Why You Should Donate to Save Buffalo Bayou

Nov. 30, 2021

Since everyone else is asking on Giving Tuesday, most likely you have already given. Maybe you’re annoyed. Maybe you already purchased a photograph or artwork at our recent benefit, Buffalo Bayou: River of Life. (If you’d still like to buy something, we’ll be posting remaining photos and art online for purchase. Stay tuned.)

Maybe you’re feeling the pressure, pressing some Donate buttons. Maybe you’ll decide to give to Save Buffalo Bayou now too.

Here are some reasons why:

Environmental Advocacy in the City

Nobody else is doing what we do. We are a small organization with a big punch. Environmental advocates doing journalism, investigating, listening, researching, explaining, asking hard questions about how we manage nature in the city.

Important questions like: Is the Harris County Flood Control District doing a good job? How do we know? Who’s monitoring the performance of the flood control district? Note that the district was founded in the 1930s when “controlling” flooding meant stripping trees, straightening streams, and covering them in concrete. Move as much stormwater as fast as possible.

That approach has long been discredited. Not only is it environmentally damaging, it also increases flooding! But the flood control district is still doing it, destroying our last remaining winding, wooded streams, wiping out forests, even though they are legally obligated to conserve our forests. (See page 1.)

Why? Because somebody makes money scraping and bulldozing and installing sheet pile and concrete rubble. Paid with public funds. And then paid to fix it when it fails.

Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park upstream (west) of downtown Houston before scraping by the Harris County Flood Control District. Photo by George O. Jackson in 2014.

Flood Committees

After Harvey, numerous committees and public officials are busy making plans to manage flood risk. Save Buffalo Bayou attends these meetings on your behalf, making comments, taking notes. (It’s a virtual world!)

Buffalo Bayou is the main artery of our natural drainage system in Houston. Yes, many people think it’s an artificial drainage ditch. But it’s a living river, filled with wildlife.

Big Drainage Pipes That Block Drainage

Stormwater outfall recently installed at right angle to bank, blocking flow in Buffalo Bayou, in violation of City, County, and federal regulations. Photo from north bank on Memorial Drive upstream of the Shepherd Bridge, Nov. 16, 2021, by SC

And here’s another report we’re working on: why does the City of Houston continue to install massive stormwater drainage pipes that violate their own regulations and block the flow of Buffalo Bayou (and other streams)? Do we not have a flooding problem?

We’ve written about this before. But questions remain unanswered. And we have one about this new project: just recently the City installed a massive new drainage pipe on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou just upstream of the Shepherd Bridge. It sticks straight out, shooting stormwater directly across the flow of the bayou and onto the opposite bank. This blocks the flow, acting like a dam, and pummeling the opposite bank. It’s a violation of the City’s own regulations. Violates flood control district guidelines too, as well as requirements of the Corps of Engineers.

How does this happen? Answers coming up.

But we need your help. Every donation helps, no matter how small.

Save Buffalo Bayou is a 501c3 nonprofit.

Please Donate Now.

Final Weekend “Buffalo Bayou: River of Life”

Last Chance to Buy Buffalo Bayou Art, Support Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene

Flatland Gallery and Café Brasil, Westheimer and Dunlavy, Houston

Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 27 and 28, noon to 6 p.m.

Nov. 26, 2021

We’ve had great turnout for the fabulous show of art and photographs old and new curated by Geoff Winningham. But we still have amazing prints to sell. So come and buy this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and help support Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene.

All the work in the show focuses on Buffalo Bayou, from maps and postcards promoting the health benefits of 1836 Houston to recent photographs documenting flora and fauna.

Here is a link to the catalogue. Besides Winningham and 19th century photographers, the show also includes photography by Jim Olive and George O. Jackson, as well as artwork by Janice Freeman.

Gabriela Rodríguez (3rd Grade, Treasure Forest Elementary School), “Legend of the White Buffalo,” 2016. Signed, archival pigment print from an original monoprint.

