Seeing What Will be Destroyed: Our Article in the Houston Chronicle
The Bayou Banks We Could Lose
Once again, a flood-control project threatens Buffalo Bayou
By Susan Chadwick for the Houston Chronicle
July 25, 2014 | Updated: July 25, 2014 3:21pm
We have pulled the canoe up to a clean, white sandy beach on Buffalo Bayou in the middle of the city. It’s still early morning, and all along our slow paddle from the bridge at Woodway great white egrets and a great blue heron fly ahead of us, leading us to our destination: the prehistoric cliffs and forested banks that could soon be obliterated by the Harris County Flood Control District.
It’s a bizarre project, all the more incomprehensible in that the project is primarily promoted by the influential Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), founded in the 1960s to prevent the flood-control district from bulldozing the natural beauty of Buffalo Bayou.
Tell the Bayou Preservation Association What You Think About Its Plan to Destroy Buffalo Bayou
BPA Board Meeting Tuesday, July 22, at Noon
The Bayou Preservation Association, which is promoting the project to bulldoze Buffalo Bayou, is having a board meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, July 22, at noon. The meeting is open to the public, so go and let the BPA know what you think about its plan to raze nearly 1.5 miles of perfectly healthy riparian forest along both banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around our public Memorial Park. The meeting is in the AECOM Building, 5444 Westheimer, third floor. (Update: The BPA is a private, non-profit organization, and its meetings do not have to be open to the public.)
Do be aware that not everyone on the BPA board nor every member of the BPA supports this ugly boondoggle, which would channelize one of the last remaining stretches of natural bayou left in the city, change the course of the bayou, excavate and fill in the banks, and obliterate magnificent cliffs, lovely creeks, and tributaries. It would replace the shady, wild banks with sun-baked Bermuda grass. Wildlife habitat would be eliminated.
Note that the meeting is in the AECOM Building. AECOM, you may recall, was the engineering contractor for the failing “erosion control” project in Memorial Park at Woodway as well as for the disastrous Houston Country Club erosion control project. (Story about that coming up.)
A representative of AECOM is on the board of the BPA as well as a representative of KBR, the engineering contractor for the Buffalo Bayou project and a major donor to the BPA (along with the Harris County Flood Control District). Also on the BPA board are two property owners (Mike Garver and Terri Thomas) out of the half dozen or so private property owners whose property is to be “restored” by the $4 million taxpayer-funded portion of the $6 million HCFCD project. A major BPA donor (Michael Dishberger) is also a property owner benefiting from the public project.
BPA President Robert Rayburn works as development and natural resource director at the Energy Corridor District, which means promoting development of the Katy Prairie, which means more runoff and storm waters going into the dams and into Buffalo Bayou. The Energy Corridor District has written a letter of support for the project, citing “the importance of biotechnical drainage way stabilization and riparian restoration” [sic] and “the important role that stable, sustainable drainage corridors provide to surrounding properties …”
A Misguided Project and Waste of Public Funds
Often the best project is to let the river fix itself. — Mathias Kondolf, “Meander Bends, Landscape Preferences, and River Restoration.” p. 51
Mathias Kondolf is one of the world’s leading river scientists. He recently wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers recommending that the corps deny Harris County a permit to bulldoze the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park.
The $6 million project would remove most of the riparian buffer from nearly 1.5 miles of some of the last remaining stretch of natural bayou in our city, demonstrating to landowners up and down the bayou and elsewhere the exact wrong thing to do. By far the most beautiful and healthiest stretch of the bayou, as it flows past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary this shady, slow-moving wild bayou belongs to all of us. And amazingly, it is right here in the middle of our big city.
The project, promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association and officially a project of the Harris County Flood Control District, has no scientific or any other justification, says Kondolf. He points out that even the HCFCD says in its permit application that the stream is “recovering” (from something) and questions the county’s odd claim that razing the trees and vegetation, excavating and filling in the banks, and realigning the channel would “decrease the time needed for natural recovery.”
