Flooding threatens Buffalo Bayou
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 5, 2012 03:10
The Bayou City may soon need to take measures to protect one of its bayous. Last Tuesday, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston hosted a panel entitled “The Forgotten Buffalo Bayou: A Civic and Civil Discussion About a Touchy Subject,” in which panelists discussed two potential flood threats to Buffalo Bayou – on the east from the Houston Ship Channel and on the west from Addicks and Barker Reservoirs.
The panel was led by Rice University professor of civil and environmental engineering Jim Blackburn and included City Council Member At-Large Stephen Costello, University of Houston architecture professor Thomas Colbert, SWA Group CEO Kevin Shanley and professional engineer Lawrence Dunbar.
According to Blackburn, the Ship Channel is vulnerable to hurricanes.
“All of it is relatively low-lying, and if the right storm came along, you could have over $100 billion in damage,” Blackburn said. “Plus, there would be tremendous environmental damage.”
One solution to this problem that has been proposed is the “Ike Dike,” a barrier system that would complement the current seawall with dikes and floodgates. Blackburn said the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University has come up with another feasible solution to the Ship Channel problem: a gate structure at the mouth of the channel that would protect against a 25-foot storm surge.
“We can protect that area, we can finance it locally and we can do it relatively quickly,” Blackburn said. “We need to step up and protect this area to protect our economic and environmental future.”
Buffalo Bayou is bordered on the west by Addicks and Barker Reservoirs. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has approximately 300 dams under its jurisdiction, these dams are two of the six most dangerous dams in the United States.
“They have been identified [by the Corps of Engineers] as having urgent and compelling problems with dam safety,” Blackburn said. “There is the potential of a catastrophic failure of those reservoirs.”
As a result of these findings, the Corps of Engineers made an interim plan to not use the dams beyond 40 percent capacity, meaning that 60 percent of the flood control capacity has been lost, Blackburn said. To make up for the loss of flood control at the dams, Blackburn said flood control needs to take place west of the dams.
“We have to protect these dams,” Blackburn said. “We have to come up with better flood control measures west of these dams as more development is proposed in the Katy prairie.”
In order to avoid damage to the dams, the Corps of Engineers will drain more water from the reservoirs than previously planned, increasing flooding downstream in the Buffalo Bayou Watershed, which includes developed neighborhoods like River Oaks, the Memorial Drive area and downtown, Blackburn said.
According to Blackburn, developments west of the reservoirs currently use detention ponds, which are designed to hold water for a maximum of 24 hours. Blackburn said there should be development controls requiring the use of retention ponds instead, which are designed to hold water for a longer period of time.
Colbert said that the situation in Houston after a hurricane could be worse than the situation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Additionally, Colbert said that there was evidence presented four months before Katrina struck that storm surges could overwhelm levees in New Orleans and city leaders were warned that action needed to be taken.
“New Orleans was warned, and we’ve been warned,” Colbert said.
Civil engineering major and Brown College junior Shelley Reese attended the lecture and said she agrees with Colbert.
“I think what happened in New Orleans was a warning that we need to take action when we know something’s wrong,” Reese said. “We know that the dams aren’t working well, and if a large storm came through, we would not be prepared. It seems like no one is taking action, so it’s the community’s responsibility to step up.”
Blackburn said that is the type of response he hopes to see from people who attended the lecture.
“We need to talk about these issues,” Blackburn said. “There should be a community uprising to take control of this issue.”
According to Costello, some of this issue is outside the City of Houston’s control and must be dealt with on a federal level.
“It really depends on how we reach out to our congressional delegation and our state senators to indicate that this is an imminent problem for the city of Houston,” Costello said. “We have to go through the federal process.”