Ditch Mystery Solved

Origin of False Idea That Property Owners Must Maintain Open Stormwater Ditches

Plus: Earthen Ditches Still Way Better Than Concrete Curbs, Buried Pipes

Nov. 15, 2023

A big misunderstanding about who’s responsible for maintaining open stormwater ditches in Houston is still flowing around. We figured out the source. So maybe it’s time to clear it up.

The City of Houston has always been responsible for digging out, de-silting and regrading thousands of miles of roadside drainage ditches within the city. But for years now the idea has been circulating that due to a policy change some twenty years ago, the City stopped doing this. This alleged new policy supposedly left property owners with the extraordinary burden and expense of having to hire heavy equipment and properly scrape out ditches that, like underground pipes, connect to a community drainage system.

This is false and absurd on its face. But it’s an idea that refuses to die, repeated uncorrected in our leading local news media, cited over and over again. Circulating along with it is the false idea that humble earthen ditches are less effective than costly curb and gutter systems draining into buried concrete pipes. Wrong.

Based on this false idea, journalists even mis-reported an attempt by City Council to change this alleged policy. (Not giving links in the interest of decorum.) It’s possible though that not even the mayor and city council members are fully informed about this situation, although individual council members have discretionary budgets to spend restoring ditches in their districts through the City’s Stormwater Action Teams.

Graphic from City of Houston Public Works

Truth Confirmed by Director of Public Works

So finally we deduced what actually happened back in 2001. And our conclusion was verified by the director of Public Works herself, Carol Haddock, at an October conference on flooding sponsored by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center of Rice University. Haddock, an engineering graduate of Rice, was a little miffed that our leading media refuse to correct this issue. So we’ll do it, without naming any names.

What happened back in 2001 was that the City instituted the 311 Service Helpline system, a “consolidated call center designed to make city government more user-friendly and responsive.” Citizens were to call 311 anytime of the day or week to report any problems “from traffic fines and sewer concerns to pothole problems and neighborhood complaints.” (See also here.)

At the same time, the City apparently stopped regularly sending out teams to inspect drainage ditches, relying instead on citizen reports. Or, as Haddock told the conference, the system “changed to being reactive rather than proactive.” However, the City was still responsible for grading and desilting clogged ditches, including driveway culverts, reported by citizens. This process generally requires heavy equipment like a backhoe as well as calculation of flow direction, and so on.

After several years of much publicized and largely inaccurate concerns about open ditch maintenance, the City in August 2023 reinstituted its regular inspection program. (p. 7)

This was not changing maintenance responsibility from property owners to the City. It was reestablishing inspection teams. The City, once again, has always had the responsibility of grading and desilting stormwater ditches. Property owners are responsible for raking out light debris, leaves, trash, Frito bags, etc. (See also p. 6)

Open Ditches More Effective. Streets Flood with Buried Pipes

Open drainage ditch on the south side of Houston’s Memorial Park.

Houston, as well as unincorporated areas and independent municipalities within the city,  has earthen drainage ditches in neighborhoods rich and poor all over the place. (Think wealthy Memorial Villages, Tanglewood etc.) Open ditches are, in fact, more effective, carrying ten times the volume of rainwater than underground concrete pipes. They are cheaper to build and maintain, more ecological, in essence a form of nature-based flood management helping to absorb, disperse, and cleanse stormwater. (See also here.)

Yes, rain can pond in open ditches for hours. That’s normal. Stormwater also backs up from underground pipes and fills streets lined with concrete curbs. That’s normal too, part of the design. Which would you prefer? A flooded street or a rain-filled roadside ditch? Residents clamoring to replace their grass-lined, frog-filled open ditches with concrete curbs and buried pipes may be surprised to find out that the street in front of their house will now flood.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency actually recommends replacing curb-and-gutter systems with open ditches. Among other things, curb-and-gutter systems are more likely to promote mosquitos.

