Houston’s Density Revolution Is Just Beginning

And Will Help With Houston’s Flooding and Traffic Problems

 

By Kyle Hagerty, Bisnow Houston, January 9, 2020

 

For decades, Houston has been the poster child of urban sprawl, growing to nearly 670 square miles. That story is changing. Years of work from the city and redevelopment authorities are finally paying off, as high-density, mixed-use projects break ground all across the Houston urban core.

“We’re early in the urbanization cycle,” Ziegler Cooper Senior Principal Scott Ziegler said.

Even more importantly, Ziegler sees Houston’s return to our inner core as part of the solution to Houston’s chronic flooding issues. “Quite honestly, I think if we hadn’t expanded out to the suburbs so quickly, we wouldn’t have near the problem. Those developments are the ones flooding the bayous,” Ziegler said. “If Houston had girdled its growth, we would have preserved prairie, pasture and forest lands for drainage. Suburban development has really taken away our drainage capacity.”

Ziegler knows it is a controversial opinion that could get him in trouble, but he said he stands by it. “When we build in the city, we have to have retention. We’ll put in underground tanks and detention infrastructure. In addition to that, we’re going even more vertical, two feet above the 500-year flood plain. Before it was two feet above the 100-year flood plain.” Houston’s lack of zoning may make headlines, but high-rise and mixed-use development in Houston’s inner city is more stringent than single-family home development on the city’s unincorporated, vulnerable edges. As millions flocked to Houston suburbs, local officials ignored stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater, according to investigative reporting from the Texas Tribune. At the crossroads of gentrification, traffic and flooding, Houston’s densification is one of the most important trends in the city. With the city continuing to grow at a rapid pace, building a resilient and attractive city will be the responsibility of the city’s developers and architects — and they are just getting started.

Read the rest of this article in Bisnow Houston.

 

Good News: More Land Preserved on the Katy Prairie Northwest of Houston

Land Protected Near Cypress Creek

Katy Prairie Conservancy Acquires 636-acre Tract Off Pattison Road

January 15, 2020

By Shawn Arrajj, Community Impact

Officials with the Katy Prairie Conservancy announced Jan. 14 the organization has acquired 636 acres off Pattison Road in the heart of the Katy Prairie.

The conservancy is a nonprofit land trust that works to protect and restore prairie acreage by both acquiring land and working with area landowners through voluntary conservation easements. The KPC already owns about 18,000 acres in Harris and Waller counties that officials said serves as a home to hundreds of species of wildlife as well as native grasses and wildflowers.

The 636 acres, located east of Pattison Road between Hebert and Morrison roads, is located within a part of the prairie that KPC officials described as “of highest priority for conservation.”

“Protecting this area is of great urgency as these lands are heavily utilized by migratory birds such as the sandhill crane and the long-billed curlew,” officials said in a Jan. 14 press release. “If these lands are lost to development, birds will have nowhere to stop for the night and could disappear from Houston forever.”

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Cy-Fair Community Impact Newspaper.

 

The Katy Prairie Conservancy has acquired 636 acres of land referred to as the Pattison Tract. Image courtesy the Katy Prairie Conservancy and Community Impact Newspaper.

 

Wild and Scenic Film Festival

 

Jan. 12, 2020

Bats fishing. Boys and butterflies. Girls on glaciers.

The Wild and Scenic Film Festival, North America’s largest environmental film festival, returns to Houston’s historic River Oaks Theater Jan. 28 and 29.

The touring festival of short films is always exciting and enlightening, providing Houstonians with eye-opening insights into new places, new adventures, and new research and ideas.

The festival features ten short films, with different films shown each night from 7 to 9 p.m.

Here’s how to buy tickets.

The popular event is sponsored for the sixth straight year by the Citizens Environmental Coalition, founded almost fifty years ago by a group of women active in environmental causes and quality of life issues. Among them was Terry Hershey, who helped save Buffalo Bayou from being channelized and lined with concrete like White Oak and Brays bayous.

The festival was started almost forty years ago by activists in California determined to protect the South Yuba River. It is now the focus of nearly 250 events around the country.

Watch the 2020 film festival trailer.

 

Image from the Wild and Scenic Film Festival courtesy of CEC

SC

A Frosty Reception on Buffalo Bayou

The Bend in Winter

 

Jan. 12, 2020

The grass sparkled with a rare sugary frosting as we walked across the picnic grounds of Memorial Park towards the woods of Buffalo Bayou. It was late December. Jim Olive was in town, and we were headed to photograph that bend in the bayou we’d been documenting throughout the seasons for almost six years now.

