Thursday, August 31, 2017

Houston: Inadequate Reservoirs, Bad Planning Exacerbated by Hurricane Harvey

Possibly not the storm of the century or whatever sensationalist spin the media is applying
Decent article via Wired- 

An aerial photograph of Lake Houston's spillway in on August 29, 2017
Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are swaths of placid Texas prairie, wetland, and forest straddling I-10 where it hits Highway 6, about 20 miles west of downtown Houston. But that’s not how nature sees them. To nature, those two open spaces are the top of a hydrological basin that drains through the city and into the Houston Ship Channel.
 Most of the time the reservoirs don’t reserve any water. But when it rains and rains and rains, they fill up, letting water burble through their gates into Buffalo Bayou and out toward the sea, to control flooding.Today, after five days of rain thanks to Hurricane Harvey, Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are as full as full can be. Houses both upstream and down are sitting in feet of water. Believe it or not, that’s how things are supposed to work. The question is whether Houstonians and the Corps are seeing the edge of the dams’ design envelope.
Don't worry, for a moment, about 100-year storms and 500-year storms. Dam builders worry about a different standard: the Probable Maximum Flood.
Probable Maximum Flood
 The PMF is basically the answer to a math problem. (The World Meteorological Organization’s manual for calculating Probable Maximum Precipitation, a necessary precursor, clocks in at a not-easy-to-digest 291 pages, but it’s also in several languages, so that’ll cut your time down.) Basically, hydrologists try to figure out the absolute largest amount of water that could ever come shooting down a watershed, based on storm size and ground characteristics. It’s supposed to be a more deterministic calculation for how tough to build a dam, let's say, than the probabilistic whatever-year storm size.
 Those two Houston reservoirs are full to bursting, thanks to Harvey. That event might have been the big one—but it'll take some math to know for sure.
Pretty sure the media has already decided this event was the big one- No math necessary.

 In 1935 a thunderstorm dropped 16.5 inches of rain—flooding Buffalo Bayou (and therefore Houston) and killing eight people. So the US Army Corps of Engineers stepped in, acquiring the land that’d become the reservoirs. The Corps started building. By 1948, Barker’s irregular trapezoid was surrounded by 72,000 feet of earthen dam on its downstream sides, 36 feet high, and Addicks’ irregular triangle left a scraggly, fractal hypotenuse open upstream and dammed the rest with 61,000 linear feet of dirt almost 50 feet tall at its highest.
Probable Maximum Flood didn’t come into use as a standard until the 1970s. Today, some but not all dams are built to withstand it. (It's unclear if the dams in Texas are built to this standard) Right now, the Corps and others are working to figure out what percentage of the PMF that Harvey reached—and modeling how much water actually came into Houston and the reservoirs. (Corps spokespeople didn’t return requests for comment, but to be fair they’ve been busy.)
By the late-2000s the Corps had rated both Houston reservoirs’ dams and spillways as “extremely high-risk” infrastructure—in part, at least, because the consequences of a failure would be so high. Houston had metastasized since 1948, sending out tendrils and clots of housing and malls where unpaved ground used to absorb rain. And lots of that new construction was in the nominal path of the putative water that’d hypothetically rush downstream from the dams after a theoretical breach.
 That's called bad planning.
 Better to release a little water at a time into Buffalo Bayou and retain the rest than have it all go at once. So in 2015 the Corps of Engineers paid Granite Construction $72 million to upgrade the spillways. They were supposed to be done in 2019.And then came Harvey. “When that first level of spillway gets overwhelmed, you start storing more and more water behind the reservoir, but at some point you have to release that water because you do not want it to overtop the dam,” says Mark Ogden, a technical specialist with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
 “Overtopping” is the failure mode. “It’s an earthen embankment, a dirt cross section,” Stannard says. “If water flows uncontrolled over the top, it can erode away the dirt and cause the whole dam to fail.” As of Wednesday night, Addicks had 178,000 acre-feet of water behind its dam, and Barker had almost 170,000. You don’t want all of that hitting the city at once.
The reservoirs filled to record levels. Water got to 109 feet above sea level at Addicks. Areas on the upstream side of the reservoirs flooded. But of course a large release of water from the reservoirs means downstream flooding along Buffalo Bayou, too. “The operation is then a balancing act between how much water you release versus how much you store to keep from overtopping,” Ogden says.
So the Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates. Just a little at first, a few hundred cubic feet of water per second, and then wide—7,500 cfs from Barker and 6,300 cfs from Addicks, looking to go up to 8,000 cfs from both later in the week. And the rest of the city is draining into Buffalo Bayou, too. Thousands of houses are flooded. That number might reach 100,000.
The Army Corp of Engineers opened the floodgates and flooded thousands of homes. Was this a necessary action?
 Houston has been worried about the reservoirs for years. Back in 2012(5 years ago) the local Houston Press did a disaster-gonna-get-us story about them; last year ProPublica published a prescient article about the possible damage a hurricane could do to Houston, faulting the Army Corps of Engineers and policymakers for not better managing the floodplain. The Atlantic attributed Houston’s current plight to much the same—misguided or insufficient attempts to engineer away the problem of urban sprawl across a vast watershed prone to hurricanes
More of that bad planning... Not actually considering the terrain 