But locally tens of millions of dollars are being spent to replace open ditches with concrete curbs and gutters.

Concrete curbs and stormwater gutters recently installed by Harris County along a street in northeast Houston. Previously rain ran off the street into open drainage ditches.


Indigenous People on Buffalo Bayou and Beyond

“The Atakapa-Ishak are not extinct”

Reposting Nov. 13, 2023, in Honor of Native American Heritage Month

Oct. 11, 2021

Updated Oct. 13, 2021

Thousands of years before land speculators like the Allen Brothers arrived in 1836 or slave traders Jim Bowie and Jean Lafitte set up shop on Galveston Island around 1817 or even the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on the island in 1528, there were people living around Buffalo Bayou and the prairies, forests, rivers, and bays of the Texas Gulf Coast.

At least 13,500 years ago, predecessors of the Akokisa people were living in what is now coastal Texas. At the time the coast, along with major rivers flowing across it, extended a hundred miles further out, land and channels now covered by water. Sea level then was hundreds of feet lower.

Major Native American Cultural groups of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, c. 1700, Worrall, A Prehistory of Houston, p. 436

But inland, Buffalo Bayou and other rivers and streams were flowing along the same winding, forested paths that now carry their waters to the gulf (unless they’ve been stripped and channelized). Incised into the landscape by the drainage of the sea at the end of the last glaciation period some 20,000 years ago (no glaciers in Texas), “basically these rivers and creeks are where they were in the late Pleistocene (some 12,000-20,000 years ago),” said geologist/author Dan Worrall at a recent talk on the lifeways of the Akokisa at the Houston Botanic Garden.

We know this in part because Early Paleoindian Native American artifacts have been found along the banks, showing that the streams were there at least 13,000 years ago, he said.

Living Well on the Land

The Akokisa were a branch of the Atakapa-Ishak, who lived (and still live) along the upper coast of southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. The Atakapa spoke a unique language that was distinct from the Karankawa, for example, the people who lived further down the coast. Like the Karankawa, the Atakapa were divided into different groups, communities organized in large part around the different river basins.

Around 1700, the native people of southeast Texas were thought to number some 4,000-5,000. But by 1800 the Atakapa population in Texas had suffered a catastrophic collapse, largely due to disease brought by Europeans. Spanish missionaries tried to teach them agriculture, despite the fact that the native people were healthy and thriving, doing just fine hunting and gathering a rich, varied diet, and lightly managing the prairies and forests with controlled burning. (In fact recent research shows that Native Americans were healthier before the introduction of agriculture.)

“They lived on the land very well,” said Worrall.

Worrall’s big new book, A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas: Landscape and Culture, documents in extensive technical detail the evolution of the landscape and the people who lived here long before European settlement.

The Akokisa and their predecessors ate seasonally and locally, of course: oysters and clams, alligators, turtles, and fish, seabird eggs, wild grapes and berries, persimmons, pecans and acorns, the tuberous roots of cattails, arrowheads, and greenbriar, among many other flowers and plants, edible and medicinal. They left behind vast middens of shells and fish bones. As well as bison kill sites along creeks and bayous.

In the fall and winter they moved inland to hunt bison and deer on their traditional hunting grounds on the Katy Prairie at the headwaters of Buffalo Bayou in what is now northwest Harris County. The bison migrated seasonally during the winter from the interior Texas plains, moving through the tallgrass prairie on their way south to the coast to graze on the lush salt grass (except during dry periods, points out Worrall).

Buffalo Bayou, along with other bayous and streams, was surrounded then by vast riparian and flatland forests, particularly extensive north of the bayou. European settlers in the nineteenth century cut down much of the timber to create cropland on the fertile floodplains. Beyond the forest to the south of the bayou was tallgrass prairie. Further to the west there was prairie and savannah dotted with oak trees.

Read the rest of this post.

Portrait of an Atakapa man, Alexandre de Batz, 1735