What’s Happening in Houston Right Now is Completely Insane (with data)

What’s happening in Houston right now is mind-boggling. Since August 25, parts of the City have received upwards of 32 inches of rain. That is so much rain. In our county we worry about flash floods when storms bring a few inches and here we have 32 inches with more said to come. I can’t even wrap my head around that.


Rainfall Totals for Western Houston as of 8/28 (Courtesy of Harris County FWS)

With all this rain comes the floods and the flood waters are 10 feet or more above their banks in many parts of the city.


Addicks and Barker Reservoirs,   large flood control structures operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (shown below and large green area on image above) almost immediately filled up with the start of the heavy rains. It’s gotten to the point where water is being released from the reservoirs in order to prevent them from being overtopped and possibly destroyed. The releases are exacerbating the flooding in the city (along Buffalo Bayou) but are ultimately necessary to protect then and prevent a catastrophic release from a failed levee or other damming surface.

Houston 3.jpg

Courtesy of the Houston Press

USGS Gage data from these reservoirs is shocking:


Total Precipitation at Barker Res.


Total water stored at Barker Res. from nothing to nearly 140,000 acre-feet (46,000,000,000 gallons) in three days


Water Surface Elevation in Barker Res.


Water Surface Elevation at Addicks Res.

Even with the releases from the reservoirs, the water levels in them continue to rise (as of 8/28 at 9:00 pm). The emergency spillway elevation on Addicks and Barker is at 114 feet which would be the next line of defense for these reservoirs, although one that may cause permanent damage to the reservoirs if used. The crazy thing about the reservoirs, and the flooding in Houston in general is that all this excess water has to pass through the city to get to Galveston bay. The city of Houston is between the water and where it wants to go. Addicks and Barker release into Buffalo Bayou which goes straight through the city before heading to the bay.


Although the area downstream of the reservoirs looks green in the above image, it is completely populated and now mostly flooded. Stream gauges along Buffalo Bayou show that it is currently two to nine feet above the banks. You can get a sense of the immensity of the flooding from the below Twitter posts.


We can only hope that the forecasted rains will stay away and that the floodwaters will recede quickly. And also that Addicks and Barker hold!



World War One


I saw the gravestone recently and was struck by it. Of all the things that William J. Ira was during his life, he is meant to be remembered as a doughboy. Standing at attention with his weapon in his right hand and bayonet hanging off his pistol belt. Campaign hat and puttees, the perfect embodiment of soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War One. His parent (and town) were clearly proud of his service.

100 years ago this August, General Pershing and the first elements of AEF had already begun to arrive in France. They wouldn’t begin to see combat on the Western Front for several more months but the United States was committed to war.

In Washtenaw County, preparation for war was in full swing. As recounted in the History of Washtenaw County from “Historic Michigan” (1928)

“The people of Washtenaw, inspired with the patriotism of Americans
responding to the call to arms, availed themselves of every opportunity
to pay reverent tribute to the Stars and Stripes during that trying first
year. As each quota of Washtenaw men left the county the people
turned out to bid them God’s speed,’ and if, at times, there was an ab-
sence of cheering it was a feeling of respect and reverence that was man-
fested rather by a bared head than in an exhibition of lung power. The
people had awakened to the seriousness of thewar, had begun to realize
that the country was about to engage in a terrible struggle terrific in
its dimensions, demanding the sacrifice of the lives of many of the boys,
with its attendant suffering and misery, but still with that feeling deep
down in their hearts as expressed by one old soldier in addressing a meet-
ing of the citizens when he said to them: “I know that it is hard for
you to see your boys go away to war but I also know that there is not
a mother here who would not be ashamed if she thought her boy was
not prepared to do his duty.” How well the boys of those mothers
did their duty has been told. ”

I’m pretty sure the author never heard an “old soldier” say that and the prose is a bit jarring to our modern ears but Washtenaw County was in the war.