Kondolf points out that the existing riparian habitat is of “high quality,” that the erosion rate of the banks in the target area as estimated by the county is “not really problematic,” and notes that the construction project itself would likely dump three times more sediment into the waterway than this area does in a year.
Another Failed Erosion Control Project on Buffalo Bayou
Kayaked down Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park the other day with geophysicist Richard Hyde, a longtime supporter of Buffalo Bayou, an early member of the Bayou Preservation Association, and an opponent of the BPA’s very bad plan to destroy the natural beauty of Buffalo Bayou in order to … well, no one can quite figure out the purpose of this bizarre and heart-breaking project that would raze over a mile of perfectly fine riparian forest along both banks in and around our great Memorial Park. The proposal, created and promoted by the BPA and officially a project of the Harris County Flood Control District, would also dig up and fill in the bayou, its banks and high bluffs, dam up or bulldoze tributaries, causing enormous loss of land and forest to the River Oaks Country Club, which is paying $2 million for the privilege. It is a mystery why anyone thinks this is a good idea; a mystery how a project with no public benefit and so much public harm ever got funded ($4 million from county and city taxpayers); and a mystery why the BPA, an organization founded to “preserve the natural beauty” of the bayou, would be so hell-bent on eradicating it.
The water was very low — known as base flow, the bayou’s natural flow during fair weather, which is very slow and shallow. Except it wasn’t really base flow because a thunderstorm had just passed over, so even as we were slip-sliding in under the Woodway bridge the water was rising and the current picking up from runoff.
Our first shocking encounter was the new Woodway drainage outfall, recently constructed at a cost of $1,147,934 to Houston taxpayers (i.e. taxes that went to the Galleria area TIRZ 16 rather than into the city treasury). Laughably, this project, no longer under construction but still closed to the public, is described as an “erosion control” project in the TIRZ 16-Uptown 2013-2017 Capital Improvement Plan. “This drainage outflow project is to mitigate erosion in banks of Buffalo Bayou at Woodway,” says the budget description.
Please note the horrific erosion from the dissolving banks of this new massive outfall, the sand and mud clogging the channel, the concrete sidewalk and steps. There were trees here once, and a nature trail.
The budget shows no funds allocated for operating and maintenance.
The big, new drainage pipe was also supposed to be set at an angle that allowed the often powerful flow of water to be released in the direction of the flow of the bayou, instead of shooting directly at the opposite bank. But apparently someone forgot to tell that to AECOM, the engineers who designed the project (as well as the tragically unsuccessful “erosion control” project at the Houston Country Club, which razed much of the riparian forest buffer on the banks of Buffalo Bayou along its golf course). AECOM designed the Woodway outfall so that the water blasts directly at the opposite bank, which is already being eaten away by the force.
Mr. Hyde just shook his head.
This “erosion control” project is in City Council Member Oliver Pennington’s district and Mr. Pennington is running for mayor, as he tells everyone he meets, so be sure to let him know what you think about Mr. Pennington’s “erosion control.” He’s holding a public meeting on Wednesday, July 30, 2014, from 6:00 to 7:30 pm at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, St. Basil’s Hall, 2140 Westheimer (at the corner of Shepherd). The meeting is to discuss “storm drainage improvements” on Shepherd from Westheimer to Buffalo Bayou. The project is scheduled to begin in a few weeks and will last over a year, so it’s very kind of Mr. Pennington to offer a public meeting about it.
Mr. Pennington supports the “erosion control” project that requires razing the wild banks and destroying our natural bayou in and around Memorial Park. So let him know what you think about that too. Might be time to bring out the pitchforks pickets and banners.
To be continued.
A Moving Comment from Preservation Texas
The period is now closed for public comment to the Army Corps of Engineers on the application from the Harris County Flood Control District to bulldoze the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park. The fight for the life of our beautiful southern bayou grows stronger. We must continue to raise awareness about this little known project, educate our friends and neighbors about the senseless destruction that is planned, and try to change the minds of our politicians and civic leaders. See What To Do Now.
The Army Corps received numerous comments opposing the project from experts in the field and ordinary citizens who cherish access to this unique treasure in the middle of our city. Among other things, the project violates state (pdf) and federal policy (pdf) protecting riparian buffer on our waterways.
