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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
See also our own reporting on Room for the River.
Giving Tuesday is Nov. 28. Give to Save Buffalo Bayou!
Our forested bayous and streams are more threatened than ever
Save Buffalo Bayou is dependent on the generosity of people who care about protecting our great Mother Bayou, its forests, waters, wetlands, prairies, sandy banks, high cliffs, and many tributaries. Flood risk management based on nature is the cheapest, most effective, most beneficial practice. Help us fight for enlightened, cost-effective, green responses to flooding.
We don’t ask often
Nature is not just a pretty face. Trees and vegetation cleanse our polluted urban water, reduce rain runoff that causes flooding, protect against erosion, and filter out sediment from the stream.
What we’ve been doing
Here is the latest on how Save Buffalo Bayou has been working to protect our public forest and fighting for rational, science-based flood risk reduction:
Yellow-crowned night heron by Frank X. Tolbert 2.
Lines in the Sand on Buffalo Bayou
Nov. 19, 2017
Yes, we have alligators.
Reader Richard Lynn sent in these photos of alligator tracks on Buffalo Bayou. These photographs were taken recently on the north bank of what we called the middle meander. This is the big bend in the bayou at the eastern or downstream edge of Memorial Park. The indefinitely delayed “restoration” project proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District would fill in this meander, level the high cliffs, and reroute the bayou channel further south across the sandy point on the south side.
Lynn, a runner in the park, says the footprints were about six inches long. A reader on our Facebook page familiar with alligators estimated this one was probably six feet long.
Note that Parks and Wildlife says that alligators are generally afraid of humans and would rather just stay out of the way.
Lynn later sent in some photos of tracks that are a little more mysterious. One of the pleasures of walking or paddling on Buffalo Bayou is the beauty of the patterns of tracks in the sand.
The big drag track, however, is obviously a turtle.
On a recent float trip down the bayou with geologist Tom Helm, we saw these strangely beautiful tracks of something that waddled, sidled, or slithered up or down the bank.
County Commissioners Vote Yay
Approval to Go Forward with Contracts to Destroy Riparian Forest for Bayou Detention
Nov. 14, 2017
On the Radio
Excellent commentary from environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn on the vote by Harris County Commissioners today (Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017) to go forward with contracts for detention basins in public forest alongside the channel of Buffalo Bayou. Save Buffalo Bayou is quoted also.
Note that the KUHF reporter describes the issue as Not in My Backyard. No one on the Save Buffalo Bayou board or advisory board lives anywhere near this proposed project. This series of detention basins (not just one) will be built in a public park, public forest, riparian forest in west Houston. Creating only a modest amount of holding capacity (280 acre feet), they will not hold back water flowing into the bayou but will temporarily peel off water that is already in the bayou, and will have to be continually maintained and scraped of sediment.
Detention is important and vital. Bigger, wider floodplains are important. That means buyouts.
New motto: Stop Raindrops Where They Fall!
Public tax dollars should be spent where they will create the most benefit. Flood management policy should be focused on detaining stormwater before it enters our streams. The flood control district had the choice years ago of building bigger, more useful detention basins elsewhere. They chose not to do that.
And On the Tee Vee
KHOU reporter Adam Bennett’s report on the flood control proposal to remove trees on the forested public banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. The controversial plan, long in the works, is to create a series of basins to temporarily hold water overflowing from the bayou. Save Buffalo Bayou thinks the time to stop stormwater is before it gets into our streams. Forest provides valuable detention. Removing it makes no sense.
What would Terry do?
And In The Houston Chronicle
Flood control “improvements” will definitely destroy public forest along Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. They’ve pulled an existing, long-opposed plan off the shelf to look like they are doing something, anything, about reducing flood damages. This won’t help. We are not in favor of trees because they look pretty. We’re in favor of trees because they help reduce flooding.
The Chronicle’s Mihir Zaveri’s report on the issue and the vote:
Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to let the Harris County Flood Control District sketch out what exactly a study of that segment of the bayou would examine.
