The Blinged-Out Master Plan for Memorial Park
City Council Quality of Life Committee Should Send Expensive, Overdone Master Plan Back to Drawing Board
March 24, 2015
The Memorial Park Conservancy is sending its $3.2 million unfinished master plan for Memorial Park to the Houston City Council’s Quality of Life Committee on Wednesday, March 25. The plan is so far a gaudy, overstuffed mish-mosh of bad, hazy, contradictory, wrong, and incomplete ideas developed apparently with the main goal of spending some $200-300 million, half of it public money.
The committee should reject this tacky, impractical document and consider directing hundreds of millions of dollars towards the purchase of new parkland instead.
Among other things, the plan misleadingly describes Buffalo Bayou as it flows along Memorial Park as “altered.” A slide shown at the final presentation of the plan to a packed audience at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston March 9 outlined the bayou in bright red and identified it as “altered Buffalo Bayou.” (See slide 18.)
We were stunned. Reasonable people would assume that “altered” meant channelized, dug up, scraped, engineered, rebuilt, etc. by humans or machines. In fact, the bayou flowing past Memorial park is one of the last unaltered stretches remaining in the city.
But no, “altered” in this case means “changed over time,” explains Shellye Arnold, executive director of the park conservancy. The bayou has adjusted to increased water flows from increased runoff due to development and paving; therefore the bayou is “altered,” says Arnold in an email.
The conservancy is developing the ten-twenty-thirty-year plan with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the Uptown TIRZ 16, which is funneling our tax money into the blinged-out project. It’s not clear who is in charge of the master plan, or even who is now in charge of Memorial Park, for that matter.
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
What’s the right way to protect Buffalo Bayou?
March 18, 2015 Updated: March 18, 2015 11:20am
Is the traditional vision of local and urban flood control agencies in conflict with federal and state agencies charged with protecting the health of our waterways?
Let me explain how I came to ask myself this question about mission conflict.
I grew up on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, and since early last spring I have been involved with a campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy and then attempt to rebuild a healthy and relatively untouched riparian forest corridor running through the center of our city. It’s pretty rare to have a stretch of fairly wild river running through the middle of such a large city. The late great conservationist Army Emmott described our Buffalo Bayou as a ribbon of life running through the concrete. And that’s what it is: a living thing, a diverse and dynamic ecosystem that shows us the wondrous process of nature.
We are even more fortunate that in the words of the great river scientist Mathias Kondolf of Berkeley, this enchanting river has “room to move.” Here, in the middle of the city, we have space to “let the river be a river” — to let its banks change and its forest garden grow, as they would naturally. Dr. Kondolf traveled through this reach of the bayou in November, a reach that has never been channelized. The nearly 1.5-mile stretch targeted for destruction flows between the riparian forest and great cliffs of a public park (Memorial Park) and the forested terraces and high banks of a private golf course.
Note: This opinion piece is adapted from a presentation delivered February 12, 2015, at Texas’ first Urban Riparian Symposium, sponsored by the Texas Water Resources Institute, the Texas Riparian Association, and the City of Austin.
But It’s Best to Leave the Bayou Alone, Says BPA’s Water Quality Director
Feb. 5, 2015
We lost track of the number of times our jaws dropped listening to Steve Hupp present the Bayou Preservation Association’s argument for destroying one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
Hupp, who was speaking to the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood council on Jan. 20, is the water quality director for the BPA, which was founded in the 1960s to protect the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou from the bulldozers of the Harris County Flood Control District. Hupp lamented that a representative of Flood Control wasn’t there to help him make his case for bulldozing and dredging some 80 percent of a healthy stretch of our wild, southern bayou for more than a mile in and around our public Memorial Park, including the great cliffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. This $6 million boondoggle, touted as “bank restoration and stabilization,” is called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project (MPDP). Demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control by razing the riparian buffer, the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. According to the BPA, the bayou will be re-engineered to “a more natural state.”
Briar Forest, which is south of Buffalo Bayou between Gessner, Westheimer, and Dairy Ashford, has been fighting its own battle with Flood Control over a plan to destroy a significant amount of forest to create stormwater detention basins.
City Council Member Oliver Pennington was at the meeting. Pennington, who is running for mayor, represents District G, which includes Briar Forest way out there and much closer into town, the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the “bank restoration” project area. The south bank, which is half of the project, is owned entirely by the River Oaks Country Club, founded in 1924, of which Pennington is a member and which is donating $2 million or one-third of the projected cost of the “stabilization” project. The club is in the process of digging up and rebuilding its golf course, which over the decades has encroached on what was once thick riparian forest, moving closer and closer to the edges of the high banks of the bayou.
Who’s Cutting the Black Willows on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park?
Dec. 21, 2014
We’ll Get to the Bottom of This Meander Mystery
Updated Dec. 24, 2014. Mystery solved! See below.
Revisiting a beautiful meander last week in Memorial Park we came across something strange. This is what we call the middle meander in the area of the Harris County Flood Control District’s project to bulldoze the riparian vegetation, dredge and channelize one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in the middle of Houston. You can see photos taken earlier in October of this lovely spot.
