Ask the County Runoff Candidates: Environmental Forum June 24

Democratic Runoff for Harris County Precinct 3 Takes Place July 14

June 20, 2020

Harris County Precinct 3 is of particular interest to residents concerned about flooding and how we deal with it. On Wednesday, June 24, voters will have an opportunity to participate in an online forum with the two candidates running to be the Democrat who will face the Republican in November for the position of Precinct 3 commissioner.

Precinct 3 includes Buffalo Bayou west of Loop 610 and many tributaries, as well as other major streams like Cypress and Little Cypress creeks, part of Spring Creek and Brays Bayou, the federal flood-control reservoirs, Addicks and Barker; and much of the Katy Prairie. It also includes parts of Memorial, Spring Branch, Bellaire, West University, and more.

The west-northwest area of the county, once farm and ranch land, has been under heavy development pressure for many years, with resulting controversies over requirements for stormwater detention and preservation of the native prairie.

Nature-based approaches to reducing flood risk—prairie grasses and wetlands, trees, parks, ponds, and gardens—slow rain runoff and absorb stormwater before it even enters and overwhelms our natural (green) and built (gray) drainage systems.  Green flood management is the most practical, beneficial, and cost-effective method of reducing flood risk.

For these reasons, local environmental groups are sponsoring an online forum with the Democratic candidates vying to take the place of retiring Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who has represented Precinct 3 since 1989.

The forum, which takes place online June 24 from 7 to 8 p.m., will focus on environmental issues. Advance registration for this event is required. To sign up go here.

The Candidates

The Democratic candidates are Diana Alexander, an educator, and Michael Moore, former chief of staff under Houston Mayor Bill White. The runoff election is July 14, with early voting starting on Monday, June 29 and running through Friday, July 10.

The winner will face Republican candidate Tom Ramsey in the general election on Nov. 3.  Ramsey is a four-term mayor of tiny Spring Valley Village in west Houston, a civil engineer and until 2015, senior vice-president of Klotz and Associates, now RPS Group, a major contractor with Harris County and the Harris County Flood Control District.

Harris County Commissioners Court is the governing body of the flood control district, and individual commissioners have specific oversight over the activities of the district in their precincts.

A follow-up discussion is planned between the Republican candidate Ramsey and the winner of the Democratic runoff election.


Little Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County. This remaining natural section of the creek is to be stripped and graded by the Harris County Flood Control District. Photo Dec. 29, 2019, by SC

A Lack of Transparency

Houston Parks Board Falls Below State, National Standards

Confusion Over Public And Private Roles

June 14, 2020

The Houston Parks Board is confusing even to knowledgeable people. That’s because there are two parks boards: a public board and a private board. But the two boards, public and private, are the same people. And the problem is these people operate like a private board, making decisions in private.

As members of the public parks board, appointed by the mayor, they are required by law to have public meetings.

A parks board—our parks board—is supposed to be accountable to the general public, making decisions in a transparent way, on behalf of the community. Otherwise, it can appear that the developers, real estate investors, bankers, business lawyers, etc. who are on the board (in Houston and elsewhere) are making decisions that lean more towards profit than the health of the people.

Other Major Cities: Two Separate Parks Organizations, Public Meetings, Agenda, Minutes

Virtually every other major city in the country has two separate parks organizations: a public board and a supporting private foundation, with different sets of people.

And virtually every other major city, including every large city in Texas other than Houston, has a public parks board that announces its meetings and posts its agendas and minutes on its online website. (See Austin and Dallas and San Antonio and Galveston.) Some cities, like Minneapolis, even televise their meetings online.

Houston’s public parks board is a local government corporation required by law to hold open meetings. Its twenty members are appointed by the mayor and approved by city council. But our parks board makes no public announcements about meetings. Our public board has no website, no staff. By contrast, the private parks board, a private foundation, has a website and a staff of thirty people, including a chief executive officer who is paid almost as much (p. 18)  if not more than the mayor. The 34 members of the foundation board include the 20 members of the public parks board.

We’ve been told, after nearly three weeks of asking, that the parks board, public and private, meets with itself briefly somewhere twice a year.

How to Fix This and Why We Should

The north bank of Buffalo upstream of Shepherd on June 1, 2020, after trees, cane and other vegetation were scraped by the Houston Parks Board foundation.