Don’t forget to check out the lovely large-format photos and artwork on display in the café itself, 2604 Dunlavy. The bulk of the show is hung in the gallery, located next door at 1709 Westheimer, accessible through the café or through the gate on Westheimer.


“Baptism in Buffalo Bayou,” ca 1900-1914. Baptism on the South Bank of Buffalo Bayou, opposite Glenwood Cemetery. Anonymous photographer.

Interviews with Geoff Winningham

Winningham has been teaching at Rice University since 1969. He holds the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities and is the author of numerous photography books, including Along Forgotten River, an exploration of Buffalo Bayou from the ship channel to its source in the Katy Prairie.

Winningham continues to run the Pozos Art Project, teaching photography and art to children in Mineral de Pozos, Mexico, and in Houston. His work with children resulted in the 2017 publication, In the Eyes of Our Children: Houston, An American City. Artwork and photographs by the children who participated are for sale in the show. Anyone who purchases a print receives a free copy of the book.

View of the installation, “Buffalo Bayou, River of Life,” in Flatland Gallery, 1709 Westheimer, Houston

Here are links to recent interviews with Winningham about the creation of the show:

Interview with Niven Saleh, “Geoff Winningham’s Buffalo Bayou,” for her excellent podcast series, Houston and Nature.

Interview with Lisa Gray for her new program, City Cast Houston.

Here is a transcript of Winningham’s discussion with Gray.

Looking for Fall on that Bend in the Bayou

Big Jim Back in Town

Nov. 26, 2021

It was a frosty morning on Buffalo Bayou. A white mist danced mysteriously above the stream.

We were standing just after sunrise on that high bank of the bayou in Memorial Park, waiting patiently for just the right angle of sunlight through the trees.

Well, not so patiently. The assistant wandered off as usual to check out the woods, the creek, mushrooms, wildlife, etc.

Jim Olive was back in town for the opening of our benefit photography and art sale. Jim has some great photographs in the show, titled “Buffalo Bayou: River of Life.” Come on down! Curated by Geoff Winningham, the beautiful exhibit of art and photography, old and new, all related to Buffalo Bayou, continues through Sunday, Nov. 28.

Early morning mist rising on the bend. Photo by Jim Olive on Nov. 12, 2021, showing a bit of fall color.

But in the meantime, always generous with his time and in support of our natural world, Jim wanted to return to that Bend in the River to see if we could get a more fall-like fall photo. Not an easy task since we don’t really have a colorful fall in Houston.

We’ve been documenting the seasons from the same high bank on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park since the spring of 2014. You can view the entire series here.

Jim’s last shot was taken a few days before the autumnal equinox, so technically it wasn’t really fall yet anyway. Tropical Storm Nicholas had just passed through, tossing trees and leaves around.

Emergency Guidelines in the Park

At the time Jim was just recovering from major surgery and was not his usual fit and vigorous self. In fact, on the way back, Jim faltered, and we had to ask staff of the Memorial Park Conservancy if he couldn’t have a ride in one of their carts, since the park gates were closed due to the recent storm and it was a long trek back to the car in the heat. They refused.

So we asked the Conservancy for clarification on their guidelines for what to do in case of an emergency in the park. Here is the response from Corri Pfeiffenberger, director of Park Operations:

While many Memorial Park Conservancy staff receive training on managing emergency situations and some of our ATVs have first aid kits and defibrillators, any Park user experiencing an emergency in the park (medical or otherwise) should call 911 immediately. 

That creek flowing into Buffalo Bayou, looking downstream, on a misty morning. Photo by SC on Nov. 12, 2021.

Looking upstream from that high bank in Memorial Park with concrete and metal “erosion control” installed by the River Oaks Country Club in the distance. Photo by SC, Nov. 12, 2021

Long Distance Trading by Indigenous Peoples of Texas and Beyond

Public Talk: Dan Worrall, Author of A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas: Landscape and Culture

Nov. 16, 2021

Houston geologist, historian, musician, and author Dan Worrall will speak about the long distance trade routes among the ancient people through Texas and beyond.

