Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou: Slowing the Flow
Summer Down on the Bayou
July 17, 2018
In case you missed Jim Olive‘s summer shot of that Bend in the River, here is the latest addition to our series of photographs taken from the same high bank on the north side of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. The view has changed over the course of four years. In particular, since the high waters of Harvey, the bayou widened to accommodate the massive flow. Banks slid or slumped away, as they will do on the bayou when water rises over the banks and onto the natural floodplains. Trees and vegetation slide down too.
Ideally this woody debris, often still living, should be left in place to collect sediment, reinforce the banks, and facilitate regrowth and rebuilding of the banks. It’s a cycle that has been continuing on rivers for millions of years. Unfortunately, the Harris County Flood Control District hired contractors and paid them by the pound to collect as much of the fallen vegetation as possible.
Other Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou
Known as Houston’s Mother Bayou, in large part because most other bayous and streams flow into it, Buffalo Bayou is some 18,000 years old, more or less, and one of the few natural waterways in the city that remains largely unchannelized. The beauty of it flowing past Memorial Park is that this forested stretch is one of the last accessible to the public. It’s a historic nature area, ever changing and adapting, filled with ancient high banks and sandstone, beaver, otter, massive turtles and other wildlife.
Though in the wake of Harvey there are calls to “improve” our bayous, including Buffalo Bayou, by widening and deepening, even straightening, the fact is that meandering streams carry more water — because they are longer. Artificially widening and deepening streams doesn’t last: the banks collapse and the channel fills with sediment. Rivers are living, dynamic systems and will adjust to stabilize themselves. The trees and vegetation on the banks help absorb and cleanse stormwaters and prevent flooding by slowing and diffusing the energy of the stream.
Our political and civic leaders should focus on slowing the flow with green spaces, prairie and wetlands, swales and rain gardens — stopping, spreading, and soaking up stormwater before it floods our natural and built drainage systems.
Watch this video of a summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, July 1, 2018.
Urban Riparian Symposium
The Challenges of Healthy Urban Streams
Jan. 14, 2017
There is still time to register for a February symposium in Houston on urban riparian areas — those special zones of trees and plants along stream banks so important for clean water, flood and erosion control, and wildlife.
The Texas Riparian Association has organized a three-day conference Feb. 15-17 largely directed at natural resource professionals but useful to anyone interested in the health of our urban bayous and creeks flowing into Galveston Bay.
Save Buffalo Bayou is a co-sponsor of the event, titled “Balancing the Challenges of Healthy Urban Streams,” to be held at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC), 6500 Main Street. The registration deadline is Feb. 8. To register or find out more info, click here.
Save Buffalo Bayou’s Tom Helm, geologist, naturalist, and river guide, will be presenting Friday morning, Feb. 17, on the topic “Searching for the Original Meanders of Buffalo Bayou.”
Helm and Save Buffalo Bayou will also be offering float trips on Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park and into Buffalo Bayou Park in the middle of Houston to symposium participants. The three-hour trips take place Friday afternoon from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday morning starting at 10 a.m. Cost is $50 per person. For more info or to reserve a place, contact Tom Helm.
Among other topics to be addressed: daylighting buried urban streams, the capacity of Houston’s urban forest to cleanse polluted stormwater, the economics of using natural drainage systems in development, how Austin protects riparian areas, incorporating the value of ecosystem services into regional policy decisions, managing large woody debris in urban streams, and more.
Frank Smith, Conservationist
A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down
Update April 7, 2023
Frank Smith has finally escaped this earth. He passed away peacefully at his home in Houston on Thursday, April 6. He was 101.
“Just say ‘Frank Smith croaked,’” he joked to his wife of 42 years, Katherine Bel Fay Sadler Smith.
In 2021 the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club recognized Smith’s lifetime of environmental activism with the Evelyn R. Edens award for river conservation.
