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.
Radio Talk about Natural Flood Control
Flooding on the Air
June 14, 2016
Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, and John Jacob, board chair of Galveston Baykeeper, wetlands expert, and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program at Texas A&M, were on the radio today talking about bayous, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and natural solutions to flooding. The popular weekly Tuesday program, Eco-Ology, hosted by Pat Greer and H.C. Clark, aired from 3 to 4 p.m. on KPFT 90.1.
Among other things, we talked about proposals from the city and from the county and others to buyout property owners and widen and enlarge our bayous, creeks, and streams to handle increasing rains. This prospect might be alarming to those of us who recognize the importance of trees and vegetation along our waterways — for erosion control, cleansing our water, removing pollutants, slowing runoff, providing wildlife habitat, and many other life-sustaining functions, not to mention social benefits like we need nature to be sane.
But what if they didn’t bulldoze our waterways and widen them artificially? What if they removed the built structures and created parks and allowed room for our rivers and streams to move and adjust on their own by letting them flood into their natural floodplain?
This is in fact the latest thinking in flood control worldwide. Room for the river to move. Even in the Netherlands they are tearing down their big gates and dikes, letting the water in while raising the land where people live and work. Even in Missouri.
A lot cheaper, more cost effective, and more beneficial overall.
Fighting For Our Public Forests on Buffalo Bayou
On the Radio
Forests Work for Us
Oct. 28, 2015
Listen to Susan Chadwick of Save Buffalo Bayou and Landrum Wise of Save Our Forest talk about community campaigns to protect public forest along some twelve miles of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
They spoke with Pat Greer and H.C. Clark on Eco-Ology on KPFT 90.1 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, about efforts to keep the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District from destroying woodlands on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park in the center of Houston and in Terry Hershey Park in far west Houston.
In addition to their great social value and benefit to our health, well-being, and quality of life, the trees and vegetation that grow naturally along the bayou perform vital ecological services and are a key part of the bayou’s living system. Known as riparian zones or buffers, these specially adapted trees and plants cleanse and filter pollutants from the water. They protect the banks from erosion, absorb and slow storm water runoff and provide natural flood detention. They shade us and cool the stream, and provide wildlife habitat.
Legally Required to Conserve Harris County Forests
The Harris County Flood Control District, according to its 1937 charter, is charged by state law with conserving forests in the county. (See page six.) But for decades the district has been razing forests to build storm water detention basins on our bayous, creeks, tributaries, and elsewhere, and to re-engineer channels and banks. Detention basins are used to hold or slow temporarily surface runoff or high flows in a stream during storms.
The flood control district’s project on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would raze some 80 percent of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the bayou and its tributaries in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers, which enforces the federal Clean Water Act, is currently considering whether to issue a permit for the controversial $6 million project, which is described by flood control as an “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project. The project violates Best Management Practices for riparian areas. Virtually every federal and state resource agency has policies and regulations protecting riparian zones, which perform essentially the same function as federally-protected wetlands.
Recent Success for Save Our Forest
The City of Houston recently withdrew a project to cut down the majority of trees and understory on some 42 acres of public forest and excavate up to six large detention basins on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Wilcrest Drive. The Capital Improvement Project was to have cost the taxpayers between $3.5 and $8.5 million.
However, the flood control district appears to be continuing with its widely-opposed “Charting Buffalo” study that proposes as many as 24 storm water detention basins along some 10.7 miles of both banks of Buffalo Bayou in the forests of Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Highway 6 at Barker and Addicks dams. On Nov. 12, 2013, despite public opposition, Harris County Commissioners Court approved flood control’s request for $250,000 for a vegetation and topography survey in the park.
The headwaters of Buffalo Bayou are on the Katy Prairie west of Houston, and the 18,000-year-old “mother bayou,” fed by numerous tributaries, flows for some 53 miles east through the city and the ship channel into Galveston Bay. Buffalo Bayou, unlike major bayous like White Oak and Brays, which join Buffalo Bayou just west and east of downtown, has never been covered with concrete, though parts of it have been channelized.
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.