What America Lost When It Lost the Bison
By Migrating in Huge Herds, Bison Behave Like a Force of Nature, Engineering and Intensifying Waves of Spring Greenery that Other Grazers Rely On
By Ed Yong, The Atlantic, November 18, 2019
SBB note: Bison (buffalo) once roamed the prairies around Houston, crossing Buffalo Bayou through what is now Memorial Park, among other places, to graze.
Their actions change the landscape. In areas where bison graze, plants contain 50 to 90 percent more nutrients by the end of the summer. This not only provides extra nourishment for other grazers, but prolongs the growing season of the plants themselves. And by trimming back the plant cover in one year, bison allow more sunlight to fall on the next year’s greenery, accelerating its growth. When Geremia’s team looked at parts of Yellowstone where bison numbers have fluctuated, it found that the green wave grew in intensity and crested over a longer period as the herds grew larger. The bison engineer and intensify the spring. And astonishingly, they had a stronger influence on the timing of plant growth than weather and other environmental variables. They’re equivalent to a force of nature.
That force would have been even more powerful in centuries past, when 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America. “They would have been everywhere,” says Matthew Kauffman of the University of Wyoming, who led the new study. “The productivity of those grasslands would have been radically different because there are that many bison, trampling, eating, defecating, and urinating.” These herds must have changed the path of the green wave, and inadvertently governed the fates of other animals that surf it, from deer to elk to bighorn sheep. What happened, then, when European colonizers virtually eliminated the bison? By 1900, fewer than 600 remained.
When we lose animals, we also lose everything those animals do. When insects decline, plants go unpollinated and predators go unfed. When birds disappear, pests go uncontrolled and seeds stay put. When herds of bighorn sheep and moose are shot, their generational knowledge disappears and migration routes go extinct, as Kauffman showed last year. And when bison are exterminated, springtime changes in ways that we still don’t fully understand.
Read the rest of this article in The Atlantic.
More Good Reasons to Ban Leaf Blowers
Leaf Blowers Contributing to ‘Insect Armageddon’ and Should Be Avoided, German Government Warns
By Andy Gregory, The Independent UK, Nov. 19, 2019
Leaf blowers are fatal to insects and should not be used unless absolutely necessary, the German government has told citizens, days after a disturbing new report warned than an ongoing “insect armageddon” threatens all life on Earth.
The often noisy gardening tools are heavily polluting and pose the “risk that small animals are absorbed or blown and thereby damaged”, the Ministry for the Environment said.
It is the latest in a raft of measures taken by the German government to protect insect populations, after a 2017 study suggested that within 30 years flying insects had declined by more than 75 per cent in 60 of the country’s protected areas.
The move follows a report from a top UK ecologist, published last week, which warned bugs are dying out eight times faster than larger animals, with 40 per cent of the roughly one million known insect species facing extinction as a result.
Read the rest of this article in The Independent UK.
Endless Repairs: Buffalo Bayou Sets Its Own Terms [Opinion]
Will There Be a Final Solution?
The Chronicle has graciously published an edited version of the article that appeared on our website on Nov. 12. We have long been concerned that the constant and fruitless engineering of the banks in Buffalo Bayou Park would eventually lead to hardening the banks there with sheet pile or concrete. And in fact, we have it on good authority that as part of the current $9.7 million repair project, the Harris County Flood Control District had planned to insert sheet piling into the bank near the Police Officers Memorial. But apparently the contractor was unable to get his heavy equipment into position to do it. SC
By Susan Chadwick, Houston Chronicle, Nov. 20, 2019
The park on that warm, sunny day looked gorgeous, lush, green and glittered with goldenrod. The feathery purple blooms of the Gulf Muhly grass wafted alongside the trails.
But what about that orange plastic netting everywhere, the iron barriers and warning signs, the closed trails and sidewalks collapsing into the water, the white entrails of irrigation pipes hanging out of the dirt?
Buffalo Bayou Park between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is one of Houston’s great treasures, providing a rare experience of nature in the city. The lovely 160-acre park is the result of a $58 million landscaping effort, led by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, funded largely by private donations, though the public annually provides some $2 million in maintenance and operating funds for the park through the Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) #3. Designed by landscape architecture firm SWA Group, the park has won national and international awards.
But what’s happening to the banks of the bayou there?
