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.
Your Time Is Up: Cohen Cuts Off Criticism of Costly Memorial Park Plan
What’s the Rush?
Full Council to Consider Unfinished $3.2 Million Plan Wednesday, April 1
Public Comments to Council on Tuesday, March 31
March 29, 2015
Update Monday, March 30: Council Member Steve Costello’s office has responded that as a member of the board of directors of the Memorial Park Conservancy, he will recuse himself from voting on the proposed master plan.
Public comments were limited to two minutes due to the large number of people signed up to speak on the city’s proposed master plan to spend $200-300 million on Memorial Park. A few of the nine members of the council’s Quality of Life Committee, chaired by Ellen Cohen, met last Wednesday afternoon to hear Parks Director Joe Turner and landscape architect Thomas Woltz present the ambitious, vague, and costly master plan for the 1500-acre-plus woodland park.
Dozens of people spoke in favor of the plan. Most of them were members of the board of or connected to the Memorial Park Conservancy, and many of them, users of the park, gave moving testimony about their reasons for joining the conservancy: the devastating impact of the 2011 drought, which has killed more than half the trees in the park.
But there were also strong critics of the unfinished $3.2 million proposal, which so far does not seem to be an actual written plan specifically identifying and prioritizing what should be done and when, two key elements for a successful master plan, according to a recent report on urban park conservancies from the Trust for Public Land.
A large contingent of critics were residents or property owners adjoining the park concerned about the increase in traffic, noise, lights, and people using the park. A smaller group of conservationists also expressed concern about the increase in traffic and parking, the loss of trees and natural areas, the expense, inappropriate planting plans, and lack of detail about costs and maintenance. It was suggested that new facilities be placed instead in new parkland purchased with some of the millions of public dollars to be used for the project.
The new master plan proposes to increase parking by thirty percent. However, the 2004 master plan for the park, much of which has never been carried out, identified parking lots as “undesirable intrusions on the natural landscape” and recommended “no net change to the quantity of daily use parking spaces” in the park. To manage peak demand, the 2004 plan recommended the use of shuttles and the construction of “an ‘over-flow only’ parking using environmentally sensitive construction techniques along the rail and power line right of way.”
The TIRZ, Parks, and the Texas Constitution
Feb. 27, 2015
Here’s the report from the Feb. 25, 2015, Uptown TIRZ 16 board meeting about when the once-a-boat launch on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park at Woodway might be reopened.
The fenced-off Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail takeout, referred to by the TIRZ as the “Woodway outfall,” is in need of a guardrail above a steep drop-off, parking reserved for the handicapped, and a gate that allows the park area to be closed at night, according to Sarah Newbery, the TIRZ 16 project director for Memorial Park.
The bayou access point on public land west of Loop 610 has been surrounded by a locked, curtained fence and closed to the public without explanation for almost a year since construction and landscaping were completed on the $1.36 million “erosion control” and drainage improvement project. The larger park area, known as the Old Archery Range, has been closed without explanation for nearly a decade.
The Houston Parks and Recreation Department is reviewing plans for the guardrail, parking, and permanent access gate for the former boat launch, Newbery told the board members meeting on the seventeenth floor of 1980 Post Oak in the Galleria. The TIRZ expects to send the plans out to bids in April and to finish construction by August, Newbery reported.
There will be a sign on the site by next week explaining all this to the public, said Newbery.
But why should the public not have access to the bayou through the park now, since there appears to be no legal or even safety reason why this part of the park should not be open in the meantime? The parks department could erect a temporary guardrail above any drop-off it deems dangerous, as it has done in Buffalo Bayou Park. There’s already a gate and a parking lot.