Late Spring on the Bayou
May 9, 2023
We were a little late for our spring photo of that bend in the bayou. But we had waited for Big Jim, our devoted photographer, to get back to town so he could take the latest in our series documenting the same bend throughout the seasons. We’ve been doing this since the summer of 2014.
It was a beautiful sunny morning, though at first glance the river and woods looked a little dull, sort of empty and flat. Maybe because they were slowly waking up after a long drought, big freeze, and violent storms. The flow in the river was fairly high though, around 1000 cubic feet per second. There had been a thunderstorm earlier in the night.
But Jim’s photos revealed the beauty of the scene. And they brought to mind how very bright green this city spring has seemed. Spring green is indeed a color, a very vivid one. And according to scientists, the reason is that young leaves are still developing their chlorophyll, their green pigment. They’re also thinner.
The wet, sandy path leading in and out of the forbidden woods was still blocked with wire fencing and chopped tree trunks by the Memorial Park Conservancy. But it was obvious that many people were ignoring that. As we made our way out, we encountered another couple in the parking lot getting ready for a walk. They offered advice on the best place to step over the obstacles.
Remodeling Nature’s Landscape
What’s Happening to the Banks in Buffalo Bayou Park
Will It Last? Removing Invasives is a Good Thing
April 20, 2023
It looked terrible. Dead stalks sticking out of the ground, banks denuded and sprayed with blue-green herbicide.
People have been wondering what’s been happening in Houston’s beloved Buffalo Bayou Park between Sabine and Shepherd streets.
It’s the work of the Harris County Flood Control District and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the public nonprofit which manages the 160-acre city-owned park along with Flood Control. The good news is that a large part of what they have been doing is removing invasive species, like Johnson grass and other noxious, domineering stuff that floats down the river from yards and fields. They’ve been “stabilizing” the bank with biodegradable coir logs and in the last few weeks spraying native seed mix on the bare banks.
It’s all part of a $960,000 Harris County plan, in the works since 2019, called the “Buffalo Bayou Park Revegetation and Biostabilization Project.” The goal is to revegetate the banks of Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street and provide enhanced natural infrastructure to Buffalo Bayou Park, particularly in those areas scraped and bulldozed by Flood Control in 2019-20.
For that $10 million federally-funded “repair” project, Flood Control removed native vegetation and lined sections of the banks with concrete rubble, known as riprap, even though the design engineer, Jones Carter (now known as Quiddity), apparently rejected riprap, (p. 4). Even Flood Control in the past has rejected riprap, (p. 6) as well as the US Army Corps of Engineers (p. 4), and numerous other federal agencies. For more explanation of why riprap damages the stream, the environment, can even contribute to bank failure and increase flooding, see page 7.
Of course, the river has its own ancient and purposeful landscaping plan: first colonizing and stabilizing plants, working in succession, turning sand into soil, preparing the way for drifting willows and other native trees. But humans have other landscaping ideas. We’ll see how long those human plans last.
The Planting Project
We visited the project with Gabriela Sosa, since 2021 the conservation manager for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Dr. Sosa grew up in Brownsville, on the Texas coast, where she was inspired to pursue a career in ecology by the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. “I didn’t know ecology could be a career,” she said.
Her vision for the park is a “wildlife corridor” for birds and other creatures, including humans. A “greenspace in the middle of downtown.”
“Most people don’t get to see nature,” she said, as we toured the project in a golfcart, getting out to inspect elderberry bushes, Maximilian sunflowers, lantana, sorrel, late boneset, and more.
She was enthusiastic about keeping the elderberry, as we inspected the bush along the Greentree Nature Area on the north bank. “Previously we would have mowed the elderberry. But it’s great habitat for birds. We’re keeping it.”
