Working with Nature – Outside of Your Job Description

Apr 03, 2019


James Parker, P.E.

In the field of land development, we typically take abandoned or previously farmed land and develop it into picturesque neighborhoods for families to have beautiful homes. During this process, we utilize many ponds and waterways that are natural habitats for numerous species of animals. Usually, we are prepared to deal with what nature has in store for us, but sometimes we get hit by surprise.

During my first few years as an engineer, I was faced with several situations involving beavers and nutria. Now, I don’t recall taking a course in college, seeing anything on the PE exam, or even in the job description, that would prepare me for these types of encounters, but the reality is these situations can affect our projects and damage infrastructure. I will discuss two such examples in this blog as I relive and share with you, the excitement I came across on my projects.

BEAVERS

One day, about two years into my job, I got a phone call from a Municipal Utility District (MUD) Director wondering why there was standing water in a dry detention channel that outfalls into a stream. Being a proactive engineer, I called up our field inspector in the area to ask him to swing by and investigate. From his investigation, he saw the channel to the stream was indeed holding water and traced it back to the stream, noticing that there was an obstruction downstream. After further investigation, he determined that there was a beaver dam causing a slight back up into our system.

Being from Louisiana, my first instinct was to go out there and pull out the beaver dam, but in the professional world, we need to hire an expert to fix the problem. But who to call? Not Ghostbusters, so I Googled “beaver removal companies in Houston,” like a millennial. I got on the phone and started calling the few numbers I found. The phone calls started with, “Hi, my name is James Parker, with Costello, and I have a beaver problem, can you help?” As I explained my problem, the people that were willing to help informed me that beavers were animals that would eventually come back and rebuild, kind of like Houstonians, “Houston Strong.” The only way to solve the problem is to trap and relocate the beaver.

I investigated the other solutions and discovered that there are several contraptions designed to help with the flow of water through the dams. One option was to install a pipe at the flowline of the ditch and start building the dam around the pipe with chicken wire. This option was not the right solution since it would still block the flow of water and not achieve our ultimate goal.

After further investigation, it turns out the stream was a Harris County Flood Control District ditch, and we needed to get their permission before we could do any work. Once notified of the problem, Flood Control added this issue to their maintenance program. The dam was not critical for drainage since it was less than a half a foot above the flowline of the ditch and would have been washed out by the next heavy rain. Flood Control did get out and clean the ditch, and I now know how to handle beaver situations as an engineer.

NUTRIA

Growing up in the New Orleans area, we were taught that Nutria were very destructive to the grass root systems. They were very destructive to the levee systems and channels that ran through New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The local Sheriff Offices would pay cash for every tail brought to them to help control the nutria population.

When I moved to Texas, I thought those worries were behind me. I was mistaken as Nutria are in the Houston region as well. In the Fort Bend County area, there are plenty of levee systems that engineers have designed and need to protect from the destructive nature of nutria and other creatures. When they eat the root systems of the grass, they leave gaps of unprotected soil, which can create a scour hole problem and can weaken the levees. During high water events in the bayous and rivers, this is a major concern for the engineers and operators that are maintaining the levees because of the potential for major devastation.

When I was told that we had a nutria problem in one of our MUDs, I knew it was something that needed to be addressed quickly. The solution to the problem was to dig out the holes and then refill them with compacted soil. This can become a very expensive project that can be avoided by proactively inspecting detention ponds and levees to make sure that there is no nutria burrowing into the soil. It is also good to inform the residents that they are not cute animals that you feed around the ponds like people feed ducks.

There are a few companies in the area that are skilled professionals who will come out to trap the nutria and release them in a secure location, for a fee. It is important for Districts to have a maintenance company inspect their ponds and levees to make sure there are no issues from destructive animals. If these issues are spotted early, they can be repaired quickly at a fraction of the cost and reduce the probability of destruction in the future.

In the professional world, I learned that the most important thing to do when a problem arises is to determine who owns the property and who is authorized to fix the problem. This is one of the major lessons that I learned while dealing with these issues. It is not like when we were kids and the ball went over the fence. The solution was to jump the fence, grab the ball, and get back before the “Beast” gets you. As an engineer, we must make sure that we can be on the property to solve the problem, but more importantly, we need to make sure that we do not cause another problem with our solution to the first.

These are problems that aren’t surveyed or in the construction plans, but as an engineer on the project we are tasked with helping solve these issues. Have you had to deal with a problem caused by Mother Nature’s creatures before? If so, tell us how you were able to deal with the challenge. What would you do differently? Could your problem have been avoided if it was planned for during the design process? I look forward to hearing everyone’s stories and hope that you might have learned something from my experiences.

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