The Flood Czar Answers His Own Phone
But What Causes Urban Flooding?
July 12, 2016
Steve Costello explained for probably the hundredth time or more that he is not really the flood czar of Houston but the chief resilience officer.
The soft-spoken Costello, a civil engineer, former member of the Houston City Council (serving six years), former president and current board member of the Memorial Park Conservancy, and former candidate for mayor of Houston, was speaking at a meeting of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood in west Houston a few weeks ago. Buffalo Bayou runs through the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood.
Appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner in early May, Costello has been making the rounds, speaking at public meetings, attending others, such as the highly emotional town hall meeting with US Rep. John Culberson in June. Costello also has been giving interviews. Recently he flew off to Washington D.C. with the mayor and members of the Houston City Council to meet with officials of the Army Corps of Engineers about a multi-billion dollar plan to dredge and deepen Lake Houston in order to enlarge its capacity and alleviate flooding in northeast Harris County. Lake Houston is a major source of Houston’s drinking water.
But back in late June he was explaining to the Briar Forest crowd of about twenty-five neighborhood activists that while his sole mission was to do something about flooding, and his wife liked the idea of being a czarina, really he was the chief resilience officer. The concept, he explained, was a response to the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project. Mayor Annise Parker had applied to the program for funding and support for a resilience officer, who would have focused not just on flooding but also on broader social issues like unemployment and transportation. Mayor Turner decided he wanted to focus on drainage and flooding, and the Rockefeller Foundation decided not to fund a position for Houston, said Costello.
No Staff and No Budget
As a result, Costello answers his own phone and emails himself. He has no staff. Apparently he has no funds or budget. (He also said in a later email exchange that he wasn’t sure where the funds for his salary were coming from and didn’t answer how much he was being paid.) Yet he has been bravely handing out his card, offering his cell phone number and email to myriad people in a city drowning in outrage and misery over increasing and repeated flooding, lost homes, cars, property, savings, and lives.
Harris County One of the Most Flooded Places in the Country
Empty at Last. Almost.
Buffalo Bayou Reservoirs Finally Drain Last of Flood Waters
July 6, 2016
The last of the storm water from the April 18 Tax Day floods has passed finally through the gates of Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County. (Almost, not quite. See comment below.) The reservoirs behind those 1940s-era earthen dams on Buffalo Bayou are normally empty in order to be ready to impound rainfall and runoff that would flood central Houston downstream.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, was forced to release water through the dams at a high rate of flow – between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and more — for nearly three months in order to empty the record-high reservoirs, as frequent rains kept adding to the water level.
Base flow in Buffalo Bayou, as measured by the USGS gauge at Piney Point, is between 100 and 200 cfs. As of today the flow was still high – over 1,000 cfs.
The dams on Buffalo Bayou are classified “extremely high risk,” in large part due to the damage that would occur to the nation’s fourth most populous city if the dams were to fail. A $72 million construction project to repair seepage problems and build new conduits has been delayed due to the high water level in the reservoirs.
You can listen to what Richard Long, who manages the dams for the Corps, had to say about the situation this morning to Dave Fehling of Houston Public Matters. Long is the supervisory natural resources manager for the Corps’ Galveston District and has been working at the dams for 35 years.
And look for a report from us soon about the impact of the high waters on Buffalo Bayou. Richard Hyde, a geologist who lives in neighboring Bear Creek Village, reports that the herds of deer that roam the 25,000 acres of federally-owned wooded parkland in the reservoirs seem greatly reduced. And sadly, Buffy the Bison, rescued in April from the flooded small zoo in Bear Creek Park, died shortly thereafter.
Can An Urban Stream Restore Itself?
Yes, With Room to Move. Free Rivers Are Healthier and Better for Flood Control
June 15, 2016
Updated with August 2016, April 29 and July 11, 2017, photos of self-repaired Hogg Bluff
By Susan Chadwick, Executive Director, Save Buffalo Bayou
This article is adapted from a presentation made at the Southwest Stream Restoration Conference in San Antonio, Texas, on June 2, 2016.