Here is a particularly eloquent comment sent to the ACE from Preservation Texas:
June 30, 2014
Mr. Dwayne Johnson
Regulatory Branch, CESWG-PE-RB
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
P.O. Box 1229
Galveston, Texas 77553-1229
Re: SWG-2012-01007 (Memorial Park Demonstration Project)
Dear Mr. Johnson:
We write this letter to urge denial of the permit application referenced above.
Preservation Texas included the site of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project on our 2014 Texas’ Most Endangered Places list. The scope of the project far exceeds the limited erosion problem this particular stretch of Buffalo Bayou faces. The project should be narrowed to address only portions of the Bayou that are actively eroding and in a manner that does not destroy significant vegetation, rock outcroppings, potential archaeological sites and otherwise alters the slowly, naturally evolving course of the historic waterway by cutting and filling.
A recent 14-mile paddle down the Bayou reveals that most of the erosion in the project area has been caused by the removal of trees. Coupled with increased water volumes caused by overdevelopment of areas in the Bayou’s watershed, it becomes clear that the challenges of the Bayou extend beyond the waterway itself. A radical grading and replanting project does not address root causes.
Deadline Monday, June 30, for Comments Opposing the Bulldozing of Our Beautiful, Wild Buffalo Bayou
The deadline is Monday, June 30, for the Army Corps of Engineers to receive your comments opposing a permit for Harris County to destroy nearly 1.5 miles of our wild Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park, including the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The fight for the life of our proud, southern bayou will continue, and we will prevail with your help.
However, you must let the ACE as well as all our political representatives know that you oppose this bizarre, wasteful $6 million project. Here’s how to do that. In addition you can sign the MoveOn.org petition that will be sent to the proper authorities on Monday.
The pointless, destructive project that we oppose is being dishonestly promoted as a “restoration project aimed at reducing erosion and sedimentation and improving water quality, while providing for improved aquatic resource functions,” according to the permit application from the Harris County Flood Control District. (See page 13 of the permit application. Warning: big pdf file.)
Their project will do none of those things, and the plain proof is in their own permit application.
Our Buffalo Bayou Is Not in Need of Restoration
1. The first thing to know is that the bayou here is not in need of restoration. Buffalo Bayou as it flows between Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the River Oaks Country Club on the south is some of our last natural bayou and riparian wilderness remaining to the people of Houston.
This, our most beautiful reach of the bayou, long preserved as part of our public park, is in better condition than any altered stretch of the bayou, and to know why it’s important to understand what a riparian forest buffer is. A riparian forest already does everything that they claim to be the purpose of this boondoggle: it controls erosion and sedimentation, improves water quality, filters pollution, slows storm waters, etc. Every single academic and professional paper you can find emphasizes the importance of protecting riparian buffer. No true river scientist advocates bulldozing riparian buffer.
- The condition of most of the riparian buffer on the banks of our Memorial Park is rated as near-perfect, a score of 4.5 out of 5, according to the county’s own permit application. See page 450 in the permit application.
- A magnificent, very old high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, and the lovely tributary it overlooks, have perfect riparian buffer. (Pages 533 and 557).
- Even much of the south bank owned by the country club has near perfect riparian buffer.
- Overall the riparian forest in the entire project area has a near-perfect average score of 4.5, and there will be no significant improvement from this costly project. “The overall Riparian Buffer Variable is anticipated to stay at high sub-optimal (Score 4.5) level.” (Page 452.)
- The average score of our natural riparian forest in this area is significantly reduced by the eroding lawns of a few large, private homes on the north bank and the inclusion of edges of the manicured golf course on the south bank.
The riparian forest of our public park is functioning as it should. Why should we sacrifice our beautiful, naturally functioning bayou because private homeowners stripped the riparian buffer on their property to create lawns? Why should we taxpayers pay millions to restore private property while destroying our own public property?
When They Say Restoration, They Mean Destruction
2. What do they mean by “restoration?”
Since our bayou forest is fine, in order to “restore” it, they first have to destroy it.