The talk, titled “The Late Archaic Lower Brazos Culture and the Nature of Long Distance Exchange Networks,” is sponsored by the Houston Archeological Society.

Worrall will speak at the monthly (in person and virtual) meeting of the society on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7:00 p.m. He will bring a collection of artifacts from a site in west Fort Bend County for show and tell.

According to Worrall, people of the Late Archaic Lower Brazos Culture (4,000-2,000 years ago) lived along the lower parts of the Brazos and Colorado Rivers extending to the coast. Their territory was approximately equivalent to that of the Coco/Karankawa of the early Historic Period (500 years ago).

The meeting takes place at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Road in Houston, starting at 6:30 p.m. The program begins at 7. 

Here is more information about the talk.

The meeting will be offered virtually via Zoom and YouTube Livestream. The YouTube Livestream link is https://youtu.be/xfCvhInhBp4.

Buffalo Bayou, River of Life: The Show Goes On

Sale of Buffalo Bayou Art and Photography Continues through Nov. 28

Important Benefit for Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene!

Flatland Gallery, Café Brasil, 1709 Westheimer, Houston

Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.

And By Appointment. Contact Us.

Watch This Short film: Photographer and Author Geoff Winningham Describes His Discovery of Buffalo Bayou

Nov. 16, 2021

So a lot of interesting people showed up for the public opening on Saturday, Nov.13, met friends old and new, and had a good time.

They didn’t buy everything. We still have fabulous photography, plans, maps and postcards, old and new, for sale. The photographs include work by Geoff Winningham, Jim Olive, George O. Jackson, Alfred Comey, Henry Stark, and unknown 19th century photographers.

In addition, and still available for purchase, are enchanting artworks by Janice Freeman and by Houston school children. The latter participated in a photography and art project developed by Winningham that focused on the city and the bayou. The project resulted in the 2017 publication of the book In the Eyes of Our Children: Houston, An American City. The book is offered for free to anyone who buys a print.

“The Original Bayou,” 2016. Reilley Jones (4th Grade, Mark Twain Elementary School). Signed, archival pigment print from an original monoprint.

All of the work in the show is about Buffalo Bayou. Here is a link to the catalogue.

The exhibition and sale of modern and historic photographs and art benefits two nonprofit organizations devoted to nature and rivers: Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene.

Though the main show is in Flatland Gallery adjacent to Café Brasil, there are large photographs and prints on view and for sale in the café itself, which is at 2604 Dunlavy at Westheimer.

The amazing show was researched, curated, and printed by Geoff Winningham, renowned photographer and professor at Rice University, who is the author of many photography books, including Along Forgotten River, about Buffalo Bayou.

Here is more information about the show and sale.

Geoff Winningham, Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park, 2000.

Celebrate Buffalo Bayou: River of Life

Public Reception, Saturday, Nov. 13, 5 to 7 p.m.

Great Deals on Rare Historic and Contemporary Photos and Art Inspired by Buffalo Bayou

A Benefit Exhibition and Sale

Performance of original music by Max Winningham, 5:30 pm

Plus Fascinating Talks about the Geology and History Buffalo Bayou

Flatland Gallery, Café Brasil, 1709 Westheimer, Houston

On View Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 6 pm, through Nov. 28

Nov. 2, 2021

Renowned Houston photographer Geoff Winningham has curated an unusual exhibition of rarely seen modern and historic photographs of Buffalo Bayou. The show, titled “Buffalo Bayou: River of Life,” also includes artwork and prints.

Winningham, whose widely-acclaimed book Along Forgotten River documented Buffalo Bayou over twenty years ago, has researched and reproduced historic etchings and photographs of the bayou, many created before 1900.

Watch This Short film: Photographer and Author Geoff Winningham Describes His Discovery of Buffalo Bayou

Digging Deep into Archives

Winningham, who holds the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities at Rice University, dug deep into the archives of Harvard University, the University of Houston, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center for the show. He discovered historical photographs, artwork, and artifacts relating to Buffalo Bayou going back to 1836.

