More Efficient, More Appealing
The Harris County Flood Control District has launched an aggressive new Vegetation Management Program to increase our effectiveness - and efficiency - in supporting the District's mission. This program is a holistic initiative designed to provide appropriate stormwater drainage, while also maintaining the integrity of the county's channel system and protecting the environment.
By utilizing ever-increasing knowledge of all the natural aspects or our vast drainage system; by offering greater avenues of communication (both internally and externally); and by incorporating scientifically based best practices into maintaining the integrity and capacity of the more than 2,500 miles of channels in Harris County, we will achieve an even more efficient drainage system that is in greater harmony with nature.
This program will benefit the community in numerous ways.
Vision and Goals
Visualizing a More Natural Environment
This essential purpose of the Vegetation Management Program, you might say, is to help mold a better future by turning back the clock in a way - to attempt to restore the natural balance of nature by using the latest technologies and techniques. This program is part of the District's long-range vision to transform our fundamental approach to these critical community assets.
This Vegetation Management Program can create aesthetically pleasing landscapes in ways that can even increase surrounding property values.
We also have a vision of these waterways as independent ecosystems - as a home to a diverse range of wildlife. A properly conducted Vegetation Management Program can preserve and improve these habitats in a sustainable way.
Furthermore, the District takes its responsibility to the environment seriously, and we believe a well thought out Vegetation Management Program will contribute to cleaner water and air by designing landscapes that minimize the "heat island" effect, for example, and by introducing a better mix of plants species that reduce the need for using herbicides. The end result, as mentioned, is channel systems and waterways more in harmony with nature - and of greater value to the community.
We view this new initiative not only as a vital part of reducing the risks and costs associated with flooding, but also as an enlightened new way to improve the quality of life for Harris County residents.
Just as important from the District's perspective, it will provide a framework of policy values and priorities that offer clear direction to everyone involved in the District's operations as we learn better ways to identify the ideal species of plants and methods of establishing them, as well as herbicide products and methods of application.
You might be saying: "Sounds good on paper, but how do we know if these efforts are successful?"
For one thing, the District will know if we are successful if we can reduce citizen inquiries about vegetation related issues. But another benefit of this program is it will enable us to monitor effectiveness of the overall program through statistical analysis and evaluation.
As we have in the past, the District will reach out to our federal, state, and local partners - and other interested organizations - to refine and enhance the program as we move forward. The vegetation management mission gives us a new framework to strengthen our existing relationships and engage in new partnership opportunities.
To be successful, however, we must also continue consulting with local community leaders and seeking the active support of all interested citizens with an effective volunteer program.
Finally, because taxpayers have a right to know how their resources are being utilized, we will continue to provide public information regarding the program through various means.
Clearly, and most importantly, the Vegetation Management Program will maintain or even increase each channel's maximum capacity for draining storm water run-off. And it will also help preserve the integrity of our drainage system by reducing erosion.
To do so, not only do we need to approach every channel segment within the Infrastructure Division's Maintenance Department's scope with sound, scientifically-based management practices, but we also need to develop programs such as the Integrated Pest Management program that targets undesirable plants like Johnson Grass and Giant Ragweed while following vegetation establishment and promotion methods that introduce wildflowers and encourage growth of beneficial grass and plant species whenever feasible.
Achieving the Goals
Focus of Operations
In addition to mowing, the District's Service Center crews focus on maintaining operations or portions of operations that contractors, in the past, may have been unable to provide at a reasonable cost, including:
- Debris removal
- De-Snag operations
- Backpack and broadcast herbicide applications
- Selective clearing operations
- Vegetation establishment and promotion
Debris Removal & De-snag Operations
Debris removal and de-snagging operations are critical components for keeping the channel system operating at an efficient capacity. Sometimes, the District utilizes highly specialized equipment to aid in this effort. Rolligons, for example, are large, incredibly versatile vehicles that can navigate down into and actually "through" most channels in our system, saving tremendously in the efforts to keep our channels flowing.
