Growing, Growing Grass and Boys
Boy Scouts Help Nature on Buffalo Bayou
Oct. 31, 2018
On a fine Saturday morning last March, a small group of Boy Scouts got together with shovels and some potted plants and headed towards the public boat launch in Memorial Park near Woodway. Under the leadership of now 15-year-old Austen Furse, their goal was to plant gamagrass on the upper bank of Buffalo Bayou. The native grass is a stabilizer plant, known for its deep-rooted ability to hold the bank together.
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. Riparian plants, including trees like willows and sycamores, generally work to absorb and cleanse water, among other benefits. The bayou, like other streams, naturally does this intelligent landscaping, although sometimes competing plants that aren’t supposed to be there intrude, fugitives from lawns and gardens, for example.
It was early March, and the bank was almost bare. Once a wooded nature trail, the public area had been stripped and graded more than four years ago to install a massive concrete outfall that drains stormwater from Post Oak Road. The mowed upper banks were planted with non-native, rapidly spreading Bermuda grass, the lower banks hardened with fake stone. And after three big floods, most recently the monster flow in Buffalo Bayou from Hurricane Harvey, the area was not looking so good.
This was Furse’s project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also a contender for the Hornaday Prize for natural resource conservation projects. The five boys helping him were all from Troop 55 of the Sam Houston Area Council. Within a few hours they had planted some 200 plants.
“Austen is a great young man,” said Daniel Walton, conservation coordinator for the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit that manages the public park. “The way he handled it all was pretty impressive.”
Furse said that until a recent kayak trip, he had never really seen the bayou “which we drive by everyday.” He said it was “so cool.” That he saw “snakes and things.” This brief interview took place in October, in the midst of the growing gamagrass, as giant dragonflies buzzed like noisy, low-flying helicopters all around.
In the months that followed the initial planting Furse returned to monitor the grass, documenting its growth, sending reports, notifying Walton of potential threats like mowers and competing invasive weeds. At one point the bank was overtaken by an army of horseweed, which though native, can take over and monopolize disturbed areas, pushing out other native plants, points out native plant expert Katy Emde, a member of Save Buffalo Bayou’s advisory board. A variety of native plants supports a variety of insects, which in turn support a variety of wildlife.
“I think it is always interesting to see how plants that can be annoying are beneficial, nonetheless,” wrote Emde in an email. “It turns out that most native plants are beneficial, even if they are not our favorites.”
Furse also sent photos to Save Buffalo Bayou. And it was difficult to tell which was growing faster: Austen or the gamagrass.
Thank you, Austen Furse, and your helpers and advisors in Troop 55.
Did Straightening Upper Buffalo Bayou Make Future Residents More Vulnerable to Flooding?
Federal Project in Late Forties Reduced Bayou Capacity Upstream
October 29, 2018
(Update Nov.13, 2018: Harris County Commissioners’ Court approved a $350,000 contract to study “high-flow bypasses” through meanders on Buffalo Bayou as well as the impact of existing bridges.)
By the early morning of Aug. 28, 2017, after about thirty hours of record heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey, storm runoff was rising so fast in the two federal reservoirs in west Houston that the Corps of Engineers feared the water would overflow the aging earthen dams. They made the unprecedented decision to open the dam floodgates, slowly at first and then, in the following days, much wider, as stormwater did indeed begin to spill around the northern end of Addicks Dam north of Interstate 10.
For most people living and working on Buffalo Bayou, the peak of the flooding had already passed on Sunday, Aug. 27, when the floodgates were still closed. That Sunday storm runoff draining from the paved and built city into the bayou below the dams sent anywhere from two feet to eight feet or more into homes and other structures built on or near the banks.
But when the dam floodgates were opened in the first hours of Monday, roaring floodwaters pouring out of the dams spread out and inundated neighborhoods built on the bayou’s floodplain below the dams for more than six miles to just below Beltway 8 (West Belt). Many of these homes had not flooded earlier.
The horrific flow through the open floodgates eventually reached more than 16,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). For much of Buffalo Bayou in west Houston flood stage is around 6,000-7,500 cfs.
As a result, many more homes and other structures flooded on the upstream stretch of Buffalo Bayou between the federal dams and Beltway 8 than downstream of the beltway. (Homes built in the reservoir flood pools behind the dams also flooded, but that’s another story.)
