Let’s utilize nature to reduce the flood risk


By Mary Anne Piacentini, The Houston Chronicle

June 20, 2019

Having lived through devastating floods over the last four years, Houstonians have rallied to rebuild and recover. That includes looking for new ways to reduce flood risk.

One of the most promising involves using nature to fight flooding. Those measures include creating more parks and open spaces; making ample room for water in our bayous; conserving natural areas; restoring grasslands and forests; and smaller-scale projects such as permeable parking lots, green roofs and new lawn grasses with longer, water-absorbing roots.

No, nature-based solutions alone will not eliminate flooding. But combined with more traditional engineering projects — levees, constructed detention ponds and drainage-improvement structures — they can do a great deal to manage and diffuse the effects of flooding while also providing major side benefits: scenic and recreational amenities, improved water quality, boosts to tourism and locally grown food from community farms.

Not to mention that nature-based solutions also are highly cost-efficient, often several times more so than traditional flood-control public works. A National Wildlife Federation study indicated that every $1 spent in preventive measures saves $4 in disaster recovery costs. The study also noted that protecting open space and existing natural habitats are among the most cost-effective ways to reduce risks to communities.

Read the rest of this editorial in The Houston Chronicle.

Mary Anne Piacentini is the president and chief executive officer of the Katy Prairie Conservancy.

The Katy Prairie west of Houston. Photograph by Steve Gonzales for The Houston Chronicle

Summertime on That Bend in the Bayou

And the Living is Uneasy


July 21, 2019

Well, Jim was back in town, so we hiked out to that high bank in Memorial Park to take our summer shot for the series, A Bend in the River, documenting the same location on Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons since 2014.

We went with some trepidation. Jim hadn’t seen the ongoing destruction of the south bank by the River Oaks Country Club.

It was unusually hot, even in the woods. The temperature was about six degrees above average for July. We’re also behind on rain. Flow in the bayou was way down and continues to be very low. On that Monday when we were there, it was about 100 cubic feet per second. Median or base flow is about 150 cfs this time of year.

Drowning Out the Sounds of Nature

Usually the woods are filled with bird song, the calls of courting frogs, the rattling of cicadas and the splash of turtles sliding off into the water. But mostly what we heard when we arrived at our usual overlook was the growling of heavy machinery and the banging of concrete riprap into the opposite bank. From there we could see upstream to Area 1 of the club’s three-part “slope repair” project as well as downstream to Area 2 in the distance.

Here’s a short video of the activity upstream and across the way.

And here is Jim’s wide shot showing Areas 1 upstream and 2 downstream with the pile of dirt in between.

Looking across from that high bank in Memorial Park towards the River Oaks Country Club. Downstream in the distance is Area 2 of the club’s massive, three-part bank destruction project. Upstream to the right is Area 1. The pile of dirt in the center was excavated from the bank. Photo by Jim, July 8, 2019


The good news is that the bank we were standing on in Memorial Park continues to rebuild and revegetate, despite the removal of so much large woody debris by maintenance contractors working for Harris County Flood Control. A certain amount of woody debris against the bank helps protect and restore the bank, helps collect sediment from the stream, and provides habitat.

But the hardening of the opposite bank is going to deflect more erosive force onto our natural banks. In fact, this has already been happening with the concrete riprap and other debris that the club, as well as other property owners upstream, have been dumping onto the bank.

We have filed complaints with the Corps of Engineers about the irregularities in the permit the Corps issued for this thoughtlessly damaging and largely unnecessary project. We are also hoping to persuade the City of Houston to stop issuing construction permits for these kinds of projects, since everybody, including the City, the Corps, and Harris County Flood Control, knows that they fail, increase flooding and erosion, and damage nearby property, including our beautiful public park.

Stay tuned.

Jim’s Summer 2019 photograph of that Bend in the River:


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.

Let Rivers Flood: Communities Adopt New Strategies for Resilience

Making Room for the River

By Tara Lohan, The Revelator

July 8, 2019


In February 2017, when managers released water out of Lake Oroville [in California] to prevent the dam from failing, it went raging down the Feather River, a tributary of the Sacramento River. Another disaster could have occurred downstream where the Feather River’s channel narrows and the levee has failed before.

But the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority completed a project in 2010 to set the levee back along six miles of this dangerous stretch of river, which gave more room for high flows to pass through without the risk of levee damage or failure, while also creating 1,500 more acres of riparian habitat.

Previous flood plans have been mostly about building infrastructure — levees, dams and flood walls, says [John Cain, director of conservation for California flood management at the nonprofit American Rivers]. This new plan still allows for strengthening levees in some places, such as around the cities of Sacramento and Stockton, but there’s also more focus on restoring floodplains and setting levees further back from the river.

That’s not always as easy as it sounds when much of the area you want to allow to flood already contains housing developments, shopping malls or prime agricultural land.

“Private landowners can be reluctant, so coming up with some incentive package is a hurdle,” says Cain. “You’ve got to find the funding and the political will to do that. That’s a very big challenge.”

Read the rest of this article in The Revelator.


As Flood Risks Rise Across the US, It’s Time to Recognize the Limits of Levees


By Amahia Mallea, Associate Professor of History, Drake University

Posted on Naked Capitalism

Originally published at The Conversation

New Orleans averted disaster this month when tropical storm Barry delivered less rain in the Crescent City than forecasters originally feared. But Barry’s slog through Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri is just the latest event in a year that has tested levees across the central U.S.