The pale morning sun slanted through the trees, highlighting the field of frost. It was below average cold, starting out in the 30s. We’d had to look for mittens and woolly stuff.

Trails Not Trails. Laws Not Laws.

Whoops! What’s this? We stopped. Our path into the woods was blocked. Wire-fenced off and a big green sign posted in English and Spanish: “This is Not a trail. Do not enter! Destroying public property is a prohibited by Title 19, Chapter 191, of the Government Code of Texas.”

 

Sign and fence on an “unofficial” trail in Memorial Park, Dec. 19, 2019

 

Hmm. Well, it turns out this is Not a law either. More about that later.

To continue, we continued. The clanking, grinding sounds of heavy machinery rang through the wintry woods. Next we found that the soaring loblolly pine snag, long dead, had been cut down. It had been standing tall for years, slowly decaying, providing habitat and sustenance for wildlife. We counted the rings. At least 70-80 years old. The massive felled log lay across the trail that was Not a trail, blocking our path. The name “Jesus” carved into its side years ago was still faintly visible. We went around.

Read the rest of this post.

Talking About Local Geology and the Formation of Buffalo Bayou

 

Dec. 25, 2019

Geologist, river guide and Save Buffalo Bayou board member Tom Helm joins Michael Gold, founder of the Cypress Creek Ecological Restoration Project, to discuss the geologic history of Texas and our local Houston area.

They discuss Tom’s background, how he became interested in geology, the geologic formation of our state and local area, what you can see around Texas, when and how our bayous and creeks were formed, and what you can see in our bayous and creeks.

Image: Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County by Michael Gold

 

 

 

You Blockin’ My Bayou?

Outfalls, Right and Wrong

 

Dec. 16, 2019

When it rains, water falls from the sky and runs off our roofs, yards, patios, parking lots, sidewalks, roads, and driveways into storm drains, through pipes or ditches and into our bayous and creeks. The end pipe that drops that collected rainwater into our streams is called an outfall. The receiving stream, usually part of our natural drainage system, carries the rainwater away to the sea.

Buffalo Bayou, which begins far out on the Katy Prairie and runs all the way to the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay, is our central drainage waterway flowing through the center of Houston, with many tributary creeks and streams and storm pipes emptying into it.

In many cities, to avoid overwhelming the drainage system with too much water all at once, causing flooding, residents are encouraged, even required, to disconnect their downspouts or drainpipes from the city stormwater or sewer system and let the rainwater spread out and flow slowly over yards and gravel, etc.  But that’s a different story.

The outfall that releases all this collected rain runoff into our bayous and creeks can be big or small, concrete or metal, round or square. But there are wrong ways and right ways to install them in the banks of our streams.

Installing them the wrong way—pointing across the stream, for example—can block the flow like a dam during storms, even causing the water to flow back upstream and out of the banks.

 

Big stormwater outfall on south bank west of S. Dairy Ashford Road in west Houston sends water directly across Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park, acting as a dam during storms. Photo October 2015.

 

Outfalls installed the wrong way can also cause erosion of the opposite bank, as well as around the pipe itself.

Taxpayers end up paying to repair the damage done by improperly installed outfalls. Property owners who flood or have their banks eroded away also pay.

In our stormy Bayou City where engineers have been dealing with drainage and flooding problems for a long time, one might think that we would always get it right. But somehow we are burdened with numerous outfalls, old and new, installed in ways that block the flow during big storms, and damage the banks.

Are these outfalls in violation of local flood control standards? Are they in violation of generally accepted best practice?

For Instance

Take for example the massive concrete outfall on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park just downstream from the Memorial Drive Bridge.  Long ago, before the Corps of Engineers stripped and channelized this section of the bayou in the 1950s, before the construction of Allen Parkway (Buffalo Drive) in 1925 connecting downtown and River Oaks, this was a small tributary stream flowing through a deep ravine into the bayou. The tributary, like many, was enclosed and buried decades ago, and the current concrete-walled outfall was installed during renovation of the park around 2014.

The outfall, located just upstream of a bend, faces towards the opposite bank. Since the outfall was constructed, the section of asphalt sidewalk on that opposite bank, installed around the same time, has washed away, along with much of the bank, erosion that began even before Harvey in August 2017.

Read the rest of this post.

