Tag Archive for: wetlands

A Visual Testament to the Wonders of Wetlands

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wetlands provide free floodwater storage that helps retain runoff and reduce flooding. Wetlands also reduce erosion and improve water quality. Last, but not least, they also provide habitat for hundreds of species.

One of my hobbies has long been bird photography. Few other cities in America offer the possibilities that Houston does, thanks in large part to the abundant wetlands found here.

For instance, since 2010, 198 species of birds have been spotted in or near the wetlands of Kingwood’s East End Park. Many of those species are rare, threatened, or even endangered.

Many of the shots below were taken there. Friendswood donated the land to the Kingwood Service Association to manage for the benefit of all Kingwood residents. And I am sure that proximity to such beauty has enhanced home values.

Local Color

For those willing to explore, the visual rewards can be priceless. These colorful creatures enrich our community and our lives.

Mating display by Great White Egret in breeding plumage.
Painted Bunting enjoying breakfast
Cattle Egret near Huffman
Roseate Spoonbills defending nest from marauder.
Ruby-Throated Hummingbird near Creekwood Nature Center and Kingwood Town Center
Cedar Waxwing
Male Mallard in Huffman on Lake Houston
Great White Egrets watch hatchling as it emerges from egg
Roseate Spoonbills get their pink coloration from the foods they eat. They are one of six spoonbill species in the world and the only one found in North America.
Male Scarlet Tanager in breeding plumage.

As we head into the peak of the Spring nesting season, I offer these shots as a visual testament to the wonders of wetlands. And with grateful thanks to all our predecessors who saw the beauty in conservation and preservation.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/27/24

2402 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Bayou Land Conservancy Protects Another 966 Acres in Lake Creek Watershed

Bayou Land Conservancy (BLC) has announced a conservation easement on 966 acres of critical Lake Creek property in Montgomery County. The property is just northeast of Magnolia on Tranquility Ranch, which is owned by Nathan and Lindy Ingram. BLC started working with the Ingrams in 2015.

The conservation easement is across Lake Creek from the 7,000-acre Cook’s Branch preserve owned by the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation. The proximity of the two large properties will benefit wildlife by maintaining the “carrying capacity” of the land.

Lake Creek flows diagonally through this satellite image from Google Earth. Note how new developments are gobbling up the natural (green) area in the middle where the conservation easement is.

The 966 acres permanently preserved at Tranquility Ranch help meet BLC’s long-term conservation goals and contribute to the environmental health of the region.

The preserve will function as a wetland and stream mitigation bank, known as the West Montgomery Mitigation Bank. It has credits available to developers seeking to offset impacts in this rapidly growing area.

Wild area along Lake Creek where it flows through Tranquility Ranch.

Featuring a mix of hardwood and pine forest, Tranquility Ranch consists of over 400 acres of existing wetland habitat, 20 acres of streams & ponds, and 13,000 linear feet (2.5 miles) of stream frontage on Lake Creek.

In addition to high quality existing habitat, over 90 acres of wetlands and 300 acres of flooded forests will be improved and restored on the land.

Bottomland hardwoods provide habitat for wildlife.

The 966-acre preserve is part of a larger 1200-acre property that hosts a special event venue called The Wyldes at Tranquility Ranch. It hosts retreats, weddings, and other events.

Benefits to People and Wildlife

Jill Boullion, Executive Director of Bayou Land Conservancy, said, “This conservation agreement makes a significant stride towards BLC’s conservation goals to preserve land in the Lake Houston watershed.”

“We’re grateful to landowner Nathan Ingram and his care and protection of this special place,” said Boullion.

“This land will provide positive impacts in the region for generations to come.”

Jill Boullion, Exec. Director, BLC

Preservation of Tranquility Ranch will provide many community benefits. They include flood control, water-quality improvements for drinking water and recreation, and wildlife habitat. The preserve also is an important nesting, wintering, and migratory stop-over site for many bird species, including owls, raptors, and songbirds.

Importance of Lake Creek Preservation to Downstream Flood Protection

Leaving natural areas natural won’t reduce flooding per se. But it will keep flooding from getting worse.

It will also reduce flood damage by ensuring generous setbacks from areas that flood.

Wetlands are nature’s sponges. They retain runoff that might otherwise quickly add to flood peaks downstream. They also clean water.

Bayou City Waterkeeper ranks the wetlands along Lake Creek as one of the five most critical wetland areas in the Houston Region.

For those who may not know where Lake Creek is, it enters the San Jacinto West Fork just south of Conroe, about 9 miles south of the Lake Conroe Dam. See the big green area in the upper left.

watershed map of the San Jacinto
Watershed map courtesy of San Jacinto Regional Water Authority.

From this map, we can see that rainfall from seven watersheds flows under the US59 bridge. Comparing peak flow data from them during the January 2024 flood, we can see that Lake Creek had the highest discharge rate. See below. USGS graphs are arranged in order from highest to lowest, except for the last, which reflects rain falling in all seven watersheds.

Lake Creek peaked at 20,800 cubic feet per second (CFS)
Lake Conroe peaked at 19,100 CFS.
Spring Creek peaked at 9,810 CFS.
Cypress Creek peaked at 6,580 CFS.
Willow Creek peaked at 842 CFS.
Little Cypress peaked at 780 CFS.

All of the streams above flow under the US59 bridge.

USGS registered a peak of 40,400 cubic feet per second at the 59 Bridge.