Blaming the Bayou. “Kinks” and “Bottlenecks” Downstream
This six-mile stretch of the bayou upstream of the beltway was straightened and shortened by the Corps of Engineers more than seventy years ago. The bayou downstream of the beltway remains a meandering stream, largely unchannelized, twisting and turning its way nearly to Shepherd Drive. Below Shepherd the bayou was stripped and channelized in Buffalo Bayou Park by the Corps in the Fifties. From there it flows along a heavily altered route through downtown, eventually becoming the Houston Ship Channel.
In the wake of this disastrous flooding upstream of the beltway, distraught and shell-shocked property owners, many of them without flood insurance and dealing with severe losses, have been blaming the “kinks” and “bottlenecks” in the meandering bayou below Beltway 8 for flooding their homes. The belief is that the meandering bayou constricted the flow and caused water to backup and flood property upstream. The common complaint is that the bayou downstream is too narrow and is “like a hose” that gets a “kink” in it, causing the water to stop and back up.
Who Owns the Bayou?
Rights, Responsibilities, and Flooding Your Neighbor
Sept. 20, 2018
Update Sept. 29, 2018: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released new rainfall statistics and adjusted rainfall frequencies in Texas and Houston.
Updated Oct. 29, 2018, with recent photo of completed massive erosion control project on Buffalo Bayou.
Over the past several years, in the wake of extreme floods, we have received numerous complaints about damaging “erosion control” projects on the banks of Buffalo Bayou – projects damaging not only to the natural functioning and ecosystem of the bayou but also potentially to people living and working up and downstream of the projects.
Property owners bulldoze the banks, build massive retaining walls made of concrete block or sheet metal, dump piles of concrete construction debris into the bayou, strip and line the banks with concrete riprap.
This in addition to stripping the banks of trees and vegetation, reshaping the banks, gouging out pathways, and landscaping with walkways and non-native flower gardens.
Do they have the right to do this? Is it a good idea? Who owns the bayou really? What permits are required, if any, to do these things?
And does the bayou itself have rights?
Did Retaining Wall Make Flooding Worse?
What happens if someone installs concrete riprap or a massive retaining wall that deflects the flow of the bayou away from their property and floods neighbors or damages public park property? This has happened repeatedly on Buffalo Bayou.
In one case, a large property owner in River Oaks, whose bank is likely affected by a large stormwater outfall directly across the way, installed a controversial concrete block wall along several hundred feet of bank in 2016, initially without a permit from the City of Houston. That armoring washed away during Harvey, and the property owner has now rebuilt the eroded bank, apparently dumping material into the channel, and installed a massive sheet metal wall that has alarmed residents across the bayou and elsewhere, threatening a narrow strip of land that the Houston Parks Board has been eyeing for a hike-and-bike trail.
Is that legal? Is it right? Does it work?
Shocker: The Port of Houston Owns Buffalo Bayou
This will come as a surprise to many people: The Port of Houston owns the submerged lands of Buffalo Bayou all the way from the bay to the headwaters. In 1927 the Texas State Legislature gave the Port of Houston “all the submerged lands lying and being situated under the waters of Buffalo Bayou, San Jacinto River, White Oak Bayou, Bray’s Bayou, Simms Bayou [sic], Vinces Bayou [sic], Hunting Bayou, Greens Bayou, Carpenters Bayou, Old River, Lost River, Goose Creek and Cedar Bayou, and all other streams within the authority tributary to the Houston Ship Channel, so far up said streams as the State may own same … for public purposes and for the development of commerce only …” (See Sec. 5007.004)
Many people with property on Buffalo Bayou would think they own to the center line of the channel since the Harris County Appraisal District describes it that way and taxes it too.
Is the water in Galveston Bay really that clean?
Bay’s ‘A’ grade on water quality misleading, clean water advocates say
By Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 7, 2018
“I think it’s kind of misleading to label water quality an ‘A,’ ” said Brian Zabcik, clean water advocate for Environment Texas, after reviewing the [Galveston Bay] report. “But it’s a very narrow definition of water quality.”
So narrow, in fact, that Erin Kinney, a [Houston Advanced Research Center] research scientist, said researchers didn’t take into account any chemical spills in the water.