The Court would have to vote again to green light the actual study, which could recommend flood reduction measures, such as clearing trees and installing detention ponds.
Susan Chadwick, executive director of the nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou, opposed the flood control district’s study, stating that residents in the area had been fighting for years to keep the forests’ natural aesthetic.
Removing Trees for Detention on Buffalo Bayou
Commissioners Court to Vote Tuesday on Trees, Stormwater Detention on Buffalo Bayou
Nov. 13, 2017
Harris County commissioners will vote Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, on whether to authorize the negotiation of contracts for removal of trees and excavation of detention basins in Terry Hershey Park on Buffalo Bayou.
The controversial detention project has long been opposed by homeowners near the forest on the bank of the bayou, many of them recently flooded out of their homes during Hurricane Harvey. Under pressure from their group, Save Our Forest, the City of Houston in September 2015 withdrew a plan to build a large detention basin on the bayou in the park. However, the vote Tuesday includes negotiating with the City for detention on the bayou along the length of the park.
“It makes me mad,” said one displaced and distracted homeowner active with Save Our Forest. “They’re taking advantage of the flood to ram things through.”
The plan in 2013 was to destroy forest in order to create 280 acre-feet of stormwater detention in a series of basins on the banks of Buffalo Bayou between Highway 6 below Barker Dam and Beltway 8.
Removing trees and vegetation for stormwater detention makes little scientific sense. Trees and vegetation are powerful natural devices for slowing and holding rainwater runoff, not to mention their role in cleansing our polluted urban runoff and other valuable ecological services. A study by American Forests found that a single front-yard tree can intercept 760 gallons of rainwater in its crown. Vegetation can reduce runoff from a site by as much as 90 percent, according to a study by the University of Arkansas. While it would take a whole lot of trees to store as much water as even a small detention pond, it still seems like a better idea to create artificial detention where there are no trees.
Save Our Forest, the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood, and other neighborhood groups supported an alternative plan to create larger regional detention basins, in particular the Clodine Ditch Detention Basin, which would have created some 1,600-acre feet of detention.
The Harris County Flood Control District last year spent over $1.25 million to fill and “repair” parts of the north bank in the park where the bayou was attempting to recover its former meanders. The US Army Corps of Engineers stripped and straightened the 6.2 mile stretch of the bayou in the park and directed the flow into an artificial channel, cutting off the meanders in the 1940s.
The flood control district is legally bound by its 1937 charter to conserve forests. (p. 6)
The five county commissioners will vote at a session that begins at 10 a.m. in the commissioners’ courtroom, 1001 Preston Street., Suite 934. The long agenda includes consideration of whether to approve negotiating contracts with:
R.G. Miller Engineers, Inc., for design, bidding, and construction phase engineering services for construction of linear detention on Unit W100-00-00 in the Buffalo Bayou Watershed in Precinct 3.
The City of Houston for additional linear stormwater detention along Buffalo Bayou between SH-6 and Beltway 8 on Unit W100-00-00 in the Buffalo Bayou Watershed in Precinct 3.
Buffalo Bayou is Unit W100-00-00.
The public can sign up to speak during the meeting for up to three minutes.
The Problem with Dams
If You Build Them, They Will Come
Nov. 9, 2017
Some two months after the flood, neighborhoods on upper Buffalo Bayou were still haunted. A moldy, gray pall hung in the air like the Spanish moss draped in the trees. Houses were empty, their windows dark, walls stained where the dark floodwaters rose. Lawns and gardens were ruined, muddy and brown. Scattered piles of debris, broken mirrors and plasterboard, lined the nearly lifeless streets. The air, even out of doors, smelled of mildew.
“They’re having a hard time being more …. positive,” said resident Michelle Foss, her voice trailing off, looking towards a house where a family with children had to be rescued by helicopter from the roof.
