Come On Down to Earth Day

 

April 13, 2019

Come join Save Buffalo Bayou and a host of other environmental organizations for Houston’s Earth Day 2019. Organized by the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in partnership with Green Mountain Energy and Discovery Green, the free event takes place in downtown Houston from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 14 (tomorrow!) at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney.

The event features exhibits on topics ranging from alternative energy to recycling, plus live music and a farmers’ market.

Among the many organizations participating in Houston’s Earth Day are Air Alliance Houston, the American Wind Energy Association, Artist Boat, Bayou City Waterkeeper, the Galveston Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club of Houston, Texas Campaign for the Environment, the Nature Conservancy of Texas, and many more.

Find out more.

World-Wide Earth Day

The Sunday downtown event isn’t the only Earth Day thing happening. Earth-honoring events are going on all over the region throughout the month of April, as well as around the world.

Houston has been celebrating Earth Day since the very first Earth Day in 1970 (see also here) when millions of people around the world took to the streets on April 22 to protest against the degradation of the environment. In July of that year, President Richard Nixon proposed and Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, at a time when polluted urban rivers, including the Houston Ship Channel, were bursting into flame,  Congress created the Clean Water Act.

Clean Water Act Threatened. Public Comment due by Monday, April 15, on Proposed Changes

Earth Day has special significance this year as the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers have proposed changes to the Clean Water Act. The proposed changes are generally supported by developer and farm organizations and opposed by environmental groups. A new definition of “waters of the United States” will limit federal protections for wetlands, ditches, and ephemeral tributaries of traditional navigable waters.

Monday, April 15, is the deadline for the public to comment on the proposed changes.

According to some estimates, the new definition of “waters of the United States” would eliminate federal protection for more than half the nation’s wetlands and millions of miles of streams that feed into and cleanse the nation’s drinking water, sustain fisheries and protect communities from flooding.

Houston Ship Channel, Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

 

 

Let’s Keep Memorial Park Natural, Just as Ima Hogg Wanted

 

Opinion by Frank C. Smith Jr, The Houston Chronicle, March 27, 2019

Smith is an original member of the group that became the Memorial Park Conservancy and the founding president of Save Buffalo Bayou.

 

Many of us remember the shocking impact of the years of droughts on our beloved Memorial Park. The record dry spell in 2011 killed more than half the trees in the 1,500-acre park on Buffalo Bayou. Scores of distraught Houstonians were moved to raise funds and plant new trees.

But now hundreds of trees, including towering pines and oaks, are being deliberately felled as part of a $200 to $300 million landscaping plan. Anyone walking in the park or even driving through can plainly see the bright plastic ribbons wrapped around the trunks of the legions of trees facing imminent doom on both sides of Memorial Drive.

Many more trees still unmarked are to be cut down on the west side of the park to make way for sports facilities, a relocated Memorial Drive and, in an unhappy irony, an ecologically damaging monoculture of pines to be planted in unnaturally regimented rows as a memorial to those who served in World War I.

As though this were not disturbing enough, the landscaping plan includes creating artificial streams and hardening them with wire, concrete rubble and “rock” of some sort.

Mature pines felled north of Memorial Drive for land bridges. Photo by SC Jan. 24, 2019

The Beauty of Memorial Park

The unique beauty of Memorial Park and its distinctive benefit to Houstonians has been its forests and clear, sand-bottomed streams flowing through deep, winding ravines to Buffalo Bayou. This is part of Houston’s natural history, and this great public park offers our city residents the rare opportunity to experience the wonder of these living trees and streams.

I have been involved with Memorial Park for more than 50 years. Before she died in 1975, I promised my friend Ima Hogg that I would always be a guardian of the natural character of the park. Miss Ima’s family sold the land for the park, previously a World War I training camp, to the city at cost in 1924.