The levels of dissolved oxygen and nitrogen in water samples from rivers, bayous and the bay “were most often at acceptable levels for supporting diverse and healthy aquatic life,” the report stated. “The water quality problems that did exist — relating to high levels of phosphorus — typically occur in bayous that receive runoff and wastewater from human activity in residential, industrial, commercial, and agricultural areas.”
Public Comment Invited on Spending Plans for Harvey Aid
Plans, Priorities for City, County to Spend Federal Housing and Urban Development Funds
By Mike Morris, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 10, 2018
Houston area residents are inching closer to getting long-awaited Hurricane Harvey aid, and have until Oct. 6 to comment on the city of Houston and Harris County’s draft plans outlining how the governments will spend the more than $1 billion each soon will receive.
You can find the plans at this link.
In a mid-May memo to city council members, Houston’s Housing Director Tom McCasland expected the Department of Housing and Urban Development aid to be arriving in early September. Local officials now are hoping to launch their housing repair programs sometime in November.
And The Waters Will Prevail
What if Houston’s survival depends not just on withstanding a flood, but on giving in to it?
By Henry Grabar, Slate, Aug 30, 2018
Unprecedented storms have brought three straight years of biblical floods, culminating in Harvey, which inundated 154,170 homes in Harris County—the Delaware-sized area that contains the city of Houston and another Houston’s worth of people outside it. Nearly half of those houses were in neither the 100-year nor the 500-year FEMA flood plain. Why did they flood? In part because Harvey was a leviathan of a storm swollen by a carbon-thick atmosphere, a once-in-10,000-years rainfall event. The weight of the water flexed the earth’s crust and temporarily sank the city a half-inch. And the homes flooded in part because Houston, like other cities, has reshaped its natural flood plains with concrete. Human construction now decides where the floods go.
Several experts I spoke to found that suggestion—that new development was not having an effect on flooding—ridiculous. As Houston has sprawled westward over the Katy Prairie, 75 percent of its flood-absorbent grasslands have been paved over, turning natural detention basins into roads and houses. In Brays Bayou, on the south side of the city, Rice environmental engineering professor Philip Bedient has found that rainfall is up 26 percent over the past 40 years—but runoff is up 204 percent. From 1996 to 2011, impervious surface in Harris County increased by a quarter, and from 1992 to 2010, the area lost almost a third of its wetlands—nearly 16,000 acres. It’s a correlation that’s been noted again and again. “There’s no question that the amount of impervious surface and the destruction of natural ecosystem surfaces has impacted the amount of runoff and flooding that we have seen,” said Shannon Van Zandt, the head of the landscape architecture and urban planning department at Texas A&M. “There’s no question about that. I don’t think it’s plausible to suggest that the detention is taking care of the issue.”
The chief risk facing Houston and Harris County is not the vulnerability of new developments, which do tend to be built higher, better, and upstream, but that of the older houses downstream, many built low to the ground and served by undersize storm drains. It may not be the case that your new neighbor upstream is making you flood. But the standards could be higher. Activists say the choice between an abandoned, flood-prone golf course and a subdivision of 900 homes was a false one. Susan Chadwick, the executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a group that opposes development in and around the river, argued in June that the city should have used eminent domain on the course to create a detention pond that would relieve Brickhouse Gully.
The engineers at the Flood Control District don’t disagree it would have been a good place for a pool. As we sat in his office going over flood plains, Todd Ward conceded it was a bit of a missed opportunity. We found the course on an enormous satellite map of Houston on the wall. In a giant city, it’s a small square. But there aren’t many undeveloped parcels of that size left. Some of the just-approved $2.5 billion bond will go toward buying out existing repeat-flooding homes downstream of the newly elevated houses at Spring Brook Village. The bond calls for $35 million of channel improvements to Brickhouse Gully to reduce the risk to 1,300 homes.
Read the rest of this article in Slate.
Flood Bond Election: New Projects Added
Tensions on Buffalo Bayou
August 19, 2018
The Harris County Flood Control District presented to Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday, Aug. 14, its final list of flood risk reduction projects that could be funded with the proceeds of $2.5 billion in bonds over a period of 10-15 years.
Early voting on the bonds started Aug. 8 and continues through Tuesday, Aug. 21. The election is Saturday, Aug. 25. The $2.5 billion target is widely considered a small down payment on a $20-30 billion county-wide flood resiliency program that should emphasize buyouts, land acquisition and preservation, floodplain restoration and other non-structural approaches.
