As Flood Risks Rise Across the US, It’s Time to Recognize the Limits of Levees

 

By Amahia Mallea, Associate Professor of History, Drake University

Posted on Naked Capitalism

Originally published at The Conversation

New Orleans averted disaster this month when tropical storm Barry delivered less rain in the Crescent City than forecasters originally feared. But Barry’s slog through Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri is just the latest event in a year that has tested levees across the central U.S.

Many U.S. cities rely on levees for protection from floods. There are more than 100,000 miles of levees nationwide, in all 50 states and one of every five counties. Most of them seriously need repair: Levees received a D on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2018 national infrastructure report card.

Levees shield farms and towns from flooding, but they also create risk. When rivers rise, they can’t naturally spread out in the floodplain as they did in the pre-flood control era. Instead, they flow harder and faster and send more water downstream.

Read the rest of this post on Naked Capitalism.

 

Levees exist in one out of every five U.S. counties. USACE

All Fall Down

City of Houston Must Stop Issuing Permits for Bank Projects that Damage Public and Private Property and the Environment

 

July 11, 2019

What would we think if government officials issued a permit to build a bridge or a house that they knew would fall down?

What if officials knew the house would fall down on top of someone else’s house, but they issued the permit anyway?

And what if they knew that building the house would destabilize the rest of the houses up and down and across the street, but they closed their eyes and plugged their ears and said, “That’s not really our responsibility. Go ahead.”

 

A view of Area 2 on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou below the River Oaks Country Club golf course. There were trees and vegetation there once. Taken from the opposite bank in Memorial Park on July 2, 2019

 

Recently a group of homeowners gathered on Buffalo Bayou watching anxiously as a heavy equipment operator across the way pounded massive panels of sheet piling into the opposite bank. Their well-founded concern was that the hardening of the bank with metal and concrete was going to direct the bayou flow onto their property, flooding, eroding, and destabilizing their homes.

It is a scene often repeated on the bayou. A lawyer with the group commented that he regularly gets calls from worried property owners asking what they can do about the alarming “erosion control” project their neighbor is building across the way or next door.

 

Stop Issuing Permits for Hardening Banks

Here’s what should be done: The City of Houston needs to stop issuing building permits for these kinds of bank-hardening projects. Not only do they frequently fail, make bank problems worse, increase flooding and damage neighboring property; they also destroy the river’s beneficial functions, its ability to adjust, slow, absorb, and cleanse stormwater, collect sediment and reduce bacteria, and provide habitat for a diversity of creatures large and small necessary for the health of our environment, including trees and plants.

When one permit is issued, it forces other property owners to rush to an engineer willing to design a costly “erosion control” project for their bank too. Eventually our beautiful living bayou will be treeless and lifeless, entirely imprisoned between long ugly walls, filled with concrete debris, bouncing floodwater back and forth across the channel.

 

They Know These Projects Fail and Cause Damage

The City knows this. So do the Harris County Flood Control District and the Corps of Engineers, which also granted a federal permit for this project, although largely out of inaction, failing to respond within the required time limit.

Recognition that these bank hardening projects fail and cause damage was theoretically the basis for the controversial and misguided Memorial Park Demonstration Project, for which city and county taxpayers were asked to spend some $4 million. The project, first proposed around 2010 and dropped after Harvey, was based on a faulty analysis of the kind of bank problems we have on Buffalo Bayou. (Our banks mainly collapse vertically, by sliding down. And then gradually restore themselves, if left undisturbed.)

While the idea that neighbors should collaborate was a good one, their solution was not. The absurd plan was to demonstrate better “erosion control” by razing the trees and vegetation, digging up the banks, dredging and rerouting a long stretch of the bayou flowing past Memorial Park in the center of Houston, a historic nature area.

The project likely would have failed, washing out in a flood like Harvey, leaving behind a wasteland, as similar projects elsewhere have done.

Read the rest of this post.

Resilient Development

In Houston, Development Must Think outside the Floodplains, Advocates Say

By Emma Whalen, Community Impact

Part of a series

July 4, 2019

As new development regulations in Houston attempt to offset the effects of more frequent heavy storms, some advocates and researchers say targeting the area’s urban sprawl will do more to reduce those at risk than limiting the amount of development in the city’s core.

….

Researchers, including Shelton, said approaching development regulations from a watershed level rather than a jurisdictional level would make it easier to manage stormwater runoff across Houston and its suburbs and would reduce the strain downstream on bayous and tributaries. This approach also calls for more dense development on existing property rather than converting open land into new subdivisions.

