Horsepen Bayou: Are Flood District Plans Well-Conceived or Just Another Bayou Boondoggle?

Tia and Jempy Neyman often walk along a subsection of Horsepen Bayou near the University of Houston's Clear Lake Campus.
Tia and Jempy Neyman often walk along a subsection of Horsepen Bayou near the University of Houston's Clear Lake Campus. Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
When Tia Neyman first walked through the doors of the two-story house on Brook Forest Drive, she thought to herself it was the ugliest house on the block.

The awful colors on the walls, mismatched interior design, and insect and small animal carcasses scattered across the floor inside in addition to a haphazard floor plan amounted to less than zero buyer appeal. But once Tia made her way through the entry hallway, the house opened to unveil its backyard view of Horsepen Bayou.

“I hadn’t even gone upstairs when I called Jempy [Tia’s husband], and said, ‘I found our house.’ He thought I was insane.”

Many of Tia and Jess “Jempy” Neyman’s neighbors settled into the areas along Clear Lake City Boulevard and Bay Area Boulevard  for the same reason as they did: the beauty of the bayou.

Homeowners first saw surveyor flags in their backyards early in 2022 and began asking questions. Officials with the Harris County Flood Control District and Harris County Precinct 2 told them that work would start on an about three-mile stretch of the bayou behind their houses as part of the Horsepen Bayou Stormwater Conveyance Improvements project.

Following studies driven by flooding and high water in Horsepen Bayou during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the district decided to move forward with the project.

Jeremy Ratcliff, the Harris County Flood Control District coordinator for Precinct 2, said the district received approval to proceed with its proposed construction from the United States Army Corp of Engineers, Galveston District in June 2022.

This was four years after voters had initially approved a $2.5 billion bond package in the 2018 election that would provide funds for the district for flood control projects such as this one on the bayou and other nearby locations affected by flooding during Harvey.

Despite the district's findings, residents say that fewer houses in Brook Forest and the surrounding neighborhoods flooded due to water coming in from the bayou. Instead, most in Bay Oaks and Bay Forest they say were affected by street flooding caused by drainage and detention issues. This is mentioned in Lockwood, Andrews & Newman, Inc's flooding analyses' of the two neighborhoods.

District and Precinct 2 officials hosted several in-person and virtual community meetings starting in 2020 which were sparsely attended. Many homeowners only recently learned about the proposed bayou work.

District officials initially told residents in these earlier meetings that construction would center on widening the channel by roughly 10 feet from each bank on both sides of the bayou. It wasn’t until the second community Zoom meeting that they gave more information.

The few homeowners who attended those early meetings were told about the plans to excavate the bayou, creating steeper sloping along the sides to increase drainage efforts. All of which would occur on the district’s right-of-way.

More recently, some residents heard construction would start sooner rather than later, while others said that the earliest they were told it would begin was January 2024. When they asked for clarification on the project details, many said they received mixed messages.

“The thing that I have found interesting is that we all have communicated with district people, and at some point, all of us had different answers given to us,” Jempy said. “I think collectively, we don’t trust them [district officials], and they’re telling us whatever they want to tell us at the time.”

One homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous for this article, filed a public records request in hopes of finding responses to unanswered questions. The design plans obtained displayed construction that did not match the ones initially presented by the district.

These showed that the district planned to widen the bayou in some areas beyond 26 feet and 37 feet from a single bank on separate sides, respectively.

The sloping of the bayou was also steeper, causing construction to extend up to the back of residents’ property lines. This would require the removal of fences, benches, and other items encroaching on the district’s property.

Ratcliff said the district had located jurisdictional protected wetlands near the banks, which is why work would back up against homeowners’ backyards.’
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Residents who live in the neighborhoods along Horsepen Bayou say its common to see people out on walks, fishing on or kayaking down the body of water.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
These plans also uncovered that the construction would cause nearly all the greenery between the bank and the property lines’ to be ripped out, including many large years-old Live Oak Trees.

Several residents are working in the neighborhood to communicate what they say is going on, as some still have the impression that the project remains the same as initially presented. District officials continue to discuss aspects of the original version of the project’s plans and display them on the district's website.

The project is still under study right now thanks to residents’ pushback. Officials say it is still needed, saying that it will reduce flood water from rising between 1.4 to 4.6 inches, create 68 acre-feet of stormwater detention from Clear Lake City Boulevard to Bay Area Boulevard and benefit roughly 256 homes that the district determined are at risk.

However, residents aren’t certain that they know what the final plan for the project is. Some argue that the nearby recently completed Exploration Green project may be all that’s needed to alleviate Horsepen Bayou problems. Others are concerned that there may be adverse effects to Armand Bayou from tinkering with Horsepen whose waters flow into the larger body of water.