The list of 237 projects includes 38 projects that were added as a result of community meetings held across Harris County in June, July and August, according to the district website. Note that the list of potential projects is not fixed or obligatory, and citizens should still have opportunities to influence future plans and priorities.
These include $30 million for design and construction of replacement bridges along Buffalo Bayou, apparently targeting bridges that went under water during Harvey or are thought to be obstructing the flow.
The new list includes $500,000 for studies to investigate “bridges over Buffalo Bayou, the channel conveyance capacity around Beltway 8, Rummel Creek Road bridge and potential high flow bypasses at various locations along the bayou for the purpose of reducing the risk of flooding along the channel.”
Also newly included is $200,000 for investigation of the “effectiveness of small detention sites in the Buffalo Bayou watershed for the purpose of reducing the risk of flooding.”
Tensions Upstream and Downstream
The reference to “channel conveyance capacity around Beltway 8” and “potential high flow bypasses” reflects a simmering tension between residents on the straightened upstream of Beltway 8 and those on the meandering downstream. Neighborhood activists upstream of the beltway blame the “kinks” and “bottlenecks” downstream for causing flooding of their homes. Michael Huffmaster, president of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood and chair of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, has been advocating a plan to cut through meanders downstream and install large underground concrete culverts to speed the flow.
Rivers and streams are dynamic systems, evolving through the landscape to find equilibrium, balancing energy, flow, and sediment transport. While meandering streams carry more water because they are longer (p. 9), artificially straightening streams shortens the channel and increases the speed of the flow, which can cause more erosion and flooding. (See below.) Meandering streams are more stable, healthier, cleaner, and more biologically diverse. (p. 2)
Some six miles of Buffalo Bayou below Barker Dam was rerouted, stripped, and straightened in the late Forties and Fifties by the Corps of Engineers through what is now Terry Hershey Park to several hundred feet below Beltway 8. Environmentalists, including Terry Hershey, Frank Smith, George Mitchell, and others, many of whom also lived on the bayou, led a popular movement in the Sixties and Seventies to stop the Corps from stripping, straightening, and concreting the bayou all the way to the Shepherd Bridge.
As a result, much of Buffalo Bayou remains in a relatively natural, meandering state.
Houston Has to Get Out of the Floodplains. Now.
Important commentary about how we should be using potential bond proceeds from the Aug. 25 election to get out of the way of flooding and let our natural drainage system — our bayous and streams — work the way they are supposed to. From Dr. John Jacob, board member of Bayou City Waterkeeper and advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou.
Commentary by Dr. John Jacob, the Houston Chronicle, July 24, 2018
Houston has in place a natural flood detention and conveyance system that could handle another Harvey, sitting right here in plain sight.
Our bayous, creeks and streams, and their associated floodplains, have carved out, over millennia, a very robust and capacious system. This legacy system did not fail during Harvey. We failed, over the years, because we put so many people in harm’s way.
In fact, more than 40 percent of all FEMA-designated floodplains in Harris County have been developed to one degree or another, with more than 500,000 homes and apartments in these hazardous zones. Few floodplains within Beltway 8 are undeveloped.
Where we saw boat rescues, where we saw four to six feet of water and more in homes, these were houses deep in harm’s way that should not have been there.
This legacy floodplain system was given to us free of charge. All we had to do was to protect it, to keep homes and commerce out of the low-lying valleys. Now here we are after Harvey, trying to reduce the size of the floodplains, trying to keep water out of the floodplains, because people and their homes are in the way now. Many great and beloved neighborhoods have sprung up in the floodplains. People don’t want to leave. And so they stay, hoping Harvey, Tax Day and Memorial Day floods are just an anomaly.
Reminder: Buffalo Bayou Watershed Flood Bond Meeting July 30
Also Barker Reservoir Meeting on Aug. 1
July 23, 2018
The Harris County Flood Control District and members of county commissioners’ court continue to hold meetings around the county to present proposals for projects attempting to reduce the hazard of flooding.