Opossums Deserve Our Love

They’re Heroes of the Animal World

By Jackie Flynn Mogensen, Mother Jones, July 26, 2019

In the marsupial family, the opossum really got the short end of the stick: While their Australian cousins, including kangaroos, koalas, and wombats, are adored by the masses, opossums are outcasts. They’re the United States’ only native marsupial, but they’re virtually nobody’s favorite animal. They aren’t the star exhibit at any zoo. You almost certainly won’t see them on the cover of any wildlife magazine. No one has ever squealed, “Trash panda!,” after spotting one digging through a garbage bin, as so many people (somehow) lovingly do with raccoons.

Sure, they’re ugly. They’ve got beady eyes, a hairless tail, and dozens of pointed teeth. When Captain John Smith came to America in the 17th century, he wrote that opossums have a head “like a Swine,” a tail “like a Rat,” and are about the size of a cat, which I must admit, is pretty spot-on. But opossums do more for us than we recognize. “Just because they’re ugly doesn’t mean that they’re not important and worthy of protecting,” David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation and author of the book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife, tells Mother Jones. “If you just open your mind a little bit, you can see them as beautiful creatures.”

In fact, opossums protect humans by eating ticks, dead animals, and venomous snakes. As nature’s trash collectors, they play a vital role in the ecosystem, all while protecting humans from disease. A 2009 study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences found that opossums are exquisitely good at removing ticks, which can carry Lyme disease, from their bodies and gobble up an estimated 5,000 ticks per season that may otherwise latch onto humans.

Read the rest of this article in Mother Jones.

Opossum, hero of our natural world. Image Shutterstock, courtesy of Mother Jones.

Talking About Nature, Rivers, History, and Flooding

Dec. 15, 2019

A couple of days ago Michael Gold, founder of the Cypress Creek Ecological Restoration Project in Houston, called up to talk nature and philosophy, rivers, flooding, trees, and grass. We had an interesting conversation.

You can listen to it here.

 

Trash collected on Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County. Photo by Michael Gold

Yes, We Accept Donations. Thank you!

 

Nov. 30, 2019

So this is the thanks and the giving season, and everyone is asking for money. We almost never ask for money. But now we are.

Save Buffalo Bayou is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization supported by tax-deductible donations. We have a small budget and a large impact. We have almost 8,000 followers on Facebook and a mailing list of 1,600, including public officials and the media.

Please donate and help us continue our work. We need your support. (Fast and easy route: use the Paypal donate button up there on the right corner of the page.)

What We Do

Most of what we do is journalism. And there is no other voice like ours. We speak out. We advocate. We explain. We educate. We listen. We investigate. We report. We take positions that others cannot or will not take. Not everyone loves us.

We advocate for Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s ancient central river, and its many tributary streams and creeks, for nature and the natural landscape, so important in a city like Houston. We explain how streams work, how banks collapse, why trees are important, how the banks naturally rebuild and restore themselves. We do this because it benefits us, the people, the taxpayers.

We advocate for modern flood management, based on nature, because nature is the best engineer. Nature-based flood management works best and costs less. And it’s healthier for us too.

We believe in slowing the flow, rather than speeding it up. Yes, that sounds counter-intuitive, but draining more stormwater faster only causes more flooding, though engineering companies love it. Our motto is slow it down, spread it out, soak it in. We need to take more individual responsibility for that. Stop stormwaters before they flood the stream. And get out of the way.

It’s what the rest of the world is doing. But here they tell us rain gardens and prairies are useless because our clay soil is practically as hard as concrete anyway. Is that true? Stay tuned and find out.

More than ever our streams, prairies, and urban forests are threatened by development and by costly, large-scale engineering projects proposed by politicians pressured by the public to do something, anything, to protect us from flooding.

We want to make sure they do the right thing. Dredging, deepening, and widening our bayous, for instance, might seem like the right thing. But doing that only creates more costly problems.

So please donate. Use a credit card or write us a check. Send a dollar in the mail. Every penny counts.

Watch this slideshow of photographs, mostly by Jim Olive, documenting the same bend in the bayou throughout the seasons for the last five years.

