Breaking News: Trash Washes Up From Early Twentieth Century
Old Bottles Surface on the Banks of the Bayou
Site is a State Antiquities Landmark
Bonus: Some Geology and History
May 18, 2017
On a recent trip down Buffalo Bayou, pausing to document the springs seeping out of the banks, we stopped at one of our favorite spots: the wide sandy bank of what we call the middle meander — so named because it’s the middle meander in that 1.25-mile long stretch of the forested bayou targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District.
This sharp bend in the river is located at the eastern boundary of Memorial Park, with a small tributary flowing into it and very old high banks on the downstream side. It is a natural stormwater detention area, and elsewhere the flood control district is spending millions to build detention basins in or near our bayous. But here the district’s plan is to spend millions to fill in a detention area and dig a new channel for the bayou through the woods on the south bank of the bayou owned by the River Oaks Country Club. Why the members of the club would agree to that is a mystery. The plan also calls for grading the ancient high bank, leveling the area, and planting it all with turf grass. An access road for heavy construction equipment would be bulldozed through the public forest from the maintenance yard near Memorial Drive to the bayou.
Unusually, in this meander, the bayou deposits sediment on the outside bend, the park side of the stream, causing the bank to widen. (Normally sediment is deposited on the inside bends and picked up on the outside.) But the high outside bluff here is composed in part of very hard, resistant clay. This reversed phenomenon might also in part be the result of the blocking flow of the tributary shooting across the channel during rain events. And Geologist Tom Helm thinks that a fault running through the meander might have caused the bayou channel to shift somewhat to the southeast over time.
Here is a photo of Tom pointing to the downshifted layer of dark red clay in the strata of the face of the high bank, which is part of the tens-hundred-thousand years old late Pleistocene-era meander-belt ridges carved out of the earth at the end of the last glacial period, when giant sloths, zebra horses, and saber-toothed cats roamed through Memorial Park. We still have American alligators (alligator mississippiensis) and alligator gar from that period. The high cut banks of these meander-belt ridges are long-established characteristics of our west-to-east meandering streams in the Houston region and serve as as bumpers slowing the flow. The dark layer Tom is pointing to in the face of the high bank of the middle meander is offset by about three inches, possibly indicating a fault.
Invaders. Pull Them Out!
When we stepped out of the canoe onto the sandy north bank of the meander, we were dismayed to discover invasive Johnson grass growing all over the beach. In the past this lovely sand bank was naturally landscaped with native smartweed, ground cherry and young box elder and black willow, all the proper native vegetation intelligently arranged by the bayou as it worked to stabilize the sediment and plan for new growth. But now this invader was taking over. We had seen it also at the boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway. Very discouraging. Anyone who wishes to organize Johnson grass-pulling parties is encouraged to do so. The Memorial Park Conservancy unfortunately does not consider maintaining the banks or bayou woods part of its job, instead largely confining routine maintenance activities to mowing down the sedges and other wetland plants in the bogs of the park, leaving behind large, deep ruts. How nice it would be if the Conservancy respected the natural character and landscaping of our park.
A Surprise from the Past
As we inspected the springs that flowed out of the high bank, we were surprised to find a large pile of broken glass bottles and pottery embedded in the mud. The glass was thick and had an old-fashioned shape. The pieces looked very old. Geologist Bill Heins, who explores the banks of the bayou regularly with his dog, suggests that the bottles and pottery had washed out from an old trash dump in a filled gully higher up the bank.
Very possibly the pottery and bottles date from the era of Camp Logan, a World War I military training camp established in 1917, part of which would become Memorial Park after the war. Beginning in August of 1917 there was a large military hospital, as well as a landfill, operating on the north bank of the bayou, eventually occupying over 100 acres of what is now the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and extending westward into what is now the park’s South Picnic Loop, according to Janet Wagner, landscape architect and historian and former chair of the Harris County Historical Society. In 2014 Wagner wrote to the Corps of Engineers about the archeological significance of the bayou in the proposed project area. The hospital, she noted, served some 1,500 men and continued caring for veterans after the war. In 1919 the hospital and buildings were transferred to the Public Health Service, with some of them leased to the newly formed City-County Hospital District. In 1921 the Veterans’ Bureau took over the hospital and two years later began evacuating the veterans to other facilities around the state. One year later, in 1924, Will and Mike Hogg and their real estate partner, Henry Stude, purchased the hospital grounds and then sold at cost a total of nearly 1,500 acres of what had been Camp Logan to the City of Houston for the creation of Memorial Park.