Many U.S. cities rely on levees for protection from floods. There are more than 100,000 miles of levees nationwide, in all 50 states and one of every five counties. Most of them seriously need repair: Levees received a D on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2018 national infrastructure report card.

Levees shield farms and towns from flooding, but they also create risk. When rivers rise, they can’t naturally spread out in the floodplain as they did in the pre-flood control era. Instead, they flow harder and faster and send more water downstream.

Read the rest of this post on Naked Capitalism.


Levees exist in one out of every five U.S. counties. USACE

All Fall Down

City of Houston Must Stop Issuing Permits for Bank Projects that Damage Public and Private Property and the Environment


July 11, 2019

What would we think if government officials issued a permit to build a bridge or a house that they knew would fall down?

What if officials knew the house would fall down on top of someone else’s house, but they issued the permit anyway?

And what if they knew that building the house would destabilize the rest of the houses up and down and across the street, but they closed their eyes and plugged their ears and said, “That’s not really our responsibility. Go ahead.”


A view of Area 2 on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou below the River Oaks Country Club golf course. There were trees and vegetation there once. Taken from the opposite bank in Memorial Park on July 2, 2019


Recently a group of homeowners gathered on Buffalo Bayou watching anxiously as a heavy equipment operator across the way pounded massive panels of sheet piling into the opposite bank. Their well-founded concern was that the hardening of the bank with metal and concrete was going to direct the bayou flow onto their property, flooding, eroding, and destabilizing their homes.

It is a scene often repeated on the bayou. A lawyer with the group commented that he regularly gets calls from worried property owners asking what they can do about the alarming “erosion control” project their neighbor is building across the way or next door.


Stop Issuing Permits for Hardening Banks

Here’s what should be done: The City of Houston needs to stop issuing building permits for these kinds of bank-hardening projects. Not only do they frequently fail, make bank problems worse, increase flooding and damage neighboring property; they also destroy the river’s beneficial functions, its ability to adjust, slow, absorb, and cleanse stormwater, collect sediment and reduce bacteria, and provide habitat for a diversity of creatures large and small necessary for the health of our environment, including trees and plants.

When one permit is issued, it forces other property owners to rush to an engineer willing to design a costly “erosion control” project for their bank too. Eventually our beautiful living bayou will be treeless and lifeless, entirely imprisoned between long ugly walls, filled with concrete debris, bouncing floodwater back and forth across the channel.


They Know These Projects Fail and Cause Damage

The City knows this. So do the Harris County Flood Control District and the Corps of Engineers, which also granted a federal permit for this project, although largely out of inaction, failing to respond within the required time limit.

Recognition that these bank hardening projects fail and cause damage was theoretically the basis for the controversial and misguided Memorial Park Demonstration Project, for which city and county taxpayers were asked to spend some $4 million. The project, first proposed around 2010 and dropped after Harvey, was based on a faulty analysis of the kind of bank problems we have on Buffalo Bayou. (Our banks mainly collapse vertically, by sliding down. And then gradually restore themselves, if left undisturbed.)

While the idea that neighbors should collaborate was a good one, their solution was not. The absurd plan was to demonstrate better “erosion control” by razing the trees and vegetation, digging up the banks, dredging and rerouting a long stretch of the bayou flowing past Memorial Park in the center of Houston, a historic nature area.

The project likely would have failed, washing out in a flood like Harvey, leaving behind a wasteland, as similar projects elsewhere have done.

Read the rest of this post.

Resilient Development

In Houston, Development Must Think outside the Floodplains, Advocates Say

By Emma Whalen, Community Impact

Part of a series

July 4, 2019

As new development regulations in Houston attempt to offset the effects of more frequent heavy storms, some advocates and researchers say targeting the area’s urban sprawl will do more to reduce those at risk than limiting the amount of development in the city’s core.


Researchers, including Shelton, said approaching development regulations from a watershed level rather than a jurisdictional level would make it easier to manage stormwater runoff across Houston and its suburbs and would reduce the strain downstream on bayous and tributaries. This approach also calls for more dense development on existing property rather than converting open land into new subdivisions.

“We need to be redeveloping decrepit commercial districts [outside of flood plains] that would be suitable for multi-use residential and commercial,” said Susan Chadwick, director of nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou. “Look at all those strip malls all the way up North Shepherd.”

Moving water through the city more effectively relies on less development upstream as well as more green space surrounding the bayous’ flood plains. This could be aided by the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative, which focuses on adding parks and trails along the city’s bayous.

“We’re not against development,” Chadwick said. “It should just be intelligent development.”

Read the rest of this article in the Community Impact newspaper.

Tonic of the Wilderness

There Is a Word for the Trauma Caused by Distance from Nature


More Evidence of the Need for Nature in the City

By Ephrat Livni, Quartz

February 24, 2019

You’ve got problems. Perhaps more than you know. Apart from all the usual woes—work, relationships, money, time—the civilized life may also be causing you psychological trauma.

Disconnection from nature can be bad for our mental health. But there was no name for this particular malaise until Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht coined the term psychoterratic, creating the beginning of a vocabulary to discuss the relationship between mental health and environment.

Since then, he’s thought up a whole lexicon. In May, Albrecht’s book, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, will be published by Cornell University Press. It includes gems like the word ecoagnosy, a term created to describe environmental ignorance or indifference to the ecology. Then there’s solastalgia, the psychic pain of climate change and missing a home that’s transforming before your eyes.

The Healing Power of Nature

Read the rest of this article in Quartz.

Image courtesy of Quartz