Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Pollen, Leaves, Elbows, Violets, and That Bend in Buffalo Bayou


March 28, 2020

Spring came unusually early this year, in case you were too preoccupied with other news to notice. Which brings up the question: how is spring determined?

There’s astronomical spring. And meteorological spring. And actual spring.

And a pandemic. But that’s a different topic. (Keep your fingers out of your face!)

One way we know that actual spring is here in Houston: the mounds of oak pollen and leaves on the ground accompanied by the obnoxious sound and smell of leaf-blowers blowing the pollen and leaves (and dirt) around. (Been very windy too.)


Live Oak leaves and pollen. Spring 2020. Photo SC


Tree pollen, mostly live oak, is generally highest in March in Houston. And yes, we have had record amounts of oak pollen, which comes from the long dangling male flower of the tree spreading its seed and causing lots of alarming coughing, sneezing, and brain fog. Though it seems that based on a perusal of City of Houston Health Department records, which go back online only to 2013, tree and oak pollen in March 2019 was way worse.

The male live oak flower pollinates the much smaller female flower, but it’s the female flower that turns into acorns. (Yes, we’re talking about tree sex.)

By the way, native live oaks support 425 different species of creatures compared to our beloved but basically useless non-native crepe myrtles, which support only FOUR (4), according to Kelli Ondracek, manager of Natural Resources for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, who spoke about the City’s riparian restoration projects at a recent Houston Sierra Club meeting.


Not to Panic

Watching leaves fall in the spring (and pollen raining down) may be confusing to people who aren’t familiar with live oaks.  As if we don’t have enough to panic about. (Use your elbows!) But live oaks naturally lose their leaves in the spring when new, green leaves push out the old ones. (Hmm, sounds like some politician’s COVID-19 plan.)

Which brings us to meteorological spring, which meteorologists established some time ago based on temperature patterns. Meteorological spring began on March 1 in the Northern Hemisphere and runs through the end of May. Since we’ve been having record warm weather, with an abnormally warm spring predicted, they may have to change that date. Maybe eliminate winter altogether. Just go right to summer.

Astronomical spring came early too, the earliest in 124 years. This arrival of spring is determined by the vernal equinox, which happens when the sun is directly over the earth’s equator, creating a day that is the same length as the night. Astronomical spring arrived Thursday, March 19, at 10:50 p.m. CST.


Spring on the Bayou

So it was spring and time for the Spring 2020 photograph in our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons.

Except that due to the new and different coronavirus COVID-19, our world-renowned photographer, Jim Olive, was on general lockdown with his beloved in the state of California. So we set out to the woods on our own.

“Remember to turn your iPhone horizontal,” Jim texted helpfully from Palm Springs.

Read the rest of this post.

How the Coronavirus is Like a Flood

Flattening the Curve, Slowing the Flow


March 19, 2020

By now most of us have heard of “flattening the curve.” This is the effort to reduce the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases that happen all at once, exceeding the capacity of our healthcare system.

Interestingly, the graph of flattening the curve of peak cases is very similar to the graph of flattening the curve of peak flow in a flooding stream.

Slow the Flow

The goal in both cases is to slow the flow. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s to slow, reduce, and spread out the number of cases in order to save lives and not overwhelm or flood our healthcare system, specifically the number of hospital beds available to take care of people (as well as the number of masks, ventilators, tests, nurses, doctors, and other necessary equipment).

In the case of a stream during a storm, the goal is to increase the length of time it takes for rainfall to hit the ground and enter a waterway. The longer it takes, the lower the peak water level in the stream, making it less likely that the stream will flood. Slow it down, spread it out, soak it in.

Here is a graph showing the impact of flattening the curve of coronavirus cases on our ability to care for them:

Flattening the curve of coronavirus cases so that the number of cases doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system. Graphic from The NY Times, adapted from the Centers for Disease Control.