Note: the first six peaks do not total up to the last because streams peaked at different times.

Of course, these numbers partially reflect uneven rainfall distribution during the January event. And rainfall totals in the Lake Creek watershed were among the highest in the area.

The discharge rates above also reflect watershed size. According to Table 2 in the San Jacinto Regional Watershed Master Drainage Plan:

  • Spring Creek drains 392 sq. mi.
  • Lake Creek drains 330 sq. mi.
  • Cypress Creek drains 266 square miles (sq. mi.)
  • Little Cypress drains 52 sq. mi.
  • Willow drains 52 sq. mi.

Looking solely at watershed size shows that even if the rainfall distribution had been uniform, Lake Creek would have contributed a major percentage of the overall flow.

And that – in a sentence – is why Lake Houston Area residents should care about conservation along Lake Creek, especially considering that the watershed is developing so quickly!

Conservation Easement Will Protect Land in Perpetuity

BLC conducted an extensive audit of natural resources including wetlands and wildlife on the Ingram property before the conservation agreement was put in place. No matter who the owner is, the easement will run with the land and protect the land in perpetuity. The audit will provide a baseline for future comparison.

Ingram reportedly had offers to buy the land from sand miners and developers but chose to conserve it instead. Said Boullion, “I commend him because obviously it’s not cheap to own and hold that much land in a natural state. So, he looked for a way to monetize his property while conserving the land and benefiting the community. He is one of the most conservation-minded people I know.”

The conservation easement held by BLC will let Ingram sell wetland-mitigation credits through the West Montgomery Mitigation Bank. He will sell them to developers who have no other choice but to disturb wetlands while developing the rest of their property.

For more about how the wetland credits work in Texas, see this page from Texas A&M.

The Army Corps controls and permits the process. But non-profit groups, such as the Bayou Land Conservancy, play a major role in it.

About Bayou Land Conservancy

BLC is one of the leading conservation groups in the Houston region. It preserves land along streams for flood control, clean water, and wildlife. BLC is a nationally accredited, community-sponsored land preservation organization working to permanently protect land, with a focus on the streams that feed Lake Houston, an important source of drinking water for millions of people.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/25/24

2361 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Meritage Begins Clearing 40 Acres for 210 Homes, Many Over Wetlands

Meritage Homes of Texas LLC, a company based in Scottsdale, Arizona, has begun clearing 40.2 acres between Kings River and Pinehurst of Atascocita. The company will reportedly build 210 homes there – 5.2 per acre. Although the new development is far above floodplains, wetlands cover a large part of the first phase.

Two Phases of Development

Meritage told homeowners in the area that it plans to develop the land in two phases, with the second still several years away.

The two parcels bracket Pinehurst Trail Drive. The first stretches along Kings Park Way almost to West Lake Houston Parkway (WLHP) on the west. The second stretches to the Atascocita Golf Club on the east. (See satellite image below.)

Locations of Phases I and II.

Land Not in Floodplain, But Contains Wetlands

According to FEMA, the land sits outside known floodplains. That’s good news.

Phases I and II circled in red. From FEMA’s National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer. Cross-hatched area = floodway. Aqua = 100-year floodplain. Tan = 500-year floodplain.

However, according to USGS, portions of the property contain wetlands. That’s not good news. Homes developed over wetlands often experience a variety of problems, such as shifting foundations, doors that stick, and cracked pavement.

From the National Wetlands Inventory.

The presence of wetlands (and a gas pipeline) may indicate why this property was not developed until now.

The definition of “jurisdictional wetlands” has flip-flopped in recent years as one administration after another has tweaked the definition of “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS). Currently, we’re dealing with Biden’s changes to Trump’s changes to Obama’s changes. It’s not simple.

The definition stretches more than 100 pages and determines what the Army Corps protects.

It’s not clear at this time whether the Army Corps has ruled whether these particular wetlands fall under their jurisdiction.

Western Parcel Being Cleared First

Photographs taken on Feb. 13, 2024, show that contractors have already cleared a significant portion of the first phase, which is on the west. See images below.

Looking ENE toward Lake Houston. This shot shows the first part of clearing adjacent to Texas Laurel Trail and Pinehurst Trail Drive. Wetlands cut through this area.
Reverse angle shows full extent of clearing as of Tuesday morning, 2/13/24. Looking W toward CVS (out of sight in background) along WLHP.

Note the small channel that appears to be draining the wetland area. According to the schematic diagram below, homes, driveways and roads will eventually cover this channel and the area it drains.

Layout of Homes and Detention Basins

Plans indicate the area will have 124 30×80 foot lots and 86 40×80 lots. That’s fairly high density. And it will have a high percentage of impervious cover that generates a lot of runoff quickly. Luckily, the development will have four stormwater detention basins, according to the diagram below posted on Facebook.

Harris County regulations specify a minimum requirement of .65 acre-feet of stormwater detention per acre for developments of this size. It’s not clear at this time whether the development will exceed the minimum requirement.

Tree Buffer

A resident indicated that a deed to the property requires Meritage to maintain a buffer of at least 25-30 feet of wooded land along the property boundary. That should help retain/restrain runoff, too. See photo below.

So far, contractors seem to be leaving the required setback.

Construction Plans and Drainage Analysis to Follow

According to residents, Meritage just closed on the property in January. Given the recent sale, I do not yet have full construction plans or a drainage impact analysis. However, I have submitted a FOIA Request to Harris County Engineering and will provide them when I get them.