This is a flat, marshy area of the north bank, filled with wildlife, mullet jumping and landing on their backs, where the bayou has gradually shifted to the east and has been naturally revegetating the sandy banks with native smartweed, ground cherry, boxelder, black willow, and sycamores.
Here is what it looked like last week.
This area will be totally obliterated by the flood control district’s “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The bayou here will be filled in, the magnificent, very old cliffs defaced and leveled, and the bayou rerouted further to the south. Why? Because that’s what the flood control district imagines the bayou will do 200-300 years from now. So we taxpayers are paying $4 million to do all the damage now that the bayou might possibly do in several centuries.
The odd thing was that someone has been cutting down the native black willow saplings that are growing up on the sandy bench in this area, creating a new riparian forest so necessary for controlling erosion, stabilizing the banks, cleansing the water, and providing wildlife habitat. Who would do that and why?
Answer: It’s beavers.
Here’s the evidence.
Room for the River: What the River Scientist Had to Say
Nov. 25, 2014
Updated Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, with a link to the video of the lecture by Mathias Kondolf.
More than 100 people gathered last Friday evening to hear Mathias Kondolf speak about rivers, river restoration, and the state of Buffalo Bayou at the Assembly Hall of St. Theresa Memorial Park Catholic Church.
Kondolf is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a world-renowned river scientist, and a leading critic of the destructive and often-failing methods proposed for a $6 million “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project on Buffalo Bayou. He spoke for nearly two hours to a crowd that included people on all sides of a controversial project to bulldoze the riparian forest and dredge and channelize nearly 1.5 miles of one of the last natural stretches of the bayou in the city.
The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was conceived by the Bayou Preservation Association, which actively promotes the plan. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit to the Harris County Flood Control District for the project.
Riparian forest or buffer, also called a riparian zone, consists of specially adapted trees and plants along the edge of a waterway. Among the many important functions of riparian zones are protecting the land from erosion, filtering pollution, cleansing the water, slowing flood water, and providing wildlife and human habitat.
Kondolf had spent hours inspecting the bayou in the rain earlier in the day. The project area is bounded entirely on the south by the River Oaks Country Club golf course, which is currently being renovated. The north bank of the project is our public Memorial Park, along with the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and some private property. Taxpayers are contributing $4 million to this project.
Opponents of Bulldozing Wild Banks of Buffalo Bayou Shut Out of Meeting
Oct. 30, 2014
Nobody Was Pepper-Sprayed But Door-Holding Constables Didn’t Smile Either
The unsurprising vote was 18-1 Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, in favor of stripping the forested banks, dredging, channelizing, and rerouting the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou as it flows past our great Memorial Park in the middle of Houston.
The Harris County Flood Control Task Force, dominated by engineers, builders, architects, bankers, developers, and realtors, voted behind closed doors on secret ballots to spend $4 million in tax money to make our wild Buffalo Bayou a bigger drainage ditch for development of west Houston. That seems to be the gist of it. Along with helping the River Oaks Country Club shore up the banks of its currently being renovated golf course. The club, which owns half the property in the project, is contributing one-third of the $6 million cost.
Whether the experimental project will work is another question. But hey, if it washes out, it’s only beautiful public parkland and a stretch of the river that teaches us the healthy benefits of what natural rivers do.
Evelyn Merz, the Sierra Club representative, cast the lone opposing vote. Representatives of the Citizens Environmental Coalition and the Audubon Society did not attend the meeting, as far as we could tell. The representative of the League of Women Voters apparently voted in favor.
Task Force Chairman Ranney McDonough of McDonough Engineering refused to allow Merz to speak, though she tried.
“It wasn’t always like that,” recalls Frank C. Smith Jr., past chairman of the task force, who was allowed into the meeting as a guest of Merz. In the past, says Smith, the task force was more evenly balanced between development and environmental interests.
The thirty-one members of the little-known task force, founded in 1973 through the efforts of citizen activists like Smith, are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners’ Court. It is an advisory body, and the vote Monday was symbolic. A committee of the task force, appointed to “investigate” the controversial project, voted 5-1 in favor of it Oct. 15. Again, Merz was the only negative vote.
The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit to the Harris County Flood Control District for the project, known officially as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
The Houston city council has already voted to waste $2 million on destroying an irreplaceable natural resource in the middle of the city. However, councilmembers must eventually vote on whether the test experiment (the often-failing techniques haven’t been proven to work on a river like ours) is a legal taking and use of public parkland according to state law.
So let your city council representatives know what you think about that.
A Bold Stand on Buffalo Bayou from A Long-Time Conservationist
It’s time again to stop the bulldozers on the bayou
Flood-control plans are a ‘tragic, misguided, destructive experiment’
October 24, 2014 | Updated: October 24, 2014 5:22pm
I feel responsible.
In 1966 Terry Hershey asked me to join with her, George Mitchell, and then Congressman George Bush in their campaign to stop the Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District from bulldozing the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou near our homes on the west side of Houston.