Save Buffalo Bayou is a non-profit organization founded two years ago to fight a public project described as a “restoration” project on one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows through the middle of Houston, past 1,500-acre Memorial Park and another 15-acre public nature preserve, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. Since then our organization has expanded into broader, related issues. But today’s topic is restoration.
Here are some of the most common responses I would get when I would say that this mile-long plus stretch of the bayou is natural, along with what were some of the most common defenses of the project.
The river’s not natural because the river changes.
It’s not natural because it’s been altered by high runoff from urbanization.
Trees fall into it.
It has terrible erosion problems. Look at those steep high banks!
It’s terribly eroded. Look at those sandy banks!
It’s eroding terribly. Sediment from the banks in Memorial Park washes up on the sidewalks of Buffalo Bayou Park we built downstream in the floodway right next to the river.
All that sediment carries bacteria. If we stop the banks from eroding so much sediment, we will reduce the bacteria. (Although sediment-laden Buffalo Bayou is less polluted than White Oak Bayou, which runs relatively clear and extremely foul due to being encased in concrete.)
And of course the big one: the river needs to be stabilized because it moves around.
Then there’s the argument, both implied and explicit, that prompted me to select this topic for presentation today: an urban stream cannot restore itself.
A Profound Misconception About How Nature and Rivers Work
All of those statements, of course, indicate a profound misconception about nature, about how a river works and how rivers benefit us.
A river is a living symbol of change. A living system. A dynamic process of nature that works for our benefit. Even the simple grains of sand work on our behalf to cleanse the water.
Radio Talk about Natural Flood Control
Flooding on the Air
June 14, 2016
Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, and John Jacob, board chair of Galveston Baykeeper, wetlands expert, and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program at Texas A&M, were on the radio today talking about bayous, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and natural solutions to flooding. The popular weekly Tuesday program, Eco-Ology, hosted by Pat Greer and H.C. Clark, aired from 3 to 4 p.m. on KPFT 90.1.
Among other things, we talked about proposals from the city and from the county and others to buyout property owners and widen and enlarge our bayous, creeks, and streams to handle increasing rains. This prospect might be alarming to those of us who recognize the importance of trees and vegetation along our waterways — for erosion control, cleansing our water, removing pollutants, slowing runoff, providing wildlife habitat, and many other life-sustaining functions, not to mention social benefits like we need nature to be sane.
But what if they didn’t bulldoze our waterways and widen them artificially? What if they removed the built structures and created parks and allowed room for our rivers and streams to move and adjust on their own by letting them flood into their natural floodplain?
This is in fact the latest thinking in flood control worldwide. Room for the river to move. Even in the Netherlands they are tearing down their big gates and dikes, letting the water in while raising the land where people live and work. Even in Missouri.
A lot cheaper, more cost effective, and more beneficial overall.
A Giant Falls
June 14, 2016
We have been watching this magnificent cottonwood on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park. Beginning in 2012 the Harris County Flood Control District realigned the banks and removed a lot of trees and stabilizing vegetation from the banks of the bayou between Sabine and Shepherd streets for its “natural stable channel design” improvements in the park.
Those “channel conveyance” alterations left many of the few remaining large trees on the weakened banks in a vulnerable state. In the Fall of 2015 part of this grand old tree broke apart.
And now, finally, sadly, the great tree has fallen. Others will go eventually.
Big trees fall into the bayou all the time. It’s part of the natural process, and fallen trees collect sediment for bank building, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and slow storm waters. But trees, whose massive roots help hold the bank together, are not supposed to fall in the water because in the name of progress we dug up and destroyed the structure of the surrounding banks, breaking up the intricate root systems of the vegetation that had been there for a very long time.
Still, we have had unusually high rainfall and stream flow in our bayous. The banks in many places are now lush with new green growth and wildflowers. For nearly two months we have had record high flows in Buffalo Bayou as the Army Corps of Engineers attempts to empty the flood control reservoirs behind Barker and Addicks dams in western Harris County. We have reports of trees downed all along the bayou.