And here is a graph of what’s called “lag time” showing how slowing (and reducing) rain runoff with, say, plants and trees, lengthens the time it takes for the stormwater to enter the stream and lowers the peak flow:


A graph of the impact of slowing the flow of stormwater runoff on the peak water level of a stream. Courtesy of Slow the Flow.


Do We Have the Hospital Capacity? It Seems We Don’t

Could our Houston area hospitals be overwhelmed by a flood of cases? Yes, they could, according to a recent report by ProPublica. Which is why public officials here and elsewhere have taken such extreme steps to “slow down” our social circulation by shutting down schools and the rodeo, closing restaurants and bars; why conferences and parties are being cancelled, etc.

ProPublica analyzed the impact of cases on local hospitals under different scenarios: more cases faster, fewer cases over a longer period of time, and so on. “It is estimated that about 8% of the adult population would require hospital care,” according to the report. “In a moderate scenario where 40% of the population is infected over a 12-month period, hospitals in Houston, TX would receive an estimated 430,000 coronavirus patients. The influx of patients would require 14,300 beds over 12 months, which is 2.8 times the available beds in that time period. The Harvard researchers’ scenarios assume that each coronavirus patient will require 12 days of hospital care on average, based on data from China.

“In the Houston, TX region, intensive care units would be especially overwhelmed and require additional capacity. Without coronavirus patients, there are only 650 available beds on average in intensive care units, which is 4.6 times less than what is needed to care for all severe cases.”

Slowing Down, Spreading Out, Letting It All Sink In

So think of social distancing as spreading out the flow, slowing it down as it trickles through tall grasses and pebbles, soaking into gardens, swales, and green spaces filled with trees so that it doesn’t overwhelm our system.

Instead of rushing to gather in one place as many people as possible, we pause, stand apart, wait, get out in the sun if we can, and reflect on what more we can do to help.


Flood Control Citizens Advisory Group At Turning Point

Little-Known Task Force “Doesn’t Do Anything”

Future is Cloudy


March 10, 2020

(Updated March 11, 2020, with recent findings from Rice University on the superiority of Buffalo Bayou during floods due to its relatively natural form and condition.)

The purpose of the Harris County Flood Control Task Force, founded almost fifty years ago, was to “advise commissioners’ court on how the county flood control district was doing their job—from the citizens’ point of view,” recalls Frank Smith, an original member of the group and founding board president of Save Buffalo Bayou.

That seems like a good idea. People all over Harris County and beyond have been struggling with increasing, devastating flooding. How do we assess whether the agency responsible for protecting us is doing a good job?

But now the future of the citizens’ Flood Control Task Force is cloudy. And in fact, it appears that the task force hasn’t fulfilled its mission in some time. The task force is not listed as a task force or board on the website of Harris County Commissioners Court.

No one we spoke to could recall the task force ever advising commissioners’ court on how well the Harris County Flood Control District was doing its job.

The role and mission of the task force is currently under review, said Gabe Baker, Community Engagement Specialist for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who asked for the review.

However, it seems that the task force has been under review since at least 2017, when the task force itself formed a working group to “improve communication with the public about Task Force goals and objectives, increase membership recruiting to fill current vacancies, and develop strategies to improve Task Force operations,” according to minutes of the July 24, 2017, meeting.

One of the ideas discussed, according to the minutes, was “an annual briefing for Harris County Commissioners on the Task Force and its activities.”

“They don’t do anything,” said one longtime member.


History of a Good Question

The task force was created in 1973 by Harris County Commissioners Court in the wake of a long and successful battle to prevent the Flood Control District and the Corps of Engineers from stripping and straightening Buffalo Bayou and lining it with concrete as they had done to White Oak and Brays bayous and numerous other once-forested meandering streams. Many of those smaller channelized streams haven’t been lined with concrete, though they were usually lined with concrete riprap or even buried in concrete pipes.

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Harris County Flood Control work in June 2018 on South Mayde Creek, once a winding wooded stream, which flows into Addicks Reservoir in west Houston. Photo by Diane Masterson