To fix this unusual situation, the mayor needs to appoint new people to the public board. Four of the twenty positions are open, their terms having expired in January 2020. The mayor should appoint people interested in public accountability and the need for green space and nature in our city, especially during a pandemic. Fill the board with people who, in a time of declining budgets and increased demand, can guide us to low-cost, low maintenance rewilding of public spaces.

These are the kind of people who serve on parks boards all over the country. They are public officials, community activists, ecologists, even environmentalists. The kind of people interested in the social and health benefits of natural spaces in the city.

Green spaces and economic development are not mutually exclusive. It has long been understood that better public parks deliver material benefits: increased property value and investment opportunities.

Economic development is largely the purpose of Bayou Greenways 2020, the signature project of the private foundation, a project paid for with $100 million in public bond funds (p. 2) plus $120 million in private donations. City taxpayers also contribute over $6 million annually for ongoing maintenance of the Greenways. (p. 9)

What Difference It Makes

Why does it matter if our parks board is not truly public?

Our parks are public parks, and the people should know what’s being done in their name, for their benefit. But specifically, the parks board foundation recently and surprisingly announced that they were cutting down trees and razing the banks of Buffalo Bayou, a valuable and beneficial natural resource that belongs to the people. (See also this update.)

This was being done in preparation for building an artificial bank out into the channel and installing concrete riprap and metal walls to hold it up. The project is described as “restoring” the bank, filling in land lost to Harvey, although the bayou was already naturally doing that: collecting sediment, rebuilding, regrowing. The location is a narrow strip of land behind two apartment complexes on Memorial Drive, purchased by the foundation and valued at $1.15 million. The foundation is funding the “repair” project with $2.6 million in private funds, according to CEO Beth White. Their plan is to make room for some future concrete sidewalk along the bayou between Shepherd Drive and Memorial Park, part of Bayou Greenways.

The same bank of Buffalo Bayou on May 9, 2020, before scraping and cutting by the Houston Parks Board foundation.

Until this project, most of the 100-plus miles of 10-foot wide concrete hike-and-bike trails installed by the parks board foundation have been along channelized bayous, long ago stripped of nature, treeless, mowed, concrete ditches.

Why It’s a Bad Idea

If there had been some public discussion about this, we and many others would have explained why scraping and bulldozing the bank was a horrible idea, not just ugly but damaging to the beneficial functions of the stream (like cleansing polluted water), likely to cause future flooding and erosion problems, and in violation of the City’s Floodplain Management (p. 6) and Resiliency plans (p. 151) and goal of preserving and creating as much natural and green space as possible.

It also threatens to increase local premiums for flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal program gives discounts to communities “for protecting natural floodplain functions, thereby protecting or restoring wildlife habitat, some of which may be home to threatened and endangered species.”

This remarkable stretch of urban river is home to families of alligator snapping turtles, a threatened species in Texas; beaver, herons, hawks, otters, giant scaly fish (yes, they are alligator gar), dragonflies, and many more beneficial creatures that have been here much longer than we have. They can’t nest in metal and concrete. The loss of biodiversity, particularly in cities, is a global threat to our health and future.

The Solution

So the solution is simple. In order to bring Houston up to state and national standards, the mayor should appoint new people to the public parks board.

That way we can have transparency, accountability, and a balance of interests in decisions about our public parks, green spaces, and natural areas.


Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in Harris County?

What Could Go Wrong?

June 12, 2020

The Houston Sierra Club reports that Harris County is considering releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment to see how that goes.

The mosquito species Aedes aegypti, originally from Africa, has been genetically modified by a British biotech company to prevent them from reproducing. The mosquito is one of several species of mosquitoes responsible for the Zika and other viruses in Harris County, according to the Harris County Public Health Department. However, the Aedes aegypti prefers to live near and feed on people.

There are some 56 varieties of mosquitoes buzzing about the county. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant or very slow-moving water, slower than the bayou, which is why we don’t have mosquitoes on the bayou. Also turtles, fish, dragonflies, bats, birds, frogs, toads, lizards, and other creatures eat mosquitoes.

Frank Blake of the Sierra Club writes about modified mosquito project that “there are social and environmental justice concerns around the lack of transparency, the release site of the mosquitoes, the fact that Harris County residents cannot consent to essentially being human experiments and the impacts this may have on our local environment.”

He notes that environmental advocates suggest that “there are existing, less risky methods of mosquito control that have documented and demonstrated effectiveness.”

Find out more.

