In Praise of Open Ditches (Opinion)

By Susan Chadwick, Houston Chronicle Outlook, May 27, 2023

For several years in Houston, an unfortunate controversy has swirled around open drainage ditches.

The underlying idea is that roadside drainage ditches don’t work — or at least, not as well as concrete street curbs that send water through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes. Many people think that earthen ditches are backwards — too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more engineered, more advanced! 

But this is wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in concrete or other impermeable surfaces, earthen stormwater ditches mitigate flooding better and more cheaply than concrete street curbs and buried pipes.

First of all, they have much greater capacity. Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to a representative of the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison, 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons

Read the rest of this editorial in the Houston Chronicle.

An open ditch on East 18th and Harvard Streets in the Heights is planted with canna lillies and other water loving plants. Photo by Sharon Steinmann, Chronicle Staff Photographer

In Praise of Open Ditches

More Effective, Cheaper, Easier to Maintain, Better for the Environment than Buried Stormwater Pipes

May 22, 2023

For several years a controversy over open drainage ditches has been swirling around the city of Houston. We’ve been scraping behind the scenes, trying to clear up some of the misunderstanding. But the flow of misinformation hardly slows.

The basic misunderstanding is that roadside drainage ditches — grass-lined, maybe filled with lilies, cattails, frogs, fishes, crawdads — don’t work as well as concrete curbs on the street funneling stormwater through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes.

Nope. Wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in impermeable surface, earthen stormwater ditches work much better than concrete street curbs and buried pipes, according to our expert sources.

A drainage ditch next to the Picnic Loop in Houston’s Memorial Park, which was originally constructed with open roadside ditches. In recent years concrete curbs were added in some areas. Photo June 20, 2022

An Age-Old Prejudice

It’s an age-old prejudice. People look at earthen ditches and think they are backwards. Too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more modern, more advanced! (Other people look at flowering roadside ditches and think: how lovely. They look at a brutal concrete curb and sense that the earth is being smothered.)

Developers discovered this long ago. Private developers are responsible for installing drainage systems in new residential areas, systems which are then turned over to the city for maintenance. Over time developers found that while some people appreciated the natural aesthetic and function of vegetated open ditches, home buyers often viewed ditches with distaste, as noted in a comparative study of The Woodlands. (p. 2) So, despite being more expensive and less effective, developers switched to concrete curbs and buried pipes solely in order to sell more homes. It had nothing to do with function. It was purely aesthetic.

How Much More Effective, More Beneficial? Ten Times More

Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes, among other important benefits. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons.

Note, however, that the City is not fond of all that pretty greenery inside the ditch, even if it helps filter trash and nasty stuff from the water.

A mowed and scraped drainage ditch in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. Photo May 7, 2021

People assume that open ditches foster mosquitoes. But in fact mosquitos are more likely to breed in pipes and in catch basins under storm drains. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mosquitoes breed in shallow water – less than 3 feet – that has been standing for at least 7 days. The agency actually recommends replacing curbs and gutters with open ditches.

Concrete Increases Flooding

The reason is that open ditches have more co-benefits than storm sewers and culverts, as noted in a recent watershed study by the US Army Corps of Engineers. (p. 14) Ditches help cleanse polluted stormwater runoff, allow the earth to soak up rain, and are cheaper and easier to install and maintain. (p. 22) Curbs and gutters, on the other hand, actually increase flooding by collecting more water faster, eventually overwhelming our built and natural drainage systems (creeks and bayous), according to the National Research Council. (p. 183) And pipes settle and crack and need to be replaced. Ditches don’t.

Note that Houston property owners actually get a modest drainage fee reduction for having an open ditch, which is considered pervious surface, which helps reduce runoff and flooding.

Maintenance. Another Misunderstanding

No, property owners do not have to maintain the ditches in front of their property. Yes, they are responsible for picking trash or other debris out of the ditch that might block the flow of water in front of their house. This is equally true in lower-income neighborhoods and well-to-do neighborhoods, like Hunters Creek Village in west Houston (actually a separate municipality). (p. 263)

But the Ditch Maintenance Section of Houston Public Works is responsible for de-silting and re-grading ditches, as well as flushing culverts under driveways and streets within the city.