Watch this slideshow of the great cottonwood as it maintained its lonely vigil until the end.
From The Sky Above: Barker Dam and Reservoir
June 7, 2016
Houston photographer Jim Olive took this photo of Barker Dam and Reservoir in west Houston on Sunday, June 5, at around 11:30 a.m.
The dam gates had just been opened, and water from recent rains was pouring from the reservoir’s temporary lake into Buffalo Bayou, which flows through Barker Reservoir through the center of Houston and into Galveston Bay. Water impounded from several creeks behind nearby Addicks Dam also flows into Buffalo Bayou below Barker Dam. The dams were built in the 1940s to protect downtown Houston from catastrophic flooding.
Record rains that fell on west Houston and elsewhere on April 18 filled the two flood control reservoirs with unprecedented amounts of water. Rains since then have slowed releases from the normally empty basins, which contain large, forested parks and recreational facilities. The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, closes the dam gates during a rain, and rain adds more water to the reservoirs, which must be emptied as quickly as possible in order to create room to hold back future stormwater. Maximum capacity, the volume beyond which water will begin to spill around the ends of the dams, is 199,643 acre-feet for Addicks and 209,600 acre-feet for Barker. Addicks Reservoir is just to the north of Barker on the northern side of Interstate 10.
The combined peak pool behind the two reservoirs was more than 206,000 acre-feet around April 22, with Addicks reaching some 122,000 acre-feet or a little more than two-thirds of maximum capacity. Despite record high extended releases from the dams for the last seven weeks, the two reservoirs have been drained by less than half, standing at a combined volume of 114,210 acre-feet on Tuesday early afternoon.
Dammed If They Do, Dammed If They Don’t
The Conundrum of the Buffalo Bayou Dams
Why so much water for so long in Buffalo Bayou?
May 26, 2016
The water in the normally empty reservoir had dropped only a few feet by the time we stood on the earthen dam looking down at the dark, opaque blue-gray surface. After almost a month, the rippling water below was still some twenty-three feet deep, and extended as far as we could see along the thirteen-mile long dam and far into the thousands of acres of flooded woods.
It had taken only a little more than twenty-four hours for the rains that began on April 18 to fill the vast flood control reservoirs in west Houston with a record amount of water: a total of more than 206,000 acre feet, a massive amount of water. Imagine 206,000 acres covered in a foot of water. Enough to cover more than eight times the acreage of both reservoirs to a depth of one foot. That much water would take an estimated four weeks to drain, according to reports at the time.
But that was only if there was no more rain. There was more rain, and it was taking much longer. The reservoirs, vast wooded parks with recreational facilities and nature paths, are still draining. As of May 24, the combined total of the two reservoirs was still about 90,000 acre-feet, down to a little less than half.
And Buffalo Bayou was still flowing high and fast, higher and faster for longer than ever before. Property owners upstream had flooded and property owners downstream who had hoped for more moderate flows were instead seeing long-standing trees falling into the fast-flowing stream, banks eroding, sediment collecting, debris causing water to back up onto their property.
Why was this happening and is there a way out of it?
Paving, Flooding, and Loss of Wetlands: Making It Easier to Build More Roads
Public Comment Needed by May 7
May 3, 2016
The Texas Department of Transportation wants to make it easier to build roads over our vital prairie wetlands by creating a one-size fits-all statewide stormwater discharge permit. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is considering the 53-page proposal, known as Permit No. WQ0005011000.
The new permit is opposed by wetlands activists such as Galveston Baykeeper, which would like to see the state Department of Transportation do a better job of protecting wetlands and enforcing federal law.
Highways and paved surfaces are a major source of flooding as they rapidly collect and funnel rainwater that can no longer soak into the ground. Wetlands detain, absorb, and cleanse stormwater, which is why they are protected under the federal Clean Water Act – if they have a connection to a federally protected waterway.
