Residents worry flood control will kill trees
A Harris County study to reduce flooding along Buffalo Bayou between Texas 6 and Beltway 8 is drawing fire from local groups who say flood control improvements could destroy forests there.
Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to let the Harris County Flood Control District sketch out what exactly a study of that segment of the bayou would examine.
The Court would have to vote again to green light the actual study, which could recommend flood reduction measures, such as clearing trees and installing detention ponds.
Susan Chadwick, executive director of the nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou, opposed the flood control district’s study, stating that residents in the area had been fighting for years to keep the forests’ natural aesthetic.
“It’s not worth the loss of public treasure,” Chadwick told commissioners Tuesday. “Trees do not cause flooding of homes.”
Chadwick is among a number of residents in the area who say that the trees help improve water quality, slow rainwater runoff and maintain a more appealing natural aesthetic. Proponents note that for flood-weary residents along Buffalo Bayou, many who just took on several feet of water during Hurricane Harvey, holding back floodwaters while also streamlining portions of the
channel is paramount.
The back-and-forth is the latest in a long-standing tension over the look and feel of Houston’s bayous. Terry Hershey and other Houston conservationists led a famous and successful push in the 1960s to prevent the straightening of Buffalo Bayou, a move that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said constrained the ability of the bayou to handle floodwaters released from the Addicks and Barker dams.
Earlier this year, the flood control district was granted a permit from the Army Corps to redesign a portion of Buffalo Bayou near Memorial Park to show that stabilization of banks, erosion repair, improved water quality, sediment reduction and preservation of the bayou’s flood capacity is possible through “natural channel design,” a term that describes engineering to a stream that mimics natural changes.
That project also was opposed by conservationists who criticized that alteration of the natural landscape.
“You see this frequently, figuring out if you leave a system natural, or do you make them pipes,” said Larry Larson, senior policy analyst with the association of state flood plain managers.
Larson said similar conversations are happening around the country as cities look to reverse a mid-20th century push to line waterways with concrete.
Regarding the flood control district’s current look at Buffalo Bayou between Texas 6 and Beltway 8, Executive Director Russ Poppe said the district owns right of way averaging about 500 to 600 feet outside the bayou’s banks in that stretch, opening up the possibility to add stormwater detention there. The land was purchased from the Army Corps in the 1960s.
“Those improvements do make a benefit,” Poppe said.
The flood control district does not own the right of way downstream of Beltway 8. Addicks and Barker dams are upstream of Texas 6.
The flood control district also is conducting another study of vegetation along that stretch of the bayou to classify the plants and trees. Removing invasive species could have environmental benefits, Poppe said.
The timing of potential projects on Buffalo Bayou is unclear. Recommendations could come before Commissioners Court in a few months. Poppe said Tuesday’s vote allows the flood control district to negotiate with consultant R.G. Miller Engineers over the scope of the Buffalo Bayou study, and once that is complete, began analyzing information from the vegetation study to recommend any changes.
Poppe said “absolutely there would be opportunity for public involvement,” citing future votes on potential projects.
He said the city also is considering drainage improvements along Buffalo Bayou, which could impact how much water that drains out of neighborhoods and into the waterway. That could necessitate more detention or other improvements.
Steve Costello, the city’s chief resilience officer, who frequently is referred to as Houston’s “flood czar,” could not be reached for comment Tuesday.