Science vs Engineers
Flood Control District and Scientific Experts In Opposite Corners
“You need to find some better experts.” — Former Harris County Flood Control District Director Mike Talbott to reporters for the Texas Tribune
Dec. 9, 2016
Excellent reporting from the Texas Tribune and PropPublica on the battle over what causes flooding in the Houston area and what to do about it. The Houston Press has also published an informative follow-up interview with the current director of the Flood Control District, Russ Poppe, after the recent retirement of Talbott.
Scientists say the fundamental problem is that Houstonians have assumed they can simply engineer their way out of flooding.
They can’t. And widening and deepening our bayous and streams is the wrong answer. We need to understand and work with nature. It’s cheaper, more effective, and better for us. Storm water needs to be absorbed, slowed down, and spread out before it reaches our streams.
Houston-area officials could work to preserve green space; strengthen regulation on development; plan for a changing climate; and work harder to remove the 140,000 homes that remain in the 100-year floodplain. …
As wetlands have been lost, the amount of impervious surface in Harris County increased by 25 percent from 1996 to 2011, [Sam] Brody [of Texas A&M Galveston] said. And there’s no way that engineering projects or flood control regulations have made up for that change, he said.
Between 2001 and 2005, his research found, the loss of flood-absorbing land along the Gulf of Mexico increased property damage from floods by about $6 million — much of that outside floodplains.
“There’s no doubt that the development … that we’re putting in these flood-prone areas is exacerbating flooding over time,” Brody said. “There’s a huge body of research out there beyond Houston, across the world” supporting that argument.
Research by [then Director Mike] Talbott’s own Harris County Flood Control District points to the effectiveness of prairie grass to absorb floodwater. ‘The restoration of one acre of prairie,’ a 2015 report by the district wrote, would offset the extra volume of runoff created by two acres of single-family homes or one acre of commercial property. (The district says that data is preliminary.)
But Talbott and his successor, Russ Poppe, don’t buy the research.
And then read the follow-up interview with Poppe, the current director of Flood Control, in The Houston Press.
Commissioner Radack Responds
“Buffalo Bayou Not a Natural River”
Supporting Costly Engineering to Slow the Flooding River. Spending Money to Stop the River Slowing For Free.
Nov. 30, 2016
Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack called to comment on our article criticizing unnecessarily costly and destructive “repairs” to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. The six-mile long park is in Precinct Three in far west Houston and Commissioner Radack is the boss there.
Radack’s main point, apparently in support of needlessly spending an excessive amount of money, was that Buffalo Bayou is not a natural river. Because the bayou is not natural, it “does not naturally meander.”
For background: the naturally meandering bayou in Terry Hershey Park was stripped and straightened in the 1940s and ‘50s. Last spring high waters from record rains and extended high flows from the federal dams immediately upstream ate away at the bank in places and damaged the asphalt hike-and-bike trail on the north side. We pointed out that this had occurred where the old meanders or bends were. The bayou, we said, was seeking out its historic meanders, adjusting to the flow.
Our point was that it would make more sense, in accordance with the most advanced river management practices across the country and around the world, to move the asphalt trail slightly away from the very edge of the water and allow the river room to move and restore itself. This would be far cheaper, prettier and more natural, and healthier for the bayou, the beneficial trees and plants and creatures that grow there, and for the water flowing through it to the bay. Doing that rather than hardening the bank in an artificial straight line is also less likely to cause flooding and erosion downstream and less likely to require expensive repairs all over again. It’s also federal policy.
But according to Radack, this doesn’t matter, because Buffalo Bayou is not natural. It’s not natural because the Corps of Engineers “controls the flow.” The bayou “only has water in it,” Radack explained patiently, if the Corps opens the floodgates. “The water comes from the reservoir system.”
Therefore, according to Radack, the bayou is “not natural.”
Is that all true? Beg pardon, but no.
But here’s a puzzle: Radack supports spending tens of millions in public funds to carve up the banks and engineer some two dozen in-channel detention basins on the bayou in Terry Hershey Park. (See below.) But he opposes allowing the bayou to carve out for free its own detention by widening and restoring its old bends. Instead he approves spending taxpayer funds to keep the bayou from doing that.