In addition to killing off or removing invasive species like Johnson grass, elephant ear, castor bean, and Chinaberry trees, the project has removed swathes of native plants like ragweed, goldenrod, other types of sunflowers and more. Her objection was that those plants take over and dominate, shading out other plants. The goal is more diversity. And more deep-rooted plants, she said, pointing to the roots of an uprooted sunflower. Workers have been carefully picking out ragweed and sunflowers on the lush banks of the bayou. In other areas, however, the banks have been sprayed with an “aquatic-label” herbicide, meaning it’s been approved for use near streams. Technically, according to Flood Control, it’s Roundup Custom for Aquatic and Terrestrial Use, which is glyphosate, a controversial herbicide banned in some countries, cities and states.
A Great Man is Gone
April 7, 2023
(Updated with link to the obituary in the Houston Chronicle.)
Frank Chesley Smith Jr. has croaked.
Well, he joked that if there had to be an obituary, that’s what it should say.
In fact, Frank died peacefully at his Houston home Thursday, April 6, after a long life of service dedicated to nature and public access to it, to architecture and engineering, to flying, sailing, and driving with the top down. He was 101. And here’s the lovely obituary that was published in the Houston Chronicle.
Known to family and friends as Paco, Frank was the founding board president of Save Buffalo Bayou and our guiding light. He remained alert and engaged until the very last.
Read this 2016 profile of the remarkable and irreplaceable Frank Smith:
A Celebration of Concrete
Or How to Create Ill Will
March 3, 2023
For those who don’t get enough experience of concrete in the city of Houston, there is now plenty more concrete for you to enjoy in Memorial Park.
Normally one would go to a park to escape the hardness of the built city. We are fortunate in Houston to have a major urban park, almost 100 years old, dedicated to the experience of nature – a soft path underfoot, tall trees swaying gently in the breeze, a glimpse of a rabbit or raccoon, the call of a hawk, the smell of soil, mushrooms and pine; the rhythm of the bayou flowing past. Conservationists have worked for years to try to keep it natural.
But in recent years the private conservancy running Memorial Park on the banks of Buffalo Bayou has decided to turn our beautiful park into a constructed experience. This is a problem with park conservancies: in order to raise money they have to do projects, and in order to raise more money they have to do more projects. It’s never enough to let nature be.
And apparently they have decided that in order to raise money they have to throw donors names in big letters in front of it all. Most recently, in addition to the massive amount of concrete poured to construct not one but two sets of tunnels over Memorial Drive, the conservancy has erected hulking grey concrete walls on both sides of the tunnels announcing who is responsible: Kinder. It’s the Kinder Land Bridge.
One Land Bridge Wasn’t Enough
Land bridges for wildlife over (better under) major highways is a good idea. But the idea that a land bridge over Memorial Drive was for the animals (including humans) has always been a farce, as our founding president Frank Smith has long argued. Wildlife – coyotes, bobcat, possum — have always found safe passage through the large drainage culverts passing under Memorial and Woodway. And as we have previously pointed out, the Conservancy has thoughtfully included a drainage culvert designed for wildlife passage underneath the land bridges, which officially opened Feb. 11. Based on reports from neighborhood residents, more wildlife likely died fleeing destruction of their habitat than before construction of the land bridges and prairie.
In addition, for humans who can’t navigate the crosswalks and stoplights to walk across six-lane Memorial Drive and back, there is a lovely, modest pedestrian bridge, known as the Living Bridge, a remnant of an earlier, more enlightened master plan from 2004 connecting the north and south sides of the park near the Running Center. Not that most people often have reason to do that. Generally you are either jogging or walking the Seymour Lieberman trail around the expanded golf course on the north side or strolling, biking, running (or getting lost) with your family and friends through the lovely bayou woods on the south side. (Yes, the Lieberman trail is much improved by routing it through woods and over streams instead of along Memorial Drive.)
But okay, so they really wanted a bridge over Memorial Drive: a high point over our low, flat prairie (and over the trees) from which Houstonians could view the sunset and sunrise and the surrounding vista. That’s cool. But wouldn’t one bridge, one set of tunnels have been enough? asks the amazing Mr. Smith, who at 101 years is still engaged, still concerned about the park that he promised Ima Hogg he would always protect. Did we really have to spend $70 million to build two massive bridges?
