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Brays Bayou

Two views of the flood bond referendum

View One, from Joe B. Allen and Jim Blackburn: Vote for it because there’s no real alternative.

Proposition A — the proposal to allow Harris County to issue $2.5 billion in flood control bonds — will be on the ballot in Harris County on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. We agree that this bond issue is essential to the future of our community.

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With the passage of $2.5 billion in bonds and an estimated $7.5 billion in matching federal funds, HCFCD would be able to spend $1 billion per year for the next 10 years on flood management. This will not solve all of our drainage problems, but it would represent a dramatic improvement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced funding for four federally approved and permitted projects: Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. All four projects have a significant local match requirement. If the bonds are approved, these projects could start immediately.

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There is no Plan B. Either this bond election passes or the current flooding conditions continue. The world watched as we came together to help one another in the aftermath of Harvey. Now is the time to come together to show the world that we are willing and able to solve major problems to ensure the long-term success of the place we proudly call home.

We plan to vote FOR Prop. A, and we urge you to do the same. Early voting begins Aug. 8.

Jim Blackburn is a well-respected and very outspoken authority on flooding and related environmental matters, so his endorsement of the referendum carries a lot of weight.

View Two, from Roger Gingell: More flood detention basins, please!

If voters approve Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood control bonds, the County Flood Control District will have more than 41 times its annual budget to spend on flood mitigation. That’s great news if the money is used wisely.

A wise use of the bond money would include water detention basins in neighborhoods that flood, built on land already owned by the public.

Recently, myself and a few others had a private showing of the flood bond proposals for our older neighborhoods in Spring Branch. A friendly gentleman from Flood Control showed us a map with purple circles and green triangles representing projects. If you are lucky, your neighborhood is awarded a purple circle which represents a bigger project. A green triangle on the other hand could be just a tiny, micro-project like fixing some unspecified damage to a drain. None of the projects, however, are set in stone. That is how the bond is being sold — citizens can influence or even add projects.

During that hour intensely staring at a map of triangles and circles, it became clear that the biggest thing missing from the bond proposal was water detention basins actually being located inside the neighborhoods that have flooding problems. There wasn’t a single proposed water detention basin inside the neighborhoods surrounding Memorial City, which flood heavily.

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Having a budget 41 times your existing yearly budget means that new responsibilities will follow. With a bond of this size, Flood Control can’t just be in charge of the bayou while a financially distressed city of Houston is in charge of drainage to the bayou. Thinking must be done outside the box. The institutional mindset of Flood Control must change and grow for the better.

To serve all tax payers who would potentially be paying for the $2.5 billion bond, county planners must take the innovative approach and look for publicly owned land inside neighborhoods that flood. These are the places that water detention basins must be built to save neighborhoods inside the city.

Gingell is the general counsel for Residents Against Flooding, a nonprofit that filed suit against the city in 2016 for approving commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation. He doesn’t explicitly say he’s against the bond, but you can see he has reservations. I don’t have anything to add to these, I just wanted to flag them for those of you who still want to know more about this referendum. I’ll have a couple of interviews next week to add on.

More flood mitigation coming

This is ambitious.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After local leaders stood on the banks of Brays Bayou to celebrate a creative agreement that is expected to speed up work on a long-delayed effort to lessen the risk of flooding in southwest Houston, some angry Meyerland-area flood victims peppered them with questions.

The press conference was called to tout a plan under which the city of Houston would borrow $46 million from the state, give the cash to the county to speed up work on Project Brays, then be reimbursed later with federal dollars.

City officials hope to repeat that process for two other bayous – White Oak and Hunting- ultimately forwarding the county about $130  million.

For more background on this effort, click here. For more information on another recent flooding initiative Mayor Sylvester Turner and his “flood czar,” Steve Costello, announced, click here.

And for more information about Project Brays, visit this county Flood Control District page.

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Turner — who, like flood control officials — was mobbed by residents after he stepped down from the podium, answered questions for several minutes before departing.

“There’s no question that there are frustrations and I understand the frustrations,” the mayor said. “Nobody wants their homes flooded once, four times or seven times. And that’s why the city, in an unprecedented move, took the lead and borrowed the $43 million. Now we have certainty that this project will be completed.”

