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

Read the rest of this post.

Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain.

Over one-third of houses reporting flooding on Memorial Day 2015 were outside any known flood hazard area. Red dots are Memorial Day house counts. Blue areas are floodways and floodplains. Orange is coastal floodplain. Image from the Harris County Flood Control District report to the Spring 2016 conference of the Texas Association of Floodplain Managers.

Support Your Forest on Buffalo Bayou

Annual District G Meeting with City Officials Thursday, March 3

March 2, 2016

Citizens concerned about our forests on Buffalo Bayou will want to attend the annual District G Capital Improvement Plan meeting tomorrow evening, March 3, 2016. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Stratford High School Auditorium, 14555 Fern Drive, and features the district’s new city council member, Greg Travis, who was elected to City Council District G last November.

Capital Improvement Plan meetings “afford citizens an opportunity to learn, voice their concerns and address their respective City Council Members and City of Houston officials regarding project planning and delivery,” according to a statement on Travis’ website.

District G extends along Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Barker Reservoir in far west Houston.

Members of Save Our Forest, which was successful last year in persuading the City of Houston to drop its plan to raze forest in Terry Hershey Park for a stormwater detention basin, are urging citizens to “show your support for the forest to our new City of Houston administration.”

“We now have a new city council representative, a new mayor and a new [Public Works and Engineering] director since we began our campaign to Save Our Forest,” wrote community activist George Crosby in an email. “It is important that they know how much you care about Buffalo Bayou.

The banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in West Houston. Straightened and channelized by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to speed storm waters, the bayou has since restored itself but remains threatened by public projects to slow storm waters.

The banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in West Houston. Straightened and channelized by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to speed storm waters, the bayou has since restored itself but remains threatened by public projects to build detention basins.

Detention Alternatives Without Destroying Forests

“Last year there were two major rainfall events which caused structural flooding in Houston.  Regional detention alternatives that can reduce local flooding without having to destroy the forested areas of Buffalo Bayou are not happening. Cooperation between the City, County and Federal governments is required for a successful regional detention initiative.

“A cooperative inter-governmental effort begins with the City of Houston understanding our support for this approach.  Please help us give emphasis to Save Our Forest,“ wrote Crosby.

The public forests of Buffalo Bayou are still threatened by a Harris County Flood Control District plan to build some 24 detention basins on both banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park.

The flood control district is also waiting for a federal permit to raze the forest along more than 1.25 miles of one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.

It makes no scientific sense to destroy forests to create detention basins. Forests provide valuable natural detention by slowing, absorbing, and deflecting rainwater, in addition to many other valuable ecological services, including cleansing and filtering the water and protecting against erosion.

In October of 2015, the Obama administration issued an executive order directing all federal agencies to incorporate the value of ecosystem services in their decision-making.

In addition, the Harris County Flood Control District is obligated by state law to conserve forests. (PDF. See page 6.)




What Do The Candidates Think?

We Asked Them

Yellow-crowned Night Heron by Frank X. Tolbert 2.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron by Frank X. Tolbert 2.

Election is Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015

Dec. 10, 2015

What do the candidates think about spending $4 million in public funds to destroy and “restore” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston?

What do the candidates think now in light of the failing banks of Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, a signature $53.5 million project long touted by the Harris County Flood Control District and that park’s landscape designer SWA Group as a model for what should be done upstream in Memorial Park?

We asked them. And if they did not respond to our email, we called them today (Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015) to make sure that they received the email and asked again for a response.

The runoff election is Saturday, Dec. 12. Here are the responses we received. Maybe their answers or non-answers will help you decide how to vote.

Read the rest of this post.

Update on Our Campaign to Save the Last Natural Stretch of Buffalo Bayou in Houston

Oct. 5, 2014

Where are we now and what should you do?