You can keep track of mosquito-borne disease in Harris County through the this online map. These diseases include the Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, Saint Louis Encephalitis, and West Nile viruses. On June 10, the county reported that mosquitoes had tested positive for the West Nile virus in northwest Harris County. The Mosquito Control Division was treating the area.

Aedes aegypti. Photo by James Gathany, Center for Disease Control Public Health Image Library

Bank Destruction Update

Private Parks Board Bank Project Temporarily Stymied By Lack of Bank

Bayou Bend Bank to Be Armored Too

June 8, 2020

We bring you some recent before and after photos from the Houston Parks Board foundation’s $2.6 million project to remove the trees and vegetation and build an artificial bank of concrete riprap, dirt, and sheet metal. Described as “restoring” the bank to its “pre-Harvey condition,” the project purpose is to support a future concrete hike-and-bike trail on the edge of Buffalo Bayou.

After cutting down large trees and scraping the vegetation from the north bank of the bayou upstream of Shepherd Drive, contractors were forced to cut down cane and other greenery by hand where the remaining bank apparently was too narrow to support heavy machinery. Heavy machinery should never be used on the bank of a stream anyway, (p. 14) despite this being a common practice of the Harris County Flood Control District. For that matter, lining a stream with concrete riprap and sheet metal is also discouraged in enlightened communities. Doing so increases flooding and erosion upstream and downstream. (p. 3 and p. 17)

Work on the project seems to have been suspended since early last week.

The north bank of Buffalo Bayou stripped and graded with large trees cut by the Houston Parks Board as part of a Bayou Greenways project upstream of Shepherd Drive. Photo June 1, 2020.

The private parks board foundation purchased $1.5 million worth of land along the bayou below two apartment complexes on Memorial Drive, according to Harris County records. The eventual plan is to install a 10-foot-wide concrete sidewalk along the bayou edge as part of the foundation’s Bayou Greenways project, which is supported by $100 million in public bond funds (p. 2) plus $120 million in private donations. The sidewalk would extend from Shepherd to Westcott Street in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park.

Contractors working for the Houston Parks Board foundation cutting a large tree and removing cane and native vegetation from the bank of Buffalo Bayou on May 22, 2020.

Extending the sidewalk will require the further removal of large cottonwoods and other trees in order to build a bridge across a ravine fed by several large stormwater outfalls. According to a resident of the neighborhood, the ravine becomes a “raging river” during heavy rains.

Many large trees would have to be cut to build a bridge across a ravine and extend the hike-and-bike trail along the north bank of the bayou. Photo May 21, 2020

The parks board foundation filed a pre-construction notice for the project with the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers in August of 2018, according to documents provided May 22, 2020, by Beth White, president and chief executive officer of the foundation. White said the current project, funded with private tax-deductible donations, is 620 linear feet, although the notice to the Corps describes work along 1,102 linear feet.

The required notice was filed in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which apparently plans to bring in heavy equipment and armor its bank for nearly 1,500 linear feet below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, the former home of conservationist and philanthropist Ima Hogg, who also donated the land for the bird sanctuary across the bayou.

As seems to be standard practice these days, the Corps did not actually review the pre-construction notice or plans to restore the bank to its “pre-Harvey” condition but simply let lapse the six-week time period to respond, automatically “verifying” the project. The Corps is responsible for protecting our streams and waters under federal law.

This is the large cottonwood that was cut down and the vegetation scraped by the Houston Parks Board foundation as part of its project to “restore” the bank of Buffalo Bayou to its “pre-Harvey” condition. Photo May 9, 2020

The Museum of Fine Arts has hired Stantec Engineering to devise a plan for hardening its bank with metal or concrete riprap or both below the woods at Bayou Bend, said Willard Holmes, chief operating officer for the museum.

The Bayou Bend gardens feature towering loblolly pines, sycamores, oaks, and other trees along the bank. The estate and its gardens, home to families of alligator snapping turtles, a threatened species in Texas, is named for the lengthy bend in the bayou that will be scraped and artificially rebuilt if the museum board approves.

“Our property is falling into the bayou,” said Holmes. “Our plan is to properly address all the nature and wildlife issues that we can.”

This section of Buffalo Bayou downstream from the Bayou Bend footbridge is part of a planned Museum of Fine Arts project to remove trees and vegetation and harden some 1,500 linear feet of bank with metal or concrete riprap or both. Photo June 2, 2020