And yes, there are wealthy, older neighborhoods all over the city with open ditches: Memorial, Briar Oaks, historic Avondale and Courtland Place in the Montrose area, just to name a few, not to mention in the Heights, Rice Military, as well as in dense, shadeless Gulfton and other parts of southwest Houston; Sunnyside to the southeast, Scenic Woods to the northeast, and much more. Friendswood and the Woodlands, too. Usually it’s a mix of open ditches and buried pipes, perhaps a compromise, perhaps the result of ditches getting (illegally) covered over.

Problems: Dumping, Size, Complaints

The most frequently cited problem with open ditches, particularly in front of empty or sparsely inhabited areas, is illegal dumping of heavy trash and construction debris that blocks the flow during storms. The City of Houston provides facilities for residents to dispose of tires, appliances, heavy trash, tree waste, and more for free, but contractors and commercial businesses are prohibited. Privately operated landfills charge a fee. (See info here.) So likely its cheaper, quicker, and easier for some to just dump stuff where nobody’s looking.

Read the rest of this post.

Lost in the Woods

The Wonders of Houston’s Great Memorial Park

May 17, 2023

We’ve been spending some time recently exploring the enchanting bayou woods of Houston’s magnificent Memorial Park. Some of these woods were familiar: the marked trails, for instance, part of the Bayou Wilds, open to both hikers and bikers, on the west side of the park south of Memorial Drive.

But we hadn’t been on the little-known trails in the far west of the park north of Memorial Drive and between Memorial and Woodway since riding horses through there as a teenager. And there are still horse riders through there. And bike-riders.

Walking the gentle trails north of Memorial Drive on the far west side of Memorial Park. Photo SC, March 13, 2023.

Oddly, we managed to get lost on the marked trails, the purple, blue, red, yellow, orange, and aqua trails of the Bayou Wilds west of the Picnic Loop on the south side of Memorial Drive. The signage can be confusing and even wrong, confirmed a helmeted, middle-aged man on a mountain bike who was studying the map posted on a trail. In fact, we encountered numerous people puzzling over the posted maps and color-coded posts, which, though they give a helpful coded location in event of a 911 emergency, sometimes seemed to point in two directions at once. Some public woods elsewhere have simple, easy-to-read directional signs with arrows and names and distances.

Purple or blue trail?

But it was a lovely walk through the shady, tangled woods, and not just because of the trees. We encountered numerous couples holding hands, people exploring together and having a romantic stroll through wild nature, individuals who nodded and smiled, families with happy young children, all reflecting the wondrous diversity of Houstonians.

Couple exploring creek in the bayou woods of Memorial Park. Photo by SC, March 4, 2023

But we did get lost, not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re on a time schedule. We ended up far to the east (downstream) of where we planned to be, emerging from the woods near the eastern end of the Picnic Loop. Traipsing across the mushy grass in the middle of the picnic area, we couldn’t help but remark that these were actually wetlands—mowed for some reason. It seemed contradictory, given the amount of money recently spent to create a large wetland prairie pond to the west where the playing fields had been. Seems like letting these wetlands grow in the middle of a large grassy area would be beneficial. And attractive.

Mowed wetland in the center of the Picnic Loop of Memorial Park. Photo SC March 4, 2023

Magically Lost Again

On another occasion we got delightfully lost entering the woods on a well-worn footpath, on a whim, having already lost a sense of direction, thinking we were somewhere else. (Okay. Getting old and distracted, too.) Actually it was Easter Sunday, and the Picnic Loop area was jammed with people grilling, playing volleyball, playing music, tossing colored Easter eggs; massive, oversized trucks parked everywhere.