Top left: concrete walls surrounding the Kinder Land bridges. Top right: on top of one of the bridges. Bottom: Side view looking north of one set of tunnels. Photos Feb. 17, 2023
More Parks Needed
Do we not need other parks, many more green spaces? The Conservancy often touts the fact that many people drive a long way for the experience of Memorial Park. But we have long argued that maybe they do that because there are few other opportunities. (They certainly don’t do it to look at concrete walls.) Houston ranks 70th out of the nation’s most populous 100 cities in terms of parkland, investment, and access to parks, according to the 2022 ranking from the Trust for Public Land. Although note once again that this calculation is skewed by the vast acreage of parkland included within Barker and Addicks reservoirs in far west Houston, including Cullen Park, at over 9,000 acres one of the largest parks in the country.
The original 1,503 acres that were sold at cost in 1923 by the Hogg Brothers and partners to the City of Houston were intended as “an ideal wooded park” for “the common good.” Though the park is frequently touted as nearly twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, the comparison skips over the fact that more than 600 acres of Houston’s park is devoted to a (recently expanded) golf course, driving range, and related buildings, for which numerous magnificent pines and oaks were cut down. Not to mention the significant amount of acreage used by maintenance, sheds and green houses, or just simply ignored and abused.
But Wait! There’s A Concrete Prairie Wall Too. And Stairs
But wait! There’s more. Wander on over to the new prairie on the south side of Memorial and you can gaze upon another massive grey concrete wall with the names of more donors inscribed in giant letters. We won’t embarrass these generous people by naming them. It’s not their fault that this ugly wall rudely interrupts your view of the new green prairie and wetlands they helped to fund.
Winter in the Woods
They Will Rise Again
Jan. 26, 2023
Step on and over the massive pile of sawn oak trunks. Step on and over the beaten-down wire fencing. And into the people’s woods on Buffalo Bayou where we’re forbidden to go, though people go anyway.
Wait! What’s this? The woods are see-through, barren, leafless. Everything is monochrome brown. The ground, muddy and slippery, is exposed. The sandy paths etched by rivulets of rain; clumps of dead leaves washed down everywhere. Limbs, branches, and thorny vines ripped and wrenched from the trees and thrown on the ground. Yawning gullies, widened by the rain, have eaten away at the edge of the trail.
Oh, yeah. It’s winter. We had a big freeze. (And before that a long drought.) Everything died. And then came a violent storm. Tornadoes tore apart homes and buildings southeast of the city.
The crows are talking about it. Even the everlasting green leaves of the yaupon and cherry laurel are gone.
We’re here on the south side of Houston’s Memorial Park to take a winter photograph of that bend in the bayou. We’ve been documenting the bend from the same high bank throughout the seasons since 2014.
But we don’t remember it ever looking quite so thin and exposed.
We started a little late and were concerned about the sun being too high, rising in the east above the trees on this clear, cold Thursday morning, glaring at the camera. But when we arrive we realize it doesn’t really matter. The downstream trees that usually filter the sun are bare skeletons in the distance. They wouldn’t have softened the light anyway.
It’s cold but not freezing; cold enough to numb the fingertips. The thick mist rising off the water is smoky, swirling mysteriously. The brown water is high and turbulent, though nowhere near flood stage. At around 1,720 cubic feet per second, the flow is about half its peak on Tuesday morning, Jan. 24, during the storm. The floodgates on the federal dams, Barker and Addicks, far upstream were closed then. Apparently they were re-opened Wednesday mid-morning to release stormwater held back in the normally dry reservoirs.
Concern about the Trees and Vegetation
Back in the office we call up Mickey Merritt, urban forester with the Texas A&M Forest Service. We’d been concerned about the trees around the city. The weather has been confusing: freezing one day, summer weather the next, then cold again. There seemed to be a lot of empty trees and leaves on the ground.
Merritt said he was concerned too. Despite the freeze in early January, it’s been “a fairly warm winter,” he pointed out. “That’s why we’re having trees bud out and starting to flower.”
“If we have a deep freeze, we could have a lot of problems.”