October 16, 2016
The year was 1933. Frank Smith was twelve years old and he had just climbed to the 14,255-foot summit of Long’s Peak while at Camp Audubon in Colorado.
It’s an achievement that still makes him proud. But more importantly, being in the snow-capped Colorado mountains changed the perspective of a young boy born and raised in a flat, humid city, albeit in one of the leafiest, most privileged neighborhoods in Houston.
“They made us pay attention to the flowers and the trees, and study and identify the mammals,” he recalls of his summers at Camp Audubon. “It was the first time my attention was directed toward natural things.” He had learned “a lot of other things,” he says. “But I had never been taught anything about the natural world.”
Those fortunate summers in the Rocky Mountain high forest wilderness during the Great Depression set Smith on a remarkable path of conservation and environmentalism. He read the books of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, including The Mountains of California. That path would lead Smith to found and lead numerous organizations, most recently Save Buffalo Bayou, that have helped protect and preserve bayous and streams, including Buffalo and Armand bayous, Galveston Bay and its estuaries, and create public park lands around the state of Texas. He would work with virtually all of the region’s prominent conservationists, all of them becoming close personal friends. Some of them had been friends since childhood.
But first he would have to grow up, join the Navy, establish several engineering businesses, invent some things, and meet Terry Hershey.
State of the Bayou
Downed Trees. New Channel. New Riprap. Washed Out Sidewalks, Beavers, and Turtles
But Some Banks Naturally Rebuilding
Does It Make Sense to Repair?
Sept. 1, 2016
Updated Sept. 11, 2016
You could not step twice into the same river. Heraclitus
We finally had a chance recently to float down beautiful Buffalo Bayou to see how things have changed. Our trip took us past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. We also biked along the bayou through Terry Hershey Park far upstream in west Houston below the dams to see what was happening there.
The good news is that some of the high banks that had slumped in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary during the Memorial Day 2015 flooding are naturally rebuilding.
The bad news is that the River Oaks Country Club has added more riprap to the south bank, hard armoring the bank with ugly, damaging concrete rubble, including where it should not be.
Nature’s Miraculous Way of Restoring. For Free.
Houston has had multiple record-breaking rains and flooding since the spring of 2015. When Buffalo Bayou overflows its high banks, as it did in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, the banks in places sometimes slump or slide away. This happens when the overflowing water seeps through the ground and saturates layers of sandy clay that liquefy, sometimes causing the bank to give way. Buffalo Bayou is 18,000 years old, and this has been happening for a very long time.
This natural tendency to slump is one reason why we think attempting to engineer these banks as proposed by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project won’t work. It’s also the reason why we think building and repeatedly repairing sidewalks at the bayou’s edge is wasteful and foolish.
It’s Not Dead Yet
Flood Control Still Pushing Costly, Destructive “Stabilization” Project on Buffalo Bayou
July 31, 2016
It’s a pointless, wasteful, ill-conceived, and maybe illegal project to rip up and raze trees and plants and wildlife habitat, dig up the banks, plug up tributaries, dredge and reroute the channel along one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. This is a dreamy stretch of the river in the middle of the city, filled with beaver, otter, alligators, fish and flying creatures, and even edible plants. It flows for more than a mile past our great public Memorial Park, a natural detention area and significant geologic site that features very old high bluffs and sandstone formations. All of which would be obliterated.
And after almost three years of adamant public opposition, the Harris County Flood Control District is still promoting the project, which will cost the taxpayers at least $4 million plus, not including future costs of maintenance and repair.
It’s mystifying why they want to do this, why they think it would even work, why they don’t realize that the bayou would wash it away or that it would simply all slump away, as has happened in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, where taxpayers are footing the ever-mounting bill for constantly repairing the banks dug up and stripped of trees and vegetation by Flood Control.
Do They Not Have More Urgent Problems?