Following an informal footpath into the woods (obviously other nature-loving humans were doing this too, treading exploratory paths all over the park as well), we ended up on the main tributary creek that flows from the center of the park, stepping down and across the sandy banks as we did as a child growing up on the mysterious bayou. Then clambering up the bank and walking back on the lengthy, wonderful, winding Green Trail. The parked car was somewhere.

The lovely creek flowing through the center of Memorial Park and into Buffalo Bayou. Photo SC April 9, 2023

We hope these magical woods survive the landscaping projects of the park’s Master Plan, though the future seems to be removing a lot of trees (and undergrowth) and taking out the popular picnic area. (p. 78) Some of that may be good. The picnic areas will be disbursed throughout the park. We hope it’s not turning a truly rare wild area in an urban setting into a more managed experience.

Far West Trails

The little-known far west trails seem to be mostly used by mountain bikers, though the enchanting paths north of Memorial are mostly flat and easily walkable. They are accessible from the sidewalk along the northern edge of Memorial Drive. Go to the Living Bridge near the railroad tracks and the Running Center at the western side of the park, take the stairs on the north side of Memorial Drive (or the roadside sidewalk if you don’t do stairs), and walk until you see an empty wooden sign on the right. The path to the right leads into what are known as the Northwest Trails, which are mostly flat, filled with tall Loblolly Pines, wild berries and flowers. The path to the left leads down into the creek bed which takes you through a drainage culvert and then another which leads you into the rugged, hilly trails known as the Triangle between Memorial Drive and Woodway. These trails are also accessible through a large drainage culvert in the Arboretum.

Note that these are some of the large culverts used by wildlife to cross under Memorial and Woodway, as our late founding president Frank Smith repeatedly argued to anyone who would listen.

Read the rest of this post.

Culvert in the Arboretum leading north under Woodway Drive to the wooded trails known as the Triangle in western Memorial Park.

Late Spring on the Bayou

May 9, 2023

We were a little late for our spring photo of that bend in the bayou. But we had waited for Big Jim, our devoted photographer, to get back to town so he could take the latest in our series documenting the same bend throughout the seasons. We’ve been doing this since the summer of 2014.

It was a beautiful sunny morning, though at first glance the river and woods looked a little dull, sort of empty and flat. Maybe because they were slowly waking up after a long drought, big freeze, and violent storms. The flow in the river was fairly high though, around 1000 cubic feet per second. There had been a thunderstorm earlier in the night.

That bend in the bayou in late spring. Taken looking downstream from the same high bank in Memorial Park by Jim Olive on April 21, 2023.

But Jim’s photos revealed the beauty of the scene. And they brought to mind how very bright green this city spring has seemed. Spring green is indeed a color, a very vivid one. And according to scientists, the reason is that young leaves are still developing their chlorophyll, their green pigment. They’re also thinner.

The wet, sandy path leading in and out of the forbidden woods was still blocked with wire fencing and chopped tree trunks by the Memorial Park Conservancy. But it was obvious that many people were ignoring that. As we made our way out, we encountered another couple in the parking lot getting ready for a walk. They offered advice on the best place to step over the obstacles.

Looking upstream from that high bank in the woods of Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive, April 21, 2023.

SC

Remodeling Nature’s Landscape

What’s Happening to the Banks in Buffalo Bayou Park

Will It Last? Removing Invasives is a Good Thing

April 20, 2023

It looked terrible. Dead stalks sticking out of the ground, banks denuded and sprayed with blue-green herbicide.

People have been wondering what’s been happening in Houston’s beloved Buffalo Bayou Park between Sabine and Shepherd streets.

It’s the work of the Harris County Flood Control District and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the public nonprofit which manages the 160-acre city-owned park along with Flood Control. The good news is that a large part of what they have been doing is removing invasive species, like Johnson grass and other noxious, domineering stuff that floats down the river from yards and fields. They’ve been “stabilizing” the bank with biodegradable coir logs and in the last few weeks spraying native seed mix on the bare banks.

South bank of Buffalo Bayou downstream of the Dunlavy in Buffalo Bayou Park, April 10, 2023.

