Flood Planning Update
Are Flood Planners Ignoring Legal Requirement To Consider Environmental Impact?
Stormwater Tunnel Inlets: No Environmental Impact On Streams, Says Flood Control
Dec. 23, 2022
Update Dec. 24: President Biden signs authorization for Galveston Bay Surge Protection Plan. Funding not included.
Freeze? Drought? Holiday lights went out? Flood planning goes on.
A regional planning group has voted to send the state a flood plan while expressing concern that failure to assess its environmental impacts could be illegal.
Members of the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group noted at a recent meeting that there were numerous public comments objecting to the environmental impact of projects included in the plan. Many were lodged against channelizing natural streams, among them wooded Spring Creek on the northern border of Harris County, parts of which are under conservation easement.
Conservation easements are actually a flood management strategy. Channelization, or dredging, altering, and straightening streams can increase downstream flood risk and lead to erosion, sedimentation, maintenance, and environmental issues. (pp. 154-155)
Criticisms also focused on the abundance of structural or engineering projects compared to nature-based projects and nonstructural strategies. The state’s technical guidelines require a balance of structural and non-structural projects, with an emphasis on natural systems and functions. (pp 87-88)
Nature-based approaches, or green stormwater infrastructure, slow and absorb stormwater runoff before it enters our pipes and streams. (Also improves property values, cleans the air and water, improves biodiversity, makes life better, and more.) Scientific studies have shown that nature-based flood management – using trees, plants, wetlands, prairies, etc. — is cheaper and more effective than structural engineered projects. (See here and here.) And here is Save Buffalo Bayou’s previous comment to the flood planning group outlining what other cities and states are doing in this regard.
The planning group, known as Region 6, is one of fifteen localized groups set up by the Texas Water Development Board to develop continuing flood plans to be funded by the state. The regional plan includes numerous projects and strategies proposed by governmental or public entities. These are cities, counties, districts draining the watershed emptying into the San Jacinto River, an area extending from Galveston to Huntsville.
The group had not yet posted the final approved plan on its website as of publication time. The final plan is to be sent to the state board by Jan. 10, 2023. Here is a link to the meeting presentation.
Most of the comments received on the draft plan objected to the emphasis on structural or engineered projects, the lack of nature-based projects, and the failure to consider the impacts of proposed channelization of streams and coastal surge protection projects.
The planning committee’s general response to these complaints is that they are “not endorsing” but just “including” the projects in their plan.
However, group member Gene Fisseler pointed out at the recent meeting Dec. 8 that it was important to make sure that the group adhered to its statutory requirement to evaluate environmental impact under Ch. 362 of the Texas Administrative Code.
The group members approved changes to the plan, including adding four City of Houston projects in Kashmere Gardens, Fifth Ward, Sunnyside, and Pleasantville. (pp. 19-22) They discussed how to answer environmental concerns.
Here is an explanation of the draft flood plan before it was updated.
The next planning meeting is scheduled for Feb. 9, 2023. The next plan update is due July 14, 2023. There will be further opportunity for the public to comment, Megan Ingram of the Texas Water Development Board said at the hybrid meeting held at the Houston Advanced Research Center in the Woodlands. A recording of the meeting is here.
The flood plan is an ongoing project, to be updated every five years.
Reaction of Conservation and Environmental Groups
Conservation groups, including Bayou Land Conservancy and the Coastal Prairie Conservancy, as well as numerous individuals, objected to plans to strip, dredge, and channelize natural streams, including those under conservation easement, specifically Spring Creek. They urged the flood planners to drop the San Jacinto River Regional Watershed Master Drainage Plan which includes those plans.
A coalition of environmental groups, including Save Buffalo Bayou, urged the flood planning group and the US Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider the environmental impact of the $34 billion coastal barrier and gate system recently approved by the House of Representatives. The draft flood plan claimed there was no environmental impact from the Corps’ Galveston Bay Surge Protection plan (known as the Ike Dike). (p. 2050)
Breaking: Mayor Nominating New Houston Parks Board
Revealed: How to Apply
Dec. 5, 2022
Heard around Houston town: Mayor Sylvester Turner is nominating a new slate to the dilapidated and nearly defunct Houston Parks Board.
We’re talking about the public board, a local government corporation (see also here), which for years has been violating the Open Meetings Act. This has happened because the twenty members of the public board were also (or mostly) board members of the larger private Houston Parks Board foundation. So when the private board met in private it often had a quorum of the public board, which violated the law.
We have been calling for a new public board for over two years now. Most major cities in Texas and around the country avoid this problem by having two separate parks boards or commissions for oversight of parks and fundraising: a public board and a supporting private foundation. A public board would generally be composed of community activists, ecologists, etc. and the private board would be composed of the money people: investors, real estate developers, philanthropists, etc.
No Public Outreach. Who Will The Mayor Nominate? How to Apply
It seems the mayor and city council are now attempting to remedy this problem. However, there has been no public announcement, no public outreach or communication about it. We confirmed that this was happening with the mayor’s director of boards and commissions, Olivia Lee. She recommended that anyone interested in joining the public board apply through the City’s boards and commissions website. Persuading your city council representative to recommend you also helps to become a member of the public board, according to Lee’s predecessor, Maria Montes.
At the moment there are 5 vacancies, 10 expired terms, and 5 terms about to expire on the 20-member public board. Apparently the mayor will nominate a new slate before the end of the year. Houston City Council must approve the nominations.
What Does the Public Parks Board Do?
Parks board members are appointed to three-year terms, though they can remain in their position until a new member is appointed. According to the board’s charter and bylaws (p. 2), the board is generally charged with acquiring or improving land and buildings for public parks, playgrounds, and museums; reviewing plans and advising the mayor and city council on expenditure of city funds and parks department matters, soliciting gifts of money or land, etc.
Other Cities Televise Parks Board Meetings
We learned about the plan to nominate a new slate at a rare public meeting of the public board early on a weekday morning in October. The meeting was held in a tiny room in a building on the grounds of the lovely 16-acre Wiess Park just west of Memorial Park at 300 N. Post Oak Lane. Only recently has the private board been posting notices of the public meetings on its website. (Previously a small printed notice was posted downtown on the bulletin board at City Hall shortly before a meeting.) But clearly the public board was not expecting members of the public on this workday. There was hardly space in the crowded room for board members to attend, much less anyone else.
Nevertheless it was an interesting meeting, with comments from Kenneth Allen, director of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department, and from board members about the $60 million bond issue for city parks later approved by Houston voters, about nature preserves in city parks, about the lack of access to parks in denser residential areas, and other issues.
Let’s hope the new board will truly become a public board, transparent and responsive. Maybe even televise its meetings like they do in other cities.