Foss’s neighborhood is Briargrove Park. Like most of the subdivisions along Buffalo Bayou, it was developed in the decades after the federal government built two earthen dams west of Houston on what was then, in the late 1940s, mostly prairie—ranch and farmland. But the land next to the ancient meandering river, in the natural floodplain, was graced with forests of tall oaks and other trees—ideal for upscale residential development. With the construction of the dams, the floodplains were now considered safe. During heavy rains, the reservoirs behind the dams, Addicks and Barker, would hold back the waters of Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s main river, its Mother Bayou, and several creeks flowing into it, until the rain runoff collected in the bayou below the dams could empty into Galveston Bay.
It was a classic case of moral hazard, a situation identified by the late renowned geographer Gilbert White as early as 1942 in a paper titled, “Human Adjustment to Floods.” Government sponsorship of structural solutions like levees and dams that protect floodplains encourage development in those floodplains, which leads to damages that are often worse than what would have happened prior to construction of the levees and dams. (pp. 17-18) (See also p. 2.)
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the calls for a new or third reservoir in west Houston are virtually unanimous. It’s worth considering whether that might be a mistake.
On Mud, Dust, and Rain
And Letting the Bayou Heal
Sept. 19, 2017
Rain at last! Monday morning the sky is grumbling with thunder, even as the sun shines. A sprinkle of rain will wash the pavement covered with mud from the overflowing polluted bayou waters, dried mud that billows in thick choking clouds when cars and buses drive down the streets. A light, sparkling rain will wash the leaves and plants and sidewalks in our yards and parks.
The sky had been quiet for so long, empty for a while even of the roaring of low-flying planes. But later in the afternoon the sky turns somber. The rain grows heavier. And now we all feel the nervousness of those who have been flooded and watch the sky with anxiety. We who have grown up with mighty thunderstorms, fearlessly playing in the rain, splashing through flooded streets. Now we are all afraid of what the rain might bring.
It’s been nearly three weeks without rain since the historic deluge of Harvey sent flood waters and rain runoff through sewage treatment plants, sewage pumping stations, sewer lines, chemical storage facilities, service stations, toxic waste sites, half a million vehicles (not including smaller machinery), homes, offices, parking lots, shopping malls, and more.
The Rain Went Away
The absence of rain was a blessing. We could dry out and recover. The beleaguered Corps of Engineers could attempt to empty the reservoirs on Addicks and Barker dams in west Houston on Buffalo Bayou upstream. For the first time ever the engineers had been forced to open the floodgates of the seventy-year-old dams during a heavy storm. They knew that they would flood people downstream, that the already flooding river would rise even higher. But the water was rising quickly behind the earthen dams and would soon be flowing over the low spillways at the ends for the first time. At least two people died in their homes on Buffalo Bayou; a third in the basement ceiling of a luxury hotel on the banks near Woodway.
We don’t really know what the peak high flow was in the bayou during the storm. The gauges were overwhelmed. Maybe 15,000-16,000 cfs on around Aug. 31. Maybe more. (For comparison, the flow in the West Fork of the San Jacinto River was a record 80,000 cfs when authorities there opened the dam on Lake Conroe Aug. 28.) Since the rains stopped on Aug. 30, the flow in the bayou has been dropping slowly by several hundred to nearly a thousand cubic feet per second a day. (On Tuesday morning the floodgates were closed, and the flow had dropped to below 1,000 cfs. Base flow with no rain is about 150 cfs.) But on Monday evening the floodgates on the dams were still open, and the water was still draining. And there was still some 36 billion gallons of storm water remaining in the reservoirs, down from about 129 billion at their apparent peak on Aug. 29. The two reservoirs are normally dry parks with flowing streams (including Buffalo Bayou), filled with trees, trails, and recreational facilities now covered with sediment. A spokesman for the Corps, citing pending lawsuits, declined to comment Tuesday afternoon on the unusual shutting of the floodgates while storm water remained in the reservoirs.
We have been waiting for the waters to recede, to see what was revealed, the changes wrought to the banks. A flood in a natural setting is an awesome thing. We do not mourn the process of nature. But a flood where people live and work is tragic.