“We need to be redeveloping decrepit commercial districts [outside of flood plains] that would be suitable for multi-use residential and commercial,” said Susan Chadwick, director of nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou. “Look at all those strip malls all the way up North Shepherd.”

Moving water through the city more effectively relies on less development upstream as well as more green space surrounding the bayous’ flood plains. This could be aided by the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative, which focuses on adding parks and trails along the city’s bayous.

“We’re not against development,” Chadwick said. “It should just be intelligent development.”

Read the rest of this article in the Community Impact newspaper.

Tonic of the Wilderness

There Is a Word for the Trauma Caused by Distance from Nature

 

More Evidence of the Need for Nature in the City

By Ephrat Livni, Quartz

February 24, 2019

You’ve got problems. Perhaps more than you know. Apart from all the usual woes—work, relationships, money, time—the civilized life may also be causing you psychological trauma.

Disconnection from nature can be bad for our mental health. But there was no name for this particular malaise until Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht coined the term psychoterratic, creating the beginning of a vocabulary to discuss the relationship between mental health and environment.

Since then, he’s thought up a whole lexicon. In May, Albrecht’s book, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, will be published by Cornell University Press. It includes gems like the word ecoagnosy, a term created to describe environmental ignorance or indifference to the ecology. Then there’s solastalgia, the psychic pain of climate change and missing a home that’s transforming before your eyes.

The Healing Power of Nature

Read the rest of this article in Quartz.

Image courtesy of Quartz

New Photos of Destruction of Buffalo Bayou

Unnecessarily Damaging Bank Project Continues Opposite Memorial Park

Call and complain!

June 11, 2019

They had other options. They should have been required to use the least damaging alternative. But the City of Houston, in concert with the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District, gave the River Oaks Country Club a permit to grind up and bulldoze the bank of one of the loveliest stretches of Buffalo Bayou in the center of Houston. The club is doing this in three areas, pounding sheet pile deep into the bank, dumping dirt and concrete riprap onto it and more. And those public agencies, obligated to protect us and our environment, knew that environmentally-destructive projects like this often fail, that they cause more erosion and flooding to neighboring property.

They’re not even using silt fencing to prevent dirt from rolling into the bayou. We complained to the City last Thursday. As of Sunday still no silt fencing. We’ve also now complained to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

You can complain too. Call the City at 311 and complain about the failure to use silt fencing as required by law. The address is 1600 River Oaks Boulevard. The City floodplain permit is Project 19020694. Also call the Corps’ Regulatory Hotline at 409-766-3869. The permit number is SWG 2013-00593.

 

Area 3 on June 6, 2019. This is at the downstream end of the golf course next to the 3rd hole opposite private residences and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary owned by the people of Houston.

They Didn’t Have to Do It

Though club members have been told that the situation is dire and urgent,  their bank problems didn’t look that bad to our geologists. As one noted: their solution is “like using a sledge hammer to pound a tack.”

They are spending as much as possible, something like $20-24 million, when they could have spent a fraction of that using softer, natural methods like anchored brush, strategically positioned large woody debris, and plantings that would not have radically altered the flow of the stream, deflecting it onto the opposite bank, destroying the stream’s beneficial function of absorbing and cleansing the water and providing habitat.  They could have restored a strip of native trees and grasses to the edge of the mowed golf course to divert and absorb runoff currently flowing over the eroding bank. Because we have vertical collapse or slumping of the banks on Buffalo Bayou, the most effective path is simply to retreat, pull their large golf course, denuded of trees over the years, including in recent weeks, and expanded in 2015, back from the very edge. These practices—stripping the trees, planting short-rooted grass, mowing and watering the grass—among others, are contributing to their slumping problems. Instead they have used the most costly and environmentally-damaging methods possible, including in 2015 riprap that predictably failed, and have now opened themselves to the possibility of a lawsuit.

Read the rest of this post and see more photos.

As Hurricane Season Begins, ‘Green’ Flood Control Finds Support in Texas

As Greater Houston Seeks Protection from the Next Hurricane Harvey, Using Natural Features Like Prairies and Sand Dunes to Control Water Is Gaining Purchase

By Tom Dart, CityLab

June 4, 2019

HOUSTON— With the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season under way as of June 1, Texas has taken a major step toward improving its flood defenses by passing a bill to tap into the state’s savings—the aptly nicknamed Rainy Day Fund—for a sum of $1.7 billion. The move comes almost two years after Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas in August 2017, killing 68 people and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage statewide.

