Flying Down Buffalo Bayou
The Mother Bayou from Beginning to End
June 24, 2016
“Visualizing Nature, The Art and The Science” was the title of a class at Rice University taught this spring by photographer Geoff Winningham, professor of photography in the Art Department and holder of the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities, and by Adrian Lenardic, professor of geophysics and planetary science in the Department of Earth Science. One theme of the class was the visual and scientific aspects of Buffalo Bayou.
Connor Winn was a student in that class, and he made a lovely fourteen-minute video using a flying drone that follows our Mother Bayou from its quiet beginnings west of Houston. The film allows us to watch the bayou evolve from its source near Cane Island Branch, a creek, one of many feeding into the bayou, that runs through the town of Katy, which in the 1800s was known as Cane Island, named after the creek filled with cane. We see the bayou growing into the mighty ship channel and joining the San Jacinto River at Burnet Bay, part of Galveston Bay, near the San Jacinto Monument just upstream of Baytown.
Can An Urban Stream Restore Itself?
Yes, With Room to Move. Free Rivers Are Healthier and Better for Flood Control
June 15, 2016
By Susan Chadwick, Executive Director, Save Buffalo Bayou
This article is adapted from a presentation made at the Southwest Stream Restoration Conference in San Antonio, Texas, on June 2, 2016.
Save Buffalo Bayou is a non-profit organization founded two years ago to fight a public project described as a “restoration” project on one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows through the middle of Houston, past 1,500-acre Memorial Park and another 15-acre public nature preserve, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. Since then our organization has expanded into broader, related issues. But today’s topic is restoration.
Here are some of the most common responses I would get when I would say that this mile-long plus stretch of the bayou is natural, along with what were some of the most common defenses of the project.
The river’s not natural because the river changes.
It’s not natural because it’s been altered by high runoff from urbanization.
Trees fall into it.
It has terrible erosion problems. Look at those steep high banks!
It’s terribly eroded. Look at those sandy banks!
It’s eroding terribly. Sediment from the banks in Memorial Park washes up on the sidewalks of Buffalo Bayou Park we built downstream in the floodway right next to the river.
All that sediment carries bacteria. If we stop the banks from eroding so much sediment, we will reduce the bacteria. (Although sediment-laden Buffalo Bayou is less polluted than White Oak Bayou, which runs relatively clear and extremely foul due to being encased in concrete.)
And of course the big one: the river needs to be stabilized because it moves around.
Then there’s the argument, both implied and explicit, that prompted me to select this topic for presentation today: an urban stream cannot restore itself.
A Profound Misconception About How Nature and Rivers Work
All of those statements, of course, indicate a profound misconception about nature, about how a river works and how rivers benefit us.
A river is a living symbol of change. A living system. A dynamic process of nature that works for our benefit. Even the simple grains of sand work on our behalf to cleanse the water.
Radio Talk about Natural Flood Control
Flooding on the Air
June 14, 2016
Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, and John Jacob, board chair of Galveston Baykeeper, wetlands expert, and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program at Texas A&M, were on the radio today talking about bayous, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and natural solutions to flooding. The popular weekly Tuesday program, Eco-Ology, hosted by Pat Greer and H.C. Clark, aired from 3 to 4 p.m. on KPFT 90.1.
Among other things, we talked about proposals from the city and from the county and others to buyout property owners and widen and enlarge our bayous, creeks, and streams to handle increasing rains. This prospect might be alarming to those of us who recognize the importance of trees and vegetation along our waterways — for erosion control, cleansing our water, removing pollutants, slowing runoff, providing wildlife habitat, and many other life-sustaining functions, not to mention social benefits like we need nature to be sane.
But what if they didn’t bulldoze our waterways and widen them artificially? What if they removed the built structures and created parks and allowed room for our rivers and streams to move and adjust on their own by letting them flood into their natural floodplain?
This is in fact the latest thinking in flood control worldwide. Room for the river to move. Even in the Netherlands they are tearing down their big gates and dikes, letting the water in while raising the land where people live and work. Even in Missouri.
A lot cheaper, more cost effective, and more beneficial overall.
A Giant Falls
June 14, 2016
We have been watching this magnificent cottonwood on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park. Beginning in 2012 the Harris County Flood Control District realigned the banks and removed a lot of trees and stabilizing vegetation from the banks of the bayou between Sabine and Shepherd streets for its “natural stable channel design” improvements in the park.