It’s all part of a $960,000 Harris County plan, in the works since 2019, called the “Buffalo Bayou Park Revegetation and Biostabilization Project.” The goal is to revegetate the banks of Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street and provide enhanced natural infrastructure to Buffalo Bayou Park, particularly in those areas scraped and bulldozed by Flood Control in 2019-20.

For that $10 million federally-funded “repair” project, Flood Control removed native vegetation and lined sections of the banks with concrete rubble, known as riprap, even though the design engineer, Jones Carter (now known as Quiddity), apparently rejected riprap, (p. 4). Even Flood Control in the past has rejected riprap, (p. 6) as well as the US Army Corps of Engineers (p. 4), and numerous other federal agencies. For more explanation of why riprap damages the stream, the environment, can even contribute to bank failure and increase flooding, see page 7.

Of course, the river has its own ancient and purposeful landscaping plan: first colonizing and stabilizing plants, working in succession, turning sand into soil, preparing the way for drifting willows and other native trees. But humans have other landscaping ideas. We’ll see how long those human plans last.

The Planting Project

We visited the project with Gabriela Sosa, since 2021 the conservation manager for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Dr. Sosa grew up in Brownsville, on the Texas coast, where she was inspired to pursue a career in ecology by the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. “I didn’t know ecology could be a career,” she said.

Her vision for the park is a “wildlife corridor” for birds and other creatures, including humans. A “greenspace in the middle of downtown.”

“Most people don’t get to see nature,” she said, as we toured the project in a golfcart, getting out to inspect elderberry bushes, Maximilian sunflowers, lantana, sorrel, late boneset, and more.

Dr. Gabriela Sosa loving elderberry in Buffalo Bayou Park. March 16, 2023

She was enthusiastic about keeping the elderberry, as we inspected the bush along the Greentree Nature Area on the north bank. “Previously we would have mowed the elderberry. But it’s great habitat for birds. We’re keeping it.”

In addition to killing off or removing invasive species like Johnson grass, elephant ear, castor bean, and Chinaberry trees, the project has removed swathes of native plants like ragweed, goldenrod, other types of sunflowers and more. Her objection was that those plants take over and dominate, shading out other plants. The goal is more diversity. And more deep-rooted plants, she said, pointing to the roots of an uprooted sunflower. Workers have been carefully picking out ragweed and sunflowers on the lush banks of the bayou. In other areas, however, the banks have been sprayed with an “aquatic-label” herbicide, meaning it’s been approved for use near streams. Technically, according to Flood Control, it’s Roundup Custom for Aquatic and Terrestrial Use, which is glyphosate, a controversial herbicide banned in some countries, cities and states.

Read the rest of this post.

A Great Man is Gone

April 7, 2023

(Updated with link to the obituary in the Houston Chronicle.)

Frank Chesley Smith Jr. has croaked.

Well, he joked that if there had to be an obituary, that’s what it should say.

In fact, Frank died peacefully at his Houston home Thursday, April 6, after a long life of service dedicated to nature and public access to it, to architecture and engineering, to flying, sailing, and driving with the top down. He was 101. And here’s the lovely obituary that was published in the Houston Chronicle.

Known to family and friends as Paco, Frank was the founding board president of Save Buffalo Bayou and our guiding light. He remained alert and engaged until the very last.

Read this 2016 profile of the remarkable and irreplaceable Frank Smith:

Frank Smith, Conservationist: A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down

Frank Smith, photographed on Buffalo Bayou by Jim Olive, May 5, 2016

A Celebration of Concrete

Or How to Create Ill Will

March 3, 2023

For those who don’t get enough experience of concrete in the city of Houston, there is now plenty more concrete for you to enjoy in Memorial Park.

Normally one would go to a park to escape the hardness of the built city. We are fortunate in Houston to have a major urban park, almost 100 years old, dedicated to the experience of nature – a soft path underfoot, tall trees swaying gently in the breeze, a glimpse of a rabbit or raccoon, the call of a hawk, the smell of soil, mushrooms and pine; the rhythm of the bayou flowing past. Conservationists have worked for years to try to keep it natural.