The majority of these early photographs are by anonymous photographers, but a few, dated 1895-96, were taken by Henry Stark, a celebrated and published photographer of the time. Others, which Winningham located in the Loeb Library at Harvard, were taken by Alfred C. Comey, who was hired in 1912 to do a study of the landscape of the city and advise officials on the planning of future parks.

“At Magnolia Park on Buffalo Bayou,” ca 1890s. Anonymous photographer. Archival pigment print from a digital scan of the original print. Courtesy of Special Collections of the University of Houston Library.

Buffalo Bayou from Green Tree Road, by Geoff Winningham, 2003

Most Never Exhibited Before

There are 138 pieces for sale in the exhibition, including 32 historic photographs and prints, some 50 original landscape photographs by Winningham, as well as photographs of the bayou by Jim Olive and George O. Jackson. Most of the photos have never been exhibited before.

The work on sale also includes art by Janice Freeman and photographs and prints by Houston school children. The latter participated in a photography and art project created by Winningham in 2010 that focused on the city and the bayou. The project resulted in the 2017 publication of the book In the Eyes of Our Children: Houston, An American City.

The exhibition and sale of modern and historic photographs and art benefits two nonprofit organizations devoted to nature and rivers: Save Buffalo Bayou and Friends of Don Greene.

The public reception for the opening of the exhibition is Saturday, Nov. 13, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the gallery attached to Cafe Brasil, 1709 Westheimer in Houston.

At 5:30 p.m. during the reception Max Winningham will perform his original work, “River of Life,” a string bass composition inspired by Buffalo Bayou.

The Geology and Evolution of Buffalo Bayou: Talk at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14

Geologist, naturalist, and river guide Tom Helm will share his extensive knowledge of the evolution of Buffalo Bayou in a public lecture Sunday, Nov. 14, starting at 1 p.m. in the gallery.

Helm will provide a general overview of southeast Texas geology and how the various components of structure, salt movement, stratigraphy, and geologic history have resulted in the landscape observable today in the outcrops visible along Buffalo Bayou.

Historic Settlement on Buffalo Bayou: Talk at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14

Then at 2:30 p.m. Kirk Farris, founder of Art and Environmental Architecture, will speak about his work preserving and reviving a historic section of Buffalo Bayou east of downtown Houston. This historic neighborhood at the east edge of downtown includes the McKee Street Bridge, James Bute Park and Frost Town, also known as Germantown, an early settlement on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou just east of its confluence with White Oak Bayou.

RSVP for the talks.

Exhibition and Sale Continues through Nov. 28

The exhibition remains open Saturday and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m., from Nov. 13 through Nov. 28, for further viewing and sales.

RSVP for the opening reception, Saturday, Nov. 13, 5 to 7 p.m.

Can’t come? DONATE!

SC

Honoring a Longtime Conservationist

Sierra Club Recognizes Save Buffalo Bayou Founding President

Awards Dinner Saturday, Oct. 16, in Austin

Oct. 13, 2021

The Lone Star Chapter of The Sierra Club has recognized the founding president of Save Buffalo Bayou with the Evelyn R. Edens Award for river conservation.

For over fifty years Frank C. Smith Jr. has been active in river conservation efforts, among other work on behalf of the environment and public lands, as well as good design. He began working with Terry Hershey in 1966 to stop the Corps of Engineers from stripping and straightening Buffalo Bayou and covering it in concrete—as they have done to White Oak and Brays bayous, not to mention the many small creeks and streams that have received the same treatment from the Harris County Flood Control District.

Smith also worked to protect Armand Bayou and Memorial Park, among many other conservation projects. He was the leader of a group of people who founded Save Buffalo Bayou in 2014 to stop the Flood Control District from stripping, bulldozing, and rerouting Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park, one of the last forested stretches of the bayou accessible to the public.

The Edens award is one of several to be officially presented at a fundraising dinner in Austin Saturday, Oct. 16, at 6 p.m. Tickets to the event are still available both for in-person and virtual attendance.