Those “channel conveyance” alterations left many of the few remaining large trees on the weakened banks in a vulnerable state. In the Fall of 2015 part of this grand old tree broke apart.
And now, finally, sadly, the great tree has fallen. Others will go eventually.
Big trees fall into the bayou all the time. It’s part of the natural process, and fallen trees collect sediment for bank building, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and slow storm waters. But trees, whose massive roots help hold the bank together, are not supposed to fall in the water because in the name of progress we dug up and destroyed the structure of the surrounding banks, breaking up the intricate root systems of the vegetation that had been there for a very long time.
Still, we have had unusually high rainfall and stream flow in our bayous. The banks in many places are now lush with new green growth and wildflowers. For nearly two months we have had record high flows in Buffalo Bayou as the Army Corps of Engineers attempts to empty the flood control reservoirs behind Barker and Addicks dams in western Harris County. We have reports of trees downed all along the bayou.
Watch this slideshow of the great cottonwood as it maintained its lonely vigil until the end.
Then And Now
The View From the Bridge
June 13, 2016
Okay, it was a trick question. We asked our readers to identify the location of Geoff Winningham’s lovely black-and-white photo of Buffalo Bayou taken in 1998. And we asked for a photo of the same view now.
Shoulda been easy. The photo was published in Winningham’s beautiful photographic study of the bayou, Along Forgotten River, which traces our Mother Bayou from its source in the Katy Prairie to its end in Galveston Bay. And the photo was identified, of course.
Except that somehow the identification in the book was wrong, says Winningham. He went out and checked himself last week. The photo was taken looking upstream from the Waugh Bridge, not the Montrose Bridge. Still, the view doesn’t look much the same. The river seems to bend differently now, after the “channel conveyance improvements” by the Harris County Flood Control District starting in 2010. Not so many trees either. Here’s the way it looks now. Still lovely.
And here is the way it looked in 1998.
Anonymous photographer wins a Save Buffalo Bayou bumper sticker, which everyone should have. Get yours by donating to Save Buffalo Bayou, and help us promote responsible flood control that works with nature rather than against it.
From The Sky Above: Barker Dam and Reservoir
June 7, 2016
Houston photographer Jim Olive took this photo of Barker Dam and Reservoir in west Houston on Sunday, June 5, at around 11:30 a.m.
The dam gates had just been opened, and water from recent rains was pouring from the reservoir’s temporary lake into Buffalo Bayou, which flows through Barker Reservoir through the center of Houston and into Galveston Bay. Water impounded from several creeks behind nearby Addicks Dam also flows into Buffalo Bayou below Barker Dam. The dams were built in the 1940s to protect downtown Houston from catastrophic flooding.
Record rains that fell on west Houston and elsewhere on April 18 filled the two flood control reservoirs with unprecedented amounts of water. Rains since then have slowed releases from the normally empty basins, which contain large, forested parks and recreational facilities. The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, closes the dam gates during a rain, and rain adds more water to the reservoirs, which must be emptied as quickly as possible in order to create room to hold back future stormwater. Maximum capacity, the volume beyond which water will begin to spill around the ends of the dams, is 199,643 acre-feet for Addicks and 209,600 acre-feet for Barker. Addicks Reservoir is just to the north of Barker on the northern side of Interstate 10.
The combined peak pool behind the two reservoirs was more than 206,000 acre-feet around April 22, with Addicks reaching some 122,000 acre-feet or a little more than two-thirds of maximum capacity. Despite record high extended releases from the dams for the last seven weeks, the two reservoirs have been drained by less than half, standing at a combined volume of 114,210 acre-feet on Tuesday early afternoon.
Please Don’t Kill the Snakes
They Have a Job To Do
June 3, 2016
Wet weather and high waters in Buffalo Bayou and other streams have brought more snakes into Houston area yards.
Serpents slither but really they’ve been getting a bum rap since that report about an alleged role in losing paradise.
A reader recently sent in a photo of a couple of snakes in his neighborhood on Buffalo Bayou. His dog had cornered a snake in his yard, he said. The snake coiled, tensed and opened his mouth. Thinking to protect his dog, the man speared the snake with a heavy bar. A few minutes earlier, a neighbor had also encountered and killed a snake on his property. Hence, the photo of two dead snakes.