They will do this by bringing heavy equipment into our park and cutting access roads to the bayou through the forest. (See Map 1.) They will use the bulldozers and backhoes to strip the trees and vegetation from eighty percent of the project area (not thirty percent as claimed by the Bayou Preservation Association), regardless of its condition and including in the scenic Hogg tributary. (See Map 2.) They will scrape up the riparian sand and soil in the banks, the ancient sandstone and red clay (our geologic history) and archeological remains, and cart it away somewhere. They will dig out and cut new channels in the bayou, lay down logs and other stuff, fill in parts of the bayou, which includes more than two dozen wetlands, deface and cover up the thousands-year-old high bluffs, bring the soil and sand back, grade the banks and create new slopes, cover the new banks with fiber mats and Bermuda grass, and plant some lilies and trees.
Why Do They Need to Bulldoze the Forest In Order to Restore It?
3. Why don’t they just plant trees and shrubs, etc. on the few bank areas where the riparian buffer is poor? Much cheaper and less complicated. The Bayou Preservation Association, which bizarrely supports this destructive project, in a four-page position paper dated June 23, 2014, says that “the pattern of storm water releases … from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs makes the re-vegetation approach untenable.”
But doesn’t this also apply to their purported plans to re-vegetate the 80 percent of the project length that they plan to strip and recreate? Or do they plan to leave their newly “restored” banks essentially bare and shadeless?
Erosion and Sedimentation Will Not Be Reduced, and Water Quality Will Not Be Improved.
4. The HCFCD permit application claims that this small natural riparian area contributes “approximately 359 tons per year of soil erosion.” (Page 447.) That sounds like a lot, but our analysts have put that into perspective. If you spread out that entire year’s worth of soil erosion on a football field between the twenty and forty yard lines, the sediment would be only nine inches high.
The vast majority of the sediment comes from further upstream. (See page 446.) Buffalo Bayou is twenty-six miles long from the Addicks and Barker dams in Katy to the Sabine Street bridge downtown. This short but significant project area in and around our Memorial Park is our best natural, functioning bayou. It contributes only an infinitesimal amount of sediment to the waterway. There is no evidence anywhere in the application permit, no scientific studies, no explanation of how or why excavating and filling in and rechanneling the bayou reduces erosion better than the natural system already in place.
Furthermore, removal of sediment from the water has no impact on the amount of bacteria in the water. This is according to the expert analysis of Dr. George Guillen, executive director of the Environmental Institute of Houston and an associate professor of biology and environmental science at UH-Clear Lake.
But don’t listen to us. Read the HCFCD’s application permit. Page 452: Water quality will not be improved.
This Project to Destroy Our Beautiful Buffalo is Nothing Other than the Same Old Flood Control Project to Make Buffalo Bayou a Bigger Drainage Ditch.
“The project purpose is … improvements to the dimension, pattern, and profile allowing the stream to convey storm water and sediment loads more efficiently.” Page 2 of the permit application.
This stealth flood control project is a joint venture between Harris County, the City of Houston, and the River Oaks Country Club. Each entity is contributing $2 million to the $6 million cost of the “demonstration” project, and the Houston city council voted last June to approve and fund it. This zombie channelization plan, a “holistic” variant of proposals long opposed by the Bayou Preservation Association, was largely conceived by the board of the BPA, who must be in need of work, do-nothing preservation being too passive and non-remunerative to somebody, and is actively promoted by the BPA and the Memorial Park Conservancy despite the huge of loss of trees and wildlife habitat, and damage to the bayou and our great public park.
Gloves Coming Off: The BPA Has Lost Its Way on Buffalo Bayou
Our response in the Memorial Examiner to Robert Rayburn, president of the Bayou Preservation Association
Over time, the mission and purpose of citizens’ organizations can erode and change course. Tragically, this is the case with the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in 1966 “to protect the natural beauty” of Buffalo Bayou against the bulldozers of the Harris County Flood Control District.
In a 1984 KUHT documentary, BPA founding member Terry Hershey warned that we must always be vigilant because the HCFCD would always try to find a way to strip and channelize our southern, slow-moving bayou and turn it into a drainage ditch. How shocking that the BPA itself is now promoting a Harris County project to bulldoze nearly 1.5 miles of our last remaining wild bayou in the middle of Houston in order to do just that.