And at this point, they remain unsure if any of it will provide the level of flood reduction that officials say it will.

Longstanding Disagreements Over How to Handle Houston's Bayous

The four major bayous in the Houston area – Buffalo Bayou, Brays Bayou, White Oak Bayou, and Sims Bayou – have all been the subjects of projects to either increase flood reduction, repair erosion, and other needed maintenance.

According to Susan Chadwick, Executive Director of Save Buffalo Bayou – a nonprofit association aimed to protect Buffalo Bayou and its nearby tributaries – all four of these waters have had areas along their banks altered.

She said channelizing bayous, which she argued is an outdated way of providing flood mitigation, can end up reducing their capacity. These projects also often leave the bayous requiring non-stop maintenance and upkeep, she said.

When flood control districts go in with this practice, Chadwick said they are focused on providing flood control in the one target area but not the possible unintended consequences on the bodies of water the bayous flow into.

She added that these projects remove grass, vegetation and other aspects of the natural environment, which act as permeable surfaces absorbing the rainfall. The longer it takes for the stormwater to reach the bayou, the less likely it is to overflow.

Chadwick said the alternative to widening or altering a bayou’s banks is instead considering a way to build a network of flood mitigation, such as detention ponds – which, in the case of the Horsepen Bayou project, were proposed as alternative options for flood control.

Jim Blackburn, Rice University law professor and co-founder of the Bayou City Initiative, echoed Chadwick’s sentiments and added that looking at part rather than the whole picture usually involves the stakeholders in these projects.

“Sometimes they [engineers] only answer the questions they are asked to answer,” Blackburn said. “They don’t ask if they are really solving the problem. They don't ask what the benefits are, what harm it [a project] may be causing, and if there is another way of accomplishing the goal – and there usually is."

Blackburn said there is a tendency by those involved in flood control projects to opt for the cheapest and easiest option. This often means going straight to construction on the channel.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia has voiced support for the project, and his fellow commissioners approved of the initial preliminary engineering work on the plans.

The project is currently going through a second analysis per Garcia’s request to ensure that every option is considered following concerns and possible proposed alternatives.

If any modifications are made as a result of the findings of this report, any changes would need to be reviewed by Commissioners Court.

Officials with the district, including Garcia, have confirmed that this project was selected based on the flood control it would provide, coupled with the cost-benefit of not relocating residents or having to acquire non-district property.

“Like in any decision, there’s a viability aspect to it, there’s a financial aspect, and there’s a convenience aspect to it,” Scott Spiegel, Harris County Precinct 2 press secretary, said. “Ultimately, what will be decided is what makes the most sense for benefitting the most people while also being fiscally manageable.”

Those with the district and county maintain that they do not have the funds for the other alternatives considered as the roughly $12.5 million that covers this project – with about $1 million already being spent – would not be enough to pay for the options.

Bay Oaks Resident Jennifer Kearns presented several alternatives to Garcia during a community engagement meeting in August. She added that the Friendswood Development Company, the Armand Bayou Watershed Planned Partnership and Clear Lake City Water Authority had all determined them to be viable.

Kearns said all three of these agencies agreed that these upstream detention methods would be the best way to provide flood control with minimal adverse effects on the local environment. These options included constructing a regional detention basin north of Clear Lake City Boulevard between Highway 3 and I-45 or creating a detention basin in the Ellington Field area.

However, Garcia reiterated that these projects would require property acquisition, on which the Clear Lake City Water Authority, the Houston Airport System and the district would need to work together.

"My fundamental position is doing nothing is unacceptable," Garcia said during the meeting. This study, as I've said – or this project, as I've said – has been studied by licensed and professional engineers and consultants, and I have to rely on their expertise. Otherwise, they wouldn't be wouldn’t be [one] working for us or [two] consultants for us.”

Garcia said those with the airport system had already brought to attention issues with building a detention basin in the Ellington Field area due to the risk of attracting birds, leading to potential bird strikes – when a bird runs into a plane, causing it to crash.

According to Spiegel, the Harris County Flood Control District and Harris County Precinct Two received two letters regarding these construction concerns: one from the city’s airport system and another from the United States Air Force detailing these potential dangers.

Those advocating for the alternatives had also proposed a dry bottom detention basin to reduce the chances of attracting wildlife. However, the airport system’s letter asserts its opposition to construction in the location even if a dry detention basin is built, as they say it still poses a risk.

Several residents challenged this as an unmaintained retention area that had reverted to wetlands and was cleaned out after Harvey was located near Ellington Field. Birds lived in this space, which they argue would make the bird strike argument moot.

Those in support of the upstream detention methods are concerned the district is not exploring them because of ongoing development in the area of the Houston Spaceport – a part of Clear Lake that is attracting tenants involved in the aerospace training and technology industry.