There are admirable aspects of the current master plan for the park — notably the Eastern Glades and the “naturalization” of what are now ball fields south of Memorial Drive, facilities that will be moved to the north. However, a previous plan from 2004, approved by City Council, was less intrusive and more respectful of the character of the park. It described the park as “Houston’s foremost natural wooded bayou park” and “a refuge from intense urbanization.”

Read the rest of this editorial in the Chronicle.

Beautiful Oaks Doomed on Memorial Park Golf Course?

Are Big Trees Part of Massive Tree Felling Project in Public Park?

 

March 21, 2019

Updated March 24 and 28, 2019

Updated April 3, 2019: The trees are to be saved. The Parks Department finally responded with an email Wednesday morning, April 3. “In response to your question, the fencing is to protect the trees and not cut them down,” wrote Estella Espinosa, communications manager for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.

Strolling along Memorial Drive past the fence obscuring the secret remodel of the public golf course in Houston’s Memorial Park, we noticed these lovely old oaks tagged with ties and surrounded by plastic fencing. We were alarmed. Hundreds of other trees, including mature oaks and pines, are marked for felling with plastic ribbons all over the 1500-acre park, which has already lost innumerable trees as the $200-300 million Master Plan is bulldozed into place. But these trees were on the golf course. Could it be they were marked for preservation? Other trees already have been felled as part of the controversial $13.5 million “upgrade” of the popular course into a PGA Tour tournament-level course.

Oaks marked for preservation or removal on golf course being remodeled in Houston’s Memorial Park? Photo March 18, 2019

Hundreds of trees all over the 1500-acre semi-forested park already have been felled or marked for removal as part of major landscaping plan. Photo March 18, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for An Answer

We’ve contacted the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit that raises funds and manages the park for the benefit of the people of Houston. We’ll have an answer soon, we hope.

Update: Representatives of the Conservancy have responded that the renovation of the golf course for PGA Tour tournaments is the responsibility of the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department and that we should ask HPARD about the trees. So we sent an email about the trees to HPARD Director Steve Wright late on Thursday, March 21, and we are waiting for a reply.

Update March 28: Still no word from the Houston Parks Department. Looking like the trees are doomed.

SC

 

Developers Plan to Improve Memorial Park by Cutting a Lot of Trees, “Re-establishing” Streams

Business Group Requests Federal Permit for Dredging, Filling Wetlands, Hardening Tributaries to Buffalo Bayou

Public Comment Due by April 4, 2019

 

March 13, 2019

A Galleria-area development group has asked for a federal permit to fill wetlands and dredge and armor streams in Memorial Park in order to build two “earthen land bridges” over Memorial Drive. The project, part of a controversial $200-300 million landscaping plan for the public park, requires the felling of hundreds of trees, including mature pines, digging up and lining the streams with concrete rubble and wire baskets of “rocks,” covering Memorial Drive with concrete tunnels, and relocating playing fields and picnic areas.

The Harris County Improvement District 1, otherwise known as the Uptown Houston District is a local government corporation composed of property owners and developers and funded by special property tax levies. Its members are appointed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In 2013 the boundaries of the Uptown District, which is also governed by the Uptown Development Authority or Uptown Houston Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ 16), though they have different boards, was expanded to include Memorial Park, a 1,500-acre semi-forested park on Buffalo Bayou in the center of Houston. The TIRZ uses local property taxes that would otherwise go to the City’s general fund.

Location of proposed concrete tunnels and “land bridges” over Memorial Drive and same location in 2017.

 

The park, formerly the site of a World War I-era military training camp, is also a State Antiquities Landmark. (See also here.) Parts of a small constructed channel connecting the two originally natural though partially altered tributaries appear to be walled with stone possibly dating from that period. The two tributaries flow through deep wooded ravines lined with lovely dirt paths and empty in Buffalo Bayou.

“Rocks,” other than ancient sandstone, are not natural to Houston’s streams.