Evelyn Edens was a Fort Worth area environmentalist who worked with others to create Save the Brazos as well as the annual Texas Meeting on the Outdoors. She served on the executive committee of the Lone Star Chapter. The award honors river conservation efforts of individuals and groups.

Other awards to be presented include:

Legislative Champion Award to Rep. Erin Zwiener and Sen. Sarah Eckhardt

Special Service Award to Danielle Belleny

Environmental Justice Award to Renee Roberson

Hal Suter Environmental Alliance Award to Delia Iris Gonzalez (CEER, Houston)

Hermann Rudenberg Award to Errol Summerlin (CAPE—The Coastal Alliance to Protect our Environment)

Chapter Service Award to Wendel Withrow (Dallas Sierra Club)

Ken Kramer Living Waters Award to Rachel Sanborn (San Marcos River Foundation)

Frank Smith photographed by Terry Hershey in the late 1960’s.

Indigenous People on Buffalo Bayou and Beyond

“The Atakapa-Ishak are not extinct”

Oct. 11, 2021

Updated Oct. 13, 2021

Thousands of years before land speculators like the Allen Brothers arrived in 1836 or slave traders Jim Bowie and Jean Lafitte set up shop on Galveston Island around 1817 or even the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on the island in 1528, there were people living around Buffalo Bayou and the prairies, forests, rivers, and bays of the Texas Gulf Coast.

At least 13,500 years ago, predecessors of the Akokisa people were living in what is now coastal Texas. At the time the coast, along with major rivers flowing across it, extended a hundred miles further out, land and channels now covered by water. Sea level then was hundreds of feet lower.

Major Native American Cultural groups of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, c. 1700, Worrall, A Prehistory of Houston, p. 436

But inland, Buffalo Bayou and other rivers and streams were flowing along the same winding, forested paths that now carry their waters to the gulf (unless they’ve been stripped and channelized). Incised into the landscape by the drainage of the sea at the end of the last glaciation period some 20,000 years ago (no glaciers in Texas), “basically these rivers and creeks are where they were in the late Pleistocene (some 12,000-20,000 years ago),” said geologist/author Dan Worrall at a recent talk on the lifeways of the Akokisa at the Houston Botanic Garden.

We know this in part because Early Paleoindian Native American artifacts have been found along the banks, showing that the streams were there at least 13,000 years ago, he said.

Living Well on the Land

The Akokisa were a branch of the Atakapa-Ishak, who lived (and still live) along the upper coast of southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. The Atakapa spoke a unique language that was distinct from the Karankawa, for example, the people who lived further down the coast. Like the Karankawa, the Atakapa were divided into different groups, communities organized in large part around the different river basins.

Around 1700, the native people of southeast Texas were thought to number some 4,000-5,000. But by 1800 the Atakapa population in Texas had suffered a catastrophic collapse, largely due to disease brought by Europeans. Spanish missionaries tried to teach them agriculture, despite the fact that the native people were healthy and thriving, doing just fine hunting and gathering a rich, varied diet, and lightly managing the prairies and forests with controlled burning. (In fact recent research shows that Native Americans were healthier before the introduction of agriculture.)

“They lived on the land very well,” said Worrall.

Worrall’s big new book, A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas: Landscape and Culture, documents in extensive technical detail the evolution of the landscape and the people who lived here long before European settlement.

The Akokisa and their predecessors ate seasonally and locally, of course: oysters and clams, alligators, turtles, and fish, seabird eggs, wild grapes and berries, persimmons, pecans and acorns, the tuberous roots of cattails, arrowheads, and greenbriar, among many other flowers and plants, edible and medicinal. They left behind vast middens of shells and fish bones. As well as bison kill sites along creeks and bayous.

In the fall and winter they moved inland to hunt bison and deer on their traditional hunting grounds on the Katy Prairie at the headwaters of Buffalo Bayou in what is now northwest Harris County. The bison migrated seasonally during the winter from the interior Texas plains, moving through the tallgrass prairie on their way south to the coast to graze on the lush salt grass (except during dry periods, points out Worrall).

