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.
High Bank on Bayou Damaged by Bike Riders
Fools Dug Up Vegetation and Drove Boards Into Top of Bluff
But Boy Scouts Do More Good Deeds, Plant Vegetation
March 7, 2018
Riding a bike along the edge of a cliff above a river is bad enough. Even walking on top of a high bank can be damaging. But the high banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s Memorial Park are already stressed and attempting to recover from the overbank flooding that came with Harvey last summer. Large sections of the bank slid away, taking down trees and vegetation. With time, however, the vegetation will grow back, the downed trees will collect sediment, and the banks will rebuild.
Now that recovery will be much more difficult. In the past weeks, off-road cyclists built a bike jump and wooden ramp right at the very edge of the bank near the main tributary draining the center of the park. This is very near the Bend in the River that Save Buffalo Bayou and photographer Jim Olive have been documenting through the seasons for the past four years.
The culprits apparently removed vegetation, dug holes, and drove large boards into ground. And then, of course, they’ve been pounding the edge of the bank with their bikes. They also dug up dirt to mound it into a jump further down the bank.
Representatives of the Greater Houston Off-Road Biking Association (GHORBA) condemned the construction.
“We would never approve this type of activity,” said C.J. Bernard, trails director for the biking association, in an email. “For anything we do at GHORBA related to trail development and maintenance, we follow the IMBA Sustainable Trails guidelines which highly emphasizes ways to identify potential erosion concerns and provides ways to eliminate and/or minimize.” (IMBA is the International Mountain Bicycling Association.)
“Most likely it is from a mountain biker that isn’t associated with GHORBA, as our trail stewards must approve features before they are built and this one, to my knowledge, was not,” wrote Christy Jones, president of GHORBA, in an email.
The dirt paths through the woods along Buffalo Bayou south of the Picnic Loop in Memorial Park are unofficial trails. However, they are much used by walkers and runners. Other trails in the park are officially open to bike riders as well as others. The neighboring Arboretum, however, does not allow bikers on its paths.
A representative of the Memorial Park Conservancy said the structure would be removed. “We are very grateful that you alerted us to this and will assess and remove the structure ASAP,” wrote Cara Rudelson, chief operating officer of the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit organization running the public park. “We always have our eyes out for unauthorized use of the unofficial trails!”
Boy Scouts Plant Riparian Rebar on Bank of Buffalo Bayou
In the meantime, some more positive news: members of Boy Scout Troop 55 are doing good deeds again. This time, under the leadership of Boy Scout Austen Furse, who developed the plan for his Eagle Scout project, they planted 200 buckets of native eastern gamagrass on the upper banks of the ugly stormwater outfall, formerly a nature trail, also known as the Woodway Boat Launch, in the Old Archery Range of Memorial Park west of Loop 610. This happened Saturday morning, March 3.
Eastern gamagrass is an herbaceous stabilizer plant, described as “riparian rebar” and a “big, green leafy cousin of corn.” Though slow to establish, once established, eastern gamagrass can grow to six feet or more and has “extremely good root stability,” according to Your Remarkable Riparian, a field guide to riparian plants found in Texas.
Take note, property owners contemplating ugly and damaging concrete riprap for bayou banks.
Let’s hope the young gamagrass doesn’t get mowed down.
Austen is planning to photograph the site every week or two to document the results, says his mother, Anne Furse.
Commissioner Radack Responds
“Buffalo Bayou Not a Natural River”
Supporting Costly Engineering to Slow the Flooding River. Spending Money to Stop the River Slowing For Free.
Nov. 30, 2016
Updated April 23, 2017 — The Harris County Flood Control District reports that repair costs through March 2017 are $1.25 million. Terry Hershey Park remains closed until construction work is complete.
Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack called to comment on our article criticizing unnecessarily costly and destructive “repairs” to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. The six-mile long park is in Precinct Three in far west Houston and Commissioner Radack is the boss there.
Radack’s main point, apparently in support of needlessly spending an excessive amount of money, was that Buffalo Bayou is not a natural river. Because the bayou is not natural, it “does not naturally meander.”
For background: the naturally meandering bayou in Terry Hershey Park was stripped and straightened in the 1940s and ‘50s. Last spring high waters from record rains and extended high flows from the federal dams immediately upstream ate away at the bank in places and damaged the asphalt hike-and-bike trail on the north side. We pointed out that this had occurred where the old meanders or bends were. The bayou, we said, was seeking out its historic meanders, adjusting to the flow.
Our point was that it would make more sense, in accordance with the most advanced river management practices across the country and around the world, to move the asphalt trail slightly away from the very edge of the water and allow the river room to move and restore itself. This would be far cheaper, prettier and more natural, and healthier for the bayou, the beneficial trees and plants and creatures that grow there, and for the water flowing through it to the bay. Doing that rather than hardening the bank in an artificial straight line is also less likely to cause flooding and erosion downstream and less likely to require expensive repairs all over again. It’s also federal policy.