The freeze in early January was not much of an issue for native trees, he said. The freeze a couple of years ago took out many of the non-natives, he pointed out.
But, he added, “I just hope we don’t get a deep freeze. Around freezing I would not worry. What I would be concerned about is if it gets down into the mid-20s.”
Flood Planning Update
Are Flood Planners Ignoring Legal Requirement To Consider Environmental Impact?
Stormwater Tunnel Inlets: No Environmental Impact On Streams, Says Flood Control
Dec. 23, 2022
Update Dec. 24: President Biden signs authorization for Galveston Bay Surge Protection Plan. Funding not included.
Freeze? Drought? Holiday lights went out? Flood planning goes on.
A regional planning group has voted to send the state a flood plan while expressing concern that failure to assess its environmental impacts could be illegal.
Members of the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group noted at a recent meeting that there were numerous public comments objecting to the environmental impact of projects included in the plan. Many were lodged against channelizing natural streams, among them wooded Spring Creek on the northern border of Harris County, parts of which are under conservation easement.
Conservation easements are actually a flood management strategy. Channelization, or dredging, altering, and straightening streams can increase downstream flood risk and lead to erosion, sedimentation, maintenance, and environmental issues. (pp. 154-155)
Criticisms also focused on the abundance of structural or engineering projects compared to nature-based projects and nonstructural strategies. The state’s technical guidelines require a balance of structural and non-structural projects, with an emphasis on natural systems and functions. (pp 87-88)
Nature-based approaches, or green stormwater infrastructure, slow and absorb stormwater runoff before it enters our pipes and streams. (Also improves property values, cleans the air and water, improves biodiversity, makes life better, and more.) Scientific studies have shown that nature-based flood management – using trees, plants, wetlands, prairies, etc. — is cheaper and more effective than structural engineered projects. (See here and here.) And here is Save Buffalo Bayou’s previous comment to the flood planning group outlining what other cities and states are doing in this regard.
The planning group, known as Region 6, is one of fifteen localized groups set up by the Texas Water Development Board to develop continuing flood plans to be funded by the state. The regional plan includes numerous projects and strategies proposed by governmental or public entities. These are cities, counties, districts draining the watershed emptying into the San Jacinto River, an area extending from Galveston to Huntsville.
The group had not yet posted the final approved plan on its website as of publication time. The final plan is to be sent to the state board by Jan. 10, 2023. Here is a link to the meeting presentation.
Most of the comments received on the draft plan objected to the emphasis on structural or engineered projects, the lack of nature-based projects, and the failure to consider the impacts of proposed channelization of streams and coastal surge protection projects.
The planning committee’s general response to these complaints is that they are “not endorsing” but just “including” the projects in their plan.
However, group member Gene Fisseler pointed out at the recent meeting Dec. 8 that it was important to make sure that the group adhered to its statutory requirement to evaluate environmental impact under Ch. 362 of the Texas Administrative Code.
The group members approved changes to the plan, including adding four City of Houston projects in Kashmere Gardens, Fifth Ward, Sunnyside, and Pleasantville. (pp. 19-22) They discussed how to answer environmental concerns.
Here is an explanation of the draft flood plan before it was updated.
The next planning meeting is scheduled for Feb. 9, 2023. The next plan update is due July 14, 2023. There will be further opportunity for the public to comment, Megan Ingram of the Texas Water Development Board said at the hybrid meeting held at the Houston Advanced Research Center in the Woodlands. A recording of the meeting is here.
The flood plan is an ongoing project, to be updated every five years.
Reaction of Conservation and Environmental Groups
Conservation groups, including Bayou Land Conservancy and the Coastal Prairie Conservancy, as well as numerous individuals, objected to plans to strip, dredge, and channelize natural streams, including those under conservation easement, specifically Spring Creek. They urged the flood planners to drop the San Jacinto River Regional Watershed Master Drainage Plan which includes those plans.