  • Location of streams, marked in blue, within project area in Memorial Park south of Memorial Drive subject to Clean Water Act because they are tributaries to Buffalo Bayou. Image from p. 15 of permit application mitigation plan.
  • A 2013 topographic map of natural tributaries flowing from Memorial Park into Buffalo Bayou.
  • The 2013 topographic map focused on the area of proposed land bridges and "re-established" streams.
  • Overview of the so-called "main" and "west" tributaries within the project boundaries. Image from page 24 of the permit application mitigation plan.
  • Plans for armoring the two streams with rock, gabions, and toewood. From page 26 of the permit application mitigation plan.

 

Public Comment Period Until April 4

The Improvement District last week filed an application for a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers, which enforces the federal Clean Water Act. The Corps is seeking public comment on the permit application, including on whether a public hearing should be held. The public has until April 4 to comment. See below for how to comment.

Read the rest of this post.

Removing Trees on Buffalo Bayou Because It’s Cheap and Easy

A Stormwater Project with Little Benefit and A Lot of Uncounted Cost

 

February 26, 2019

A large number of trees will be cleared in one of the city’s last remaining public forests on Buffalo Bayou because it’s the “easiest and cheapest” stormwater project to do, city and county flood control officials explain.

The trees are being removed to dig out shallow basins on the bank of upper Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in west Houston, a rolling wooded area with paths used by hikers and bikers and wildlife. When the bayou overflows, the basins are meant to hold briefly a modest amount of water which then continues flowing downstream.

But the calculation of “cheapest and easiest” does not include future repair and maintenance costs where now there are none. A similar project on the once-forested opposite bank has required many millions of dollars in taxpayer funds for maintenance and repeat repairs to the bank in the decades since trees were cut.

Nor does this calculation include the additional flow into the bayou from the loss of trees and vegetation, which significantly slow and absorb rainfall and runoff. A study by the University of Arkansas reports that removing forest can increase runoff into streams by as much as four or five times. (p. 3)

It does not consider the financial value that the forest provides by cleansing the water and the air for free. Studies have shown that riparian vegetation is cheaper and more effective at cleansing our polluted water than even sewage treatment plants. A study of Houston’s urban forest by the US Department of Agriculture found that even including invasive trees, our modest tree cover captures carbon and other pollutants from the air worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Also not included: the value of the mental and physical health benefit that trees provide to Houstonians, who suffer from a deficit of nature, many of whom were traumatized by the flooding from Harvey. Since ancient times wise people have known that the experience of even a small piece of nature has health benefits. (See also here.)

Looking downstream on the straightened channel of Buffalo Bayou in the area where trees are to be removed and basins excavated in Terry Hershey Park in west Houston. Photo June 2018.

 

Nature is the Best Engineer

Making room for the bayou to overflow is a good thing, as is a focus on detention or “slowing the flow.” Cutting down trees and removing vegetation next to the bayou is not.

“Engineers have a hard time understanding,” says Bob Freitag, director of the Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research at the University of Washington and co-author of Floodplain Management, A New Approach for a New Era. “Trees aren’t in their model.

“We want trees,” says Freitag. “Trees do a lot of good things.”

There is a new field of engineering that understands and imitates the process of nature, melding engineering and biology and valuing ecosystem services, points out Freitag. “But those who do it are few and far between. It’s a pretty new field.”

No Reduction in Flooding

The planned detention basins next to the bayou channel do not even reduce flooding, despite a popular belief that they will. Officials confirm that the small basins will do nothing to reduce flooding downstream. “No, they’re not going to save people from flooding downstream,” said Matt Lopez, the Harris County Flood Control District’s Precinct 3 coordinator. “They’re not going to save folks from Harvey or any other storm.”

Read the rest of this post.

Winter on the Bayou

The Cycle of Life

 

Feb. 22, 2019

(Updated Feb. 24, 2019)

We were late taking our winter shot of that bend in the bayou. We’ve been photographing the bayou from the same high bank in Memorial Park every season for almost five years now. But photographer Jim Olive has been busy taking photos of Joshua trees and palms in the sunny desert out in California. The clear air there is cleaner, drier, and healthier for his lady counterpart, so Jim, a lifelong East Texan, has pulled up stakes, driving back and forth to Texas for occasional gigs and resuscitating his many friends here with emergency storytelling. It turns out that Jim is a unique and irreplaceable person: a talented and generous professional photographer, a naturalist, herpetologist, passionately and actively devoted to the environment. Among other things, he is the founder of the Christmas Bay Foundation and also, not kidding, an actual Wilderness Advanced First Aid Responder, though that certification does not require lively storytelling.