But according to Radack, this doesn’t matter, because Buffalo Bayou is not natural. It’s not natural because the Corps of Engineers “controls the flow.” The bayou “only has water in it,” Radack explained patiently, if the Corps opens the floodgates. “The water comes from the reservoir system.”
Therefore, according to Radack, the bayou is “not natural.”
Is that all true? Beg pardon, but no.
But here’s a puzzle: Radack supports spending tens of millions in public funds to carve up the banks and engineer some two dozen in-channel detention basins on the bayou in Terry Hershey Park. (See below.) But he opposes allowing the bayou to carve out for free its own detention by widening and restoring its old bends. Instead he approves spending taxpayer funds to keep the bayou from doing that.
Does that make sense? Seems contradictory to us.
Wasting Money the Old-Fashioned Way
Costly Bayou Repairs Do More Harm Than Good, Won’t Last
Nov. 21, 2016
Updated April 23, 2017 — The Harris County Flood Control District reports that repair costs through March 2017 are $1.25 million. Terry Hershey Park remains closed until construction work is complete.
See also “Commissioner Radack Responds.”
From a distance you could hear the monstrous roar of the heavy equipment in the woods. Following deep, wide tracks smashed into the bare dirt along the bank of Buffalo Bayou, passing large cottonwoods apparently cut to make way for the big equipment, we came across a scene of troubling destruction.
A gigantic articulated 30-ton dump truck with six massive wheels was slowly rolling towards us with a large load of fresh dirt and dripping mud dug up from the bayou bank. Further along a 60-ton excavator on tracks sat on the very edge of the bank, expertly swiveling back and forth, scraping up the dirt bank and dumping it into the truck, scooping up loads of white limestone rock and dropping it in a layer where the excavated bank once was.
We’d seen the eroded bank before the “repairs” began. This damage was far worse.
It didn’t have to be this way.
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.
Tracking Wildlife on the Bayou
Boys Scouting Part III
September 20, 2016
Boy Scout Paul Hung rallied his troop for the third floating inventory of the banks of Buffalo Bayou on a recent Saturday morning. Hung is documenting the tracks of wildlife as an Eagle Scout service project, and his fellow scouts in Sam Houston Council Troop 55 are helping.
Hung and other scouts have so far found over 130 tracks of animals including raccoon, beaver, possum, coyote, grey fox, bobcat, great blue heron, egret, otter, nutria, wild boar, and others. The tracks are being plotted on a map, and the information will be published as a pamphlet with the help of Save Buffalo Bayou, which is the beneficiary of the project.
Anyone who wishes to donate to help Paul Hung publish his Buffalo Bayou wildlife pamphlet can do so here.
About a dozen Boy Scouts and adult observers gathered with their Boy Scout wooden canoes at the Memorial Park boat launch at Woodway Sept. 10. It was a steamy morning, and they planned to paddle past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary all the way to Lost Lake in Buffalo Bayou Park. Hung handed out clipboards and gave instructions for identifying and photographing the tracks and recording their location using a compass app on a cell phone. Nearby was the wooden box, built and recently installed by Troop 55 Boy Scout Saswat Pati, containing reusable bags for picking up trash on the bayou.
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.
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.
A Giant Falls
June 14, 2016
We have been watching this magnificent cottonwood on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park. Beginning in 2012 the Harris County Flood Control District realigned the banks and removed a lot of trees and stabilizing vegetation from the banks of the bayou between Sabine and Shepherd streets for its “natural stable channel design” improvements in the park.
Those “channel conveyance” alterations left many of the few remaining large trees on the weakened banks in a vulnerable state. In the Fall of 2015 part of this grand old tree broke apart.
And now, finally, sadly, the great tree has fallen. Others will go eventually.
Big trees fall into the bayou all the time. It’s part of the natural process, and fallen trees collect sediment for bank building, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and slow storm waters. But trees, whose massive roots help hold the bank together, are not supposed to fall in the water because in the name of progress we dug up and destroyed the structure of the surrounding banks, breaking up the intricate root systems of the vegetation that had been there for a very long time.
Still, we have had unusually high rainfall and stream flow in our bayous. The banks in many places are now lush with new green growth and wildflowers. For nearly two months we have had record high flows in Buffalo Bayou as the Army Corps of Engineers attempts to empty the flood control reservoirs behind Barker and Addicks dams in western Harris County. We have reports of trees downed all along the bayou.
Watch this slideshow of the great cottonwood as it maintained its lonely vigil until the end.