The meeting about projects proposed in the Buffalo Bayou watershed will be held on Monday, July 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 12955 Memorial Drive in Houston. A meeting to present projects proposed for the Barker Reservoir watershed is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Memorial Parkway Junior High, 21203 Highland Knolls Drive in Katy. Buffalo Bayou flows from its headwaters near Katy into and through Barker Dam.
The projects are to be funded with the proceeds of a $2.5 billion bond issue should the voters approve on August 25. The bonds would be issued over a period of ten to fifteen years, according to the flood control district, and repaid through a property tax increase of no more than two-three cents per $100 of home valuation. Homeowners with an over-65 or disabled exemption and a home worth $200,000 or less would not pay any additional taxes, according to the district.
Most of the projects proposed are projects that had long been planned. For instance, a controversial project to remove forest and excavate basins to capture and temporarily hold overflow on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park is listed with a $10 million cost estimate. The project in its initial stages would allegedly create 60-100 acre-feet of temporary storage alongside the bayou. The linear detention, siphoning flow out of the bayou, is planned to compensate for eventual additional City of Houston drainage into the bayou from neighborhood streets.
Barker and Addicks dams both drain into Buffalo Bayou, and overflow from Cypress Creek on the rapidly developing Katy Prairie in northwest Harris County also drains into the overburdened Addicks Reservoir, adding to the pressure of runoff into Addicks and the bayou.
Other than the Hershey Park detention project, some $21 million is slated for a new detention basin north of John Paul’s Landing on Upper Langham Creek, which drains into Addicks.
However, most of the projects listed for these watersheds mainly focus on repairing channels and improving conveyance – making more stormwater flow faster into and through the reservoirs. This has the potential to cause more problems and more flooding. Modern practice elsewhere is to focus on slowing the flow, making room for the river with wider floodplains. We would hope for more money to be spent on land aquisition, buyouts in floodplains, preservation of undeveloped land, forest, wetlands, prairies, and riparian vegetaton; creation of green space, restoring meanders, and programs to encourage slowing of rain runoff beginning with individuals and neighborhoods.
There are also funds proposed to be used in collaboration with Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates Addicks and Barker, to evaluate the effectiveness and operation of those 70-year-old dams.
A complete list of projects can be found on the flood control district’s website. The website also offers a way to make comments about the projects.
The meetings are not set up for the public to engage officials or voice opinions. They are informative only – with numerous stations staffed by flood control personnel to explain projects. However, paper and pencils are provided for citizens to write comments.
Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou: Slowing the Flow
Summer Down on the Bayou
July 17, 2018
In case you missed Jim Olive‘s summer shot of that Bend in the River, here is the latest addition to our series of photographs taken from the same high bank on the north side of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. The view has changed over the course of four years. In particular, since the high waters of Harvey, the bayou widened to accommodate the massive flow. Banks slid or slumped away, as they will do on the bayou when water rises over the banks and onto the natural floodplains. Trees and vegetation slide down too.
Ideally this woody debris, often still living, should be left in place to collect sediment, reinforce the banks, and facilitate regrowth and rebuilding of the banks. It’s a cycle that has been continuing on rivers for millions of years. Unfortunately, the Harris County Flood Control District hired contractors and paid them by the pound to collect as much of the fallen vegetation as possible.
Other Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou
Known as Houston’s Mother Bayou, in large part because most other bayous and streams flow into it, Buffalo Bayou is some 18,000 years old, more or less, and one of the few natural waterways in the city that remains largely unchannelized. The beauty of it flowing past Memorial Park is that this forested stretch is one of the last accessible to the public. It’s a historic nature area, ever changing and adapting, filled with ancient high banks and sandstone, beaver, otter, massive turtles and other wildlife.
Though in the wake of Harvey there are calls to “improve” our bayous, including Buffalo Bayou, by widening and deepening, even straightening, the fact is that meandering streams carry more water — because they are longer. Artificially widening and deepening streams doesn’t last: the banks collapse and the channel fills with sediment. Rivers are living, dynamic systems and will adjust to stabilize themselves. The trees and vegetation on the banks help absorb and cleanse stormwaters and prevent flooding by slowing and diffusing the energy of the stream.
Our political and civic leaders should focus on slowing the flow with green spaces, prairie and wetlands, swales and rain gardens — stopping, spreading, and soaking up stormwater before it floods our natural and built drainage systems.
Watch this video of a summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, July 1, 2018.