This blog is rapidly turning into one pretty much just about history but World War One is really important. When the “Great War” was over, the men and women of this generation were the ones who made many of the tangible infrastructure decisions that are still with us today. From road alignments, highway planning, industry creation and a thousand other small things. I hope to have time to explore many of those threads but now, during the hundredth anniversary of the War, I want to remember the war itself.


Some Great Photos of Construction Around the County


What are you doing reading blogs? You should be outside enjoying our amazing weather right now before the county turns into a furnace!

High summer is high construction season. Personally that means every road I drive on is torn up, gridlocked or has some part of it closed but in the end it means (hopefully) better infrastructure for us all. Things will (again hopefully) be getting better! Don’t be like this guy who drove around the cones and ended up causing a huge sewage spill on a job-site.

On Flickr I found some great construction photos from about 10 years ago by U of M Prof. Emeritus Robert Carr from around Washtenaw. Some favorites posted below. Check out his page for the rest and I hope you’re having a great July!


Courtesy of Robert Carr (this is the Dixboro Bridge just downstream of Geddes Dam)





Soil Borings at the Geddes Dam (1917)

Geddes Dam is located on the Huron River just east of US-23.


Image Courtesy of Google

The current dam (shown below) was constructed after the previous dam failed in the great flood of June 1968.


Geddes Dam from Dixboro Road

The previous Geddes dam was constructed in 1918 as part of a plan by the Detroit Edison Company to harness the Huron River for electrical power for all of Metro Detroit. The Argo, Barton and Superior Dams (among others) were constructed for this purpose as well.

I am very interested why the Geddes Dam failed in 1968 and in attempting to research the failure was led to the papers of Gardner S. Williams at the Bentley Historical Library. Williams designed the old Geddes Dam and oversaw its construction on behalf of Detroit Edison in 1918.

Before his design and construction efforts began however, he commissioned a site exploration to determine the soil conditions beneath the proposed dam site. Below are images of the first two pages from that study. The first page describes the methods used to complete the soil borings and the second describes some of the results.



Page 1 – Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library 


Page 2 – Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library

On Page 1 we find that Detroit Edison used a four-man crew to drive a 1-1/4″ pipe into the ground. The driving block was a 6×8″ by 3 foot piece of Oak dropped onto the pipe and suspended from a tripod. To collect the soil samples, they probably had to pull the whole pipe back out and then drop it back in to collect the samples at each recorded interval. Old boiler tube was also used as an outer casing to keep the hole from caving in the soft river sediments. Very simple, elegant and much more labor intensive when compared to the drill rigs currently used for soil investigations.


A Modern Drill-Rig (Courtesy of the Central Mine Equipment Company)

Although the methods were a bit different, the results found on Page 2 of Williams’ Geddes Dam investigatoin are largely similar to soil investigations of today. Complete descriptions of soil types, layer thicknesses, salient features and other defining characteristics are all detailed to give the engineer and designer as complete a picture as possible of the subsurface conditions.

To highlight this, below is an example page from a modern soil investigation (courtesy of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission):


The results are much more formalized in this modern example (from almost 100 years after the Geddes Dam borings) and much more data is provided but the general outline is the same. Concise information on soil conditions as compete as possible for the designer and engineer.

Although this was not the intent of my research, discovering the soil boring records for the old Geddes Dam was a very cool find as it provides a historical context for modern soil investigation practices and also a strong connection with those engineers whose shoulders we are standing on (and whose roads, bridges, dam, etc… are still used today).




Closed Bids for Local Projects

If you are ever interested about what exactly is going with local construction projects and infrastructure improvements, most local government agencies post their requests for proposal (RFPs) for their large projects at a few, easily accessible websites making it very simple to search for a large amount of historic projects throughout Washtenaw County.

The Michigan Inter-governmental Trade Network (MITN) is the largest of these bid-aggregation websites. If you register you can view the open bids, but past bids can be viewed without needing to do so.

Closed bids by Agency within MITN can be found here

As an example of this, I’ll select the City of Ann Arbor from the list of participating agencies.