The weather wasn’t cooperating on the days he was here. But finally last week there was a break in the gloom. Just after sunrise we met in Memorial Park, walked across the grassy picnic area south of Memorial Drive, and headed into the woods and down the winding dirt (unofficial) path with Jim reciting the Latin names of trees and plants.

Walking along one of the many ravines that drain into the bayou, we passed a pile of broken remnants of concrete pipe left over from when the park was part of Camp Logan, a World War I military training camp and hospital, now a State Antiquities Landmark. We paused to see whether the giant Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) that we saw coiled up in there a few seasons back would appear. It did not. This was not far from where we’d seen the big, beautiful coral snake (Micrurus tener) slithering across the path last November.

Remnants of 100-year-old drainage pipes from the era of Camp Logan. Photo by SC, Feb. 14, 2019

 

Dead Trees Giving Life

We continued down the trail, easily stepping over the disintegrating remnants of what was once a large log, the trunk of a massive Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), possibly felled by the drought of 2010-2011. Dead trees are, in a sense, not really dead, as they continue to be a vital part of the ecosystem, both on the land, in the water, and along the bank. When we first started years ago, in order to pass over it, we had to step up on top of this fallen elder, with Jim cautioning always to give warning and be wary of the possible presence of a rattlesnake (Cortalus horridus) taking shelter under the log.

Read the rest of this post.

Wetlands, Flood Tunnels, and Rewilding Urban Neighborhoods

Texas gulf wetlands face population, development challenges

With urbanization and sprawl ongoing concerns in Texas cities, the question of how to build in ecological resilience grows more pressing. Kevin Sloan, a landscape architect in Dallas and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, has been a big proponent of “rewilding,” a practice of designing green space to attract wildlife and reframe cities.

What is rewilding and why is it important?

What I, along with others, have come to use this word to describe is a process for how to approach environmental design. Everyone understands that for centuries architects have tailored building designs for the occupants those buildings shelter. If you’re building a house, there are private spaces, public living rooms. But even though we’ve built great gardens, parks, and exterior environments, we’ve never really asked what kinds of fauna these environments shelter. Of course when we design a park and plant trees, we know that birds will nest in those trees. But we’ve never made it anything deliberate.

We’re coming to realize that any exterior environment can be rewilded for a program of fauna that might include migratory pollinators, butterflies, honeybees, birds, maybe some small amphibians, and that the plant selections and design strategies account for – in a very deliberate way – the accommodation of those species.

Whether it’s a traffic island going into your motor-bank or an urban park or the Trinity River floodway corridor [in Dallas], you just ask the question: What could this area that I am about to affect reasonably accommodate for animals? And then design with that in mind.

Read the rest of this article.

Construction to Begin on Stormwater Basins in Forest of Buffalo Bayou

Flood Control Sends Notice to Residents Adjacent to Terry Hershey Park

 

Jan. 29, 2019

The Harris County Flood Control District has notified residents living on upper Buffalo Bayou in west Houston that construction of controversial stormwater detention basins on the forested south bank will begin soon.

The district sent an email, including a flyer about the project, to neighborhood leaders last Thursday, Jan. 24, asking them to spread the word that construction would begin in late January on three initial basins between Eldridge Parkway and Dairy-Ashford Road. The shallow linear detention basins require the clearing of trees and vegetation near the bank of the bayou. They would capture and temporarily hold about 100-acre feet of overflow from the bayou during a storm.

The district says in the flyer that it will attempt to preserve some trees and vegetation between the basins and neighboring property as well as along the water’s edge.

