helpful supervision of Dad Millard.

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