Harris County Flood Control District Director Russ Poppe said his agency expects to complete channel widening through Meyerland to Fondren in the next two years. The city loan, which will be used chiefly for downstream bridge replacements, is important, he said, because bridges that are too low can create significant backups, heightening the flooding risk for those upstream.

The Mayor’s press release is here, and as you can see there are statements from multiple other elected officials, at different levels of government. The plan, which has received preliminary approval from Council, is a bit convoluted, but it’s also an example of Mayor Turner leveraging his experience in the Legislature to forge complex agreements. Homeowners who have been badly harmed by recent floods had some understandable questions about how all this will affect them, not all of which are addressed by this plan. Still, I think we can all agree that bayou improvements are a key component in flood mitigation, and streamlining the process to make it happen more quickly will help. It would be nice if we could come to a similar consensus about preserving flood plains and wetlands, but one step at a time. The Press has more.

Bell wants Meyerland flooding investigated

It’s a story about flooding and the Mayor’s race, but not the story about flooding and the Mayor’s race you might have been expecting.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Mayoral candidate Chris Bell on Sunday called for an independent investigation into why so many Meyerland homes flooded during the heavy Memorial Day weekend rains.

Surrounded by about two dozen residents at a press conference by Brays Bayou, Bell said it was important to figure out why infrastructure projects in the area didn’t prevent major flooding and why others were not completed on schedule. Bell challenged the assertion, backed by experts, that flooding was inevitable considering some areas were hit with more than 10 inches overnight.

“The least we are owed is an explanation of what happened,” said Bell, a former congressman and city councilman who lives in Meyerland.

Bell called for an outside investigation, saying that a report by the Harris County Flood Control District would be “biased” because the agency helped design projects in the area as part of the city’s drainage and streets program, ReBuild Houston. A spokesperson for the agency could not be reached Sunday.

Bell is not the first of the seven mayoral candidates to criticize the city’s ReBuild Houston initiative, the pay-as-you-go program that voters approved in 2010, in the wake of the Memorial Day flooding. Many of the candidates vying to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker have seized on the flooding to criticize the city’s infrastructure or talk about speeding up flood mitigation efforts.

Well, except that Bell never mentions ReBuild Houston in this story, and that the next three paragraphs have to do with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and the effect it had on Brays Bayou and the massive project that the Harris County Flood Control District undertook to mitigate those effects, which some people including Bell are now saying have taken too long and not done enough. None of this, you may note, has anything to do with ReBuild Houston. I’m sure Bell has been critical of ReBuild Houston, but as far as I can tell what he has not done – along with Adrian Garcia and Marty McVey – is publicly express an opinion on the Supreme Court ruling or the subsequent new litigation or the call for a revote. Any or all of those things would have been nice to know, but none of them are a part of this story. I don’t know if Chron reporter Tina Nazerian didn’t think to ask about any of these things or just didn’t report the answers she got when she did. Either way, we got nothing. For a bit of writing that does have something to do with ReBuild Houston, see PDiddie.

The cars in the bayous

Boy, does this sound like a great opening to a crime novel.

Houston’s bayous, dotted by marshy banks and filled with bass and catfish, weave through the city, providing an appealing landscape for joggers and cyclists. But beneath the murky, brown waters is something not as pleasant: a makeshift dumping ground of cars, trucks and vans.

Tim Miller, director of Texas Equusearch, said his volunteer crews have evidence that 127 vehicles are submerged in the bayous. Miller said there are potential environmental and safety hazards of having cars corroding the city’s waterways.

“Houston is known as the Bayou City. I know millions of dollars are spent on the banks of the bayous to make it beautiful,” said Miller, who founded the nonprofit search and rescue organization in 2000. “But we’ve got a big problem with what’s underneath the water.”

Texas Equusearch crews found the vehicles while assisting the Houston Police Department with a search for 82-year-old Lillian High in October 2011. Her body was found inside a rented Dodge Avenger that had plunged into the pond a few miles from her Houston home.