When I photographed the clearing activity this morning, it had silt fence around most of the perimeter (an improvement from last Sunday).

The silt fence is also an improvement over a neighboring development on WLHP by Trammell Crow.

Neighboring Development Still in Quagmire.

Harris County Engineering and Constables shut down construction at the Trammell Crow site after it flooded Kings Park Way, WLHP, and neighboring properties during heavy rains in late January.

This morning, I noticed that contractors are back at work behind tall privacy fences. However, they still lack silt fences along large parts of their property. Moreover, trenches that they dug to drain the property to a sediment pond had been blocked off to accommodate construction equipment. See below.

Trammell Crow contractors were busy this morning piling dirt over the knee-deep muck on their site from heavy rains two weeks ago.

Stormwater is the enemy of construction. That’s why most contractors implement measures to control it upfront in a project, not after the fact. Let’s pray that Meritage’s contractors protect their neighbors better.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/13/24

2359 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Guess Where the Wetlands Were?

Guess where the wetlands were? Today, I flew over Northpark Drive and Sorters-McClellan Road near the San Jacinto West Fork. I photographed a new development called Northpark South. Much of this land is in the floodplain. And much was also classified as wetlands for sixty years.

Can you guess which portion?

Photo of Northpark South on 1/10/24. Clearing essentially complete.

Here’s what the area looked like before clearing. Note any similarities? Like that curve in between the empty area and the tree line near the road?

Satellite photo from same area before clearing. Wetlands are large empty area.

That open area directly coincides with the soupy area in the first image.

And to think, less than a half inch of rain two days ago (January 8) produced all the muck you see in the first photo. Since then, we’ve had sunny skies, low humidity, and high, desiccating winds. They dried out the rest of the site. But not the wetlands.

Contractors at Northpark South have been trying to cover up the wetlands for six weeks with little luck. Here’s a closer shot from the reverse angle.

Photo from 1/10/24 after less than a half inch of rain.

Construction plans show that homes will be built over the wetlands.

Wetlands Documented Since Early 1960s

USGS has documented wetlands on this property since at least 1961, as you can see in this topographic map viewer.

However the developer apparently has not received a wetland development permit from the Army Corps. The developer’s drainage impact analysis does even not mention the word “wetland.”

Problems When Building Over Wetlands

I’ve previously posted about the problems of building over wetlands. These pictures make another potent reminder. Problems include shifting slabs; windows, cabinets and doors that stick; cracked driveways; mold; erosion; clogged storm drains; downstream flooding and more.

Before Thanksgiving, I consulted a wetlands expert about this property. The expert said, “I would NOT feel safe living on top of a former wetland this close to the river. NO WAY! The land has a memory, deep in its soils, and I would expect future issues.”

I can see the cracks in wallboard already. No wonder the developer (Century Land Holdings of Texas LLC) urges people to buy homes over the internet, sight unseen! Buyer beware.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/10/2024

1325 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

40 Acres of Timber Turned into Toothpicks

In two weeks, approximately 40 acres timber has turned into toothpicks at the new Northpark South development. Clearing is now about two-thirds to three-quarters complete.

The development lies between Sorters-McClellan Road and the West Fork San Jacinto at the end of Northpark Drive. The developer, Century Land Holdings of Texas, LLC, hopes to build 236 homes, driveways, roads, and an 11.2 acre stormwater detention basin on a total of 54.4 acres.

If that sounds like a lot, Century has already applied for a variance from the City of Houston Planning Commission to create lots less than 5,000 square feet. Regardless, RG Miller Engineering still claims impervious cover will not exceed 66%. But that’s not the only curious takeaway from the RG Miller report.

No Mention of Wetlands

To achieve such density, Century will pave over wetlands. But the RG Miller report makes no mention of wetlands.

Northpark South Wetlands
National Wetlands Inventory shows wetlands in middle on far right.

USGS has documented wetlands on this property since at least 1961, as you can see in this topographic map viewer.

However the developer apparently has not received a wetland development permit from the Army Corps.

Red circle shows location of development. No wetland permits have been issued in this area and the drainage impact analysis does not contain the word “wetland.”

In addition, the imagery showing the wetlands (the empty crescent-wrench-shaped area in middle right of blue outline) is misdated.

The caption in the drainage analysis says the image is from 2018. But the homes in the top left of the frame were not built until late 2020. And the image itself is from late 2021. So why would the image below be dated two years earlier.

Shadows and vehicles in this image match a Google Earth Image from 12/11/2021, when the area was rated abnormally dry and drought was setting in.

Compare a Google Earth image taken on 2/23/2019 – before the onset of drought. When you zoom in a bit, you get a clearly different impression.

Scrolling back through 30 years of historical images in Google Earth shows evidence of periodic ponding in this location and distinctly different vegetation from the surrounding area.

Was the RG Miller image accidentally mislabeled or an attempt to show drier conditions that didn’t scream “wetlands”? We’ll probably never know.

According to one environmental expert I consulted, developers very often have consultants who assert that there are no wetlands on property. Therefore, they feel, there’s no need to involve USACE “because a permit isn’t necessary.”

The expert said, “In my mind, they are betting on not getting caught. They can save a lot of money by avoiding permits and those savings are apparently worth the risk.”

It’s also possible that the latest Supreme Court ruling on “Waters of the U.S.,” removed federal government protection for these wetlands. In that case, these wetlands would not require permitting.