A coalition of environmental groups, including Save Buffalo Bayou, urged the flood planning group and the US Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider the environmental impact of the $34 billion coastal barrier and gate system recently approved by the House of Representatives. The draft flood plan claimed there was no environmental impact from the Corps’ Galveston Bay Surge Protection plan (known as the Ike Dike). (p. 2050)
Breaking: Mayor Nominating New Houston Parks Board
Revealed: How to Apply
Dec. 5, 2022
Heard around Houston town: Mayor Sylvester Turner is nominating a new slate to the dilapidated and nearly defunct Houston Parks Board.
We’re talking about the public board, a local government corporation (see also here), which for years has been violating the Open Meetings Act. This has happened because the twenty members of the public board were also (or mostly) board members of the larger private Houston Parks Board foundation. So when the private board met in private it often had a quorum of the public board, which violated the law.
We have been calling for a new public board for over two years now. Most major cities in Texas and around the country avoid this problem by having two separate parks boards or commissions for oversight of parks and fundraising: a public board and a supporting private foundation. A public board would generally be composed of community activists, ecologists, etc. and the private board would be composed of the money people: investors, real estate developers, philanthropists, etc.
No Public Outreach. Who Will The Mayor Nominate? How to Apply
It seems the mayor and city council are now attempting to remedy this problem. However, there has been no public announcement, no public outreach or communication about it. We confirmed that this was happening with the mayor’s director of boards and commissions, Olivia Lee. She recommended that anyone interested in joining the public board apply through the City’s boards and commissions website. Persuading your city council representative to recommend you also helps to become a member of the public board, according to Lee’s predecessor, Maria Montes.
At the moment there are 5 vacancies, 10 expired terms, and 5 terms about to expire on the 20-member public board. Apparently the mayor will nominate a new slate before the end of the year. Houston City Council must approve the nominations.
What Does the Public Parks Board Do?
Parks board members are appointed to three-year terms, though they can remain in their position until a new member is appointed. According to the board’s charter and bylaws (p. 2), the board is generally charged with acquiring or improving land and buildings for public parks, playgrounds, and museums; reviewing plans and advising the mayor and city council on expenditure of city funds and parks department matters, soliciting gifts of money or land, etc.
Other Cities Televise Parks Board Meetings
We learned about the plan to nominate a new slate at a rare public meeting of the public board early on a weekday morning in October. The meeting was held in a tiny room in a building on the grounds of the lovely 16-acre Wiess Park just west of Memorial Park at 300 N. Post Oak Lane. Only recently has the private board been posting notices of the public meetings on its website. (Previously a small printed notice was posted downtown on the bulletin board at City Hall shortly before a meeting.) But clearly the public board was not expecting members of the public on this workday. There was hardly space in the crowded room for board members to attend, much less anyone else.
Nevertheless it was an interesting meeting, with comments from Kenneth Allen, director of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department, and from board members about the $60 million bond issue for city parks later approved by Houston voters, about nature preserves in city parks, about the lack of access to parks in denser residential areas, and other issues.
Let’s hope the new board will truly become a public board, transparent and responsive. Maybe even televise its meetings like they do in other cities.
Save Buffalo Bayou Needs Your Support
Nov. 22, 2022
Save Buffalo Bayou is a unique voice advocating for our streams and forests, for enlightened flood risk management, and for nature in the city. There are many environmental groups doing excellent work in the Harris County region, and we do our best to complement, amplify, and publicize what they do as well. Through our journalism, we try to educate the public and public officials
We need your financial support now. Use the Donate button to the right of the page. But you can also send a check. See below.
Our budget is small. It goes a long way. We rarely ask for money. But in order to maintain our public charity status, the IRS requires that we have a substantial amount of small individual donations. We’d rather not have to spend any time raising funds, a burden for a small organization. But before the end of the year, we need to raise at least $10,000 in gifts smaller than $1,000. Of course, Save Buffalo Bayou is a 501c3 nonprofit and donations are tax-deductible.
Why Should You Support Save Buffalo Bayou?