In May of 2013 the Texas Historical Commission designated the former site of Camp Logan a State Archeological Landmark, now known as a State Antiquities Landmark. The designation requires that the landowner receive a permit from the historical commission before conducting any work on the site.
Here are photographs of the glass and pottery remnants we discovered on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in April 2017.
Engineers Caused the Flood That Led to Creation of Flood Control District
A Fact-Based Response to “Engineers’ View” in the Texas Tribune
March 6, 2017
A few weeks ago the Texas Tribune published an editorial comment written by engineers Michael Bloom and Steve Stagner responding to the excellent investigative work on flooding in the Houston region, “Boomtown, Floodtown,” published by the Tribune and ProPublica on Dec. 7, 2016. See our summary of the report here.
In their TribTalk editorial “Boomtown, Floodtown Reconsidered, An Engineer’s View,” Feb. 6, 2017, Bloom and Stagner repeat a couple of erroneous statements commonly used by representatives of the Harris County Flood Control District in support of the district’s shaky position that paving over the prairie, i.e. development, is not contributing to flooding.
According to this point of view, our native tallgrass prairie and its associated wetlands are hardly better than concrete when it comes to slowing and absorbing rainwater. These deep-rooted grassland prairies, with water-absorbing root systems that can reach 12-15 feet into the ground or more, once existed around and upstream of Buffalo Bayou, in Katy, west of Houston, for instance, source of Buffalo Bayou, as well as up and down the coastal plain. Practical people are trying to preserve and restore what remains.
In support of their argument, Bloom and Stagner summon up a point commonly made by members of the local engineering community: that the 1935 flood on Buffalo Bayou that devastated downtown Houston and led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District happened even though the Katy Prairie way upstream was then a big natural tallgrass prairie.
This argument is wrong on two points. Read why in this fact-based response by Save Buffalo Bayou to an “Engineers’ View” published as a comment in the Tribune’s TribTalk.
Or continue reading to find out the answers. With links!
Science vs Engineers
Flood Control District and Scientific Experts In Opposite Corners
“You need to find some better experts.” — Former Harris County Flood Control District Director Mike Talbott to reporters for the Texas Tribune
Dec. 9, 2016
Excellent reporting from the Texas Tribune and PropPublica on the battle over what causes flooding in the Houston area and what to do about it. The Houston Press has also published an informative follow-up interview with the current director of the Flood Control District, Russ Poppe, after the recent retirement of Talbott.
Scientists say the fundamental problem is that Houstonians have assumed they can simply engineer their way out of flooding.
They can’t. And widening and deepening our bayous and streams is the wrong answer. We need to understand and work with nature. It’s cheaper, more effective, and better for us. Storm water needs to be absorbed, slowed down, and spread out before it reaches our streams.
Houston-area officials could work to preserve green space; strengthen regulation on development; plan for a changing climate; and work harder to remove the 140,000 homes that remain in the 100-year floodplain. …
As wetlands have been lost, the amount of impervious surface in Harris County increased by 25 percent from 1996 to 2011, [Sam] Brody [of Texas A&M Galveston] said. And there’s no way that engineering projects or flood control regulations have made up for that change, he said.
Between 2001 and 2005, his research found, the loss of flood-absorbing land along the Gulf of Mexico increased property damage from floods by about $6 million — much of that outside floodplains.
“There’s no doubt that the development … that we’re putting in these flood-prone areas is exacerbating flooding over time,” Brody said. “There’s a huge body of research out there beyond Houston, across the world” supporting that argument.
Research by [then Director Mike] Talbott’s own Harris County Flood Control District points to the effectiveness of prairie grass to absorb floodwater. ‘The restoration of one acre of prairie,’ a 2015 report by the district wrote, would offset the extra volume of runoff created by two acres of single-family homes or one acre of commercial property. (The district says that data is preliminary.)
But Talbott and his successor, Russ Poppe, don’t buy the research.
And then read the follow-up interview with Poppe, the current director of Flood Control, in The Houston Press.
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.
Frank Smith, Conservationist
A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down
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.
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.
Boxes for Bags on the Bayou
Boy Scout Eagle Project Provides Reusable Garbage Bags
Aug. 29, 2016
Houston Boy Scout Saswat Pati, a member of Sam Houston Area Council Troop 55, has built and installed wooden boxes to distribute reusable mesh bags for collecting trash on Buffalo Bayou and Spring Creek.
The project is part of a statewide project started by the Nueces River Authority called Up2U. Pati, a sophomore at St. John’s School in Houston, planned and executed the garbage bag project on Buffalo Bayou as part of his service requirement for obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout.