Coastal Prairie Different from Edwards Aquifer
Environmental attorney and Galveston Baykeeper board member Jen Powis says the organization has been watching the state transportation department move toward “one big statewide permit” for about two years. Until now permits were issued based on the specific conditions of each community, Powis told writer Janice Van Dyke Walden in the May/June 2016 issue of Gulf Coast Mariner magazine.
“I’m a strong proponent of local solutions for specific places,” says Powis. “We all know that Houston looks very different from the Edwards Aquifer.”
You can read the proposed Permit No. WQ0005011000 here. And here is how to make a comment about it to the TCEQ. Comments are due by May 7.
Proposed Roads to Damage Katy Prairie Preserve
Urgent Notice of Public Meeting and Comment Deadline
May 1, 2016
Updated May 3, 2016
The Katy Prairie Conservancy has announced that the Harris County Engineering Department has corrected the email link for commenting on proposed changes to the Harris County Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan that will damage the Katy Prairie.
The correct email address is:
Update May 8, 2016
The comment period has been extended until May 13.
The Katy Prairie Conservancy has sent out an urgent notice of a Harris County plan to build new roads in and around the Katy Prairie Preserve. The preserve is a nonprofit land trust project to restore and protect historic wetland prairie in Waller and western Harris counties.
Buffalo Bayou originates in the Katy Prairie. Prairie wetlands, rapidly being destroyed and paved over by development, are vital for clean water and flooding mitigation, as are forested riparian zones along the banks of streams such as Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries.
When, Where, and How
The Harris County Engineering Department is holding a public meeting Monday, May 2, 2016, on proposed changes to the Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan (see particularly pages 25 through 29) that will “degrade the Katy Prairie Preserve System,” according to the conservancy.
The meeting takes place from 5:30 to7:00 pm at the Hockley Community Center, 28515 Old Washington Road, in Hockley, Texas.
The conservancy urges that if you cannot attend the meeting, please submit your comments in writing by May 13, 2016, via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to:
Harris County Engineering Department
10555 Northwest Freeway, Suite 120
Houston, Texas 77092
Attn: Fred Mathis, P.E.
The conservancy says that while Harris County is proposing to dispense with parts of the one-mile road grid through some of the preserves, the county also recommends constructing new roads in sensitive and/or inappropriate areas.
Here are some of the conservancy’s main objections:
- In general, the plan does not effectively take into consideration the importance of the Katy Prairie preserves in reducing flooding, improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, and offering recreational opportunities for the residents of the Greater Houston area. Roads should go around the Katy Prairie preserves and not through them. Roads can move, nature cannot.
- KPC does not support the new proposed east-west road through the upper third of the Warren Ranch; it will cause fragmentation and impair ranch operations.
- KPC does not support the new proposed north-south road through the conservation easement lands owned by KPC’s conservation easement donors; this land provides sensitive habitat and flood protection as well as other environmental benefits. It should be protected.
- A number of the proposed new roads, if built, would be under water during flood events if the most recent flood event is any indication of where floodwaters go on the prairie.
For more information visit http://www.katyprairie.org/
Informative Articles in Response to Tax Day Flooding
A Roundup of Opinion on What Happened and Why
April 25, 2016
Houston neighborhoods shouldn’t be detention ponds
Commercial developers are dumping their runoff into our homes
By Bruce Nichols for the Houston Chronicle
April 19, 2016
Houston has a lot of great characteristics. It is open to new people, new ideas. It encourages entrepreneurs. Its energy-based economy is strong, despite the slowdown. But one big flaw is our failure to organize local government to protect homeowner investments, a big share of life savings for most of us.
The latest example of what this flaw leads to: Hundreds of homes flooded April 18. It was not a one-off event, a freak of Nature, as we have been assured. It will happen again, to more people, as more and more land is paved over without developers’ controlling their excess runoff.
Don’t blame Mother Nature for flooding. Blame City Council.
