Honoring a Longtime Conservationist
Sierra Club Recognizes Save Buffalo Bayou Founding President
Awards Dinner Saturday, Oct. 16, in Austin
Oct. 13, 2021
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
Let’s Return Native Plants to Houston!
Podcast Interview with Katy Emde, Local Native Plant Expert
Sept. 28, 2021
In this episode Niven Saleh of Houston and Nature looks at Houston through the lens of a native plant enthusiast. Katy Emde is an expert member of the Native Plant Society of Texas and an advisory board member of Save Buffalo Bayou. She explains in the podcast why native plants are great but sometimes hard to find, what she does to source the best seeds and why you should be inspired to give native plants a try.
In the 53-minute episode, Saleh and Emde provide numerous resources including guides and gardens, and places to buy native plants. They discuss plants that work best in Houston, the difference between native and non-native plants, places and apps, books and websites for learning about and identifying plants.
Cutting and Scraping, Pounding Sheet Pile: Update on Bank Work at Bayou Bend
And a Word About the Bank “Stabilization” Plans in Memorial Park
Aug. 26, 2021
We’ve been meaning to update you on the “restoration” work on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens. (Although perhaps more significant are the still-developing plans for the banks in Memorial Park. See below.)
The bank below Bayou Bend is a section of the bayou upstream of the Shepherd Bridge at the end of Westscott Street. Now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it’s the former home of philanthropist and art collector Ima Hogg, who also donated the 15.5 acres that are now the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north bank opposite the gardens.
The Bayou Bend bank project involves cutting trees, stripping, grading, and pounding sheet pile and concrete into the bank. It was designed by the engineering firm Stantec, which has also been hired to develop the controversial bank scraping and “stabilization” project in a little-known forested section of Memorial Park west of Loop 610 called the Old Archery Range.
While parts of the bank at Bayou Bend now undergoing repairs previously have been reinforced with riprap, the natural bank along Memorial Park further upstream is perhaps the last publicly-accessible stretch where one can observe layers of our geologic history and witness the dynamic natural functioning of the living river, which is increasingly being smothered by concrete, metal, and bulldozers.
Losing Land Versus Signing It Away
The Memorial Park project is being proposed because the park is “losing land,” according to Shellye Arnold, chief executive officer of the Memorial Park Conservancy. But ironically, the plan proposed so far would slice through meanders, reroute the bayou, and cut off public access to public land, effectively signing over public property to private owners, including commercial interests. Note that this park project is sponsored in part by the Uptown Development Authority (TIRZ 16), an unelected board of mostly large, local property owners and developers which diverts for its own interests property taxes (public money) that would otherwise go into the city’s general fund.
Asked recently how people would have access to the public land that would be cut off by rerouting the bayou, Randy Odinet, vice president for of capital projects with the Memorial Park Conservancy, responded, “That’s a good question.” But he also pointed out that the analysis and plans for the Old Archery Range were still in development, delayed in part by heavy rains. We’ll have more of an update on that soon.
Here are some photos of the work at Bayou Bend.
Another Big Tree Falls After Bank “Repairs”
Flood Control Recently Spent $10 Million, Scraped Healthy Bank for No Reason
Aug. 26, 2021
Almost a year ago we told you about the Harris County Flood Control District scraping and bulldozing healthy, green banks of the bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park near downtown Houston.
At the time we predicted that trees would likely fall due to the loss of supporting vegetation.
And now a big elm has fallen on the bank scraped by the district.
It’s not the first tree to go as a result of the district’s work on the banks of the park since 2010. Numerous trees have collapsed in the stretch from Shepherd Drive to Sabine. There’s also the trees deliberately cut in the park by contractors working for Flood Control. Watch this slideshow of the evolution of the park showing the numerous trees removed by the district in the last decade.
The bulldozing of the bank last year was part of a $9.7 million “repair” project that narrowed the channel, lined it with concrete riprap, and basically turned our scenic river into an ugly drainage ditch.
A Waste of Federal Funds and Natural Resources
The nearly $10 million in federal funds were supposed to be used to “reshape and protect eroded streambanks.” But these areas, particularly upstream of Waugh, were not eroded. The bank shape was fine. The bayou, according to its natural plan, had planted tall goldenrod and horseweed, young willows and cottonwoods along its banks.
The Flood Control District cut it all down and left bare dirt. It wasn’t a “repair” project. It was a landscaping project.
Now, almost a year later, here’s what some of those multi-million dollar banks look like. So will they keep scraping the banks after the bayou plants them again with the deep-rooted wild stuff that’s needed to hold the banks together?
Public Outreach Meeting on Flood Planning Aug. 31
Regional Flood Planners Want to Know about Your Flood Experience, Current Risk
Aug. 24, 2021
The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group, which includes the entire watershed of the Houston metropolitan area all the way from Walker County to Galveston and more, is having a public engagement meeting on Aug. 31 at 6:30 p.m.
The virtual meeting will describe the tools and programs being developed to encourage members of the public to contribute information about their flooding experiences and current risks.
Members of the public can register to make comments. You can also submit written comments before or after the meeting.
The meeting will be online and will be translated into Spanish. Here is the public notice with information about how to join the meeting.
And here is a flyer about the meeting which includes a QR code to scan for easy registration.
