Corps Reconsidering Flood Tunnels. Still Focused on Outdated Ideas

Over 1,200 People at Telephone Town Hall About Deepening, Widening Buffalo Bayou

Public Comment Deadline is Nov. 20

Nov. 16, 2020

The Corps of Engineers is “going back to look at tunnels” to move stormwater from west Houston that can no longer be handled by the federal flood control dams there, said Col. Timothy Vail, commander of the Galveston District, during a telephone town hall sponsored by 7th Congressional District Rep. Lizzie Fletcher.

The conference call Sunday evening drew over 1,200 people concerned about the Corps’ proposals for dealing with too much stormwater flowing too fast into the 70-year-old federal dams, Addicks and Barker, in western Harris County north and south of Interstate 10.

During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, stormwater runoff held back by the dams flooded properties built in and behind the reservoir pools. When stormwater threatened to spill around or over the top of the earthen dams, the Corps was forced to open the floodgates, flooding thousands of properties along Buffalo Bayou immediately downstream from the dams.

In an Interim Report on its $6 million Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study, the Corps proposed as one possible solution deepening Buffalo Bayou by almost 12 feet and widening it to some 230 feet for 22-24 miles from the dams to downtown Houston (actually to 1,500-feet below Montrose—about Stanford Street). This would be to accommodate a flow of 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).

In “areas of high erosion,” the Corps would use articulated concrete block to line the channel bottom and banks. However, articulated concrete block doesn’t work in Buffalo Bayou, where the primary type of bank collapse is vertical slumping. The weight of concrete block exacerbates slumping.

The Corps also suggested building a dam on Cypress Creek with a reservoir on 22,000 acres of the Katy Prairie to hold back floodwater overflowing the creek and draining south into Addicks Reservoir.

Buffalo Bayou looking upstream with Memorial Park on the right. Photo May 28, 2018, by SC


The Corps admits that deepening and widening the bayou would basically eliminate all aquatic life in the bayou, including the threatened Alligator Snapping Turtle. The report, released Oct. 2, does not explain how it would purchase the property to eliminate wide swaths of the largely privately-owned upper bank of the bayou, how it will handle the proliferation of concrete and steel erosion control structures, public and private landscaping, the natural sandstone in the channel bottom and banks, or what happens in downtown Houston when a flow of 15,000 cfs hits below the Sabine Bridge—or a storm surge coming the opposite way.

Currently at that level of flow, floodwater inundates the trails in Buffalo Bayou Park and begins creeping towards Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway. The upper channel in the park was about 120-150 feet wide, according to Google Earth, before the Harris County Flood Control District spent nearly $10 million in federal funds narrowing the channel and lining the banks with concrete riprap in the last year.

Extending the south bank into the channel in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream of the Waugh Bridge was part of $10 million bank repair project by the Harris County Flood Control District. Photo April 21, 2020, by SC

The dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek would inundate a large portion of the remaining Katy Prairie, much of it under conservation easement, and ruin the prairie’s natural ability to slow and absorb stormwater by killing off the vegetation. (pp. 175-176)

Better Options

Save Buffalo Bayou, with other environmental organizations, supports green, nature-based solutions at the regional, community and neighborhood levels.  We are opposed to deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou and a dam on Cypress Creek, which the Corps admits will likely only encourage more development and thus more stormwater runoff. (p. 175) (And once again place more people in harm’s way).

Deepening and widening streams increases flooding, among many other problems. Focusing on stopping and slowing stormwater, on managing flooding in place, is the modern, more effective, more practical approach. The Corps’ simultaneous Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment was supposed to be looking at a more comprehensive approach to reducing flood risk, though the scope of the study seems to have changed since it was first funded. At a recent virtual meeting, Col. Vail said that regional assessment would be considered.

The Katy Prairie Conservancy, also opposed to deepening and widening the bayou and the reservoir on Cypress Creek, has proposed alternatives.

However, the Corps in its Interim Report said that nature-based alternatives had been “screened out.” (p. 6)

Tunnels and Water Lines

The Corps had rejected massive tunnels shunting stormwater from the dams to Brays Bayou, the Brazos River, or directly to the ship channel or Galveston Bay. Aside from the exorbitant cost and the environmental impact of shunting huge amounts of polluted urban runoff into the bay, tunnels would cause the loss of businesses, jobs, homes, schools, public revenue, etc. (pp. 181-183)

Signs of the future on the Katy Prairie in west Houston. Photo by Shannon Harrison.

Note that authorities in west Harris County and north Fort Bend are currently building a billion-dollar 55-mile pipeline to bring water the opposite direction—from Lake Houston east of the city to west Houston.

The 7th congressional district includes Barker Reservoir, areas behind Addicks Reservoir, and most of Buffalo Bayou east to Shepherd Drive.

Comments and Links

Col. Vail said during the telephone conference that the Corps had already received some 1,500 comments on the Interim Report as well as “two well-developed complementary plans.” He once again emphasized that the Interim Report was an unusual step taken jointly by the Galveston District and the Harris County Flood Control District, the local partner in the study, which began in 2018 and included numerous public or “scoping” meetings during 2019.

Vail characterized the report and the solicitation of public comments as an extension of the “traditional scoping process,” an effort to seek public support. He noted that the Corps wants the input to help “us figure out how to move forward.”

“We want the public to be part of the solution,” he said. The final plan, which will have to be approved and funded by Congress, will also require a non-federal partner such as the Flood Control District.

The public comment period officially ends Nov. 20, but Vail has previously noted that the Corps will continue to consider comments.

The Corps expects to have a Tentatively Selected Plan and draft Environmental Impact Statement by late spring or summer, Vail said. The public will also have an opportunity to comment then.

Here is a link to the Interim Report.

Here is how to make a comment.

Here is a link to a PowerPoint presentation of the Interim Report from the virtual public meetings.

Here is the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s alternative study and plan.

Related posts:

Deadline Extended to Comment

Pushback Against Deeply Flawed Plans for Buffalo Bayou, Katy Prairie

Outrageous Plan to Deepen, Widen, Kill Buffalo Bayou

Managing Flood Risks: What to Do? Interviews with Bob Freitag, lead author of Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era and Susan Chadwick, President and Executive Director of Save Buffalo Bayou. Oct. 26, 2020