Used with ever-increasing care and precision targeting herbicide applications are still a vital supplement to the overall Vegetation Management Program. Targeted herbicide applications increase storm water conveyance, decrease maintenance costs and increase plant diversity. Within our strict guidelines, we are able to pinpoint undesirable and harmful plant species, so that the beneficial vegetation can thrive. New technologies are constantly introduced that make for safer and more effective application. The Weedbug is one example. Rather than discharging a broadcast stream of herbicide, the Weedbug utilizes "wick" applicators that can be adjusted to the exact heights of only undesirable vegetation and lightly brushed over the tops of these plants. The results have been phenomenal.
One of the more recent tools in the Vegetation Management toolbox is selective clearing. Primarily, selective clearing is employed to maintain optimal channel conveyance capacities and also streambed and environmental integrity. Some great by-products of selective clearing are promotion of bio-diversity and tree canopy growth, thus increasing shade and reducing undesirable species growth. Great care is taken to ensure that the most desirable plant and tree species remain in place, and native ecological areas have a chance to prosper.
Several variables are considered for clearing operations:
- Species and condition of vegetation
- Location (be it creek bottom, slope, top bank, or even wetland)
- Spacing and canopy creation
- Potential to obstruct conveyance
- Potential to reduce maintenance
Vegetation Establishment and Promotion
Vegetation establishment and promotion is an equally important component to the Vegetation Management Program. Primarily, successful implementation of this facet of the program will provide our channel system with protection from erosion and will help promote desirable vegetation. Other benefits include:
- Reduction of maintenance costs
- Creation of a sustainable environment
- Wildlife habitat preservation
- Aesthetically pleasing landscapes, and also
- Establishment of multi-use or recreation sites for the public
Vegetation establishment and promotion is comprised of three primary components:
- Turf and native grass
Turf & Native Grass
Turf grass is the quickest way to establish erosion protection, reducing the need for future repairs. And establishment of other native grasses ensures optimal biodiversity within the channel system. Turf application is carried out with several methods:
- Dry application
- Hydroseeding with mulch
- Over seeding
Once turf application is complete, and it's later determined that there is at least an 85% turf grass coverage, then the site is considered established and will enter the regular maintenance and mowing schedule. If the site is not well enough established, then it will remain on the Restricted Maintenance Zone list and establishment activities will continue.
Wildflowers are another viable method to promote vegetation, and are attractive in more ways than what "meets the eye," so to speak. Aside from beautifying the local landscape, wildflower promotion can offset the first mowing cycle, saving the District's maintenance dollars and allowing them to be allocated to other areas of need. In addition to the cost savings, wildflowers provide sustainable landscape and wildlife habitat "and," by offsetting that first mowing cycle, prevent tons of cut organic material from entering the county's channel system. So, not only does the public benefit in many ways, but so do the creatures who depend on the local waterways for survival.
Establishment and promotion of trees along the county's channel system provides numerous beneficial, long-term benefits. The canopy effect that was mentioned earlier is so important in promoting desirable trees, while suppressing the growth of species that are harmful to good growth and proper channel conveyance.
Additionally, maintenance operations costs are reduced because hand cutting and clearing may no longer be needed once growth is established. Stream banks are also stabilized, further reducing the need for maintenance activities.
Plentiful trees help reduce the "heat island" effect and help rid the air of harmful gasses and even particulate contaminants. Wildlife prospers, and the aesthetics of the area become more visually appealing.
Tree planting process is broken down into three phases:
Pre-planting budgeting and contract decisions are made more than a year before trees are planted. Assuming an area meets the proper criteria, a conceptual plan is developed and site visits are made. Trees are then procured and planting dates are made.
Planting then commences between December 1 and March 31. The locations are primarily top of bank and may also fill gaps in an existing tree canopy. In the end, we strive for approximately 40 trees per acre. Planting activities may also involve partnering with various community organizations. This can save in planting costs, while also increasing public awareness of the District and its activities.
Post-planting involves monitoring and maintaining the trees to ensure that they become established. This phase of the process begins July 1 and will continue until the trees are established, or a minimum of two years.
A Better Way For All of Us
Of course, the vegetation management program is not an end to itself, but a critical piece of the District's broader strategy to help reduce the risks and costs associated with flood damage. We believe this new vegetation management program will enhance the District's flood damage reduction efforts by enforcing a holistic perspective on our operations. At the end of the day, these collective measures will provide more efficient stormwater drainage, while also maintaining the integrity of Harris County's 2,500-mile channel system and protecting the environment.