During that search Miller said the organization’s sonar equipment discovered vehicles in Sims, Braes and Buffalo bayous.

In recent months, Miller said many bodies have been discovered in vehicles in Texas and around the country, compelling him to go public with the information. He cited two cases from April, one in which police in South Dakota found the bodies of two teens who disappeared 42 years ago. Later that month, police found skeletal remains inside a truck recovered from a North Texas lake of a woman missing for 35 years.

“Families would call me whose loved ones were still missing, and they’d see these kinds of stories and ask me if there is any chance that their (family members) could be under there, since their loved ones hadn’t been found,” he said. “It was just like, you know what, we’ve got to do something, we just have to.”

HPD says the know all about the cars and they dispute the claim that there could be bodies in one or more of them. I have no opinion about that, but I do think from an environmental point of view that we ought to do what we can to get these cars out of there. They can’t be doing any good down there. Let’s figure out how much it might cost, then see if we can come up with an action plan. Swamplot has more.

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

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The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

Invasive species report

Interesting story about a group of scientists cataloging invasive species in the area.

Termed the Texas Rapid Assessment Team — Galveston, the group includes scientists from across the spectrum of disciplines and expertise conducting surveys and collecting samples to document all the alien/invasive species they can find. Their focus is strictly the Galveston Bay area, particularly the watersheds feeding the bay.

“We have cooperators looking at everything from phytoplankton and algae to fish, vegetation, mammals — the whole spectrum,” said Leslie Hartman, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries scientist and coordinator of the TxRAT project.

More than 30 state and federal agencies, universities and private organizations are helping support the effort with personnel, equipment and funding. The aim is to catalog as many alien/invasive species as possible and include information on their locations and distribution. This information will serve as a “baseline” for future monitoring of alien species and their impacts, Hartman said.

Among the places they’re looking are in urban areas, such as Houston’s bayous, as these are the entry points for a surprising number of unwanted visitors.

The armored catfish are South American natives. Commonly called plecostomus, “plecos,” “sucker catfish” or “algae eaters” in the aquarium trade, juvenile armored catfish are sold to hobbyists. The small catfish eat the algae growing on aquarium glass.

But little plecos grow into big armored catfish. And when owners tire of the fish or the fish get too large for the tanks, they end up in streams and bayous.

Houston’s bayou system swarms with armored catfish, which thrive in the near-tropical water. They face no natural enemies or other population controls and get big, with some growing to more than 2 feet long.

While their impacts on native species remain unclear, armored catfish do have a definite environmental and economic impact.

Like most catfish, they are “cavity nesters.” The well-named armored catfish, their heads and bodies encased in a bone-hard exterior, carve “nest” holes in the clay sides of the bayou. When water levels are low, the holes can be seen along the banks of the bayou. In some places, dozens of these cavities pock the bayou.

Those holes weaken the bayou bank, causing sections to slough into the water and otherwise accelerating erosion, costing the public money to maintain the banks for flood control.

So please don’t dump your unwanted fish down the toilet or sewer, aquarium enthusiasts. Those fish don’t belong here, and dumping them like that costs us all money.

The new Hermann Park train

All aboard!

Hermann Park Conservancy on Saturday will formally unveil $14 million in park improvements, including a new miniature train station, dramatically landscaped grounds and a lakeside plaza featuring a restaurant, gift shop and rest­rooms.

Among other project highlights for the 6-acre tract adjoining the northeastern edge of McGovern Lake, said conservancy executive director Doreen Stoller, were the planting of 300 trees and improvement of a waterway that will drain to Brays Bayou.

Stoller likened the transformation of the area, which abuts parking for the Houston Zoo, to that at downtown’s Discovery Green.

“This is even prettier than I imagined,” she said.

The station will serve as the focal point of the expanded miniature railroad, whose route was lengthened to nearly two miles and now includes stops at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Texas Medical Center and a transfer point to Metro’s light rail system.

We go to the zoo a lot, so we’ve been watching this progress. I can’t wait to take the girls on the new train – they’ll love it. I just hope yesterday’s inclement weather didn’t put a damper on the festivities.