Ted Oberg Investigates Project to Destroy Buffalo Bayou: Stubborn Old Cliffs Taking Too Long to Erode
Harris County Flood Control District Director Mike Talbott Says He Could “Sleep Just Fine” If Project Doesn’t Go Ahead.
A pretty good report from Channel 13 investigative reporter Ted Oberg that aired yesterday. HCFCD Director Mike Talbott is quoted as saying that those magnificent thousand-year-old cliffs on the bayou are a “scientific sign that the bayou is trying to change course.”
Since those cliffs haven’t changed much in over a century, apparently the bayou is taking way too long to change course and the county is going to speed things up by bulldozing the cliffs, digging new channels in the bayou, and ripping up all those trees that keep falling in the water and “clogging it up.”
Talbott is also quoted as saying the bayou is trying to change course by “eroding the land at the water’s edge” at the bottom of the cliffs while the tv shows what looks like a lot of sand deposited on the bank at the bottom of the cliff. That would be sand from upstream, where most of the sediment comes from (according to the HCFCD’s permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers).
But watch for yourself and decide. And thanks, Ted Oberg, for paying attention.
(Sorry, below is a screenshot of the stubborn bluff from the television report. You can’t punch the arrow to make it move.)
BPA Claims Not True. Project Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong: Director of Cockrell Butterfly Center
On Sunday (June 22) I canoed down Buffalo Bayou with a friend, from Voss to the junction with White Oak Bayou. Seeing this transect of the bayou (which included the section slated for “restoration”) has convinced me that this project is wrong, wrong, wrong on a number of levels: aesthetically, environmentally, and financially. I have heard from proponents of the plan that the erosion in this area is “significant” and that the vegetation is “largely invasive species.” Neither of these claims are true, as far as I could see. Yes, there are areas where some erosion is taking place – but this is natural on a waterway. Property owners all along the bayou have used a variety of different means (immensely less drastic and costly than what is proposed) to shore up their banks and reduce or eliminate erosion. Certainly there were a few non-native species along the banks, but the prevailing vegetation was native vines, sycamores, box elders, and other trees and shrubs native to the area. The cliffs, which would be eliminated in the proposed reconfiguration, are important habitat for nesting kingfishers (which we saw only in this stretch of the bayou). Furthermore, the stretch that borders Memorial Park is the only part of the bayou where natural habitat (and all the animals it contains) borders the watercourse.
It was an awful shock to come out to the areas that have already been modified and “improved” = where no trees overhang the bayou, where graded, grassy slopes come down to the water’s edge, and where there is no semblance of “natural” anywhere. In these areas (from Montrose and farther east) it was hot, exposed, and little wildlife was evident. These “improved” areas were stark and ugly – a human-manipulated landscape with no shade and no wildlife.
I can only imagine the expense of carrying out the proposed “improvements” – and at what environmental cost? Seems to me the River Oaks Country Club could use some of the methods already put in place by homeowners along the bayou’s banks to shore up the areas of concern – leaving the rest alone. Taxpayers should not have to pay for this drastic plan that would have catastrophic and permanent effects on the aesthetics and environmental integrity of Buffalo Bayou along this stretch.
I thoroughly oppose the proposal and hope that you, Mayor Parker and city council members, will stand up to those trying to sell this as an improvement. It is not. Please say no to this proposed “restoration” of Buffalo Bayou.
Nancy Greig, PhD
Director Cockrell Butterfly Center
[Editor's Note: the BPA is the Bayou Preservation Association, which is promoting this project to destroy the natural beauty of this healthy, functioning stretch of Buffalo Bayou in and around our public Memorial Park.]
Short, lovely film of the wild Buffalo Bayou that the BPA wants to destroy.
Watch a six-minute film of a trip through the wild, historic part of Buffalo Bayou that Harris County, the Bayou Preservation Association, and the Memorial Park Conservancy want to destroy. Difficult to believe, but true.