  • That Bend in the River on April 15, 2018. Springtime all over the place. Photo by SC
  • A trackhoe on a barge stuck in the sandy channel bottom of Buffalo Bayou at that bend below the high bank in Memorial Park. Maintenance contractor with flood control was removing fallen trees from the banks and channel. Photo by SC May 19, 2018
  • Summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou. That bend in the bayou on July 1, 2018, with flow at about 280 cubic feet per second. Photo by Jim Olive, of course.
  • Fall 2018 on that Bend in the River. Water was high and the morning was cloudy just after sunrise. Photo by Jim Olive on Nov. 6, 2018.
  • We were late with our winter shot, and this February morning was gloomy, the trees and banks bare. Flow was very low, about 150 cfs. The bend appeared to have been widened by the damaging dredging done by maintenance contractors working to remove woody debris, some of which should have been left on the banks for stability and sediment control. Photo Feb. 14, 2019, by Jim Olive
  • Spring again! That bend in the bayou, early in the morning of April 26, 2019. Jim Olive was back in town to continue our series documenting this same spot through time. Photo by Jim.
  • Summertime 2019 on that bend in the river with some of the destruction of the south bank visible in the distance. Pile of dirt is part of the River Oaks Country Club's costly and excessively damaging bank project. Photo by Jim on July 8, 2019, from that same high bank in Memorial Park.
  • That Bend in the River on a cool fall day--at last! Tractor is sitting on a pile of dirt dug out of the bank by the River Oaks Country Club for its very discouraging and deeply destructive "bank repair" project upstream and downstream. Photo by Jim on Oct. 12, 2019
  • Jim Olive's Winter 2019-20 photo of that bend in the bayou with continuing destruction activity on the bank opposite. Photo Dec. 19, 2019
  • Since Jim Olive was on a general coronavirus lockdown in California, Susan took this Spring 2020 photo around 3 p.m. on March 23. Flow was high, about 900 cubic feet per second. We're hoping JO will be back soon to take a better one.

 

Some Things We’ve Done Lately

This year we brought you multiple hard-hitting reports on the destruction of public forest on the upper bayou in Terry Hershey Park. We sought to persuade and prevent, publicly and privately, a hugely damaging and largely unnecessary bank “repair” project opposite Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, and pointed out the irregularities in the permit process.

We continued our ongoing photography series documenting the changes in the bayou throughout the seasons. (See above.) We published articles on flood tunnels and rewilding our urban landscape, on bugs, birds, and bats; and reminded people about public meetings on flooding (and reported on them too) and about public comment periods for flood-related projects and studies.

We published an editorial in the Chronicle in favor of protecting the trees and natural landscape in Memorial Park, another on why the banks keep collapsing in Buffalo Bayou Park, and alerted the public to plans to remove a lot of trees and alter wetlands and streams in Memorial Park. We publicized reports that showed new development in west Houston was increasing flooding and a third reservoir in northwest Harris County wasn’t going to stop flooding.

We were quoted about flooding and green, nature-based solutions numerous times in local and national publications.

And that’s just a short list.

So please donate now. It’s for all of us.

Thank you.

 

Susan Chadwick

President and Executive Director

p.s. Be sure to check out our YouTube page for videos of beavers, coral snakes, and other critters on Buffalo Bayou.

What America Lost When It Lost the Bison

By Migrating in Huge Herds, Bison Behave Like a Force of Nature, Engineering and Intensifying Waves of Spring Greenery that Other Grazers Rely On

 

By Ed Yong, The Atlantic, November 18, 2019

SBB note: Bison (buffalo) once roamed the prairies around Houston, crossing Buffalo Bayou through what is now Memorial Park, among other places, to graze.

Their actions change the landscape. In areas where bison graze, plants contain 50 to 90 percent more nutrients by the end of the summer. This not only provides extra nourishment for other grazers, but prolongs the growing season of the plants themselves. And by trimming back the plant cover in one year, bison allow more sunlight to fall on the next year’s greenery, accelerating its growth. When Geremia’s team looked at parts of Yellowstone where bison numbers have fluctuated, it found that the green wave grew in intensity and crested over a longer period as the herds grew larger. The bison engineer and intensify the spring. And astonishingly, they had a stronger influence on the timing of plant growth than weather and other environmental variables. They’re equivalent to a force of nature.

That force would have been even more powerful in centuries past, when 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America. “They would have been everywhere,” says Matthew Kauffman of the University of Wyoming, who led the new study. “The productivity of those grasslands would have been radically different because there are that many bison, trampling, eating, defecating, and urinating.” These herds must have changed the path of the green wave, and inadvertently governed the fates of other animals that surf it, from deer to elk to bighorn sheep. What happened, then, when European colonizers virtually eliminated the bison? By 1900, fewer than 600 remained.

When we lose animals, we also lose everything those animals do. When insects decline, plants go unpollinated and predators go unfed. When birds disappear, pests go uncontrolled and seeds stay put. When herds of bighorn sheep and moose are shot, their generational knowledge disappears and migration routes go extinct, as Kauffman showed last year. And when bison are exterminated, springtime changes in ways that we still don’t fully understand.

Read the rest of this article in The Atlantic.

Bison grazing on Wichita Mountains at sunrise in southwestern Oklahoma. Photo by Justin A. Morris, Getty Images, The Atlantic

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