Surely, the flood control district has more urgent problems that require our hard-earned tax money. Harris County is one of the most flooded places in the country. And this project, billed as a “stabilization” and “bank restoration” program, will do nothing to address flooding and could even make it worse. The county should focus on the hundreds of miles of channelized bayous and streams unwisely covered in now-aging concrete that should be restored to something more natural and beneficial.
The project, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was first proposed in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association under then board chair, Kevin Shanley, landscape architect and principal with SWA Group, the firm responsible for the ugly, obtrusive bridges, collapsing sidewalks, poorly-functioning dog park and non-functioning faux Hill Country fountain and stream in Buffalo Bayou Park.
The Flood Czar Answers His Own Phone
But What Causes Urban Flooding?
July 12, 2016
Steve Costello explained for probably the hundredth time or more that he is not really the flood czar of Houston but the chief resilience officer.
The soft-spoken Costello, a civil engineer, former member of the Houston City Council (serving six years), former president and current board member of the Memorial Park Conservancy, and former candidate for mayor of Houston, was speaking at a meeting of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood in west Houston a few weeks ago. Buffalo Bayou runs through the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood.
Appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner in early May, Costello has been making the rounds, speaking at public meetings, attending others, such as the highly emotional town hall meeting with US Rep. John Culberson in June. Costello also has been giving interviews. Recently he flew off to Washington D.C. with the mayor and members of the Houston City Council to meet with officials of the Army Corps of Engineers about a multi-billion dollar plan to dredge and deepen Lake Houston in order to enlarge its capacity and alleviate flooding in northeast Harris County. Lake Houston is a major source of Houston’s drinking water.
But back in late June he was explaining to the Briar Forest crowd of about twenty-five neighborhood activists that while his sole mission was to do something about flooding, and his wife liked the idea of being a czarina, really he was the chief resilience officer. The concept, he explained, was a response to the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project. Mayor Annise Parker had applied to the program for funding and support for a resilience officer, who would have focused not just on flooding but also on broader social issues like unemployment and transportation. Mayor Turner decided he wanted to focus on drainage and flooding, and the Rockefeller Foundation decided not to fund a position for Houston, said Costello.
No Staff and No Budget
As a result, Costello answers his own phone and emails himself. He has no staff. Apparently he has no funds or budget. (He also said in a later email exchange that he wasn’t sure where the funds for his salary were coming from and didn’t answer how much he was being paid.) Yet he has been bravely handing out his card, offering his cell phone number and email to myriad people in a city drowning in outrage and misery over increasing and repeated flooding, lost homes, cars, property, savings, and lives.
Harris County One of the Most Flooded Places in the Country
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.
Proposed Roads to Damage Katy Prairie Preserve
Urgent Notice of Public Meeting and Comment Deadline
May 1, 2016
Updated May 3, 2016
The Katy Prairie Conservancy has announced that the Harris County Engineering Department has corrected the email link for commenting on proposed changes to the Harris County Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan that will damage the Katy Prairie.
The correct email address is:
Update May 8, 2016
The comment period has been extended until May 13.
The Katy Prairie Conservancy has sent out an urgent notice of a Harris County plan to build new roads in and around the Katy Prairie Preserve. The preserve is a nonprofit land trust project to restore and protect historic wetland prairie in Waller and western Harris counties.
Buffalo Bayou originates in the Katy Prairie. Prairie wetlands, rapidly being destroyed and paved over by development, are vital for clean water and flooding mitigation, as are forested riparian zones along the banks of streams such as Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries.
When, Where, and How
The Harris County Engineering Department is holding a public meeting Monday, May 2, 2016, on proposed changes to the Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan (see particularly pages 25 through 29) that will “degrade the Katy Prairie Preserve System,” according to the conservancy.
The meeting takes place from 5:30 to7:00 pm at the Hockley Community Center, 28515 Old Washington Road, in Hockley, Texas.
