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.
Update on the Plan to Bulldoze the Riparian Zone, Dredge, and Channelize Wild Buffalo Bayou
Feb. 8, 2015
The Army Corps of Engineers reports that it is continuing to supply the Harris County Flood Control District with their comments on the Flood Control District’s responses to the public comments on the district’s application for a federal permit.
Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Galveston District office of the Corps, wrote in an email to Save Buffalo Bayou on Jan. 20, 2015, that the Corps expects to have a response and a possible new Public Notice about the permit application within thirty to sixty days. The new Public Notice would request new public comments only on the changes to the project plans made since the original Public Notice last April, said Johnson.
A federal Clean Water Act permit is required for the project because it will dredge and fill navigable waters of the United States. The Corps is responsible for that. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must certify that the Corps’ permit meets Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. The Environmental Protection Agency also has the authority under the Clean Water Act to overrule a federal permit, although the EPA has rarely done that.
In addition, the Houston City Council, as the governing body for Memorial Park, must give public notice, hold a hearing, and vote on whether the project is a proper use or taking of public parkland under Ch. 26 of the state Parks and Wildlife Code.
Memorial Park has some protection from the deeds establishing the park. The Hogg Family, which sold the parkland to the city at cost in the early 1920s, set up the multiple deeds so that ownership of the park reverts to their heirs if the land is used for other than park purposes. These reversionary rights have been left to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
Plus, the City of Houston Floodplain Management Office must issue a development permit for the project because it involves construction activity within a city floodplain.
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.
Bayou Preservation Association Will Attempt to Explain Position in Favor of Destroying Bayou
Jan. 20, 2015
Steve Hupp of the Bayou Preservation Association will attempt to explain tonight (Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015) why the BPA supports a project that violates its founding purpose of preserving Buffalo Bayou. Hupp will defend the Memorial Park Demonstration Project we oppose at a regular meeting of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood at 6:30 p.m.
Briar Forest has been fighting Harris County plans to destroy riparian forest for detention basins along the south side of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park between Dairy Ashford and Memorial. Terry Hershey Park is a named after one of the founders of the BPA.
The meeting is at the Briarwood School, 12207 Whittington.
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.
Riparian Buffers: What Are They Good For?
A workshop in Houston, Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, about the benefits of riparian buffers.
Nov. 6, 2014
Let’s hope they discuss the importance of riparian buffer right here on Buffalo Bayou.
Speakers include representatives from Texas Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Texas Water Resources Institute—and Harris County Flood Control, which plans to demonstrate erosion control by ripping up riparian buffer on the bayou. Should be an interesting workshop.
Sponsored by the Houston Galveston Area Council. 10 am to 12 pm, 3555 Timmons Lane, Suite 120, H-GAC Conference Room A, Second Floor.
Here’s an example of what happens to landowners who raze the riparian buffer on their property. The lovely River Oaks property featured below once had riparian forest protecting its sloping banks on Buffalo Bayou. The new owner built a new house and cut down the buffer, likely for the view of the river, and planted grass.
The photo on the left was taken at base flow (low water) on July 12, 2014. The photo on the right was taken, also at low flow, from the same angle although slightly farther away on Oct. 24, 2014.
This property is immediately adjacent to the project area where the Harris County Flood Control District and the Bayou Preservation Association plan to demonstrate erosion control to property owners on Buffalo Bayou by eliminating the riparian buffer. The project is known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
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!