The wooden boxes have now been installed at four locations, including two on the 26-mile long Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail established by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which is the official beneficiary of the service project. The two Buffalo Bayou locations are Briar Bend and Woodway.
Officials with Harris County Precinct 3 refused to allow Pati to install boxes at the four Paddling Trail boat launches in Terry Hershey Park. In fact, county maps of Terry Hershey Park do not show any boat launches in the park.
Terry Hershey Park, named for conservationist and bayou preservationist Terry Hershey, is in Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack’s Precinct 3.
However, in cooperation with the excellent Bayou Land Conservancy, Commissioner Jack Cagle did allow Pati’s garbage bag boxes to be installed at two locations on Spring Creek in Precinct 4. Those two locations are Pundt Park and the Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center. Precinct 4 also includes Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park.
“With these Up2U bags, people will be able to clean up the river while they paddle,” Pati wrote in a letter to Save Buffalo Bayou, which contributed to the project. “Users will make their own impact on the river. By doing this, I hope to increase the awareness of the condition of Houston’s bayous and to equip all people to fix it.”
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.
The Flood Czar Answers His Own Phone
But What Causes Urban Flooding?
July 12, 2016
Steve Costello explained for probably the hundredth time or more that he is not really the flood czar of Houston but the chief resilience officer.
The soft-spoken Costello, a civil engineer, former member of the Houston City Council (serving six years), former president and current board member of the Memorial Park Conservancy, and former candidate for mayor of Houston, was speaking at a meeting of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood in west Houston a few weeks ago. Buffalo Bayou runs through the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood.
Appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner in early May, Costello has been making the rounds, speaking at public meetings, attending others, such as the highly emotional town hall meeting with US Rep. John Culberson in June. Costello also has been giving interviews. Recently he flew off to Washington D.C. with the mayor and members of the Houston City Council to meet with officials of the Army Corps of Engineers about a multi-billion dollar plan to dredge and deepen Lake Houston in order to enlarge its capacity and alleviate flooding in northeast Harris County. Lake Houston is a major source of Houston’s drinking water.
But back in late June he was explaining to the Briar Forest crowd of about twenty-five neighborhood activists that while his sole mission was to do something about flooding, and his wife liked the idea of being a czarina, really he was the chief resilience officer. The concept, he explained, was a response to the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project. Mayor Annise Parker had applied to the program for funding and support for a resilience officer, who would have focused not just on flooding but also on broader social issues like unemployment and transportation. Mayor Turner decided he wanted to focus on drainage and flooding, and the Rockefeller Foundation decided not to fund a position for Houston, said Costello.
No Staff and No Budget
As a result, Costello answers his own phone and emails himself. He has no staff. Apparently he has no funds or budget. (He also said in a later email exchange that he wasn’t sure where the funds for his salary were coming from and didn’t answer how much he was being paid.) Yet he has been bravely handing out his card, offering his cell phone number and email to myriad people in a city drowning in outrage and misery over increasing and repeated flooding, lost homes, cars, property, savings, and lives.
Harris County One of the Most Flooded Places in the Country
Empty at Last. Almost.
Buffalo Bayou Reservoirs Finally Drain Last of Flood Waters
July 6, 2016
The last of the storm water from the April 18 Tax Day floods has passed finally through the gates of Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County. (Almost, not quite. See comment below.) The reservoirs behind those 1940s-era earthen dams on Buffalo Bayou are normally empty in order to be ready to impound rainfall and runoff that would flood central Houston downstream.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, was forced to release water through the dams at a high rate of flow – between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and more — for nearly three months in order to empty the record-high reservoirs, as frequent rains kept adding to the water level.
Base flow in Buffalo Bayou, as measured by the USGS gauge at Piney Point, is between 100 and 200 cfs. As of today the flow was still high – over 1,000 cfs.
The dams on Buffalo Bayou are classified “extremely high risk,” in large part due to the damage that would occur to the nation’s fourth most populous city if the dams were to fail. A $72 million construction project to repair seepage problems and build new conduits has been delayed due to the high water level in the reservoirs.
You can listen to what Richard Long, who manages the dams for the Corps, had to say about the situation this morning to Dave Fehling of Houston Public Matters. Long is the supervisory natural resources manager for the Corps’ Galveston District and has been working at the dams for 35 years.
And look for a report from us soon about the impact of the high waters on Buffalo Bayou. Richard Hyde, a geologist who lives in neighboring Bear Creek Village, reports that the herds of deer that roam the 25,000 acres of federally-owned wooded parkland in the reservoirs seem greatly reduced. And sadly, Buffy the Bison, rescued in April from the flooded small zoo in Bear Creek Park, died shortly thereafter.