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.
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.
Buffalo Bayou Doesn’t Like Sidewalks, It Seems
Buffalo Bayou Park Was Supposed to Be More Stable
Nov. 16, 2015
Updated Nov. 17, 2015
Update: “Endless Repairs: Buffalo Bayou Sets Its Own Terms,” Houston Chronicle, Nov. 20, 2019
Well, we can’t help but wonder if constantly scraping and repairing the sidewalks, forever reinforcing the collapsing banks somehow, and repeatedly replacing the trees and landscaping is fully covered by the $2 million annual maintenance budget for Buffalo Bayou Park paid by Houston city taxpayers.
The popular, much praised, and much needed park on the banks of the bayou between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is suffering from some serious erosion problems. And that matters to us not just because of the expense and waste. This $53.5 million project, a boon to adjacent property owners and those who live and work nearby, was touted as a successful example of what the Harris County Flood Control District, egged on by the Bayou Preservation Association, wants to do to our healthy, historic wild bayou further upstream in and around Memorial Park. Buffalo Bayou Park was supposed to be more stable! The flood control district calls it Natural Stable Channel Design, but it always looked to us like they were doing everything you’re not supposed to do on the banks of streams: dig up the banks, run heavy equipment over the banks, remove the trees and vegetation (yes, they did a lot of that), build concrete and asphalt sidewalks on the banks, plant grass and mow it.
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
Once you’ve done all that, and the banks and channel start falling apart, it’s pretty difficult to fix it. Best to let the bayou do what it will do anyway. (And eventually the bayou will rebuild and replant it all.) But it seems unlikely that the City and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership are going to sit back and patiently let millions of dollars worth of sidewalks, lamps, and bridges collapse into the bayou. Can they stop it? Time will tell.
In the meantime, it does make one wonder about all those concrete trails they are carving out of the banks and floodplains of the bayous for the Bayou Greenways project. A nice idea, but is that going to work?
Here’s what we’re talking about. What this slide show of photos of Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd and Montrose taken on Nov. 15, 2015 (and updated with later photos).
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou: Banners, Signs Erected During Big Regatta Saturday, March 7
March 8, 2015
Defenders of Buffalo Bayou traipsed through clumps of wild chives and violets on the banks of the bayou Saturday, March 7, in order to hang colorful banners from bridges and trees and set out signs informing more than a thousand participants in the annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta about the grave threat to our wild bayou.
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou was a huge success as competitors paddling down the bayou waved and shouted “No bulldozers!” and “Leave it natural!” to members of the Buffalo Bayou defense team sitting on the banks in the project area.
Bayou defenders also handed out informational flyers at the end of the race in Sesquicentennial Park adjacent to the Wortham Center downtown and engaged participants and officials in conversation.
The regatta was organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a non-profit organization in charge of developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway downstream of the project area. The partnership officially supports the $6 million plan to bulldoze one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston.
Sand on the Sidewalks
BBP President Anne Olson wrote a letter of support for the destruction project to the Army Corps of Engineers in June 2014 saying that the plan would “significantly prevent” the bayou from “depositing silt on Buffalo Bayou’s downtown parks and trails.” She also claimed that the project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would demonstrate “a prototype that can be employed by bayou property owners who currently remedy their property erosion by all different types of inappropriate stabilization methods.”
In fact the amount of silt and sediment contributed by the historic nature area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District is minimal. But the project itself would likely greatly increase the sediment flowing downstream as a result of dredging the bayou, removing trees and plants, and breaking up the soil structure of the banks.
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.