Regularly described as “designed to flood,” the park, built in a floodway, was more or less completed just in time for what Eric Berger and Matt Lanza have called “the wettest period in Houston history.” The Harris County Flood Control District had just finished a $5 million project to stabilize the banks. Now it’s in more trouble than ever.
Read the rest of this editorial in the Houston Chronicle.
Dinosaurs of the Turtle World Right Here in Bayou City
Learn About Alligator Snapping Turtles in Our Houston Bayous at the Houston Sierra Club Monthly Meeting. Open to the Public
Nov. 12, 2019
The Houston Sierra Club has invited the public to hear about the largest freshwater turtle in North America. The bayou systems of Houston are home to the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), a species of turtle known as the dinosaurs of the turtle world.
Eric Munscher, director of the Turtle Survival Alliance, and Kelly Norrid, an urban wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, will speak about about two studies currently being done in Buffalo and Greens Bayou to learn more about the habitat needs of these special turtles.
The meeting is Thursday, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m. in Pecore Hall, St. Stephen’s Church, 1805 West Alabama in Houston.
Munscher is currently a regional scientist with SWCA Environmental Consultants and based in Houston, Texas. He obtained his B.S. from Penn State University and an M.S. from the University of North Florida in 2007. Munscher is also the director of the Turtle Survival Alliance – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG). He has been studying freshwater turtle populations across the United States including study sites in in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey for over twenty years. He and his research group have published over thirty peer-reviewed articles concerning their various research projects. Munscher is also a Florida-certified Gopher Tortoise agent. He has extensive experience in wetland delineation and threatened and endangered species surveys throughout the southeast.
Articles on Alligator Snapping Turtles in Buffalo Bayou:
What’s Happening to the Bayou Banks in Buffalo Bayou Park?
Nov. 12, 2019
But what about that orange plastic netting everywhere, the iron barriers and warning signs, the closed trails and sidewalks collapsing into the water, the white entrails of irrigation pipes hanging out of the dirt?
Buffalo Bayou Park between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is one of Houston’s great treasures, providing a rare experience of nature in the city, an opportunity to stroll and bike past fields of tall grasses and wildflowers, birds singing alongside the flowing stream. But what’s happening to the banks of the bayou there?
We sometimes get comments from people like, “Wow, Hurricane Harvey really chewed up the park,” referring to the historic August 2017 storm that flooded the Houston region.
But the fact is that the banks and sidewalks began collapsing in the park soon after the Harris County Flood Control District completed its $5 million “Natural Stable Channel Design” project in the park in 2015. (See also p. 33). Now the district is spending nearly $10 million to repair it.
The district’s Natural Stable Channel Design (NSCD) project began near the Sabine Bridge around 2010 and involved the removal of large amounts of native (and non-native) trees and vegetation, scraping and grading the banks, and altering the channel for more than two miles all the way upstream to the Shepherd Bridge.
Natural Channel Design or Natural Stable Channel Design, as the Flood Control District refers to its version of the controversial “stream restoration” methodology, was the basis for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. First proposed in 2010, that $12 million project, based on a flawed analysis of the type of bank collapse we have on Buffalo Bayou, met with popular opposition and fortunately was dropped by the Flood Control District after Harvey.
Natural Channel Design, widely used in government agencies, also has been widely criticized as unscientific, damaging, and prone to failure. The Harris County Flood Control District has a policy of using Natural Stable Channel Design wherever feasible (p.9), though the district did not use it in Terry Hershey Park in 2017, where it spent nearly $2 million to harden the north bank with massive concrete blocks.
The Buffalo Bayou Park Project
The $5 million-plus taxpayer-funded NSCD project downstream in Buffalo Bayou Park was part of the $58 million renovation and landscaping of the 160-acre park, led by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, largely privately funded. SWA Group was the landscape design firm. The public annually provides some $2 million in maintenance and operating funds for the park through the Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) #3.
Regularly described as “designed to flood,” the park, built in a floodway, was more or less completed just in time for “the wettest period in Houston history.” Since 2015, the concrete and asphalt sidewalks built into the lower banks, along with the concrete ponds in the dog park, have been repeatedly closed for lengthy repairs, with the large dog pond permanently filled in 2018, even after cracks had been sealed. The Partnership, which operates the public park through an agreement with the City of Houston, has spent some $3 million in private and public funds on flood-related repairs since the park was opened, including at least $400,000 in 2016 and $2.5 million following Harvey. This sum does not include the $3 million in federal funds the Flood Control District planned to spend in 2018 repairing trails and removing sediment.