Flood Plans, Studies, Committees Need Organization
Fundamental Recommendation: Create a Regional Coordinating Body
How We Are Doing and What We Should Do: Hold Water Where It Falls
Aug. 17, 2021
A major flood study by the US Army Corps of Engineers has concluded that our metropolitan region needs a coordinating body “across all levels of government,” including highway, railroad, and utility agencies, to “set priorities” and plan for flood protection. (pp. 75-76)
The report documents that the Harris County Flood Control District continues its environmentally destructive, outdated, and counterproductive policy of stripping and straightening local streams, which increases flooding. (pp. 57-59) These “channel rectification” and widening projects include 15 miles of Clear Creek and 15 miles of White Oak Bayou upstream of Loop 610 North.
The report is not the first call for an overall organizing body to address flooding. The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium made the same recommendation in 2018, as the federal report notes. (p. 75)
Hold Water Where It Falls
The lengthy draft report, called the Metropolitan Houston Regional Watershed Assessment, recommends an emphasis on communicating flood risk, equitable distribution of flood protection, and a greater reliance on green and nature-based features, including pervious surfaces, and small-scale individual and neighborhood efforts to “reduce risk to downstream communities and broaden awareness of shared responsibility.” (p. 77)
The basic thrust of its recommended individual and neighborhood actions is to “hold water where it falls before it enters the bayous.” (Like we’ve been saying: Slow the Flow! Here are some basic tips and resources.)
The long-awaited draft federal report is some 250-pages long and highly technical. Released in mid-June, the main report initially seemed like nothing but a regurgitation of stuff everybody already knew.
However, in addition to the 80-page main report there are three appendices addressing existing flood risk management, climate change, and protection of cultural resources. And in sum the draft is a good summary of existing programs and makes some worthwhile observations and recommendations.
The final report is due Oct. 5. A representative of the Corps said there have been no comments on the draft report. The purpose of the study changed significantly since it was first proposed in 2015. Initially described as an analysis of “where raindrops fall and how they flow across our roofs, yards, parking lots and streets, through our drainage systems and waterways and into Galveston Bay,” that focus apparently changed, in part because the Harris County Flood Control District was doing its own study called MAAPNext, or the Modeling, Assessment and Awareness Project.
The Region, The Problem, the Studies
As defined by the Corps, the metropolitan Houston watershed region is the San Jacinto-Galveston Bay watershed, which is also the focus of the recently established San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group (Region 6) as defined by the Texas Water Development Board and similar to the Central Region as defined by the Texas General Land Office for its ongoing River Basin Flood Study.
Read the rest of this post. Includes a list of studies, plans, public committees working on flooding.
Some Interesting Things We’ve Been Reading
Breakthrough in Turtle Genetics Sends 27 Stolen Alligator Snapping Turtles Back to their Home Rivers in Texas
Aug. 16, 2021, Turtle Survival Alliance
- Twenty-seven Alligator Snapping Turtles seized from illegal trafficking returned to the wild in Texas.
• Turtle Survival Alliance and Tangled Bank Conservation collaborated on an innovative genetic map to guide wild repatriation.
• Genetic database will serve as a tool for state and federal agencies to determine turtle origin.
• Turtles will be monitored post-release to record movements, quantify survival, and qualify release efficacy.
TEXAS— Along with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) last week announced the release of 27 Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) into waters of East Texas. This release represents a return to the wild for the turtles five years after their seizure from illegal traffickers and exemplifies a public-private partnership to re-wild animals with the use of innovative genetic mapping and DNA technology.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Completes 22 years of Work Restoring Curves to the Florida River They Destroyed 80 Years Ago
Aug. 15, 2021, Revitalization
The Kissimmee River once meandered for 103 miles through central Florida. Its floodplain, reaching up to 3 miles wide, was inundated for long periods by heavy seasonal rains.
Native wetland plants, wading birds and fish thrived there. Then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed it.
On July 29, 2021 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District (USACE) hosted a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the completion of the construction for the Kissimmee River Restoration Project. The Kissimmee River Restoration Project restores more than 40 square miles of the river floodplain ecosystem, 20,000 acres of wetlands, and 44 miles of the historic river channel.
Now, after 22 years of work, they have repaired much of the structural damage they inflicted. It’s a good example of the dynamic stated in the 2020 book, RECONOMICS: The Path To Resilient Prosperity: “80% of the revitalizing, resilience-enhancing work done by urban planners and civil engineers in the 21st century will undo 80% of the work done by their predecessors in the 20th century.”
Native Seed Study Laying Roots for a More Sustainable Tomorrow
Press Release from the Harris County Flood Control District, August 2021
The Harris County Flood Control District is sowing seeds for a more sustainable tomorrow. The Flood Control District is partnering with Texas Native Seed (TNS) on a new project that studies native grasses in an effort to develop a genetically improved seed mix. This study will benefit future Flood Control District site stabilization, as well as green infrastructure projects throughout the region.
Native grass seeding on Flood Control District projects has been a long-sought-after goal. However, identifying a commercially available and locally adaptable species suitable for the region has been challenging. Recently, the Flood Control District in conjunction with TNS, part of Texas A&M Kingsville, broke ground in April of 2021. TNS has a proven track record of producing seed varieties adapted for various parts of the state. Uniquely, instead of randomly seeding test plots with existing seed varieties, they will be starting with known species native to the region to produce a seed mix more inclined to thrive in the local environment.