Ann Arbor.JPG

There is a huge list of RFPs here so i’ll pick a relatively recent one. I’m interested in seeing what the City plans to do for their “West Liberty Street Reconstruction, S. First St. – N. Main St.” so I click on that link and get more project details.

Ann Arbor 2.JPG

The plans and specifications for this project are attached in the “document” attachment so i’m able to learn exactly what the City has planned here. Other agencies may just give you a list of plan holders that need to be contacted to request the plans or make you jump through a few more hoops to see the actual plans.

Ann Arbor3.JPG

Pulling up the plans we have the complete plan-set available for viewing.

Ann Arbor 4.JPG

This is a simple example, but neatly illustrates how we can (with the internet) quickly learn more about the infrastructure projects around us.


The USS Washtenaw County

This post is a bit tangential to infrastructure but I thought it an interesting enough story to tell anyways. And since the name of our fair county is mentioned, this is as good an excuse as any to continue.

There was/is actually a ship in the U.S. Navy named after our county. Landing Ship Tank (LST) #1166 the USS Washtenaw County was laid down in 1951 in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin, launched in 1952 and then commissioned in 1953. Below is a photo of her from an exercise in South Korea in 1962.


Courtesy of Wikipedia/US Navy

Serving in the Pacific, the Washtenaw County eventually saw extensive service in Vietnam transporting troops and supplies. The LST’s and other small ships like her were the heavy lifters of close-in Naval efforts during the Vietnam War with their shallow drafts and large cargo capacity.

Here is a cool aerial shot underway. #1166 is just visible on the bow.


Courtesy of Wikipedia / US Navy

In 1968 she was in the Mekong Delta supporting the Mobile Riverine Force as shown below. The Hueys on the deck are pretty cool.


Courtesy US Navy / navsource.org

After that it was continued service in the western Pacific until 1973 when she was turned into a minesweeper to help clear Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam as a part of Operation “End Sweep”. After that the Washtenaw County was decommissioned and sold.



“Washtenaw County” is barely visible under the 2 on the Stern (courtesy US Navy / navsource.org)

The next 30 to 40 years were spent in commercial service before she ended up in the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon (as of 2003) being restored by a non-profit to be turned into a museum ship.

It’s apparently been a slow process with scrappers, lack of funding and hazmat remediation slowing the process down. The name Washtenaw County has been painted on her again at least.


courtesy navsource.org / Erik Martin

Here she is as a rusting hulk in 2016 – not the best representative of our County in the Pacific Northwest.


courtesy of navsource.org / Harvey Golden

She’s pretty easy to find on Google Maps, just west of the Lewis and Clark Bridge on the south bank of the Columbia.


I hope the Washtenaw County has better days ahead of her. It would be cool to visit her in Portland if she’s ever fixed up.

If you would like to read more about the USS Washtenaw County, Wikipedia and Navsource.org both have great “bio” pages about the ship with much more detail than I’ve presented here. There is also http://www.lst1166.com/ which has a bunch of great information (and many more photos of the ship). If you’re in Ann Arbor, the Washtenaw County Courthouse has a permanent display about LST 1166 as well.

If you’re in Muskegon and want to actually visit a preserved Landing Ship Tank, you can visit the World War 2 era LST 393It’s a bit older than the Washtenaw County but gives you a great sense of what life on an LST was like.










Reading History in Terrain

Dear Reader,

This is an obvious example but one that is useful to illustrate a larger point and a way to approach historical investigation.

I would like to look at a portion of the B2B   Bike trail that runs in Ypsilanti just south of EMU’s athletic complex. Below is the location on Google Maps:


The trail is covered in trees but Google puts a faint gray line on where it is. From the satellite view you can’t really get a sense of what the trail looks like or what used to be there. Here are some photos from a few weeks ago which may start to help:



Hmm… the second one is not as good. But you can see, the trail is consistent in elevation (flat) and is almost nearly straight. We can confirm this with a relief map of the area on Washtenaw County’s GIS server by turning everything off except the background elevation:


The trail is clearly visible as the line that cuts across the middle of the page. The areas of relief are clearly shown as well (that the vegetation hid) at 1 –




and 3


It’s a bit difficult to get a sense of this from the images, but 1 and 2 are places where the trail is cut into the grade around it to maintain a flat surface and 3 is where the land has been filled in to accomplish the same thing.