Bats, Bayous, and Halloween
Reasons to Love Bats
Oct. 31, 2019
Today is All Hallows Eve, which is, believe it or not, associated with the coming of winter, which is associated with death. In other places where they have seasons, that means trees, for instance, lose their leaves and appear to die. Scary and strange. But they come back! That’s one reason Easter happens in the spring.
Halloween is also associated with bats. And today is the last day of Bat Week. And since bats are also associated with rivers, and we have many bats here in Houston on our bayous, we thought we’d talk about bats.
A Bat Rap
Bats are extremely beneficial for insect control (most importantly eating tons of mosquitoes here in Houston) as well as for pollination, like bees and hummingbirds. In the tropics they carry fruit and nut seeds. We need bats.
Bats are associated with Halloween because they are nocturnal, because of vampires and Dracula. But there are over a thousand species of bats and only a few of them actually feed primarily on blood. We have eleven species of bats in Houston (thirty-one in the entire state) and none of them are so-called vampire bats. Also, almost none of them have rabies (less than estimated one percent), though it’s always best not to try to touch wild animals.
Bats on the Bayou
Bats generally roost near sources of water, like a stream or river, which is why we have bats on the bayou hanging out under bridges, as well as under roofs, in trees, and other places nearby.
As Houston Audubon points out, the best known bat in Texas is the Mexican/Brazilian free-tailed bat, which is officially our state flying mammal. This is the bat that lives under the Waugh Street Bridge near Allen Parkway, attracting crowds of people to watch the colony emerge at dusk in search of moths, mosquitoes and other insects to eat, flying as fast as 100 miles per hour and as high as a 1,000 feet in the air to gobble up tons of insects. Hawks and falcons, too, circle overhead, diving into the colony to capture a meal.
Save Buffalo Bayou board member and canoe guide Tom Helm offers a sunset float trip on Buffalo Bayou to view the bats.
How to build your own bat house or encourage bats for natural mosquito control.
Raising Bridges, Building Meander Bypasses on Buffalo Bayou Doesn’t Reduce Flooding, Study Says
New Idea is to Strip and Widen Bayou Channel in Terry Hershey Park Above Beltway 8
New Problem: Increased Flooding Downstream
Oct. 20. 2019
A study commissioned by the Harris County Flood Control District has found negligible flood-reduction benefits to building bypass channels through meanders or raising bridges on Buffalo Bayou.
But the District is instead contemplating stripping the trees and vegetation and digging out the engineered banks of Terry Hershey Park to widen the channel by fifty feet on both sides for some six miles below the dams in west Houston. The District is still in the process of scraping out new overflow basins on the south bank in the park.
These findings were presented at a packed public meeting Thursday, Oct. 17, in the Memorial area of west Houston. The study, the result of public pressure from property owners who flooded in neighborhoods adjacent to Terry Hershey Park, was conducted by the engineering firm Huitt-Zollars and funded with $350,000 in Harris County flood bond funds.
Buffalo Bayou originates in the prairie near Katy, Texas, and flows for some fifty-three miles through the center of Houston, emptying into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay. It is the main river flowing through the city and a central part of the region’s natural drainage system. Below Beltway 8 to Shepherd Drive just east of downtown, Buffalo Bayou remains a mostly winding, wooded stream, and it was these many meanders that some residents upstream of the beltway blamed for flooding their homes when the floodgates on the dams were opened during Harvey.
The Meeting and The Findings: Is Nature a Better Engineer?
Alan Black, director of operations for the Flood Control District, opened the meeting by explaining what the district does and why the region floods (reasons which did not include the fact that so much of the city is covered in impervious surface). The first priority for the district is still “deepening and widening bayous,” said Black. Unfortunately that is a futile, never-ending pursuit, like building bigger freeways. It also leads to bank collapse, lifeless streams filling with silt and polluted water, a barren landscape, and continuous costly maintenance.