But in recent years the private conservancy running Memorial Park on the banks of Buffalo Bayou has decided to turn our beautiful park into a constructed experience. This is a problem with park conservancies: in order to raise money they have to do projects, and in order to raise more money they have to do more projects. It’s never enough to let nature be.

And apparently they have decided that in order to raise money they have to throw donors names in big letters in front of it all. Most recently, in addition to the massive amount of concrete poured to construct not one but two sets of tunnels over Memorial Drive, the conservancy has erected hulking grey concrete walls on both sides of the tunnels announcing who is responsible: Kinder. It’s the Kinder Land Bridge.

Well, we’re not sure that everyone is going to be thanking the Kinders for this, although they have been very generous (see also here) with their pipeline fortune throughout the city.

Sunrise over one of the two Kinder Land bridges in Memorial Park, Feb. 17, 2023

One Land Bridge Wasn’t Enough

Land bridges for wildlife over (better under) major highways is a good idea. But the idea that a land bridge over Memorial Drive was for the animals (including humans) has always been a farce, as our founding president Frank Smith has long argued. Wildlife – coyotes, bobcat, possum — have always found safe passage through the large drainage culverts passing under Memorial and Woodway. And as we have previously pointed out, the Conservancy has thoughtfully included a drainage culvert designed for wildlife passage underneath the land bridges, which officially opened Feb. 11. Based on reports from neighborhood residents, more wildlife likely died fleeing destruction of their habitat than before construction of the land bridges and prairie.

In addition, for humans who can’t navigate the crosswalks and stoplights to walk across six-lane Memorial Drive and back, there is a lovely, modest pedestrian bridge, known as the Living Bridge, a remnant of an earlier, more enlightened master plan from 2004 connecting the north and south sides of the park near the Running Center. Not that most people often have reason to do that. Generally you are either jogging or walking the Seymour Lieberman trail around the expanded golf course on the north side or strolling, biking, running (or getting lost) with your family and friends through the lovely bayou woods on the south side. (Yes, the Lieberman trail is much improved by routing it through woods and over streams instead of along Memorial Drive.)

But okay, so they really wanted a bridge over Memorial Drive: a high point over our low, flat prairie (and over the trees) from which Houstonians could view the sunset and sunrise and the surrounding vista. That’s cool. But wouldn’t one bridge, one set of tunnels have been enough? asks the amazing Mr. Smith, who at 101 years is still engaged, still concerned about the park that he promised Ima Hogg he would always protect. Did we really have to spend $70 million to build two massive bridges?

Top left: concrete walls surrounding the Kinder Land bridges. Top right: on top of one of the bridges. Bottom: Side view looking north of one set of tunnels. Photos Feb. 17, 2023

More Parks Needed

Do we not need other parks, many more green spaces? The Conservancy often touts the fact that many people drive a long way for the experience of Memorial Park. But we have long argued that maybe they do that because there are few other opportunities. (They certainly don’t do it to look at concrete walls.) Houston ranks 70th out of the nation’s most populous 100 cities in terms of parkland, investment, and access to parks, according to the 2022 ranking from the Trust for Public Land. Although note once again that this calculation is skewed by the vast acreage of parkland included within Barker and Addicks reservoirs in far west Houston, including Cullen Park, at over 9,000 acres one of the largest parks in the country.

The original 1,503 acres that were sold at cost in 1923 by the Hogg Brothers and partners to the City of Houston were intended as “an ideal wooded park” for “the common good.” Though the park is frequently touted as nearly twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, the comparison skips over the fact that more than 600 acres of Houston’s park is devoted to a (recently expanded) golf course, driving range, and related buildings, for which numerous magnificent pines and oaks were cut down. Not to mention the significant amount of acreage used by maintenance, sheds and green houses, or just simply ignored and abused.