Does that make sense? Seems contradictory to us.
Wasting Money the Old-Fashioned Way
Costly Bayou Repairs Do More Harm Than Good, Won’t Last
Nov. 21, 2016
From a distance you could hear the monstrous roar of the heavy equipment in the woods. Following deep, wide tracks smashed into the bare dirt along the bank of Buffalo Bayou, passing large cottonwoods apparently cut to make way for the big equipment, we came across a scene of troubling destruction.
A gigantic articulated 30-ton dump truck with six massive wheels was slowly rolling towards us with a large load of fresh dirt and dripping mud dug up from the bayou bank. Further along a 60-ton excavator on tracks sat on the very edge of the bank, expertly swiveling back and forth, scraping up the dirt bank and dumping it into the truck, scooping up loads of white limestone rock and dropping it in a layer where the excavated bank once was.
We’d seen the eroded bank before the “repairs” began. This damage was far worse.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Support Save Buffalo Bayou
What Would Be Lost. What We Could Gain.
October 24, 2016
See this beautiful stretch of Buffalo Bayou? They were going to raze it and fill it in. They still might. And dredge and reroute the bayou, tearing down the trees. For no good reason.
We are saving it. Against great odds. But we urgently need your help. Please donate now to Save Buffalo Bayou. It’s tax-deductible.
See this lovely sandy meander? They want to cut down the trees, bring in heavy equipment, level it and fill it all in. That’s our public Memorial Park. It’s a historic nature area. Note the high Pleistocene (very old) cliffs on the far right. They would be leveled too.
Checks can be made out to Save Buffalo Bayou and sent to 4121 Mandell # 3, Houston 77006.
Or just click on our easy-peasy Donate button. Note that PayPal deducts 2.9 percent for donations.
Look at this amazing stretch of our 18,000-year-old Buffalo Bayou flowing through the middle of Houston, past ancient high cliffs and sandstone formations, home to beaver and otters and more.
City and county officials want to spend millions in taxpayer money to rip out the trees and vegetation and destroy the ecosystem. And not just on Buffalo Bayou. They do that and will continue to do that on all our streams.
We think there’s a smarter, cheaper way.
Did you know that the trees and vegetation on the banks clean the water better than sewage treatment plants?
Everything they are doing violates best management practices. Floodplain management around the world has moved on. Let’s move with it.
Please support Save Buffalo Bayou with a tax-deductible gift now. We stand for the environment and the intelligent use of public funds. Stand with us.
We’re for sensible, green flood control measures that work and last. Let’s stop with the costly, destructive, outdated engineering projects that need constant repair.
Let’s work with nature, not against it.
Donate now. We’ll send you a colorful Save Buffalo Bayou bumper sticker.
Donate more than $150, and we’ll send you a handsome cotton t-shirt with our yellow-crowned night heron logo designed by Frank X. Tolbert 2.
Frank Smith, Conservationist
A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down
October 16, 2016
The year was 1933. Frank Smith was twelve years old and he had just climbed to the 14,255-foot summit of Long’s Peak while at Camp Audubon in Colorado.
It’s an achievement that still makes him proud. But more importantly, being in the snow-capped Colorado mountains changed the perspective of a young boy born and raised in a flat, humid city, albeit in one of the leafiest, most privileged neighborhoods in Houston.
“They made us pay attention to the flowers and the trees, and study and identify the mammals,” he recalls of his summers at Camp Audubon. “It was the first time my attention was directed toward natural things.” He had learned “a lot of other things,” he says. “But I had never been taught anything about the natural world.”
Those fortunate summers in the Rocky Mountain high forest wilderness during the Great Depression set Smith on a remarkable path of conservation and environmentalism. He read the books of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, including The Mountains of California. That path would lead Smith to found and lead numerous organizations, most recently Save Buffalo Bayou, that have helped protect and preserve bayous and streams, including Buffalo and Armand bayous, Galveston Bay and its estuaries, and create public park lands around the state of Texas. He would work with virtually all of the region’s prominent conservationists, all of them becoming close personal friends. Some of them had been friends since childhood.
But first he would have to grow up, join the Navy, establish several engineering businesses, invent some things, and meet Terry Hershey.