It turns out, however, that neither of these snakes was venomous.
The snake with its mouth open is probably an Eastern Hognose snake, according to our expert naturalists. “Harmless but puts on quite a show,” wrote environmentalist Bruce Bodson in an email. “The other one appears to be a Blotched Water Snake, also harmless but will bite in self defense.”
Beneficial Role of Snakes
“Snakes are generally beneficial, in that they eat plenty of rats mice and roaches,” writes naturalist/geologist Tom Helm. “They have always been around the bayous, but with the last two years of wet weather they are becoming more abundant, mainly because their prey animals are becoming more abundant. Please don’t kill the snakes, they have a job to do!”
Can You Identify This View of Buffalo Bayou?
Take a Photo, Win A Prize
May 29, 2016
Where was this photo taken? And how does the bayou look there now?
Okay, it’s not difficult. It’s in Geoff Winningham’s beautiful book of black-and-white photographs of Buffalo Bayou. Winningham, who teaches photography at Rice University, spent five years from 1997 to 2001 chronicling Buffalo Bayou from its beginning in the Katy Prairie to its end in Galveston Bay. The book, Along Forgotten River, published in 2003, includes accounts of early travelers in Texas from 1767 to 1858. The book can be purchased here.
Send us your shot of this location on Buffalo Bayou as it looks now. We’ll publish the best of what we get and send the winner a Save Buffalo Bayou bumper sticker.
We’re going to make this a regular series so keep looking.
… Often along these shady banks have I rowed my little skiff and wondered if ever some Bard had consecrated its border shades by a correspondent flow of song … — J.C Clopper’s Journal and Book of Memoranda for 1828, Province of Texas, quoted in Along Forgotten River by Geoff Winningham.
Dammed If They Do, Dammed If They Don’t
The Conundrum of the Buffalo Bayou Dams
Why so much water for so long in Buffalo Bayou?
May 26, 2016
The water in the normally empty reservoir had dropped only a few feet by the time we stood on the earthen dam looking down at the dark, opaque blue-gray surface. After almost a month, the rippling water below was still some twenty-three feet deep, and extended as far as we could see along the thirteen-mile long dam and far into the thousands of acres of flooded woods.
It had taken only a little more than twenty-four hours for the rains that began on April 18 to fill the vast flood control reservoirs in west Houston with a record amount of water: a total of more than 206,000 acre feet, a massive amount of water. Imagine 206,000 acres covered in a foot of water. Enough to cover more than eight times the acreage of both reservoirs to a depth of one foot. That much water would take an estimated four weeks to drain, according to reports at the time.
But that was only if there was no more rain. There was more rain, and it was taking much longer. The reservoirs, vast wooded parks with recreational facilities and nature paths, are still draining. As of May 24, the combined total of the two reservoirs was still about 90,000 acre-feet, down to a little less than half.
And Buffalo Bayou was still flowing high and fast, higher and faster for longer than ever before. Property owners upstream had flooded and property owners downstream who had hoped for more moderate flows were instead seeing long-standing trees falling into the fast-flowing stream, banks eroding, sediment collecting, debris causing water to back up onto their property.
Why was this happening and is there a way out of it?
A Siege of Herons and a Skewer of Egrets
Highrise Homes for Young Families, Easy Access to Fish
May 22, 2016
The normally silent, spreading crowns of the live oaks along North and South Boulevards in Houston have been turned into noisy rookeries these past few weeks as yellow-crowned night herons and great egrets moved in to build nests and start families. The same densely-populated housing developments have no doubt been built all over the city in shady trees with relatively close access to nearby bayous and creeks for food. In this case, the parents appear to be bringing home fish and other edibles from Brays Bayou.
The noisy bird activity (squawks and kraks and lots of fluttering) has also drawn out bird watchers and photographers, including Allison Zapata, who’s been posting her photos on her website and on Twitter. She took the following photo of a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron and sent it to us.
Houston is on the Central Flyway for migrating birds. Yellow-crowned night herons and great egrets reside in the Houston area year-round. But Allison, who’s been watching these birds, said they were are on their way to somewhere and would be back again in the fall.