A chance to push for green infrastructure

With its loyal support for the oil and gas industry, it’s not often that the Texas legislature gives conservationists anything to cheer. But the text of Bill 7 cites “construction and implementation of nonstructural projects, including projects that use nature-based features to protect, mitigate or reduce flood risk.” Environmental advocates see a chance to push for green designs in a state better known for exploiting natural resources than preserving them.

Lawmakers still envision a significant role for traditional “gray” engineered solutions, such as pipes, levees, drainage channels, and retention basins. But Laura Huffman, state director for The Nature Conservancy, thinks politicians are “recognizing that green infrastructure can scale just like gray infrastructure,” she said.

“Engineering companies want to do the most expensive thing they can do,” complained Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a local advocacy group. Her group argues that chopping down trees and vegetation reduces the land’s stability and potential to absorb water and capture pollution; adds to repair and maintenance costs; and has a negative impact on residents’ wellbeing.

The detention project feels like a compromise between natural and artificial flood-control techniques. “After Harvey, they needed to bring some stuff off the shelf and show they are ready to do something,” Chadwick said. She is skeptical that a city that used concrete to conquer swamps, marshes, and prairies can learn to restore green spaces—or just leave them alone.

Read the whole story in CityLab.

 

Aerial view of the flood-control work on the Buffalo Bayou, which falls somewhere between “gray” and “green” approaches. (Courtesy of Save Buffalo Bayou)

Detention We Hardly Knew You!

An Essay on Nature, Raindrops, and Stormwater

 

By Brandt Mannchen of the Houston Sierra Club

April 16, 2019

Now, particularly in these days after Hurricane Harvey, we hear the word “Detention”, almost like a chant or mantra.  Flood control experts, agencies, public officials, developers, and many citizens talk about “Detention” like it is the solution to our flood problems.  They usually only envision two types of “Detention”.  These two types of “Detention” are digging deep holes in the ground (called basins, reservoirs, or ponds) and digging deeper and wider channels to create “in-line Detention”.

….

The reason for our failure to use natural “Detention” effectively is our lack of respect for Nature and our place in it.  This reflects our failure to work with and not against Nature.  John Muir revealed our connection to Nature when he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Aldo Leopold, the great “land ethic” thinker suggested that “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” and that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, the stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise”.  These concerns about our lack of vision and our head-long pursuit of development caused John Muir to rage, “Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.”

These quotes reveal that if we are going to survive and coexist with Nature in the Houston Area, we must stop our war against Nature.  Leopold saw this battle as deeply rooted in our existing Society, “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

It is my belief that unless we acknowledge our pointless, harmful, and self-defeating struggle against Nature and change how we approach flood control and development we are doomed to fail.  I don’t want to leave our children with this negative legacy.  I now understand what Leopold meant when he said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”  No mas!

Read the entire essay on the Houston Sierra Club website.

After a $14-Billion Upgrade, New Orleans’ Levees Are Sinking

A Cautionary Tale About Big Engineering Fixes

Sea-level rise and ground subsidence will render the flood barriers inadequate in just four years

By Thomas Frank, E&E News,

The $14 billion network of levees and floodwalls that was built to protect greater New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a seemingly invincible bulwark against flooding.

But now, 11 months after the Army Corps of Engineers completed one of the largest public works projects in world history, the agency says the system will stop providing adequate protection in as little as four years because of rising sea levels and shrinking levees.

The growing vulnerability of the New Orleans area is forcing the Army Corps to begin assessing repair work, including raising hundreds of miles of levees and floodwalls that form a meandering earth and concrete fortress around the city and its adjacent suburbs.

Read the rest of this article in Scientific American.

New Orleans levees. Photo credit Mario Tama, Getty Images.

Reminder: Comments Due on Buffalo Bayou Flooding Study

Send to Corps of Engineers by Friday, May 31

 

May 28, 2019

(Updated May 29 with correct email address for sending comments to the Corps)

Should we spend billions to dig a gigantic concrete tunnel to drain stormwater from the west side of Houston directly east into Galveston Bay? (At the same time that we spend over $1 billion to build a 39-mile giant pipe to bring drinking water from the east to new development in the west.)