Buffalo Bayou, along with other bayous and streams, was surrounded then by vast riparian and flatland forests, particularly extensive north of the bayou. European settlers in the nineteenth century cut down much of the timber to create cropland on the fertile floodplains. Beyond the forest to the south of the bayou was tallgrass prairie. Further to the west there was prairie and savannah dotted with oak trees.

Read the rest of this post.

Portrait of an Atakapa man, Alexandre de Batz, 1735

Early Fall on That Bend in the Bayou

Time is Passing

Oct. 8, 2021

We’d just had a big storm, a hurricane actually, named Nicholas. Its big winds tore up the trees and ripped out power lines, leaving tottering poles and a hundred thousand people without electricity up and down the Gulf Coast, including in Houston.

It also brought in our loyal photographer, native Texan Jim Olive, who blew in from the dry California desert, where the daytime temperatures had been well over 100 degrees. The plan was to take our fall shot of that Bend in the River, the same location on Buffalo Bayou that we’d been photographing throughout the seasons for seven years now.

Early fall 2021 on that bend in the bayou, looking downstream from a high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club opposite. Photo by Jim Olive on Sept. 17, 2021

We met at sunrise at the east entrance to the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive, where the massive $70 million land bridges are still under construction. The park gates, usually open, were closed, apparently due to possible falling limbs and tree damage from the storm. But helmeted cyclists were shoving their slim bikes through the gates anyway and hikers were slipping through.

Big Jim recently had had major surgery and had spent quite a bit of time laid up. The prospect of walking through the morning heat to our spot was daunting. But he soldiered down the curving drive and into the woods.

A Changing Scene

The popular path into the bayou woods was still blocked by the Memorial Park Conservancy with wire fencing and branches. But the much-used dirt path through the woods itself seemed changed. There had been a big storm after all, and there was debris—leaves and tree limbs—blocking the narrow trail, which usually was kept clear by anonymous volunteers. It was difficult to tell how much of the debris blockage had been caused by the winds and how much might have been placed there by park employees.

The bayou banks were remarkably green and lush. The sediment-laden water was flowing fairly high and fast, around 800 cubic feet per second. We stood patiently on the high bank, listening to the sounds of the woods and water. The sun rose over the tall trees, big oaks and pines. The assistant wandered off, as usual. Jim got his beautiful shots, miraculously without tumbling over the steep, high bank and into the fast-flowing stream. But then, once out of the woods, he opted to rest, wait by the paved loop, and watch the cyclists whiz past. Years ago Jim also used to bike regularly, every morning two or three times a week, around this loop, as well as around the trails in Buffalo Bayou Park, then shaded with overhanging trees. Afterwards he and his physically fit friends would swim a mile or so in the nearby Masterson YWCA pool that used to be on Waugh near the bayou.

Cyclists on the Picnice Loop in Memorial Park just after sunrise on Sept. 17, 2021. Photo by Jim Olive

The assistant hurried to fetch the car, hoping the gates were now open. They were not. So, anxious about Jim, she jogged back along the road and splashed through the soggy grass field towards some park employees with an electric cart inspecting the trees. Cyclists circling around the loop kept an eye on Jim, who was out in the sun.

The assistant approached the conservancy staffers, waving her arms and calling out for help transporting the photographer back to the car. The answer was no. Only park employees allowed in the electric cart. But they did offer to unlock the gate so that the assistant could take the time to hurry back, get the car, drive it into the park, and pick up Jim.

Well, we were grateful for that, at least. Jim, who has donated numerous photographs to the Memorial Park Conservancy, survived. (He also happens to be a trained emergency medical technician.) The assistant was steamed. We continued on for our traditional breakfast taco at Sunrise Taquitos down the road.

We’ve asked the Conservancy, a private foundation which runs the public park on behalf of the City, for its rules and guidance on medical and other emergencies in the park. We’ll update our report when we hear back.

SC

Looking upstream from the high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club golf course across the way. Photo by Jim Olive on Sept. 17, 2021

The creek that flows from the center of the park near the golf course, under Memorial Drive and through the woods, as it enters Buffalo Bayou just downstream from the bend. Photo by SC on Sept. 17, 2021

Houston Too Flat, Soil Too Impenetrable?