Like many other bike trails, this part of the B2B had to have been a railroad track at some point. Given the cost involved in earthmoving, flattening hills, hauling fill dirt, etc… you wouldn’t do this unless you had to – and railroads (given their limitations) are something you definitely have to do this for. Runways would be another example. For trains, an elevation change of 110 feet per mile was considered acceptable in the 19th century! Today it’s a little more, but flat grades are still the best.

Even though I think this might have been a railroad track at some point in the past. We haven’t proven yet that this was a railroad track – we just have a hunch so it’s time to consult the old maps.

The USGS’ Historical Map Page is a great place to do that.

After a few clicks, here we are with the 1908 USGS Topo Map for the Ann Arbor Quad. Looking at the same area that we did with the first google map.


Courtesy of the USGS

The railroad is right there- (probably) right where our current bike trail is!

If we zoom out a bit we learn that this line was called the “Ypsilanti Branch of the Michigan Southern Railroad”


Courtesy of the USGS

Now that we have a name for this portion of track we can get a lot more information about it. You can go to the link if you want to but for our purposes, this portion of the railroad was abandoned in 1969 and from this County website link, we learn that it has existed in its present, paved condition since 2005. We have been lucky to have it as a pave bike path for these last 12 years after a century or more of service as a rail line with a (1881) fifty minute trip to Saline.

Although this is a very simple example, this sort of historical/geographic detective work can be extremely important, especially since Michigan has a history a permanent settlement that stretches back to “time immemorial.” Wherever we’ve been in this State, someone has probably been there before (and brought their shovels).


How High’s the River?

Dear Reader,

With all the rain we got this last week you may be wondering what are the river levels like around the county? From my earlier post about watersheds in the county, we recall that the county is split into drainage basins for the Huron, Raisin, Rouge, Stony Creek, and Grand Rivers. The great news is that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a bunch of stream gages on these rivers and many of their tributaries. We can track river levels! Well sort of…the data is kind of limited but we do have something we can look at. There are about 8 gages for the whole county.



County Watersheds – Image courtesy of Washentaw County

USGS’s online mapping tool “National Water Information System: Mapper”  lets us look at all the stream gages in the county at once. Zooming in as best we can on Washtenaw County:


You can select only stream gages. Clicking on the gage near Manchester the following information pops up:


There is some basic information and we learn that this is a gage on the River Raisin. I’m interested in learning more and click on “access data”  which gives us some basic information about the gage:


We’re interested in water levels so we want to start exploring the available data from the top center drop down menu. For this example we’ll look at daily data and gage height only.

Below is the gage height data for the last week. Can you tell when the rain started?


On the USGS site we can also compare recent levels to the flood stage and historical levels. This gage at Manchester doesn’t have a flood stage level so we’ll pick one on Mill Creek near Dexter  that does have one to look at:


Pretty interesting! The water levels now are nowhere near flood stage. I’m also assuming the reason we never see Mill Creek go above flood stage is because there is a dam or other control work that makes sure the river tops out at 12 feet.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the flooding that’s going on right on the Mississippi but here is what stream gage data looks like from there:


and from NOAA’s River Level Forecasting Tool – I hope people there are staying safe!


That’s all for now – Have a great week!

At-Grade Railroad Crossings on I-94 and US-23

Dear Reader,

Imagine it’s the early 60’s and you’re zipping westbound on I-94 just past the new US-23 interchange just being built when all the sudden a train crossing freeway! Red warning lights, stopped traffic and a freight train trundling across both lanes of traffic! It seems a bit crazy but these rail crossings actually existed 50+ years ago on I-94 and US-23.

Here is the I-94 crossing in 1961 from the DTE Aerial Photo Library at Wayne State University  – that definitely looks like an at-grade crossing with the rail crossing a bit off perpendicular from the freeway.