The conservancy urges that if you cannot attend the meeting, please submit your comments in writing by May 13, 2016, via email to email@example.com or by mail to:
Harris County Engineering Department
10555 Northwest Freeway, Suite 120
Houston, Texas 77092
Attn: Fred Mathis, P.E.
The conservancy says that while Harris County is proposing to dispense with parts of the one-mile road grid through some of the preserves, the county also recommends constructing new roads in sensitive and/or inappropriate areas.
Here are some of the conservancy’s main objections:
- In general, the plan does not effectively take into consideration the importance of the Katy Prairie preserves in reducing flooding, improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, and offering recreational opportunities for the residents of the Greater Houston area. Roads should go around the Katy Prairie preserves and not through them. Roads can move, nature cannot.
- KPC does not support the new proposed east-west road through the upper third of the Warren Ranch; it will cause fragmentation and impair ranch operations.
- KPC does not support the new proposed north-south road through the conservation easement lands owned by KPC’s conservation easement donors; this land provides sensitive habitat and flood protection as well as other environmental benefits. It should be protected.
- A number of the proposed new roads, if built, would be under water during flood events if the most recent flood event is any indication of where floodwaters go on the prairie.
For more information visit http://www.katyprairie.org/
Informative Articles in Response to Tax Day Flooding
A Roundup of Opinion on What Happened and Why
April 25, 2016
Houston neighborhoods shouldn’t be detention ponds
Commercial developers are dumping their runoff into our homes
By Bruce Nichols for the Houston Chronicle
April 19, 2016
Houston has a lot of great characteristics. It is open to new people, new ideas. It encourages entrepreneurs. Its energy-based economy is strong, despite the slowdown. But one big flaw is our failure to organize local government to protect homeowner investments, a big share of life savings for most of us.
The latest example of what this flaw leads to: Hundreds of homes flooded April 18. It was not a one-off event, a freak of Nature, as we have been assured. It will happen again, to more people, as more and more land is paved over without developers’ controlling their excess runoff.
Don’t blame Mother Nature for flooding. Blame City Council.
The disasters are predictable. Why aren’t we preventing them?
By Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne, Residents Against Flooding, for the Houston Chronicle
April 19, 2016
Man-made, preventable flooding has surged dirty, sewage-ridden water through Houston living rooms three times now in seven years, yet city government fails to prevent these recurring emergencies.
Really? If losing homes, livelihoods, retirement savings, health and sanity (and at least one life) aren’t reasons enough to make emergency detention and drainage improvements, what in the world does it take?
Right now, too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes. This new development is responsible for unnecessary flooding of neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood plains, weren’t prone to flooding. That new development is also responsible for flood insurance rising 100 to 200 percent (before the Tax Day flood) in these non-flood plains.
City government is allowing this to happen. Developers use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do. Is it ethical to allow a new office building to flood an entire neighborhood even if a loophole makes it legal?
Disaster by design: Houston can’t keep developing this way
We can’t stop growing. But to avoid flooding, we’ve got to be smarter about it.
By John S. Jacob for the Houston Chronicle
April 20, 2016
Let’s review the facts before this teachable moment fades away.
We live on a very flat coastal plain — much of it only a four-foot drop over a mile. And much of it with very clayey, slow-to-drain soils. We also live in the region of highest-intensity rainfall in the continental U.S. So it is going to flood. Mother Nature will continue to deliver floods no matter what we do. Don’t count her out.
Flooding does not occur uniformly across the region. There are floodplains, and areas near the floodplains. There are low areas and there are higher areas. We need to know where these are. Obviously! — and yet we don’t seem to know.
But humans have screwed things up royally.
Wrecked wetlands lead to flooding. Here’s what you can do.
By Jennifer Lorenz for the Houston Chronicle
April 20, 2016
For the past twenty years, we at Bayou Land Conservancy have watched, horrified, as the Houston region’s wetlands are scraped and filled in — directly resulting in increased flooding.