Flood Control Planning Director Claims Natural Flood Management Can’t Be Done Here

Advocates Call BS

So Is Flood Control District Working in Our Best Interests?

Sept. 29, 2021

The virtual workshop was all about nature-based flood management (trees, vegetation, greenspace, prairies, wetlands, native gardens), about the value of protecting and restoring floodplains and natural areas, why this green approach costs less, is more effective, resilient and flexible, reduces the long-term risk of catastrophic failure, and adds economic value to communities, not to mention health and environmental benefits.

There were related topics: stopping stormwater where it falls, buying out properties in floodplains, not building in floodways, elevating homes, and how protecting floodplains and green areas reduces the cost of flood insurance, among other things.

But then came the long-time planning director of Harris County Flood Control who all but laughed at the idea of nature-based flood management. Harris County is covered in “impermeable clay soils,” he said.

It’s a common refrain from naysayers, including the leaders of Flood Control, who claim prairies, rain gardens and green infrastructure can’t work here because the land is basically as flat and impenetrable as concrete. Local landscape architects, hydrologists, environmentalists, and others have encountered this obstinacy for years. “Nonsense” and “bs” are typical off-the-record responses.

The obvious conclusion, if you follow the logic of Flood Control: we have to keep doing costly engineering projects, hand out more lucrative contracts, bulldoze and dredge and deepen and widen our streams. And then hand out more contracts to do it all over again. Because that’s what Flood Control does: projects and contracts.

Never mind how bulldozing, dredging, etc. compacts the soil and makes it less absorbent, killing all the healthy, useful organisms in the banks and bed, and increases flooding and erosion. (See also here.) It’s more lucrative (for somebody) to keep tearing down and developing the forests and prairies, though ultimately it costs the taxpayers more. Fill our flowing streams as fast as possible, flood our neighborhoods upstream and downstream – because, according to Flood Control, the natural landscape is no different from concrete and rooftops anyway.

But It’s Not True

But is it true? No.

In fact, most of the soil in Harris County is moderately highly absorbent to very highly absorbent. Furthermore, plant roots help facilitate the infiltration of rain where the soil is less absorbent, especially if we let the grass grow higher and plant native plants.

At a recent education program for local officials sponsored by Texas A&M, Ataul Hannan, director of planning for Flood Control, showed a photo of downtown Houston during the infamous 1935 flood. He said that the Katy Prairie, which once extended from the edge of the Spring Creek forest northwest of the city south to beyond forested Clear Creek in the southeast, was undeveloped at the time. (Apparently meaning that it wasn’t covered in houses, shopping centers, and roads because the prairie then was already ranch and farmland.)

Said Hannan: If the prairie was all that great at slowing or storing stormwater back in 1935, why did downtown Houston flood?

And the correct answer, as determined by the Texas State legislature in 1937, is that a narrow, badly designed bridge blocked the flow of stormwater from Buffalo and White Oak bayous and caused it to back up and flood downtown Houston in 1935. (See our report here.)

Downtown Houston during the 1935 flood. Photo from the former Houston Press.

Nevertheless, the state legislature in 1937 authorized the establishment of the Harris County Flood Control District to aid the US Army Corps of Engineers in stripping the forests, straightening the meanders, and covering our once-beautiful major streams in concrete. (Never mind that the enabling legislation also charged Flood Control with the “conservation of forests.”)

It was a disastrous policy that has only increased flooding, damaged our water quality, destroyed our natural environment, and created the need for costly, continuing maintenance. (See Brays Bayou, a joint channelization project which began in the mid-1950’s and now, after more than seventy years of increasing flooding and hundreds of millions of public dollars, they are almost done.)

Read the rest of this report.

Donate! Donate! Donate! Donate!

Please donate to Save Buffalo Bayou. Our work needs your support. We don’t usually ask but we should have been asking. We are very much in need of individual contributions. No gift is too small! All donations are tax-deductible.

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