Looking downstream on the straightened channel of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in west Houston. Photo June 9, 2018

The district owns some 500 acres of land along the bayou for a little over six miles below Barker and Addicks dams. The bayou there was stripped and straightened by the Corps of Engineers in the late Forties. An analysis by Save Buffalo Bayou showed that straightening and narrowing the bayou there actually reduced its capacity, making future residents more vulnerable to flooding. At the time, the land—other than the natural riparian forest along the banks of the meandering bayou—was mostly agricultural.

Trees grew back, and the flood control district purchased the land from the Corps in the Sixties, leased it in the Nineties to Harris County for a public park named after environmentalist Terry Hershey, and began stripping trees again on the north bank for linear detention basins similar to those planned on the south bank. In the meantime, trails through the south bank woods became popular with hikers and bikers, and by 2012 local residents had formed a committee called Save Our Forest to fight plans to remove forest and excavate detention basins there.

Save Our Forest was largely successful until Harvey, after which the district revived its plans for a series of linear basins temporarily holding some 280 acre-feet of bayou overflow on the south bank between Highway 6 and Beltway 8.

Let the Bayou Expand Itself

In line with modern practice, Save Buffalo Bayou is in favor of slowing and holding stormwater before it floods a stream, not after. A better, more effective, less expensive approach would be to allow the bayou to restore its natural meanders, naturally lengthening and increasing the capacity of the stream, which is what it will keep trying to do anyway, eating away at the banks long ago weakened by artificial straightening as well as by ongoing digging and compressing by heavy equipment. Instead the county and the district spend millions repairing the unstable channel in order to keep it straight.

The district has already spent millions on the south bank linear detention basin project, including paying engineering firms for vegetation surveys and design. Lecon, Inc. has the $1.8 million contract to construct the initial basins scheduled to begin any day now.

Planned detention basins in Terry Hershey Park on south bank of Buffalo Bayou. This plan is to compensate for MORE stormwater that the City plans to drain eventually into the bayou. Image courtesy HCFCD

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Back on 2018

Some Things That Did and Did Not Happen

 

January 15, 2019

The year 2018 was a year of adjustment and recovery for a city wounded physically and psychologically by the long-lasting impact of Hurricane Harvey in mid-2017.

Prior to Harvey, Save Buffalo Bayou and its supporters were able to stop a pointless, wasteful, and costly bayou “restoration” project that would have destroyed much of our public forest, a historic nature area, on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, damaging and weakening the ancient high banks and the bayou’s ability to recuperate after floods. In fact, the project, if it had been completed, would likely have washed away during Harvey, as did many other “erosion control” and landscaping projects on the bayou. (See this nine-minute film shot over a year later, referenced below.)

But outdated flood management policy and practice remained in place. The rest of the world is adopting enlightened, practical, and cost-effective ideas like slowing the flow of stormwater (rather than speeding it up), getting out of the way of flooding, and managing flooding in place—practices based on understanding and mimicking nature. But misguided assumptions about streams and drainage—based on faith in heavy engineering and concrete—continue to circulate locally.

SBB spent the year following Harvey trying to explain science-based flood and stream management to distraught homeowners and panicked politicians: how rivers work, why they flood, and why straightening, deepening, and widening the entire length of the bayou (and the rest of our streams) would not work and would not help, and in fact would only make things worse.

That important discussion continues.

January

Shocker! Save Buffalo Bayou finds itself defending the Army Corps of Engineers which announces a project, called the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment, to study the big picture of drainage and flooding in the Houston region: where raindrops fall, how they move across rooftops and pavement and land, through drain pipes and into our bayous and streams, and ultimately into Galveston Bay. We need to be talking about this.

At the same time Save Buffalo Bayou continues its defense of forests on the bayou, opposing questionable Harris County Flood Control District plans to rip out trees in Terry Hershey Park to create a series of detention basins along the channel for holding a small amount of overflow from the bayou in exchange for allowing the City to send more water into the bayou.