Residents argue that officials are looking to create flood mitigation for the Spaceport and that Horsepen Bayou is being offered as the remedy for flood control efforts instead of pursuing a project closer that would interfere with property for this development.

“They want to develop the Spaceport, that’s great, but there are options to do that where you don't have to do this [bayou project],” Jempy said. “And upstream, there’s land to develop, and they are going to have to figure out drainage to get that developed, and they’re going to sacrifice us [Horsepen Bayou] so they can do that.”
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Ducks sunning themselves along the banks of where the planned construction would take place.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen

Exploring Horsepen and Armand Bayous For Years

Gary Seloff, a Clear Lake City resident and award-winning nature photographer, knows his way around Horsepen and Armand Bayou. He has spent the last 25 years or so photographing the area inside his one-person kayak.

“I stumbled on it [Armand Bayou] with a desire to catch fish, but it clearly became a refuge from the day-to-day,” Seloff said. “There’s no way to know, but I suspect it preserves my sanity.”
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Gary Seloff has spent years photographing the bayou, mostly from his kayak or the nature center's pontoon boat.
Photo by Jerome Matula
After several failed fishing trips, Seloff realized that this pastime was not necessarily one he was great at. Instead, He took a camera out to capture the wildlife in their natural habitat. This skill was much more his speed and was reminiscent of his time as an art history student at the University of Texas.

Soon after Seloff retired from a more than 30-year-long career working with imagery collections and IT at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, he turned this hobby into his new gig by becoming an interpretative guide at the Armand Bayou Nature Center on the facility’s pontoon boat tours.

Seloff has photographed various animals and insects along Armand, including turtles, dragonflies, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Red-shouldered Hawks, among many others. One of his favorite types of birds to photograph is the American Coot.

He jokes that his favorite subject to photograph along Armand changes often, as it is always the one he shot most recently. When Seloff goes out to take pictures often, he spots at least one of the bayou’s alligators. Those working at the nature center have nicknamed one of the larger alligators they’ve seen “Big Boy,” as he is roughly 14 feet long.

Seloff said one of his main concerns regarding the Horsepen Bayou project is its potential effects on Armand Bayou. Water from Horsepen Bayou flows into Armand, and he has already witnessed significant change in Armand during his time there. The area has seen roughly six to nine feet of subsidence due to nearby residential build-up and development.

This subsidence has transformed parts of Armand Bayou to look more like a lake than the narrow channel it was decades ago. He argued that this could be made worse by the work being done in Horsepen as it may further erode Armand’s banks.

He added that if the channelization of Horsepen Bayou does cause flooding to occur, it would likely affect the Bulrushes – a type of freshwater plant – planted to restore the natural ecology of Armand Bayou. This would take a toll on the birds, such as the Least Bitterns that have returned to the area because of this vegetation.

“Anything that would change that would definitely have an impact and would definitely keep some birds from ever coming back to that area [Armand],” Seloff said. “If it [the bayou project] destroyed that balance.”

According to Nicholas Laskowski, the Galveston District Corps regulatory chief, division personnel evaluated the proposed project area and found no habitats of bird species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act nor the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

He added that the scope of the Corps’ review included only the project area – which would exclude Armand Bayou. This evaluation of the regulatory plans and site conditions showed no trees in which birds could nest in the work area.

Residents have been notified that the district’s current extent of planned construction – that they say they know of – would require many live trees between their property lines and the bayou to be removed from the premises.

Jempy Neyman echoed Seloff’s worries regarding the lack of evaluation and consideration of the effect that the Horsepen Bayou project may have not only on the immediate environment but also the potential harm it could have on the larger system.

He is concerned that a possible increased flow of freshwater from Horsepen Bayou would decrease the salinity in Armand and potentially change the speed of the flow of the water, which could alter the water temperature.

As Seloff mentioned, any possible changes in water conditions could negatively affect much of the wildlife there.
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Yellow-crowned Night Heron gripping a blue crab on Horsepen Bayou.
Photo by Gary Seloff
Neyman was an environmental consultant early in his career for years before he entered into retirement. He managed the air quality division of the company he worked at and spent many hours of his workdays reviewing environmental analyses and models to assist clients with obtaining permits.

Based on his past experiences, Jempy took issue that the environmental assessment done for the project was equivalent of a Phase 1, which in the environmental world, he says is very limited.

Jempy also noted the report took place in June 2019, arguing that any of its findings after this date would not be included in the study, rendering it unreliable given the number of changes that can occur to a landscape between then and now.

Seloff said one of his only experiences with the district was when he located one of its motorized, gasoline-powered boats in the area he was kayaking in as an employee cut down foliage. This violated Armand Bayou’s rules not to maneuver fuel-powered vehicles in its waters and occurred during the middle of spring nesting season.