Problems Building over Wetlands

The expert continued, “Comparing this information to the plans, it looks like there will be residential streets and houses on top of the historic wetlands. I would NOT feel safe living on top of a former wetland this close to the river. NO WAY! The land has a memory, deep in its soils, and I would expect future issues.”

Current Status of Clearing

I took the photos below on the afternoon of Friday, 11/24/23.

Looking west at extent of clearing in last two weeks. West Fork is beyond sand pits near top of frame. NorthPark Drive runs off bottom of frame.
Looking E toward Kingwood. Detention basin will stretch between the woods on left and the road on right in the area close to camera. Basin will drain into pond in lower right foreground.
Looking N toward a sister development (Northpark Woods) by same developer. Sand pit middle left belongs to another company.

High-Water Mark Shows Potential Danger

The image below shows where the new development sits in relation to the river and the high-water mark during Harvey.

Extent of flooding during Harvey relative to new development, according to nearby resident. Looking west down Northpark toward San Jacinto West Fork.

While Harvey was an extreme storm, keep in mind that pre-Harvey flood maps show inundation potential across most of Northpark South. And the new post-Harvey flood maps, which have not yet been released, will take in even more of the new development.

Buyer beware. There’s plenty here to chew on. Toothpick anyone?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/25/23

2279 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Northpark South Starts Clearing Wetlands, Floodplain

Colorado-based Century Land Holdings of Texas, LLC has started clearing land for Northpark South in Porter along the West Fork of the San Jacinto River at the west end of Northpark Drive.

Documents from the Houston Planning Commission, USGS, and FEMA; eyewitness accounts from nearby residents and flood professionals; and aerial photos indicate:

  • Most of the area is in floodplains defined decades ago and not updated since.
  • The entire area – and then some – went underwater during Harvey.
  • The entrance to the property near Northpark Drive and Sorters-McClellan Road sits in a bowl that rescue trucks could not get through during Harvey. That would make evacuation difficult in the event of another large flood.
  • Wetlands dot the property.
  • Abandoned sand mines may pose safety threats.

The same developer just completed a sister development called Northpark Woods across a drainage channel from this one. But so far, the gutsy developer has avoided any consequences for its risky gamble thanks in large part to a multi-year drought and interminable delays at FEMA releasing the new post-Harvey flood maps.

All Underwater During Harvey

Eyewitness accounts and damage reports indicate that Harvey floodwaters stretched about a third of a mile east of Sorters-McClellan to Northpark and Kingwood Place Drive. That’s on the high side of Sorters-McClellan; the new development will be on the low side.

Floodwaters in this area stopped at about 83 feet above sea level. However, the entrance to the new subdivision is at 75 feet, according to the USGS National Map. That means the water was an estimated 8 feet deep at the entrance.

One long-time resident in the area said, “The intersection of Sorters and Northpark sits in a bowl. It was not passable by Montgomery County Precinct 4 constables in an Army deuce and a half [used for high-water rescue]. Water from the river came right up past that intersection and continued up Northpark to just past the intersection of Kingwood Place Dr.”

Also on the high side of Sorters-McClellan, six of nine buildings at nearby Kingwood College flooded during Harvey. Restoration cost: $60 million!

And then there’s Tammy Gunnels‘ former home a quarter mile south of the new development. It flooded 13 times in 11 years and had to be bought out by Montgomery County and FEMA.

Documents obtained from the Houston Planning Commission indicate that RG Miller is the engineer of record for Northpark South.

Bordering River and Sand Mines

During Harvey, 160,000 cubic feet per second rampaged down the West Fork behind this property.

Looking west past Sorters-McClellan Road toward what will become Northpark South. Note clearing starting in the middle in what used to be wetlands (see below).
From the National Wetlands Inventory. Dark green area on right corresponds to cleared area above.
Looking NW. Intersection of Northpark and Sorters-McClellan in lower left. Another subdivision called Northpark Woods by the same developer is in the upper right. West Fork San Jacinto and sand mines at top of frame.

Here’s what they hope to build on this property.

General plan submitted to Houston Planning Commission in 2021.

Current Floodplains Will Soon Expand

Most of the property already sits in floodway or floodplains. But the FEMA map below has not yet been updated to reflect new knowledge gained as a result of Memorial Day, Tax Day, Harvey and Imelda floods.

In fact, the 2014 date on the map below is misleading. It reflects an update of the base map, but the data that determines the extent of floodplains has not been updated since the 1980s, according to an expert familiar with Montgomery County flood maps.

From FEMA’s National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer.

FEMA and Harris County Flood Control have warned people that when new “post-Harvey” flood maps are released in the next year or two, floodplains will expand 50-100%. The floodway (striped area above) will likely expand into the 100-year floodplain (aqua). In turn, the 100-year will expand into the 500-year (tan). And the 500-year floodplain will extend past any of the colored areas.

That’s consistent with eyewitness accounts. And that could potentially put the entire property in floodplains.

Taking Advantage of Map-Update Window

The developer seems to be taking advantage of a window between post-Harvey flood surveys and release of the new maps.

I’m sure the developer’s lawyers would argue that they are complying with all current, applicable laws. But an ethical question arises. Will the new development expose unsuspecting homebuyers to greater-than-expected risk?

If so, why aren’t officials pushing to update maps and floodplain regs faster?

Could some officials be prioritizing economic development now over public safety later?

Certainly not all are. But many flood professionals worry about that.