But Wait! There’s A Concrete Prairie Wall Too. And Stairs

But wait! There’s more. Wander on over to the new prairie on the south side of Memorial and you can gaze upon another massive grey concrete wall with the names of more donors inscribed in giant letters. We won’t embarrass these generous people by naming them. It’s not their fault that this ugly wall rudely interrupts your view of the new green prairie and wetlands they helped to fund.

Read the rest of this post.

Winter in the Woods

They Will Rise Again

Jan. 26, 2023

Step on and over the massive pile of sawn oak trunks. Step on and over the beaten-down wire fencing. And into the people’s woods on Buffalo Bayou where we’re forbidden to go, though people go anyway.

Wait! What’s this? The woods are see-through, barren, leafless. Everything is monochrome brown. The ground, muddy and slippery, is exposed. The sandy paths etched by rivulets of rain; clumps of dead leaves washed down everywhere. Limbs, branches, and thorny vines ripped and wrenched from the trees and thrown on the ground. Yawning gullies, widened by the rain, have eaten away at the edge of the trail.

Oh, yeah. It’s winter. We had a big freeze. (And before that a long drought.) Everything died. And then came a violent storm. Tornadoes tore apart homes and buildings southeast of the city.

The crows are talking about it. Even the everlasting green leaves of the yaupon and cherry laurel are gone.

Winter morning on that bend in Buffalo Bayou. Taken from the same high bank in Memorial Park with River Oaks Country Club golf course on the opposite bank. Photo Jan. 26, 2023, by SC

We’re here on the south side of Houston’s Memorial Park to take a winter photograph of that bend in the bayou. We’ve been documenting the bend from the same high bank throughout the seasons since 2014.

But we don’t remember it ever looking quite so thin and exposed.

We started a little late and were concerned about the sun being too high, rising in the east above the trees on this clear, cold Thursday morning, glaring at the camera. But when we arrive we realize it doesn’t really matter. The downstream trees that usually filter the sun are bare skeletons in the distance. They wouldn’t have softened the light anyway.

It’s cold but not freezing; cold enough to numb the fingertips. The thick mist rising off the water is smoky, swirling mysteriously. The brown water is high and turbulent, though nowhere near flood stage. At around 1,720 cubic feet per second, the flow is about half its peak on Tuesday morning, Jan. 24, during the storm. The floodgates on the federal dams, Barker and Addicks, far upstream were closed then. Apparently they were re-opened Wednesday mid-morning to release stormwater held back in the normally dry reservoirs.

Concern about the Trees and Vegetation

Back in the office we call up Mickey Merritt, urban forester with the Texas A&M Forest Service. We’d been concerned about the trees around the city. The weather has been confusing: freezing one day, summer weather the next, then cold again. There seemed to be a lot of empty trees and leaves on the ground.

Merritt said he was concerned too. Despite the freeze in early January, it’s been “a fairly warm winter,” he pointed out. “That’s why we’re having trees bud out and starting to flower.”

“If we have a deep freeze, we could have a lot of problems.”

The freeze in early January was not much of an issue for native trees, he said. The freeze a couple of years ago took out many of the non-natives, he pointed out.

But, he added, “I just hope we don’t get a deep freeze. Around freezing I would not worry. What I would be concerned about is if it gets down into the mid-20s.”

Looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou from that high bank in Memorial Park.

SC

Flood Planning Update

Are Flood Planners Ignoring Legal Requirement To Consider Environmental Impact?

Stormwater Tunnel Inlets:  No Environmental Impact On Streams, Says Flood Control

Related:          Stormwater Tunnel on Buffalo Bayou Will Not Prevent Flooding

                        Improving Flood Risk Knowledge. Proposing Solutions

                        Bayou City Sitrep: What’s Been Happening

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)

Read the rest of this post.

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

The bulletin board at City Hall downtown where notices of meetings of the public Houston Parks Board were posted.

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.

Here is the public notice of the meeting. And here is the financial audit approved at the meeting.

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.

SC

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