When wetlands are allowed to function, they’re the kidneys of the area’s watershed. Their special soil types are surrounded by particular wetland plants that help hold water in shallow depressions. They clean the water as they allow some of it to filter slowly into the ground, the rest to drain slowly into our bayous. That process is the foundation of our region’s ecology.
The rampant destruction of our forested and prairie wetlands is upsetting this balance, drastically reducing the land’s ability to absorb water. By allowing so many wetlands to be turned into subdivisions, we’re not just kicking them to the curb; we’re turning them into curbs. We need the ecological equivalent of dialysis.
How policy fills Houston living rooms with water
We know how to lessen flood damage. But will we take the steps?
By David Crossley for the Houston Chronicle
April 21, 2016
The flooding of April 18, 2016, was a profound experience for many reasons. The electrifying videos from drones, so quickly and easily available on Facebook, and hours of television enterprise brought us the clearest picture we’ve ever had of the immensity and the tragedy of flooding in Houston, and another reminder that all neighborhoods are not equal.
It was a spooky and historic picture; that was the most one-day rain in Houston’s history.
Extreme rain events like this are going to be more common as we slide further into climate change. Are we doing things to ease the slide or are we making it worse?
Greenspoint, poverty and flooding
Would low-income families be better or worse off if flood-prone apartments were razed?
By Susan Rogers for the Houston Chronicle
April 22, 2016
Floods, like any natural disaster, are great levelers. All of those affected suffer equally. It is in the wake of a great loss that the disparity emerges. For some, it can be easy to find the resources to rent a new apartment, to move, to turn on your utilities — or at least not extremely hard. For others, those financial challenges are overwhelming.
That division shows sharply in Greenspoint, where some of this week’s worst flooding occurred.
The mall, office towers, multi-family apartment complexes, and strip retail development are disconnected and isolated from each other both physically and demographically. Fundamentally there are two communities: one community that caters to the area’s office workers, and one community for those who call the area home. The stores and restaurants that line Greens Road and Greenspoint Drive, which cater to office workers, are closed during the evenings and on weekends, when the area’s residents would be more likely to shop.
No Changes in Operation of Buffalo Bayou Dams
Release Rates May Be Looked At in Future
March 13, 2016
It was a dark and stormy night. Thunder boomed and heavy rain pelted the roof as a small group of us sat nervously in the middle of the rising Addicks Reservoir in far west Houston listening to the district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers tell us Addicks and Barker dams are safe.
Flanking Col. Richard Pannell last Wednesday, March 9, was a panel of officials from the Corps’ Galveston District office, as well as representatives from the Harris County Flood Control District and Granite Construction, the company awarded the $71.9 million contract to replace the leaky conduits in the 70-year-old earthen dams. The audience was a small crowd of about thirty hardy citizens who had braved the heavy traffic and heavy rain and managed to find the Bear Creek Community Center in the middle of a dark, wet forest despite the wrong address in the Corps’ public notice.
Col. Pannell made a thorough and convincing presentation of the history of the dams, the current problems, and what is being done about them. Among other work, the conduits in the two dams will be entirely replaced by new conduits in separate locations. This process will take about three years. He emphasized that the dams were in no immediate danger of failing and explained that the dams are labeled “extremely high risk” because of the potential consequences to Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, in the unlikely event that the dams failed.
Dams Operating Normally Despite Leaks
There were several questions about the capacity of the dams and the impact of repairs on the rate of future releases of water impounded behind the dams. The pattern of extended high releases and rapid drops has been criticized for damaging property on the bayou and killing trees and vegetation that control erosion.
After the enormous Memorial Day storm last year, the Corps began releasing impounded stormwater at 3000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the first time. Normally the release rate is limited to 2000 cfs as measured by the Piney Point gauge. The Corps does not release water from the dams during a rain event, and the high releases began on June 1 and continued for ten days, finally dropping on June 12. The banks were already saturated from the storm, and the damage from the extended high flow was plainly visible up and down the bayou.