BUFFALO BAYOU BLUES (A SHORT HISTORY)
Houston, the city founded on a swampy coastal prairie, hasn’t always had a problem with flooding. Or, maybe it has always had a problem with flooding. In Amnesia City, it depends on who you ask, really.
The low and slow-moving Buffalo Bayou meanders its way from neighboring Ft. Bend County, into the western edge of Houston, through its most posh residential neighborhoods, through Memorial Park, into Downtown, then splitting industrial Houston on opposite banks, and finally out to Galveston Bay, providing access to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s our sketchy birthplace and our signature waterway. In Bayou City, it’s our connection to nature, but also the mark of our original sin. We embraced it as our first outlet for commerce, forced it into being a navigable waterway, and neglected it with sewage. We arrogantly dredged it deeper and widened it. We built way too close to it. We ignored it. Eventually, we fought to clean it up. Today, we celebrate it just as easily as we presume knowing how to control it.
Before Houston became the biggest city in Texas, major floods hurt local interests, especially adjacent to Buffalo Bayou where rainwater runoff takes its time on the low slope to Galveston Bay. But, in modern, commercial Houston, “where seventeen railroads meet the sea,” catastrophic floods have national economic ramifications. In the early 20th century, bigtime Houston couldn’t afford to lose its hard-won role as one of the nation’s largest ports where lumber, sugar, and rice were shipped worldwide, and the largest inland cotton market in the world thrived. And nothing, city leaders argued, should jeopardize our oil industry that had set up shop along the 25-feet deep, 50-mile long Ship Channel. A massive flood in 1929 came during the drafting of a plan from the newly-formed City Planning Commission, which, among other things, recommended dredging all bayous to accelerate runoff. Criticism from land developers meant that little from the plan was actually realized. In 1935, Houston’s largest flood to date claimed 25 blocks downtown and countless residences, and shut down the Port of Houston for months. Fear submerged us. “What if the next flood is worse?” we wondered. “How can we be prepared?”
In response, way out west, far from the city limits where Langham Creek, South Mayde Creek, and Buffalo Bayou originated on the Katy Prairie, the Army Corps of Engineers claimed nearly 13,000 acres. By 1946, they had built two rolled-earth, three-sided reservoirs, over 110 feet tall and 14 miles long, each with a flood gate to control flow into the natural waterways. This flooding protection project was the ultimate not-in-my-backyard solution – so far from the center of town where the majority of us lived downstream, and not requiring any drastic changes to standard building elevations. And it worked. No one worried. In fact, we felt confident enough to build the Wortham Theater in a historically flood-prone part of Downtown. In the 1990s, developers began building on those empty lands west of the reservoirs, without any interference from the Army Corps of Engineers or local county government. As Greater Houston spread there, the doomsday clock began ticking. To this day, the western sides of the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are still open – maybe too open, as those barely-regulated suburb developments have built up on the semi-porous soil, preventing pooled rainwater from absorbing and overtaxing the dams’ walls. And the reservoirs are still working – sort of. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we appear to be on the verge of finding their limits as flood controllers, and we can be sure that worse flooding will strangle Houston again.
So, how can we prevent more catastrophic flooding? Let’s get our scientists to recommend what’s next, and let the business leaders and local and national politicians figure out how to pay for it. Maybe a Kickstarter campaign for a White Oak Reservoir? Houston has already embraced two 1930s throwback ideas -- light rail and blue & white curb tiles. Why not revive the grand, federal works projects from that era? We certainly have the money and brainpower to prevent the next major flood. Houstonians put humans on the moon – which, it turns out, is only a slightly harsher environment than Houston. Let’s stop being surprised by catastrophic floods, and plan for the next, coming sooner than we think.