The disasters are predictable. Why aren’t we preventing them?
By Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne, Residents Against Flooding, for the Houston Chronicle
April 19, 2016
Man-made, preventable flooding has surged dirty, sewage-ridden water through Houston living rooms three times now in seven years, yet city government fails to prevent these recurring emergencies.
Really? If losing homes, livelihoods, retirement savings, health and sanity (and at least one life) aren’t reasons enough to make emergency detention and drainage improvements, what in the world does it take?
Right now, too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes. This new development is responsible for unnecessary flooding of neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood plains, weren’t prone to flooding. That new development is also responsible for flood insurance rising 100 to 200 percent (before the Tax Day flood) in these non-flood plains.
City government is allowing this to happen. Developers use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do. Is it ethical to allow a new office building to flood an entire neighborhood even if a loophole makes it legal?
Disaster by design: Houston can’t keep developing this way
We can’t stop growing. But to avoid flooding, we’ve got to be smarter about it.
By John S. Jacob for the Houston Chronicle
April 20, 2016
Let’s review the facts before this teachable moment fades away.
We live on a very flat coastal plain — much of it only a four-foot drop over a mile. And much of it with very clayey, slow-to-drain soils. We also live in the region of highest-intensity rainfall in the continental U.S. So it is going to flood. Mother Nature will continue to deliver floods no matter what we do. Don’t count her out.
Flooding does not occur uniformly across the region. There are floodplains, and areas near the floodplains. There are low areas and there are higher areas. We need to know where these are. Obviously! — and yet we don’t seem to know.
But humans have screwed things up royally.
Wrecked wetlands lead to flooding. Here’s what you can do.
By Jennifer Lorenz for the Houston Chronicle
April 20, 2016
For the past twenty years, we at Bayou Land Conservancy have watched, horrified, as the Houston region’s wetlands are scraped and filled in — directly resulting in increased flooding.
When wetlands are allowed to function, they’re the kidneys of the area’s watershed. Their special soil types are surrounded by particular wetland plants that help hold water in shallow depressions. They clean the water as they allow some of it to filter slowly into the ground, the rest to drain slowly into our bayous. That process is the foundation of our region’s ecology.
The rampant destruction of our forested and prairie wetlands is upsetting this balance, drastically reducing the land’s ability to absorb water. By allowing so many wetlands to be turned into subdivisions, we’re not just kicking them to the curb; we’re turning them into curbs. We need the ecological equivalent of dialysis.
How policy fills Houston living rooms with water
We know how to lessen flood damage. But will we take the steps?
By David Crossley for the Houston Chronicle
April 21, 2016
The flooding of April 18, 2016, was a profound experience for many reasons. The electrifying videos from drones, so quickly and easily available on Facebook, and hours of television enterprise brought us the clearest picture we’ve ever had of the immensity and the tragedy of flooding in Houston, and another reminder that all neighborhoods are not equal.
It was a spooky and historic picture; that was the most one-day rain in Houston’s history.
Extreme rain events like this are going to be more common as we slide further into climate change. Are we doing things to ease the slide or are we making it worse?
Greenspoint, poverty and flooding
Would low-income families be better or worse off if flood-prone apartments were razed?
By Susan Rogers for the Houston Chronicle
April 22, 2016
Floods, like any natural disaster, are great levelers. All of those affected suffer equally. It is in the wake of a great loss that the disparity emerges. For some, it can be easy to find the resources to rent a new apartment, to move, to turn on your utilities — or at least not extremely hard. For others, those financial challenges are overwhelming.
That division shows sharply in Greenspoint, where some of this week’s worst flooding occurred.
The mall, office towers, multi-family apartment complexes, and strip retail development are disconnected and isolated from each other both physically and demographically. Fundamentally there are two communities: one community that caters to the area’s office workers, and one community for those who call the area home. The stores and restaurants that line Greens Road and Greenspoint Drive, which cater to office workers, are closed during the evenings and on weekends, when the area’s residents would be more likely to shop.