Train Crossing 1.JPG

And here is an Aerial from 1966 showing another crossing of that same line on the newly built US-23 from Washtenaw Counties’ GIS server. The crossing looks much clearer at US-23. You can tell it’s an at-grade crossing because we don’t see the characteristic shadow that a bridge would cast like on the Ellsworth Road crossing of US-23.

Crossing 2.JPG

Rail lines were definitely not features that highway engineers wanted crossing their highways. The potential for traffic disruption is not something to be desired so there had to have been a good reason to allow it all. Especially when a bridge could have been built over the tracks.

A bit of backstory on then on why they exist. The line that you see crossing I-94 and US-23 is the “Ypsilanti Branch” of the Lakeshore & Michigan Southern Railway which ran from Hillsdale to Ypsilanti. I want to write more about that line in a future post but by the late-50’s, the section from Pittsfield Township to Ypsi was well on it’s way to abandonment.

I haven’t found any information on this but there probably weren’t many trains running on the line anymore and MDOT planners either knew the tracks’ days were numbered or were unofficially informed of that by the railroad’s owner. That is what justified the (cheap) at-grade crossing as opposed to a more expensive above grade (bridge) crossing. If the line was going to be pulled out – why not wait for it to happen and spare the expense of a soon to be useless bridge?

Indeed, the line was officially abandoned in 1969 and in the next set of available imagery we have from the county in 1979 the crossing is gone. It looks like you can still see the fresh asphalt on the I-94 crossing (crossings circled).


There are a few other instances of this in the State, where economics and impending abandonment made it make sense to have a railroad crossing across an interstate highway (at least for a few years). The best documented one of these crossings (that I could find) was on I-94 just north of Albion. We actually have a photo of what the crossing looked like. The Washtenaw crossings were probably identical (Courtesy of the Albion Michigan History Blog).


I-94 North of Albion circa 1959 courtesy of Historical Albion Michigan.

There are no gate arms and (according to some internet message boards) there was a lot signage to alert drivers of the train crossing potential. Apparently, they even put in Green-Yellow-Red style traffic lights to let drivers know of the crossing status (https://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?2,2842843).

So, an interesting infrastructure related historical footnote and one relatively unique to our county. I am glad these crossings no longer exist!

Have a great week!

Airport Noise in Southeast Michigan

I like interactive maps that represent interesting, infrastructure related data (as many of the posts in this blog attest). So when I found out that the U.S. Department of Transportation released a national transportation noise map, I had to check it out – especially to see what things look like in Southeast Michigan

Clicking on the map link takes us to a map of the continental U.S.


Zooming in on Detroit we get the below image with noise levels overlaid on a street map– hmmm…. I wonder where the Airports are?


The darker colors represent higher 24-hour average noise levels and they are clearly focused on major roads/highways and on Detroit Metro, Willow Run, Detroit City and Oakland County International airports.

If we pull up the legend, we can see the reported average noise values are on the ground:


The first link in this post also has an equivalent description of these decibel ranges and a comparison chart can also be found at this link to a Yale University site

Although the noise levels are not dangerous (unless you’re standing on the runway), and are mainly below decibel intensity of a normal conversation, this map clearly shows that much of metro-Detroit regularly hears transportation noise – primarily from Airplanes.

With the introduction of noise regulations, improved technologies and other mitigating techniques, things have gotten better but the noise is still there at some level. Much of this noise comes from Detroit Metro whose primary runways are aligned in a NE – SW direction. Was that taken into account when the runways were built? With Aerial photographs from DTE we can track the evolution of this airport. I’m curious if the runways were always in these headings (North is always up in these Photos)

1949 (the original airport- construction has already begun on new the new runways)


1956 (new and old runways) – the new runways are in their present orientation




1997 (couldn’t get the southern half of the airport)


And today (courtesy of Google)


It looks like since the mid-50’s, the runways were oriented in the direction they are today, making much of the take-off/landing traffic head out over metro Detroit. Infrastructure choices have consequences and that is clearly apparent in the noise maps!