So the question is, are the at-capacity reservoirs experiencing the PMF? Even if the calculation had been around in the 1940s, today’s watershed might have changed since the dams were built.
So that's interesting to consider. 
-Are/were the reservoirs experiencing their maximum level/capacity? 
-Would they have spilled over? 
-Was it necessary to flood thousands and thousands of homes?
-Why wasn't there an alternative diversionary structure built to avoid flooding a major city?

 In Houston, all that new pavement means water runs off the ground faster instead of percolating downward, further changing the watershed’s characteristics.
 Hydrologists might not yet know what percentage of the PMF Harvey hit, and the PMF itself might be getting bigger. Maybe no amount of drains, dikes, levees, reservoirs, and canals could deal with that. Houston's history is one of engineering solutions to the problem of getting stormwater out of town.

I liked this article because it mostly, rationally addressed the very many issues facing Houston..
A  very large city built in a less then ideal location.  
This somewhat reminds me of New Orleans- Wasn't there an intentional flooding or carelessness there also? Can't recall exactly. But it seems there was something....

From Earlier today:


  1. Al Gore is teaching us peons it's not nice to ignore his latest BS movie.

    Keep an eye on Irma, it's turning into a king sized MF.

    1. That dam Al Gore!
      I took a peek at Irma.. glad I don't live in that region that's for sure- and it is peek Hurricane season too

  2. Another interesting thing about Harvey

    1. I haven't compared in detail, but that video seems to match what this one says:

      I know of at least one story that is not true about flooded houses. A man on another blog lives in the area, and he said certain photos from earlier this week showing houses with water to roofline could not be true as there are no houses in the purported area. When the media get the fear porn going, I become skeptical.

      I'll paste a link to this person's blog. He's been keeping track of various events like this and how they fit in with Agenda 21:

      And another from the above to point out some specifics of the plan. Scroll down until you see the date 4/7/08. I'm specifically talking about Ms. Soderman's research:

    2. thanks Gwen I will read the links
      can anyone explain to me what is the army corp of engineers? Is this a branch of the US military
      was wondering about that??

    3. thanks swebator- I find the cloud seeding aspect really interesting- is there anyway the document can be verified?

    4. Hi Penny,
      here's the source page:
      Scroll down to "August 24, 2017" and download the pdf-file.

    5. thanks swebator
      much appreciated :)

  3. While we are on the subject of water (the only link to this article) It does explain a lot about the USNavy and its current troubles, which are much deeper than just a few surface ""accidents"" SNIP How you get there is less important than just getting there.

    The previous Chief of Naval Operations coined a phrase that the current one chose to hang on to: Mission first; Sailors always. In the historic division between Sailors and Officers, it seems that the Officers got lost. The heroic actions of the Sailors on Fitzgerald, McCain, and Guardian show that we have not let them down. The actions of the Officers who put these ships into danger show that they have been left behind somewhere.

    The problems with seamanship in Seventh Fleet are not unique to the Western Pacific. But when you operate at a higher tempo than elsewhere around the world, these issues are going to show more frequently. Consider that what has happened this year is not a representation of problems in a small corner of the navy, but an indictment of the last 20 years of management of training, operations, and culture. END SNIP Article
    Hope all is well over in Canada.

    1. Thanks Gordon; That verifies the point I was making about the problem with the manpower...
      thanks for leaving it
      All is ok here in Canada. Colder then normal- which is going to be the subject of a forthcoming post

      A cool summer, a long cold wet spring and hell- here it is still summer and we've had two night temps that are getting dangerously into frost territory.

      Too early for that- we've got to get the rest of the tomatoes out of the garden, yesterday hubby got one out of the garden for bacon and tomato brekky sandwich and you'd have sworn the tomato had been in the refrigerator, but then the night time temp was 41.2F or about 5 C