Result: So far the detention basins have not happened, though they are still a threat. (See below.) But for now we still have soothing trees to hug and thank for deflecting, slowing, and absorbing the rain and for holding the bayou banks together, among other vital functions. SBB is in favor of detention. Slow the flow! But it makes no sense to cut down trees to create detention, since trees serve as natural detention devices.

And in case you missed it, here is geologist and Save Buffalo Bayou board member Tom Helm  explaining the origin of sand and the different kinds of sandstone in Buffalo Bayou. Because in January 2018 there was still a huge amount of sediment piled up the banks of the bayou downstream, and we were trying to explain to people where it comes from, why the banks slide away, and what can and cannot be done about that. (Hint: leaving some large woody debris, i.e. fallen trees, against the banks helps.)

Geologist Tom Helm explains sandstone and sediment in Buffalo Bayou. 1.21.18

 

Read the rest of this post.

Details of Memorial Park PGA Golf Agreement: Unanswered Questions. Who Benefits. Lack of Public Involvement.

An Open Letter to Houston City Council

 

Jan. 8, 2019

(Updated Jan. 28, 2019. The Houston City Council voted on Jan. 9, 2019 to allow the golf course plan to go forward. The Mayor’s Office has refused our Public Information request for the details of the plan, among other information.)

Update March 28, 2019. The City Legal Department forwarded today the decision by Attorney General Ken Paxton supporting the Mayor’s Office denial of our Public Information request for details of the golf course plan.

Dear Members of Houston City Council,

Regarding the agreement to transform the Memorial Park golf course into a PGA Tour golf course and hold an annual tournament there, I remain concerned about the financial benefit to the people of Houston and the lack of public involvement in this decision.

Houston is severely lacking in public park and green space. According to a 2018 report from the Trust for Public land, spending on public parks in Houston is about half the national median expenditure per resident. Houston ranks 77 out of the 100 largest cities in the country for park access and amenities, receiving an overall park score of 37.5 out of 100.

These figures are no doubt well known to you. But it’s not just a matter of park equity for Houstonians. Our city has been suffering from severe flooding and likely will experience increased flooding. Trees, vegetation, green space are vital for slowing and absorbing the rainfall and runoff that rapidly overwhelms our drainage system, including our streams and reservoirs. Not to mention the role of trees and green space in absorbing carbon dioxide.

A $1 million donation to the city parks department, as proposed by Council Member Laster, is an improvement to the proposed agreement. But what percentage of the tournament revenue is that? How much profit will the Astros Golf Foundation and the PGA Tour be making from this tournament in our great public park? We don’t know. Maybe it’s a generous donation. Maybe not. The PGA Tour, as noted previously, reports revenues of over $1 billion annually. Yes, both organizations give money to charities of their choosing (and making). But if it’s our public park being used to make money, why shouldn’t we get to choose? Shouldn’t more of the revenue be directed towards our public parks generally? The parks department and our city council representatives should decide where the money should go – and more money should go towards more green space.

We have been told very little about the financial details of this agreement because there have been virtually no public meetings about it. I have previously complained that this change in use of public parkland requires public notice and a public hearing under state law, specifically Ch. 26 of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code. This complaint has been ignored.

Will local people be hired to do the work building the stands, running the event, etc.? Or will the PGA Tour bring in its own people from outside the area?

No one has asked the people of Houston whether they want this golf tournament in our lovely forested park on Buffalo Bayou. Maybe they do. We don’t know.

The proponents claim that the city overall will see a $50-90 million benefit from the economic impact of the week-long tournament annually. Dr. John Crompton, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M, did a study of the Phoenix Open some years ago. In a recent email, he said that his estimates showed “total expenditures from external visitors amounted to $29.5 million with an economic impact on incomes in the local economy of $22.4 million (this is the appropriate measure of economic impact).”

I urge you, please, to ask more questions at your council meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

Thank you.

Susan Chadwick

President and Executive Director

Save Buffalo Bayou

 

 

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