The Harris County Flood Control District has applied for a permit to bulldoze most of the riparian forest and vegetation along both banks of more a mile of the last remaining stretch of natural Buffalo Bayou in the city. This is our bayou as it passes by Memorial Park. Also targeted are the tributary and high bluffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, as well as other ancient cliffs and prehistoric sandstone used in the past as water crossings by buffalo and people. The project would excavate, fill, grade, and artificially rebuild the banks; dredge, deepen, and reroute the bayou channel, damming tributaries. Hundreds of trees will be cut down, many of them riparian species too small or too young to be counted by the district’s inappropriate tree survey. The shading tree canopy will be removed (project proponents claim there is no tree canopy!); the water temperature increased. The soil, packed with protective, binding roots small and large, will be dug up, tossed around, and compacted by heavy equipment. Wetlands and lovely sandy beaches will be obliterated along with the colonizing and stabilizing plants that have taken root there, a crucial stage of the natural process of building the riparian buffer so important to water quality, flood and erosion control.

All of this and more violates best management practices for riparian zones. It will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. And this is a project developed and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association, supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy.

Timelines Are Difficult to Predict — Updated Oct. 30, 2014

The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to the public comments sent to the Army Corps of Engineers during the public comment period, which ended June 30. The district has posted its responses on its website, and you can read them here. (Caution: big pdf.)

Read the rest.

The River Oaks Country Club has killed the grass on its golf course, along with vegetation on the high banks, in preparation for redoing the golf course. Photo on Sept. 20, 2014, by Jim Olive.

The River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south bank of the bayou project, has killed the grass on its golf course, along with some vegetation on the high banks, in preparation for redoing the golf course. Photo on Sept. 20, 2014, by Jim Olive.

BPA Claims Not True. Project Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong: Director of Cockrell Butterfly Center

Belted Kingfisher. ©Houston Audubon Society.

Belted Kingfisher. ©Houston Audubon Society.

June 25, 2014

On Sunday (June 22) I canoed down Buffalo Bayou with a friend, from Voss to the junction with White Oak Bayou. Seeing this transect of the bayou (which included the section slated for “restoration”) has convinced me that this project is wrong, wrong, wrong on a number of levels: aesthetically, environmentally, and financially. I have heard from proponents of the plan that the erosion in this area is “significant” and that the vegetation is “largely invasive species.” Neither of these claims are true, as far as I could see. Yes, there are areas where some erosion is taking place – but this is natural on a waterway. Property owners all along the bayou have used a variety of different means (immensely less drastic and costly than what is proposed) to shore up their banks and reduce or eliminate erosion. Certainly there were a few non-native species along the banks, but the prevailing vegetation was native vines, sycamores, box elders, and other trees and shrubs native to the area. The cliffs, which would be eliminated in the proposed reconfiguration, are important habitat for nesting kingfishers (which we saw only in this stretch of the bayou). Furthermore, the stretch that borders Memorial Park is the only part of the bayou where natural habitat (and all the animals it contains) borders the watercourse.

It was an awful shock to come out to the areas that have already been modified and “improved” = where no trees overhang the bayou, where graded, grassy slopes come down to the water’s edge, and where there is no semblance of “natural” anywhere. In these areas (from Montrose and farther east) it was hot, exposed, and little wildlife was evident. These “improved” areas were stark and ugly – a human-manipulated landscape with no shade and no wildlife.

I can only imagine the expense of carrying out the proposed “improvements” – and at what environmental cost? Seems to me the River Oaks Country Club could use some of the methods already put in place by homeowners along the bayou’s banks to shore up the areas of concern – leaving the rest alone. Taxpayers should not have to pay for this drastic plan that would have catastrophic and permanent effects on the aesthetics and environmental integrity of Buffalo Bayou along this stretch.

I thoroughly oppose the proposal and hope that you, Mayor Parker and city council members, will stand up to those trying to sell this as an improvement. It is not. Please say no to this proposed “restoration” of Buffalo Bayou.


Nancy Greig, PhD
Director Cockrell Butterfly Center

[Editor’s Note: the BPA is the Bayou Preservation Association, which is promoting this project to destroy the natural beauty of this healthy, functioning stretch of Buffalo Bayou in and around our public Memorial Park.]