Or should we buy up land, protect it as greenspace, and use it for natural stormwater detention, slowing the runoff before it overwhelms the dams and adds to flooding in Buffalo Bayou? And maybe buy flood-prone houses and other structures, move them out of harm’s way.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is asking for public opinion as it studies ways of reducing flood risk along Buffalo Bayou and its many tributaries. This includes upstream and downstream of the federal flood control dams Addicks and Barker, both of which drain into Buffalo Bayou. Homes, schools, and businesses were badly flooded upstream and downstream of the reservoirs during Harvey.

Public comments are due by Friday, May 31. The study is known officially as the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study (BBTRS). Comments received will be used in the development of an Environmental Impact Statement in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the Corps.

The diverse measures being considered by the Corps in cooperation with the Harris County Flood Control District include tunnels, bypasses, levees, a new reservoir/dam, detention, “channel improvements,” as wells as “property acquisition,” flood proofing, signage and flood warning systems, public education, increasing storage capacity within the existing reservoirs, and more.

A study recently released by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium concluded that a Third Reservoir on the Katy Prairie near Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County would do little to reduce flooding.

BBTRS@usace.army.mil is the email address for asking questions and sending in your comments and suggestions about what the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District (and Fort Bend County) should be doing about flooding. Note that this does not include what the City of Houston could or should do.

You can also mail your comments to the Corps. Be sure they are postmarked by May 31, 2019.

Send to: USACE, Galveston District, Attention: BBTRS, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX  77553-1229.

The three primary problems being addressed by the Corps are:

  • Flooding downstream of the reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou
  • Performance and risk issues related to flow around and over the uncontrolled spillways
  • Flooding upstream of the reservoirs

In April and May the Corps held several public meetings in west Houston and Katy to explain the study and the process and to gather public input. Here is a link to the Corps’ presentation at the meetings. Here is a link to the storyboards presented at the meetings.

Save Buffalo Bayou is in favor of stopping and slowing stormwater runoff before it floods our bayous and streams. This is modern floodplain management. That means more trees and greenspace, more wetlands and prairies, more detention in neighborhoods and shopping malls, more permeable surface. Focusing on collecting and conveying more stormwater faster—and destroying our natural landscape and drainage system in order to do it—only leads to more flooding. Dredging, deepening, and widening the bayou and other streams only leads to bank collapse, constant maintenance and repair, and more flooding.  (See here and here and here.) It’s like building bigger freeways: it doesn’t work.

Preserving old stands of trees, natural swales, wetlands, oxbows, vegetated riparian areas, and meanders; building small weirs, sediment structures, wet gardens, and setback levees; lengthening streams, and accepting large woody debris in the channel are useful techniques. Using these practices to work with the natural motion of the river is more effective – and less expensive – in reducing flood damage and helping us realize benefits from the water.

Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era, p. 137

SC

Buffalo Bayou flowing past the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, Bayou Bend Collection parking lot, and the River Oaks Country Club golf course. Flow was relatively high, around 700 cubic feet per second, covering the banks. Photo May 5, 2019, by Jim Olive.

Houston City Council Approves New Development In Katy-Area Floodplain

More Stormwater Running Off into Addicks Dam and Buffalo Bayou

Keep in mind that the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium recently found that stormwater detention requirements for new development were not working. But we knew that. If they were working, we wouldn’t be talking about billion-dollar flood tunnels and deepening and widening our bayous.

The vacant land is located west of Addicks Dam

By Jen Rice, Houston Public Media, May 24, 2019

Houston City Council approved a new municipal utility district in the 100-year floodplain, despite opposition from some members who say additional development could make flooding worse.

More than 600 acres of vacant land in the Katy area will be developed for single family residential and commercial use. The land is located west of the Addicks dam, which flooded surrounding neighborhoods during Hurricane Harvey. The nearest major drainage facility is South Mayde Creek, which flows into Buffalo Bayou, then the Houston Ship Channel.

Councilmember Brenda Stardig, who represents parts of West Houston, voted against the measure based on guidance from flooding experts.

“When someone that’s in the know about that dam tells me the development west of that dam has contributed to the issues, then I have to hesitate,” Stardig said. “My district would probably not appreciate me supporting this at this time because of the fact, like I said, that it’s outlined that it’s in the floodplain.”

Read the rest of this report at Houston Public Media.

Signs pointing to the future on the Katy prairie. Photo by Shannon Harrison for Houston Public Media.

 

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