Modern flood management, rather than collecting and moving as much water as fast as possible, focuses on stopping stormwater before it floods a stream and on managing flooding in place. For instance, “lag time” is the amount of time it takes for rain to fall on the ground and enter a stream. The shorter (faster) the lag time, the higher the peak flow (flooding) in the stream. Trees, deep-rooted vegetation, detention basins, rain gardens and more can help increase the lag time and reduce flooding. There are many ways that neighborhoods and individuals can take responsibility for slowing, spreading out, and soaking in stormwater. (See also here.)
The district, which has limited legal tools dating from 1937 when it was founded, does focus also on building detention basins to temporarily hold stormwater, as well as on moving people out of harm’s way through buyouts.
Michael Tehrani, vice-president of Huitt-Zollars, explained the study findings, which were “not that promising,” he told the large crowd, which included politicians and representatives of the Corps of Engineers. Buffalo Bayou is relatively flat, a “lower velocity channel” with a lot of trees; the channel itself “controlling the water and determining the Water Surface Elevation, not the bridges.”
Public Meeting: Bridges and Meander Bypasses on Buffalo Bayou
Date is Oct. 17 to Find Out Study Results
Oct. 13, 2019
In the wake of disastrous flooding along Buffalo Bayou during and after Harvey in 2017, particularly on upper Buffalo Bayou after the opening of the floodgates on the federal dams, some west Houston residents urged the Harris County Flood Control District to look into whether meanders downstream and bridges across the bayou had blocked the flow, causing them to flood.
In response, using up to $350,000 in public funding from the 2018 Flood Bond election, the District in November of 2018 hired the engineering firm Huitt-Zollars to study the thirty-three bridges and four pipelines that cross the bayou between Highway 6 at Barker Dam and Congress Street some twenty-six miles downstream in downtown Houston.
More controversially, the study also examined the possibility of constructing bypass channels or culverts in thirteen locations, cutting through natural bends in the river. This would be below Beltway 8 where the bayou twists and turns, as rivers naturally do, for good reason. (p. 36) Meandering streams are longer and carry more water. Meanders also help dissipate the force of the stream during floods. Such is the power of the underlying geology that even if altered or straightened, rivers will seek to return to their natural channel, breaking through concrete if necessary. (See Tropical Storm Allison, Tranquility Garage, 2001.)
In the 1960s, environmentally-minded property owners on the bayou, including Terry Hershey and Save Buffalo Bayou’s founding president, Frank Smith, joined forces to stop the Corps of Engineers from stripping, straightening and covering in concrete this winding, wooded stretch of the bayou—as the Corps had done earlier, destroying White Oak and Brays bayous.
The Flood Control District is holding a public meeting to discuss the results of the meanders and bridges study on Thursday, Oct. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, 11612 Memorial Drive, in Houston 77024.
In the early morning of Aug. 28, 2017, after the peak of the flooding from Harvey had passed downstream on Buffalo Bayou, the Corps of Engineers made the unprecedented decision to open the floodgates on Barker and Addicks dams in far west Houston. Rising water flowing from the rapidly developing north and west of the city threatened to overwhelm the earthen dams. When the gates were opened, residents living along the six-mile plus channelized stretch of the bayou just below the dams were badly flooded. This stretch of the river had been narrowed and straightened by the Corps in the Fifties, essentially reducing its capacity.
But a popular belief continues that the meanders below Beltway 8 caused the bayou to backup and flood homes upstream adjacent to what is now Terry Hershey Park, hence the push to construct channels to bypass or cut through meanders. (Another popular belief, which also persists, is that the “rich people downstream” did not flood. There was, of course, massive flooding along Buffalo Bayou all the way through downtown Houston during Harvey. But that flooding, fed by the rapid accumulation of rain runoff from the city and suburbs below the dams, occurred before the floodgates were opened.)
In October of 2018 Save Buffalo Bayou published a report in response to this widespread mistaken belief about meanders downstream. The report explained why people flooded upstream and how meanders are beneficial and actually reduce flooding. You can read the full report here.
That Bend in the River, Fall 2019
Oct. 13, 2019
For a brief moment it was cool, which should have been a relief. But there we were staring dispiritedly at the mound of dirt piled up on the opposite bank of the bayou. Jim was back in town, and we were taking our fall shot of that Bend in the River from the same high bank in Memorial Park. Well, not really the same bank: nature changes, the river changes, the bank slumps and comes back again.