Next to 5-Square Miles of Sand Mines

The new development sits next to the largest sand-mining complex on the San Jacinto West Fork. Sand mines in this area occupy almost five square miles. However, not all the mines are active. But they still show signs of heavy sediment pollution.

Looking E toward Sorters-McClellan from over West Fork. Northpark South is at top of frame beyond the sand pits.
The operator of this mine decided not to fish its equipment out when they abandoned the site.
More colors than Crayola. No telling what’s growing in these ponds.

Will routing drainage from Northpark South through these sand mines pose a safety risk for people downstream?

Will it be safe for kids to play or fish near these steep-sided pits?

Floodplain Development Called New Form of Redlining

This is an example of why the population of Texas floodplains is greater than the populations of 30 entire states. Yep. Thirty entire states have populations smaller than that of Texas floodplains.

One former floodplain administrator, who requested to remain anonymous, characterized these types of developments as a new form of redlining.

More than a few floodplain and wetland developers target minorities who may not fully understand the flood risk.

Owner financing often accompanies floodplain developments. Such financing can bypass many flood-risk detection procedures that accompany traditional bank financing.

Then, when floods come, the people who can least afford to repair homes suffer the most and longest. Neighborhoods decay faster. And that makes it harder for people to recover their investments.

Years later, the public is left holding the bag. We are asked to fund expensive flood-mitigation projects that would not be necessary had the developer built in a safer area.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/11/2023

2265 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

GIS Data Reveals Likely Source of NE Houston Flooding Unrelated to Historic Disinvestment

In northeast Houston, where residents and activists frequently chant “historic disinvestment,” I accidentally stumbled onto a much more likely cause of the frequent flooding than systemic racism. It happened while browsing a GIS database with hundreds of layers containing a broad range of information. The instant I saw it, it unlocked a mystery. Tumblers suddenly aligned that unlocked the mystery. But let’s start this story with accusations that made no sense to me.

Accusations of Systemic Racism Not Supported by Spending Data

Three years ago, I joined the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force. Ever since, I have heard a constant drumbeat of “historic disinvestment” by many members who believe they are victims of systemic racism by Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD).

They claim that they aren’t getting their fair share of flood-mitigation funds when, in fact, financial analysis reveals the opposite. They get the lion’s share.

LMI vs. Non-LMI flood-mitigation funding
LMI vs. Non-LMI flood-mitigation funding through Q3 2021.

Eight watersheds with a majority of low-to-moderate income residents have received almost two thirds of the funding going back to 2000. That’s out of a total of 23 watersheds. The money has flowed to damage – as it should.

Many people, however, don’t believe that. The loudest complaints have come from the Northeast Action Collective. They waged a battle to remove flood-control executives from office who were working tirelessly on their behalf.

Regardless, falsehoods repeated often enough eventually rose to the level of “accepted truth.” Even experts can be fooled. Jim Blackburn, the renowned professor of engineering at Rice, repeated the “historic disinvestment” claim without presenting any proof in a Houston Chronicle story last week.

He claimed residents of Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds weren’t getting their “fair share” of flood mitigation money. In fact, Greens Bayou ranks #2 in terms of money received. Only Brays Bayou has received more.

Spending by Watershed from 2000 through 2023Q1. Source: Harris County Flood Control District via FOIA request.

And tiny Halls Bayou ranks #2 in spending per capita. Together, the two bayous have received more than $390 million to date.

And they could soon receive another $466 million out of the $750 million that the GLO and HUD recently granted Harris County for flood mitigation. If HUD approves the recommended projects totaling $466 million, Halls and Greens will have received $856 million – far more than any other watershed. (Technically Halls is a sub-watershed of Greens, but HCFCD tracks spending as if it were separate.) This is hardly historic disinvestment.

More Likely Cause of Flooding Overlooked by Critics Crying Racism

Today, while learning a new (to me) geographic information system, I randomly clicked on a “wetland” layer. Boom! Guess where the largest concentration of wetlands in Harris County is. The northeast!

Note Lake Houston in the upper right, once home to untold acres of wetlands before the dam was built in the 1950s.

As a reminder of what these wetlands once looked like, see the photos of Emily Murphy who kayaks along the shores of Lake Houston.

Emily Murphy wetland photo by Lake Houston
Photo Courtesy of Emily Murphy

Regulations discourage building in wetlands for good reasons. Water collects there. The soil is less permeable. They are low, poorly drained, and unstable.

In addition, USGS points out the many positive benefits of wetlands. “Wetlands provide habitat for thousands of species of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals. Wetlands are valuable for flood protection, water quality improvement, shoreline erosion control, natural products, recreation, and aesthetics.”

But because they’re cheap land and available, some less-than-scrupulous developers often try to build in them. I’m told by engineers I trust that that has always been the case and always will be.

Back in the 1950s, farms and ranches occupied most of the northeast Houston area. Here’s what it looked like then.

Note the San Jacinto River in the upper right in this 1953 pre-Lake Houston aerial image from Google Earth.

And here’s what the same area looks like today.

Note the presence of Lake Houston in the upper right in this 2022 image.

There are still big undeveloped areas in the image above. But many developments have also filled in large parts of the northeast that were once wetlands in the 1950s image.

Dangers of Building Over Wetlands

According to USGS, “Wetlands are transitional areas, sandwiched between permanently flooded deepwater environments and well-drained uplands, where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land… The single feature that most wetlands share is soil or substrate that is at least periodically saturated with or covered by water.”