In the past year we have published over a dozen major reports on nature-based flood management, exposure of damaging and outdated practices by local agencies and organizations and private engineering contractors; explaining development of local, regional, state and federal flood management plans, and describing what other cities and states are doing to reduce flooding and flood risk, as well as exposing long-term violations of the Open Meetings Act by the Houston Parks Board LGC.
We have done major investigative research, including public information requests, into at least nine different project areas related to flooding, flood risk management, and stream channel maintenance.
We have participated in over 100 meetings of various governmental agencies, public and private groups concerning flood management and planning, the environment, and nature in the city.
We have given several public presentations or participated in panel discussions about Buffalo Bayou, understanding rivers, and modern flood management.
So please think about a gift to Save Buffalo Bayou. We prefer checks because PayPal takes some three percent of all donations. Send checks to Save Buffalo Bayou at 3614 Montrose #706, Houston, TX 77006. But it’s true that PayPal is quicker and easier.
Thank you for your support.
Fall on the Bayou
A Misty Sunrise on that Bend in Buffalo Bayou
And the Benefits of Wildness in the City
Nov. 21, 2022
It was a beautiful misty morning on Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s Memorial Park. Technically it was fall but our seasons are not obvious in Houston. Unless it’s hurricane season or an ice storm perhaps. Definitely winter if there’s ice hanging from the drooping telephone wires and people are trapped in their homes.
Perhaps we should name our seasons after what actually happens, as the Egyptians did.
We were traipsing through the forbidden woods just after dawn, talking too much probably, headed towards the high bank overlooking that bend in the river we’ve been documenting throughout the seasons for over eight years now. Jim Olive, our boss photographer, was not available so the assistant photog was leading the way down the shadowy dirt path, accompanied by a backup assistant.
The big woods were forbidden, still, because the private conservancy that manages our public park decided several years ago for dubious reasons that the paths through these lovely woods were closed, throwing up threatening signs, wire fencing, and piles of cut tree trunks and branches.
In rebellious response, someone recently had blocked out the “Not” on the “Do Not Enter” sign. The simple path, as always, was well maintained by anonymous volunteers and well used by walkers, runners, and other creatures.
Stormwater Tunnel on Buffalo Bayou Will Not Prevent Flooding
Plans Still Evolving
Comments and Questions
Please note that the Houston Chronicle has published a highly useful explanation of the coastal protection plan for Galveston Bay known as the Ike Dike. Unfortunately the paper has not figured out how to market to nonsubscribers.
Oct. 2, 2022
Large stormwater tunnels will likely not prevent flooding on Buffalo Bayou, according to the recent report from the Harris County Flood Control District.
Tunnels draining the federal flood control dams on upper Buffalo Bayou would not even be adequate to prevent a catastrophic overtopping of the dams or flooding of properties behind the reservoirs if a Harvey-like storm parked on top of the reservoirs, according to an engineering analysis prepared for Houston Stronger, a west Houston-based group formed in the wake of Harvey in 2017.
The Harris County Flood Control District is considering a $30 billion, 133-mile system of eight large-diameter stormwater tunnels to manage flood risk in the county. The district issued its Phase 2 feasibility report at the end of March and updated it in September. The district has been holding public meetings and taking public comments in preparation for the next phase of analysis to begin in the spring.
The probability that the proposed Buffalo Bayou tunnel would not prevent flooding downstream on the bayou is based on its limited capacity. The main tunnel would connect to two short 40-foot diameter tunnels, less than two miles long, draining Addicks and Barker dams far upstream. They would have a combined capacity of 11,600 cubic feet per second (cfs). This would drain into the much longer 40-foot diameter bayou tunnel which would have a capacity of only 12,240 cubic feet per second. Inlets or intakes draining the entire bayou downstream would have to be closed to accommodate stormwater flowing into the main tunnel from the two dams. The main tunnel would traverse the city deep underground for some 22 miles all the way to the ship channel east of downtown. (p. 127) (See also p. 1130)
That means that Buffalo Bayou would still flood because the bayou floods from urban rain runoff below the dams even when the dam floodgates are closed and no stormwater is draining out of the reservoirs. (See also here.)