Buffalo Bayou Flooding: A Historical Perspective
Oct. 7, 2016
Louis Aulbach, author of the definitive guide to Buffalo Bayou, will speak on Tuesday, Oct. 11, on the history of flooding in Buffalo Bayou. The free lecture is from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Houston Maritime Museum, 2204 Dorrington St.
Aulbach’s book is titled Buffalo Bayou, An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings.
Registration is required. For more information, go here.
New Aerial Photos
Flying Downstream, One Year Later
October 3, 2016
Photographer Jim Olive has gone up in the sky again to photograph Buffalo Bayou in the area targeted for destruction by the proposed Memorial Park Demonstration Project. So we’ve updated our photo page with a few of Jim’s beautiful new photos. We’ll add more as they become available.
These new photos were taken on Sept. 29, 2016, almost a year to the day after Jim last flew over the bayou with his cameras on Oct. 2, 2015.
Watch a slideshow of the new and old photos here, including an overhead shot of the recent destruction of the riparian garden planted by the bayou during flooding at the boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway. Planting the proper succession of native sedges, rushes, grasses, etc. to anchor and transform the bare sediment is what’s supposed to happen during flooding. Nature knows!
Natural Garden on Buffalo Bayou Mowed Down
Native Landscaping Sadly Cut By Mistake
September 26, 2016
We received some upsetting news Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. The lovely garden planted by Buffalo Bayou on the banks of the outfall/boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway had been completely mowed down.
Geologist Bill Heins sent us photographs, and the scene was ugly. We’ve been following the evolution of this little patch of paradise in the middle of the city for the past two years. We’ve been learning from the bayou, how it responds and repairs itself, tends to its ecosystem, and we’ve done our best to explain that to others, including our civic and political leaders. Some of these articles can be found here and here.
Most recently, on Sept. 20, we wrote about the invasion of some non-native Johnsongrass that had shouldered its way in amongst the native amaranth (pigweed), smartweed, sedge, groundcherry and other plants that have such a vital natural function: stabilizing the bank, preparing the sediment for new growth, cleansing the water and providing nourishment for a variety of native birds, butterflies, and insects.
We wondered about the wisdom of cutting these native plants on the eroding steep bank adjacent to Woodway. Not only had clumps of cuttings been left to wash into and pollute the bayou, but the cutting itself undermines the ability of these plants to stabilize the bank. Also it’s ugly. And strangely the invasive Johnsongrass was untouched.
Stunning Art Show Focuses on Bayou, Water, Bees, and Plants
Sept. 25, 2016
Artists and the natural world is the theme of an inspiring show of photography, drawing, and painting in the lobby gallery of Williams Tower, 2800 Post Oak Blvd, through October 21.
Curator Sally Sprout has organized an exhibition of the work of four artists living in Houston who are “profoundly influenced by the relationship between human beings and the natural world.”
It is worth noting that for her paintings Janice Freeman appropriates the photographs of Buffalo Bayou taken by her husband, Geoff Winningham, for his landmark book, Along Forgotten River.
Below are some images from the show, which is free and open to the public and titled “Kaleidoscope: Approaching Nature.”
Bayou Update Update: The Memory of a River and The Importance of Beavers
Beavers Still Active
New Channel is Old Channel
Sept. 23, 2016
An anonymous reader who lives on Buffalo Bayou wrote in to give us a report on beavers and some history on the new channel cut through a sandy point in Memorial Park.
The channel isn’t new at all, the reader pointed out. During the extended high waters following record rains last spring, the bayou cut across a sandy point on the north bank and settled back into the course it used to take back in the 1930s. This is based on property maps from that era, wrote the reader, who lives on the south bank.
Bayous and streams tend to do that: seek out their historic channels, amazingly even when concrete blocks the way. They have a memory. Houston historian and Buffalo Bayou chronicler Louis Aulbach tells the story of the time during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 that the bayou broke through a concrete retaining wall in Tranquility Garage underneath the Wortham Center. The bayou may have been seeking out its former natural channel, which was filled in and the bayou rerouted in 1927-28. The Wortham Center now stands on top of the original channel, and the garage beneath it would actually be in the old channel.
Aulbach is the author of the fascinating book Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings.