Can An Urban Stream Restore Itself?
Yes, With Room to Move. Free Rivers Are Healthier and Better for Flood Control
June 15, 2016
Updated with August 2016, April 29 and July 11, 2017, photos of self-repaired Hogg Bluff
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.
It’s for the Birds
Report on Plans for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on Buffalo Bayou
May 11, 2016
First the positives about the presentation Monday evening, May 9, by the Houston Parks Board about plans for the little-known 15.56-acre nature preserve on Buffalo Bayou known as the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.
The sanctuary at the end of Westcott Street south of Memorial Drive is probably better recognized as the mostly impenetrable woods next to the parking lot for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, located across the bayou, accessible by a footbridge. Bayou Bend is the former home of the Hogg Family, who developed River Oaks and in 1924, along with partner Henry Stude, sold at cost to the city the 1,503 acres that became Memorial Park. (The Hogg Brothers also sold to the city at cost 133.5 acres of land intended to be part of Hermann Park. In 1943 the city sold that land for the establishment of the Medical Center, which provoked the continuing ire of their sister, Ima Hogg.) Ima Hogg, a cultural and civic leader and one of the city’s most revered philanthropists, donated the family house and gardens to the museum in 1957 and then donated to the City of Houston the woods on the north side of the bayou as a nature preserve.
Ima Hogg a Defender of Nature and Public Parks
Ima Hogg, who died in 1975, was also an ardent conservationist, early civil rights activist, mental health activist, and defender of park space for the public, in particular Memorial and Hermann parks. In her letters to city officials over the years, available in the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, she described her firm belief that woodland parks should be kept as natural as possible and criticized in a 1964 letter to then Mayor Louie Welch, who famously thought public parks unnecessary, the “alarming situation” of rapidly diminishing park areas in Houston and “throughout America,” including through construction in the parks by “worthy institutions” that really ought to look for building sites elsewhere, she wrote. Miss Ima was still angry that the city had “relinquished so much of the acreage” in Memorial Park for highways and a golf course and in an earlier letter to then city director of public works, Eugene Maier, demanded that the money the city received from the state for the highway land be used to acquire and improve additional park sites. Let’s guess that probably didn’t happen.
What’s the Plan for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary?
Meeting Monday, May 9, 2016
May 7, 2016
Anyone interested in the future of that small bit of brambly bird paradise on Buffalo Bayou known as the Hogg Bird Sanctuary will want to attend the public meeting on Monday evening, May 9, near Memorial Park.
The 15.56 acre public park at the end of Westcott Road south of Memorial Drive was donated to the City of Houston in 1958 by the late Ima Hogg as a nature preserve. In 1924 the Hogg Family had sold at cost to the City of Houston the land that is now Memorial Park, formerly a part of Camp Logan. The bird sanctuary is now part of Memorial Park and includes a large parking lot, a visitor center, as well as the entrance to the footbridge that leads across the bayou to Ima Hogg’s former home, now the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, a part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
In 2014 the sanctuary was listed as one of Preservation Texas’ Most Endangered Places because of the threat from the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
The meeting is to update the public on proposed plans for the park, for which the Houston Parks Board reportedly has received a $1 million gift. According to the announcement, a steering committee of stakeholders, using the Memorial Park Conservancy’s Master Plan (see page 132) as a starting point, has conducted additional research with consultant Design Workshop and developed new ideas.
Who Is On the Steering Committee?
The individuals on the steering committee varied from one meeting to another, said Catherine Butsch, communications manager for the Houston Parks Board, in an email. “But the groups represented include Memorial Park Conservancy, Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board along with the Garden Club [of Houston] in an advisory capacity given their active studies of the site [see page 134],” she wrote. “Others consulted as part of the process include the Harris County Flood Control District, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston Audubon as well as the Garden Club and Rice researchers.”
The meeting will take place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, 6622 Haskell Street, on the northeast side of Memorial Park. The Houston Parks Board, along with the Memorial Park Conservancy and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, is sponsoring the meeting.
For questions email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flooding on Buffalo Bayou
The View from Above with Photographer Jim Olive
April 19, 2016
Photographer Jim Olive took these shots from the air over Buffalo Bayou yesterday (Monday, April 18, 2016) following the extraordinary amount of rainfall that fell mainly on the far west side of town.
These photos show Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park and the River Oaks Country Club as well as the confluence of White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou downtown.
Buffalo Bayou flows from the Katy Prairie in west Houston through the center of the city through the Houston Ship Channel into Galveston Bay.
Out on the Bayou with the Boy Scouts
Documenting Wildlife Tracks and Weird Nature Stuff
April 6, 2016
We went out with Paul Hung and his band of intrepid Boy Scouts last week to document wildlife tracks on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
We saw a lot of interesting things, including footprints of mysterious creatures behaving in puzzling ways, some strange yellow liquid, and flying seat cushions nesting in the trees.
This was the second outing for Paul and his teen-aged colleagues from Boy Scout Troop 55, Sam Houston Area Council. For his Eagle Scout Service Project, Paul proposed documenting the wildlife on the bayou as it flows along the southern edge of Memorial Park. Save Buffalo Bayou is the beneficiary, and we hope to publish Paul’s results as a pamphlet.
Fortunately the flow was very low, less than 200 cubic feet per second, which is about base flow in the bayou when it hasn’t been raining. The Army Corps of Engineers assured us in advance that the reservoirs in the dams upstream were empty, and barring any unforeseen weather event, the water would be low enough for us to see plenty of activity on the mud and sand of the banks. Which we did.
Paul was well organized. He handed out clipboards, small rulers, and post-it notes, and instructed his fellow scouts to use these with the GPS app on their cell phones to take photos and number and record the size of tracks. The group was divided into pairs in canoes. A few adults went along too, including Richard Hung, father of Paul, and Troop 55 Assistant Scoutmaster Janice Van Dyke Walden.
There were tracks everywhere. Creatures crawling, slithering, hopping and tiptoeing across the sand, burrowing, strolling, turning about and flying away; digging holes, chasing each other, stepping and sliding in and out of the water.
Environmental Photography That Works
Coastal Essence in Fotofest 2016
March 29, 2016
How do environmental and conservation organizations get their message across?
By showing the public photographs of what they are trying to protect.
That’s what Houston-based, internationally-known photographer Jim Olive has been doing for Save Buffalo Bayou and many other conservation organizations. Without Jim’s stunning photos of the historic natural stretch of the bayou flowing past Memorial Park, far fewer people would have any idea of the rare and valuable treasure we have running right through the middle of Houston.
A Fotofest 2016 exhibition titled Coastal Essence features Jim Olive’s photographs that have been used by local environmental organizations to illustrate their cause in print and social media. The exhibition, which includes a photograph of Buffalo Bayou at dawn used by Save Buffalo Bayou on its Facebook page, is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land, Texas. The show runs through May 8 at the museum at 13016 University Blvd.
Fotofest is one of the world’s leading photography festivals, and this year the theme is Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet. The festival, which continues through April 24, takes place every two years in galleries and exhibition spaces across the Houston metropolitan area, and draws photographers, curators, collectors, and other photography experts from all over the world.
Jim Olive, a native Houstonian, has been a professional photographer for fifty years and has traveled around the world on assignments. A longtime conservationist, he is the founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation.
How Old Is Buffalo Bayou? Where Does It Come From?
Geology Lessons on the Bayou
March 27, 2016
Want to learn about the geology and natural history of Buffalo Bayou?
Save Buffalo Bayou is partnering with professional geologist Tom Helm, who also happens to be an outstanding naturalist and river guide, to offer floating classes on the geology of our 18,000-year-old mother bayou.
Paddle with Tom on a two-hour canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou and see some of our Pleistocene natural history right here in the middle of Houston. Learn all about the formation of the bluffs and sandstone rocks during the last ice age. See examples of depositional environments and fluvial processes. Find out why the banks are sandy and how sand moves downstream, why the river looks the way it does, and much more.
Where, When, Cost
The classes start at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park and float past the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, through the historic natural area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District. Multiple stops will be made along the way to examine features of interest.
The schedule depends on class size. One to four persons can be scheduled any day of the week, usually with no more than 48 hours’ notice. Groups larger than four persons (up to 30 persons maximum) are accepted only on weekends. These larger weekend groups need to schedule at least one month in advance.
Cost is $50 per person, which includes canoe and equipment, and light refreshments at the end. Discounts are available for academic faculty and students.
Note that the classes will be not take place if the flow of Buffalo Bayou is greater than 300 cubic feet per second (as measured by the Piney Point USGS gauge). At water levels above this, the sandstones are mostly obscured. If a trip is cancelled due to high water, students have the option of rescheduling or receiving a full refund.
For more information, contact Tom Helm.
Some Things We Learned Already: Why Mud Stinks
We floated with Tom recently for a preview of the geology class. Among the things we learned is why some of the mud stinks. The mud and the sand are filled with layers of organic matter, leaves mostly, and as the organic matter decomposes, it smells like … decomposing stuff. But it also builds soil for future vegetation. This process produces the mysterious oily sheen that you see floating on top of the mud sometimes.
We also learned to tell mud from sand from silt. (Hint: it’s a matter of the size of the grains.) Tom showed us how geologists rub the mud between their thumb and fingers to feel the size of the grains.
We studied the patterns in the sand, watched the grains of sand moving in the water, and learned about eddies and sediment deposition and transport. We saw a lot of animal tracks.
We learned to put the constantly changing bayou in the context of its natural process.
In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
― Rachel Carson
Reminder: The Threat is Still Alive
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou II
March 14, 2016
Okay, so we harshed the mood a little with our small, silent reminders that regatta contestants were paddling through a historic natural area still threatened with destruction.
“Thanks for polluting my day,” yelled one paddler in the crowd of hundreds of Buffalo Bayou boaters playing loud music and stopping to pee in the woods. We were watching from the sandy bank of the lovely middle meander, forested with young willows and box elder that would all be cut down, the meander filled, graded, and planted with grass.
The event was the 44th Annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta on Saturday, March 12. And once again we hung our beautiful Save Buffalo Bayou banner (Night Heron by Houston artist Frank X. Tolbert 2) from the railroad bridge and set out small white signs alerting participants to the fact that the wild stretch they were passing through would all be bulldozed under a plan proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA).
The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do. (See Buffalo Bayou Park and Fonteno Park.) It would raze most of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the 18,000-year-old bayou as it passes by Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. These trees and vegetation and even the sand are part of the riparian zone, essentially wetlands, that hold the banks together, cleanse and filter the water, slow and absorb storm runoff, provide wildlife habitat, among many other important ecological functions. The $6 million “natural channel design” project, financed with $4 million in county and city taxpayer funds, would dredge and reroute the bayou and plug tributaries, obliterate ancient cliffs, destroy 250,000-year-old sandstone formations, and fill in our lovely meander (a natural detention area). Killing the bayou’s ecosystem in the name of “restoration.” And landscape design.
And no, contrary to rumors, the project, although holding its breath, is not dead. The Army Corps of Engineers is still deciding whether to issue a permit for the project, which is otherwise a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The Bayou Preservation Association first formulated the plan for the project in private meetings in 2010 and former BPA president Kevin Shanley, then a principal with the landscape architecture firm SWA Group, was the primary promoter. SWA Group is the design firm that is also responsible for the landscape design of Buffalo Bayou Park downstream east of Shepherd.
So this is why we had signs up warning of landscapers lurking. In Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, we set out a few signs pointing out that landscaping has washed away (several times actually) and that removal of vegetation has caused erosion problems, and that repairs were $$$$ (paid with City funds). Yes, we were bad! Those signs did not last long, however.
Upstream around Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary our signs pointed out where beavers live, where banks were being naturally rebuilt by the bayou, and the Pleistocene bluffs that would be graded into a slope. Interestingly, the bayou, during and after the Memorial Day flood in 2015, has already graded the lower banks of those steep bluffs into a slope.
The River Oaks Country Club is theoretically a one-third partner in the demonstration project and owns the entire south half of the project reach. But in the meantime the club in two places has armored its banks with ugly concrete riprap, one of the most environmentally destructive methods of erosion control (pdf), and also, we allege, in this case illegal, as we contend that much of the riprap was placed in public waters, also a violation of the Clean Water Act.
The club, unfortunately, is having erosion problems on its high banks in those places because it cut down a lot of trees and extended the mowed and watered grass of its golf course up to the edge of the banks.
We put out signs pointing out that riprap damages the ecosystem and is part of the problem, not the solution.
But we’re glad people had fun, enjoyed the bayou, and picked up some of trash.
Maybe they’ll think about the future of the bayou.
And special thanks to river guide Tom Helm and to Richard Hyde for extra long duty putting out and picking up our banner and picking up our signs.
Update on the Beaver
We Tried to Find Out
Feb. 13, 2016
Many people were concerned about the mysterious death of the beaver on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou opposite the Arboretum.
The beaver’s corpse was discovered Saturday, Jan. 30, by a group of Boy Scouts documenting wildlife on the bayou as it passes by Memorial Park, an area threatened by a project proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would destroy much of the wildlife habitat along some 1.25 miles of the bayou as it passes by the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering whether to issue a permit for this project, which would otherwise be prohibited under the federal Clean Water Act.
Yes, there are beavers on Buffalo Bayou, and yes, animals do die. We mourn the loss of any creature. But the circumstances of the death of this beaver, which looked otherwise young and healthy, was puzzling, and there was good reason to try to identify the cause. So several days later, we tried.
An anonymous friend generously offered to pay for a necropsy of the beaver. We contacted a veterinarian who was ready to perform it. Where to store the body? Someone volunteered her freezer. Another member of our team went out of his way to climb down the banks and locate the beaver’s corpse using GPS coordinates. By chance a veterinarian happened to be in the vicinity, as the area was near an animal clinic on West Loop 610.
Alas, the corpse was too far gone for a necropsy.
One of our naturalist experts said that while beavers do have accidents (chopping down a tree that falls on top of them, for instance) he agreed that the strange place and position of the beaver was suspicious. He suggested that though there were no obvious signs of trauma when discovered, the beaver might have been shot and tossed. A small caliber bullet hole might not be noticed, he pointed out.
Thus ends the tale of the beaver body on Buffalo Bayou.
A Beaver Has Died
Boy Scouts Documenting Wildlife on Buffalo Bayou Make Unexpected Find
February 2, 2016
A group of Boy Scouts researching wildlife on Buffalo Bayou came across a sad scene on a sandy bank opposite the Arboretum last Saturday, Jan. 30.
Paul Hung is a fifteen-year-old Boy Scout from Bellaire who is working with Save Buffalo Bayou on a project to inventory the wildlife on the 18,000-year-old bayou as it flows past the Arboretum, Memorial Park, and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The project is Paul’s Eagle Scout Service project, and he had organized a group of six Boy Scouts with Troop 55, Sam Houston Area Council, to float down the bayou looking for and photographing wildlife tracks on the sandy banks. Paul had carefully organized his float trip, checking first to see that the water level was low enough to see the banks, and accompanied by several adults, the group put in at the recently re-opened boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway west of Loop 610, a wooded area known as the Old Archery Range.
The group floated round a bend and another, passing under the West Loop 610 bridge, working in pairs in canoes to identify and photograph tracks and record their locations. But on a sandy south bank below a high-rise parking lot, the group encountered something surprising: the corpse of what appeared to be an otherwise healthy beaver.
According to witnesses, the deceased beaver showed no signs of trauma and there were no tracks surrounding the beaver’s final resting place in the sand, which was near an area of willows known for beaver activity.
Otherwise, he and his fellow scouts had a “great trip,” reports Paul. They saw an “amazing” amount of wildlife.
“I was surprised by how many animal tracks we found on the Bayou,” he writes in an email. “My partner and I alone found over 30 tracks. We saw Great Blue Heron, Coyote, Turtle, Raccoon, Beaver, and Great White Egret evidence.
“This gives us a better appreciation of the Bayou, because it is right in the middle of Houston. This is the first of many expeditions on the Bayou. It will take 6 to 8 months to complete [the wildlife inventory], and I hope this will be helpful for Bayou education.”
Save Buffalo Bayou and Paul plan to publish the results of his Eagle Scout Service project as a pamphlet in order to educate the public about the abundance of wildlife living on Buffalo Bayou.