Wetlands are almost always terrible places to build houses.

Four years ago, I posted about the disadvantages of building over wetlands. Pictures of the Woodridge Village property, then under development by Perry Homes, dramatized how unstable the soils were. Dangers of building over wetlands include shifting slabs, cracked driveways, mold, erosion, clogged storm drains, flooding and more.

Unsuspecting buyers of former wetlands can literally get sucked in by low prices. Seventy years later, the original builders and buyers are long gone. And pre-digital soil samples and drainage analyses (if they were ever done) have long since disappeared into the fog of history or a dusty warehouse.

Wetland-mitigation banks near a development should raise red flags to buyers today. There’s one on the northeast corner of Beltway 8 along, you guessed it, Greens Bayou. There are also two in Colony Ridge: the Houston-Conroe and Tarkington Bayou Mitigation Banks.

In conclusion…

Today’s residents in such areas pay for previous owners’ lack of knowledge – not because of historic disinvestment.

I’m not saying early owners didn’t exercise due diligence. We just didn’t know then what we know now.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/22/23

2215 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Louisiana Loses Hundreds of Square Miles of Wetlands

A new study estimates that Louisiana lost approximately 750 square miles of wetlands between 1984 and 2020. Using a first-of-its kind model, researchers quantified those wetlands losses at nearly 21 square miles per year since the early 1980s. Even after accounting for gains in some areas due to sediment transported by rivers, the net loss was still 484 square miles.

Jet Propulsion Lab Study Points to Role of Coastal and River Engineering

A new study, titled “Leveraging the historical Landsat catalog for a remote sensing model of wetland accretion in coastal Louisiana” was  published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences. Authors of the 2022 study include D. J. Jensen,  K. C. Cavanaugh,  D. R. Thompson, S. Fagherazzi, L. Cortese, and M. Simard. I quote liberally from their work below which is reproduced under a Creative Commons Open-Source license.

To compile the data, the authors used NASA/USGS Landsat satellite records to track shoreline changes across Louisiana.

Some of those wetlands were submerged by rising seas. Others were disrupted by oil and gas infrastructure and hurricanes. But…

The primary driver of losses was coastal and river engineering.

Such engineering can have positive or negative effects depending on how it is implemented, say the authors.

Opposing Forces at Work

Centimeter by centimeter, wetlands are built by slow accumulation called “accretion.” Rivers and streams carry both mineral sediment and organic materials. Accretion uses those materials to make new soil. It counters erosion, the sinking of land, and the rise of sea level.

According to the authors, human intervention and engineering often hold back or divert the flow of sediments that naturally accrete to build and replenish wetlands.

For instance, reinforced levees and thousands of miles of canals and excavated banks have isolated many wetlands.

The levees and canals have cut off the wetlands from the Mississippi River and the network of streams that course through its delta. In a few cases, engineering projects have added sediment to delta areas and built new land.

The researchers mapped land change in coastal Louisiana from 1984 to 2020. Basins that failed to build new soil, such as Terrebonne and Barataria, experienced the most land loss – more than 180 square miles (466 square kilometers). Credit: Jensen et al, Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences

By analyzing Landsat imagery with tools from cloud computing, the researchers developed a remote sensing model that focused on accretion or the lack of it.

Restoration Possible

Basins that failed to build new soil, such as Terrebonne and Barataria, experienced the most land loss over the study period—more than 180 square miles (466 square kilometers). Other areas gained ground, including 33.6 square miles (87 square kilometers) of new land in the Atchafalaya Basin and 43 square miles (112 square kilometers) in the area known as the “Bird’s Foot Delta” at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

“The Louisiana coastal system is highly engineered,” said Daniel Jensen, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “But the fact that ground has been gained in some places indicates that, with enough restoration efforts to reintroduce fresh water supply and sediment, we could see some wetland recovery in the future.”

Economic Importance

Understanding wetland dieback and recovery is critically important because the Mississippi River Delta, like many of the world’s deltas, drives local and national economies through farming, fisheries, tourism, and shipping. “For the 350 million people who live and farm on deltas around the world, coastal wetlands provide a key link in the food chain,” said JPL’s Marc Simard, principal investigator of NASA’s Delta-X mission and co-author of the paper.

A map of soil accretion in coastal Louisiana showing higher buildup in parts of Atchafalaya and the “Bird’s Foot Delta,” where the Mississippi River system deposits mineral-rich sediment during flood periods. Credit: Jensen et al, Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences

Seventh Largest Delta on Earth

In several airborne and field campaigns since 2016, the Delta-X research team has been studying the Mississippi River Delta, the seventh largest on Earth. The team uses airborne sensing and field measurements of water, vegetation, and sediment changes in the face of rising sea level. The Landsat analysis builds on this airborne mission. Delta-X is part of NASA’s Earth Venture Suborbital (EVS) program, managed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Pioneering Technique

The new model by Jensen and colleagues is the first to directly estimate soil accretion rates in coastal wetlands using satellite data. Working with ground-based accretion records from Louisiana’s Coastwide Reference Monitoring System, the scientists were able to estimate amounts of mineral sediment from water pixels in the Landsat imagery and organic material from the land pixels.

The researchers said their approach could be applied beyond Louisiana because wetland loss and resiliency is a global phenomenon. From the Great Lakes to the Nile Delta, the Amazon to Siberia, wetlands are found on every continent except Antarctica. And they are declining in most places.

Wetlands are Most Vulnerable Ecosystems on Planet

The researchers called wetlands some of the “most vulnerable, most threatened, most valuable, and most diverse” ecosystems on the planet.

But they also said a new generation of spaceborne tools, such as synthetic aperture radar, can increasingly inform conservation policies on the ground. This is because satellites support near-continuous mapping of ecosystems at a scale and consistency that is nearly impossible through traditional surveys and field work.

50% Less Carbon Being Buried

The futures of our wetlands and coastal communities are intertwined with climate change, so sustainable management is critical. They store decomposing plant matter in soil and roots. Thus, wetlands act as “blue carbon” sinks. They prevent some greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) from escaping into the atmosphere.

But when vegetation dies, drowns, and fails to grow back, wetlands can no longer bury carbon in soil.

At current rates of wetland loss in coastal Louisiana, carbon burial may have decreased 50% from 2013 estimates.

“Forty percent of the human population lives within a hundred kilometers of a coast,” Simard said. “It’s critical that we understand the processes that protect those lands and the livelihood of the people living there.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/11/22 based on a summary article by NASA in Phys.Org and the original.

1900 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Wetlands Once Covered Area Where 138 Nesting Birds Were Slaughtered, Maimed

Last weekend, a contractor killed or maimed 138 nesting egrets and herons in the Cypress Towne Lake Area while clearing land. Little surprise the birds were nesting there. That area was once pockmarked with wetlands that are rapidly being developed.

Wetlands provide free stormwater retention. They also provide valuable habitat that supports a remarkable level of biodiversity. In terms of the number and variety of species supported, wetlands rival rainforests and coral reefs. Trouble is, they also provide cheap land for developers. That brings people into direct conflict with wildlife.

Great Egret preening on nest while waiting for eggs to hatch. File photo not taken in Cypress. Copyright © Bob Rehak 2022.

Nesting waterfowl make a pretty good biologic indicator of wetlands.

Property Rights vs. Right to Life and Right to Information

By law, it’s illegal to disturb migratory birds such as herons and egrets while they are nesting. But the contractors in question did not respect that law even though they could have waited a month or two.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for property rights. And I support responsible development. But that means finding balance. Balance sustains life. It also provides beauty that supports property values. Would you rather raise your kids in biological barrens? Or in close to nature in a place teeming with life?

Finally I believe in the right to information that helps people make informed decisions and markets self-regulate. For instance, if people fully knew the flood risk on a piece of property before buying it, that knowledge could reduce demand, perhaps moderate prices, and discourage future development of wetlands.

But sadly, flood potential is often the last thing buyers look at. At closing, they’re probably provided with a survey that shows they’re above the base-flood elevation (aka the 100-year or 1%-annual-chance floodplain). Then it’s “Where do I sign?” And, “When can I move in?”

That the home might have been built on wetlands is the farthest thing from their minds…until the foundation settles, the walls crack, and doors and windows start to stick.

Where to Learn about Property Built on Wetlands

But a little investigation with free apps or on public websites, might help buyers drive harder bargains that would pay for the foundation leveling they will probably need eventually.

From U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wetlands Mapper. This shows the wetlands that used to exist in the area where the birds were killed and maimed.
1944 Aerial Photo of same area from Google Earth Pro. Cherrywood Bend Drive is where contractors were clearing land when they encountered the nesting egrets and herons.

Cypress Towne Lakes is a miracle of engineering that created livable space out of areas that once were wetlands. But the developer’s website shows only impressive homes and amenities, including a chain of lakes. It mentions none of the area’s natural history.

“You Can’t Outsmart Nature”

A wise banker once told me, “You can’t outsmart nature. Nature always wins. We need to give Mother Nature her room.” Perhaps that’s why his bank has almost a billion dollars in assets.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/19/22

1724 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

How Soon We Forget!

How soon we forget. Hurricane Harvey was just 4.5 years ago. Since then I have documented dozens, if not hundreds of questionable practices that erode margins of flood safety.

It Didn’t Have to Be That Bad

Harvey was the largest rainfall event in the history of North America. However, with better regulations and construction practices, it didn’t have to be as destructive as it was.

  • Lax regulations;
  • Willful blindness;
  • Development and construction practices that pushed the safety envelope;
  • Relentless destruction of forests and wetlands near rivers and streams;
  • And homebuyers who didn’t realize their true flood risk…

…made Harvey’s destruction worse than it otherwise would have been.

No one factor by itself would explain Harvey’s destruction. But put them all together, and it’s like “death of a thousand cuts.”

The sheer volume of material – more than 1,000,000 words on this site – makes it difficult for people to see the big picture sometimes. To put 1,000,000 words into perspective, the average novel contains only about 100,000. So I’m condensing the website into a book that includes the themes below.

No One Wins Arguments with Mother Nature

During an interview with Milan Saunders and his daughter Lori, Milan said, “No one wins arguments with Mother Nature.” How profound! It doesn’t matter how many surveys, studies and engineer stamps you have on your home’s title. If you don’t:

  • Respect the rivers.
  • Give them room to roam.
  • Protect wetlands.
  • Allow plenty of margin for safety…

…you will flood.

Thought courtesy of Milan Saunders, Chairman/CEO of Plains State Bank. That’s his daughter Lori’s house during Harvey.

Understanding the Causes of Flooding

Excess sedimentation is one of them. Sediment pollution is the single most common source of pollution in U.S. waters. Approximately 30% is caused by natural erosion, and the remaining 70% is caused by human activity.

Large islands built up during Harvey blocked both drainage ditches and rivers. Below, you can see a large sand island (top) built up at the confluence of the Kingwood Diversion Ditch where it reaches the San Jacinto West Fork at River Grove Park. This sand bar reached 10-12 feet in height above the waterline and helped back water up into Trailwood, the Barrington and Kingwood Lakes and Kings Forest. Before the Army Corps dredged this island, River Grove flooded five times in six months. It hasn’t flooded since.

The Kingwood Diversion Ditch and West Fork San Jacinto were almost totally blocked by sediment dams deposited during Harvey.

The second photo above was taken a few hundred yards downstream on the West Fork from the first. It shows “Sand Island” – so nicknamed by the Army Corps. It took the Corps months to dredge this island which they say had blocked the West Fork by 90%.

A certain amount of this sedimentation can be explained by natural erosion. But mankind also contributed to the sheer volume by other practices which I will discuss below.

Respect the Rivers

The red polygons in the satellite image below surround 20-square miles of sand mines on the West Fork of the San Jacinto in a 20 mile reach of river between I-45 and I-69. That exposes a mile-wide swath of sediment to erosion during floods and increases the potential for erosion by 33x compared the river’s normal width.

Even without floods, mines sometimes flush their waste into the rivers. The shot below on the top right shows the day the West Fork turned white. The TCEQ found the source of the pollution upstream: a sand mine that had flushed 56 million gallons of sludge into the West Fork (bottom right).

Influence of sand mines of West Fork San Jacinto water quality.

End the War on Wetlands

Wetlands are nature’s detention ponds. During storms, they hold water back so it won’t flood people downstream. But we seem to want to eradicate wetlands. The images below show the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County. Wetlands (right) are being cleared (left) to make way for the world’s largest trailer park. The acceleration of runoff wiped out FM1010 during Harvey. The road still has not been repaired.

Colony Ridge in Liberty County.

Conservation Costs Much Less than Mitigation

Halls Bayou at I-69 near Fiesta. Image on left shows whole subdivisions that that to be bought out before detention ponds on right could be built.

All across Harris County, especially in older areas inside Beltway 8, apartment complexes, homes and businesses are built right next to bayous and channels. This makes it difficult to enlarge streams or build detention ponds when necessary. One study showed that preservation of floodplains is 5X more cost effective than mitigation after homes flood. Yet private developers keep crowding bayous and residents keep demanding public solutions.

Respecting Individuals’ Property Rights While Protecting Others’

In Texas, it sometimes feels that an individual’s right to do what he/she wants with property trumps others’ rights NOT to flood. You may think you’re protected by all those public servants reviewing and approving plans. But what happens when developers and contractors decide to ignore the approved plans? Here’s a prime example: the Laurel Springs RV Resort near Lakewood Cove.

The approved plans said that “Stormwater runoff shall not cross property lines.” So what did the contractors do? They pumped their stormwater over the development’s detention pond wall. When that took too long, they dug a trench through the wall. Then they laid pipes through the wall to permanently empty the sludge into the wetlands of Harris County’s new Edgewater Park.

This apparently violated the developer’s City of Houston permit, the Texas Water Code, TCEQ’s construction permit and the developer’s stormwater pollution prevention plan. Four investigations are currently swirling around this development. The contractor also cut down approximately 50 feet of trees in Edgewater Park along the entire boundary line and received a cease-and-desist letter from the Harris County Attorney. But the damage is done.

Balance Upstream and Downstream Interests

About 10% of all the water coming down the West Fork at the peak of Harvey came from Crystal Creek in Montgomery County. But the wetlands near the headwaters of Crystal Creek are currently under development. And the developer is avoiding building detention ponds with a “beat-the-peak” survey. This loophole allowed by Montgomery County says that if you get your stormwater to the river faster than the peak of a flood arrives, then you’re not adding to the peak of a flood and you don’t have to build detention ponds. So developers conduct timing surveys to reduce costs and maximize salable land.

What happens when upstream areas develop without consideration for the impact on downstream property owners.

Of course, speeding up the flow of water in a flood is the opposite of what you want to do. To reduce flooding, you should hold back as much water as possible.

The slide above shows part of a new development called Madera at SH242 and FM1314 being built on wetlands near Crystal Creek.

The graph on the right shows what happened on Brays Bayou without suitable detention upstream. Floodwaters peak higher, sooner. Harris County has spent more than $700 million in the last 20 years to remediate flooding problems along Brays.

How much will we need to spend when more areas like Madera get built upstream on the West Fork?

How Quickly We Forget!

FEMA’s Base-Flood-Elevation Viewer shows that in that same area, developers have already built homes that could go under 1-5 feet of water in a 100-year flood. These homes are actually in a ten-year flood zone. And yet more homes are being built nearby. On even more marginal land!

In recent years, the price of land as a percent of a new home’s cost has risen from a historical average of 25% to approximately 40% today. This puts pressure on developers to seek out cheaper land in floodplains, reduce costs by avoiding detention pond requirements, pave over wetlands, and reduce lot sizes resulting in more impervious cover. All contribute to flooding.

Of course, smart homebuyers would not make such risky investments. But few lack the expertise to gauge flood risk. Educating such homebuyers will be one of the major objectives of the book I hope to write.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/23/2022

1639 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.