But these changes were most unwelcome. For the past six months or so, the River Oaks Country Club has been cutting down trees, grinding up, digging, scraping, pounding the bank, hammering large sections of heavy sheet pile into the bank, dumping massive amounts of concrete riprap onto the bank and using a backhoe to pound it into place.
Instead of the soothing sounds of nature, the awful sounds of growling machinery and clanging metal shook the woods, accompanied by the occasional splash of blocks of sediment calving off the inside bend of the meander, collected there on the opposite bank during Imelda, no doubt having washed down and out from the dirt mound and from the stripped and graded bare bank upstream.
The country club’s “bank repair” project, said to cost some $18-24 million, has been spearheaded by club member Steven J. Lindley, who was also responsible for the renovation of the club’s golf course. The bank project has three parts totaling some 1,700 linear feet opposite Memorial Park, private residences, and parts of the Hogg Bank Sanctuary.
Save Buffalo Bayou has filed a complaint with the US Army Corps of Engineers about the irregularities and deficiencies in the club’s application for a special federal permit to “restore uplands” lost to Harvey. Among other problems, the permit application contained none of the required documentation of the alleged uplands lost to Harvey. And in fact, it would have been difficult to document the minor, if any, loss of upper bank in Area 1 upstream from where we stood. The steep high bank there has been standing in virtually the same place for at least a hundred years, which is why the bayou makes a sharp turn there.
The application also misrepresented the length of the project, claiming it was only 1,499 feet. Documents presented to the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District showed it was much longer.
But Jim took a lovely photo of the crime scene.
See the entire series documenting this same bend in the bayou throughout the seasons since 2014.
Public Meetings About the Streams Flowing Into Addicks and Barker Reservoirs
Sept. 27, 2019
Update Oct. 12, 2019:
The Harris County Flood Control District is holding public meetings in the next two weeks to talk about dredging and clearing channels and streams, including Buffalo Bayou, that flow into Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston.
Addicks and Barker are the federal flood-control reservoirs behind the dams constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s. They both feed into Buffalo Bayou, and they are both parks, normally empty, with the dam floodgates standing open, unless there are heavy rains downstream.
Streams flowing into Addicks Dam, which is north of Interstate 10, include South Mayde Creek, Bear Creek, Horsepen Creek, and Langham Creek. Buffalo Bayou and Mason Creek flow into Barker Reservoir south of Interstate 10.
Upstream of the boundaries of the federal reservoirs, these streams, including Buffalo Bayou, have been largely stripped, straightened, and channelized (as well as the six-mile long stretch in Terry Hershey Park below the dams). But inside the reservoirs they have remained relatively wooded and natural.
Dredging streams for the purpose of reducing flooding is controversial, as the practice can lead to increased flooding and erosion, increased sedimentation and therefore increased maintenance.
Too much stormwater flowing too quickly into the reservoirs, particularly Addicks Reservoir, forced the Corps of Engineers to open the floodgates during Harvey, causing additional disastrous flooding downstream. Modern flood management practice focuses on slowing and stopping stormwater before it floods a stream.
Flood Control’s Community Engagement Meeting for the Addicks Reservoir Watershed will be Thursday, Oct. 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Richard and Meg Weekley Community Center, 8440 Greenhouse Road in Cypress.
The District invites interested citizens to view the presentation online through a live feed hosted at www.facebook.com/hcfcd. An open house will follow the presentation, where interested citizens are invited to review informational exhibits, discuss the Addicks Reservoir Watershed Channel Rehabilitation Project with Harris County representatives, and provide comments to the Harris County Flood Control District.
For questions, contact the Flood Control District at 713-684-4000, or fill out the comment form online http://www.hcfcd.org/F53 by October 17, 2019, for inclusion in meeting documentation.
The Community Engagement meeting for the Barker Reservoir Watershed will be Monday, Oct. 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the James E. Taylor High School Main Cafeteria, 20700 Kingsland Blvd., in Katy.
Interested citizens are also invited to view this presentation online through a live feed hosted at www.facebook.com/hcfcd.
For questions, please contact the Flood Control District at 713-684-4000, or fill out the comment form online http://www.hcfcd.org/F52 by October 21, 2019, for inclusion in meeting documentation.