At the time none of us knew what we know now: that the trees and vegetation that grow on the bayou’s banks are so important to the quality of our water, to erosion and flood control. We just knew that we preferred and respected nature. My house backed up to the bayou, and I let the enchanting forest back there grow wild. I was one of the only homeowners in our small neighborhood on the river who never had problems with erosion. Others who cut down the wild trees and plants saw their backyard gardens and lawns wash away.
We stopped the bulldozers on the bayou back then, and at other times too over the years. The organization that we formed became the Bayou Preservation Association, and eventually I became the president of it. I am still on the executive committee of the BPA, as it is called, though the organization no longer serves the cause of preservation. The BPA has lost its way.
KUHF Radio Broadcast Room Filled With Smoke from Burning Pants
Oct. 13, 2014
An Outstanding Job by Environment Reporter Dave Fehling on Buffalo Bayou and the Importance of Riparian Forest
Dave Fehling did an outstanding job of reporting for the Houston Matters radio show on the Buffalo Bayou bulldozing project that aired last Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (Segment starts at 18:35.) Fehling is Houston Public Media’s State Impact reporter for Energy and the Environment.
Most importantly Fehling recognized and addressed the main issue completely ignored by the project promoters: the importance of riparian forest, which is basically wetlands necessary for cleansing our waters, controlling erosion and flooding, and providing wildlife habitat. (Yes, in addition to clean water, we need hawks and dragonflies and alligator snapping turtles to survive. We are all linked in the chain of nature.)
This project would destroy most of the perfectly healthy riparian buffer along almost 1.5 miles of the last natural stretch of our 18,000 year-old Buffalo Bayou as it flows between Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the golf course of the River Oaks Country Club on the south. (The club happens to be in the process of rebuilding its entire golf course.)
Two important points that we’d like to clarify and that are causing confusion in the public mind:
- This is not a disagreement between conservationists. This is a battle between conservationists on the one side and developers and profiteers on the other. The influential Bayou Preservation Association, which was instrumental in creating this project and which continues to be its strongest advocate, is no longer a preservation group. The president of the BPA works for the Energy Corridor District, the development agency for the Katy Prairie in West Houston, one of the fastest growing areas in Houston and source of Buffalo Bayou. The BPA board is heavy with representatives of major engineering, construction, and landscape design companies. On the board is a representative of KBR, the engineering contractor for this bayou project. Representatives of the flood control district sit on the advisory board.
- This area is not suffering from severe erosion. See below.
Save Buffalo Bayou on The Radio Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Oct. 7, 2014
Susan Chadwick with Save Buffalo Bayou will be on the radio program Houston Matters at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, Oct. 8, discussing the project to destroy the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. Steve Hupp, director of water quality for the Bayou Preservation Association, which helped create and is the primary promoter of the $6 million dredging and channelizing project, will also be on the show, along with Dave Fehling, Houston Public Media’s State Impact reporter for Energy and the Environment.
The show takes questions from callers so call if you have a question, like, “What is the point of this hugely destructive, expensive project?” Or “Why is the Bayou Preservation Association doing this? Isn’t bulldozing the natural banks of the bayou a violation of the organization’s founding purpose?” Or “Does the BPA advocate that stripping the land of riparian forest is the best way for property owners on the bayou to control erosion?”
The number to call is 713-440-8870.
Craig Cohen is the host of the popular KUHF radio show. Tune in to 88.7 around 12:30 p.m. to hear the live discussion. But if you miss that, you can hear the show online anytime by going to the Houston Matters website. Should be a lively debate!
Update on Our Campaign to Save the Last Natural Stretch of Buffalo Bayou in Houston
Oct. 5, 2014
Where are we now and what should you do?
The Harris County Flood Control District has applied for a permit to bulldoze most of the riparian forest and vegetation along both banks of more a mile of the last remaining stretch of natural Buffalo Bayou in the city. This is our bayou as it passes by Memorial Park. Also targeted are the tributary and high bluffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, as well as other ancient cliffs and prehistoric sandstone used in the past as water crossings by buffalo and people. The project would excavate, fill, grade, and artificially rebuild the banks; dredge, deepen, and reroute the bayou channel, damming tributaries. Hundreds of trees will be cut down, many of them riparian species too small or too young to be counted by the district’s inappropriate tree survey. The shading tree canopy will be removed (project proponents claim there is no tree canopy!); the water temperature increased. The soil, packed with protective, binding roots small and large, will be dug up, tossed around, and compacted by heavy equipment. Wetlands and lovely sandy beaches will be obliterated along with the colonizing and stabilizing plants that have taken root there, a crucial stage of the natural process of building the riparian buffer so important to water quality, flood and erosion control.
All of this and more violates best management practices for riparian zones. It will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. And this is a project developed and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association, supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy.
Timelines Are Difficult to Predict — Updated Oct. 30, 2014
The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to the public comments sent to the Army Corps of Engineers during the public comment period, which ended June 30. The district has posted its responses on its website, and you can read them here. (Caution: big pdf.)