“What that suggests, in my mind, is uncaring bureaucracy, who’s just doing things without following all the appropriate research and approvals that might be necessary before they embark on a project like that,” he said.

Many Residents Suspicious They Haven't Seen the Final Plans

Several residents say they are unwilling to support the bayou project as they are concerned about the consequences of construction and what they say is the continued lack of transparency from district and county officials.

A couple living in Brook Forest who did not want their names used for this story – we’ll call them Mary and Bob – continue to question the project’s necessity amid uncertainty regarding whether or not they have seen the final construction plans.

“You've got those that don’t know anything is happening,” Mary said. “And then you have those who think the project is outlined in the graphic from the community meetings and the one currently online – when it’s [the project] is drastically different.”

“I think people are a little shocked when they see the whole plan that shows exactly what is happening and how much devastation is going to take place,” she added. “It’s a major change.”

The district’s Ratcliff confirmed that the widening surpassed 10 feet on each side and that the slopes set construction back against residents’ property lines despite what the initial design plans displayed and communicated by the district showed.

According to the Corps’ Laskowski, the Harris County Flood Control District provided construction plans as required when submitting the initial permit application for the project.

However, Laskowski added that the Corps’ policy does not require agencies to send full-detailed engineering plans when applying for permits. He said the approved proposed project included repairing erosion, sediment excavation and outfall repairs and replacements.

Bob is concerned that there is a possibility, despite accessing what he thinks is the district’s full design plans for the project from the public records request, that they could still not have an idea of the final version of what the construction will be.

He added that without knowing the full scope of the project, there could be additional adverse effects aside from the ones he and other residents have already detected.

Bob said the project could end up causing the Bay Area Boulevard bridge to act as a “bathtub stopper” collecting all the stormwater in that area while potentially slowing downstream flow. In reviewing the preliminary engineering report by IDS Engineering, he found that the bayou work could increase the chance for floodwaters to increase by 0.8 inches.

Meanwhile, Bob argues there are flood mitigation projects already fully constructed to provide flood control in surrounding areas, such as Exploration Green – a flood reduction project started in 2016 by Clear Lake City Water Authority and completed in September, providing more than 1,500 acre-feet of stormwater detention.

“0.8 inches is small, but it’s not nothing,” Bob said. “The point is that it’s [the bayou project] $12 million that’s not going to get us anything and is destroying all this stuff that has been here for over 40 years.”

District and county officials challenge residents’ assertions that Exploration Green would render the Horsepen Bayou project unnecessary, arguing that it provides flood control to areas further upstream than the area which benefits from the detention facility.

The district only recently received the data from Exploration Green. Residents were told by officials that Phases 1-3 of the detention facility were completed by the time the first analysis was done for the bayou project.

However, the district says data regarding Exploration Green's ability to hold storm water detention was not factored in because construction of these phases were not complete at the beginning of the study,

Garcia and Ratcliff confirmed that the second analysis of the bayou project completed by an outside consultant included data regarding the flood control Exploration Green provides.

Ratcliff added that this analysis also explores the proposed alternatives to the bayou project. He said the report is complete; however, the district’s engineers are going through the findings, and no further updates to any changes being made to the project were available.

“Either they [the findings] will justify what we had already thought, or new findings will open up that this may not be the right thing to do and to take another look,” Ratcliff said. “We’ve heard the outcry from the community and questions about the project, so we are trying to do our due diligence.”

Precinct 2’s Spiegel said Garcia had not been briefed on any results from the second analysis. He added that the next steps will likely come in the next two weeks to month once conversations are had regarding any of the findings released.

Residents say they remain skeptical pending these results. They say they worry that the review is meant to buy time until construction trucks are in their backyards.

Spiegel said the report’s purpose is to seriously evaluate – not check a box – the decisions to ensure that the ones made in the past regarding the project are still the ones that fit best for all that is known and needed in terms of flood mitigation.

However, Spiegel added that the necessary “bureaucratic processes” were ongoing in case the initial plan stands, and he confirmed that construction would start earlier rather than later if this were to occur.

“As far as we’re concerned until that information is shared with Commissioner Garcia, I would consider it [the project] still ongoing,” he said.

Some residents have banded together to form a group, Save Horsepen Bayou, creating an online website to advocate for the bayou and raise awareness regarding what they refer to as the misconceptions surrounding the planned construction.

“It’s just a wonderful place, and we thought, well, if we could save this – that’s how it got started,” Mary said.

“I want to think that the district will do something about it, but given the history, I have a hard time putting my trust in it,” she added. “I think they might come back and make some small modification to make it look like they appeased us, but I don’t think it [the project] will completely die.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.