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.
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.
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.
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
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.
It’s for the Birds
Report on Plans for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on Buffalo Bayou
May 11, 2016
First the positives about the presentation Monday evening, May 9, by the Houston Parks Board about plans for the little-known 15.56-acre nature preserve on Buffalo Bayou known as the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.
The sanctuary at the end of Westcott Street south of Memorial Drive is probably better recognized as the mostly impenetrable woods next to the parking lot for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, located across the bayou, accessible by a footbridge. Bayou Bend is the former home of the Hogg Family, who developed River Oaks and in 1924, along with partner Henry Stude, sold at cost to the city the 1,503 acres that became Memorial Park. (The Hogg Brothers also sold to the city at cost 133.5 acres of land intended to be part of Hermann Park. In 1943 the city sold that land for the establishment of the Medical Center, which provoked the continuing ire of their sister, Ima Hogg.) Ima Hogg, a cultural and civic leader and one of the city’s most revered philanthropists, donated the family house and gardens to the museum in 1957 and then donated to the City of Houston the woods on the north side of the bayou as a nature preserve.
Ima Hogg a Defender of Nature and Public Parks
Ima Hogg, who died in 1975, was also an ardent conservationist, early civil rights activist, mental health activist, and defender of park space for the public, in particular Memorial and Hermann parks. In her letters to city officials over the years, available in the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, she described her firm belief that woodland parks should be kept as natural as possible and criticized in a 1964 letter to then Mayor Louie Welch, who famously thought public parks unnecessary, the “alarming situation” of rapidly diminishing park areas in Houston and “throughout America,” including through construction in the parks by “worthy institutions” that really ought to look for building sites elsewhere, she wrote. Miss Ima was still angry that the city had “relinquished so much of the acreage” in Memorial Park for highways and a golf course and in an earlier letter to then city director of public works, Eugene Maier, demanded that the money the city received from the state for the highway land be used to acquire and improve additional park sites. Let’s guess that probably didn’t happen.
Out on the Bayou with the Boy Scouts
Documenting Wildlife Tracks and Weird Nature Stuff
April 6, 2016
We went out with Paul Hung and his band of intrepid Boy Scouts last week to document wildlife tracks on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
We saw a lot of interesting things, including footprints of mysterious creatures behaving in puzzling ways, some strange yellow liquid, and flying seat cushions nesting in the trees.
This was the second outing for Paul and his teen-aged colleagues from Boy Scout Troop 55, Sam Houston Area Council. For his Eagle Scout Service Project, Paul proposed documenting the wildlife on the bayou as it flows along the southern edge of Memorial Park. Save Buffalo Bayou is the beneficiary, and we hope to publish Paul’s results as a pamphlet.
Fortunately the flow was very low, less than 200 cubic feet per second, which is about base flow in the bayou when it hasn’t been raining. The Army Corps of Engineers assured us in advance that the reservoirs in the dams upstream were empty, and barring any unforeseen weather event, the water would be low enough for us to see plenty of activity on the mud and sand of the banks. Which we did.
Paul was well organized. He handed out clipboards, small rulers, and post-it notes, and instructed his fellow scouts to use these with the GPS app on their cell phones to take photos and number and record the size of tracks. The group was divided into pairs in canoes. A few adults went along too, including Richard Hung, father of Paul, and Troop 55 Assistant Scoutmaster Janice Van Dyke Walden.
There were tracks everywhere. Creatures crawling, slithering, hopping and tiptoeing across the sand, burrowing, strolling, turning about and flying away; digging holes, chasing each other, stepping and sliding in and out of the water.
No Changes in Operation of Buffalo Bayou Dams
Release Rates May Be Looked At in Future
March 13, 2016
It was a dark and stormy night. Thunder boomed and heavy rain pelted the roof as a small group of us sat nervously in the middle of the rising Addicks Reservoir in far west Houston listening to the district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers tell us Addicks and Barker dams are safe.
Flanking Col. Richard Pannell last Wednesday, March 9, was a panel of officials from the Corps’ Galveston District office, as well as representatives from the Harris County Flood Control District and Granite Construction, the company awarded the $71.9 million contract to replace the leaky conduits in the 70-year-old earthen dams. The audience was a small crowd of about thirty hardy citizens who had braved the heavy traffic and heavy rain and managed to find the Bear Creek Community Center in the middle of a dark, wet forest despite the wrong address in the Corps’ public notice.
Col. Pannell made a thorough and convincing presentation of the history of the dams, the current problems, and what is being done about them. Among other work, the conduits in the two dams will be entirely replaced by new conduits in separate locations. This process will take about three years. He emphasized that the dams were in no immediate danger of failing and explained that the dams are labeled “extremely high risk” because of the potential consequences to Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, in the unlikely event that the dams failed.
Dams Operating Normally Despite Leaks
There were several questions about the capacity of the dams and the impact of repairs on the rate of future releases of water impounded behind the dams. The pattern of extended high releases and rapid drops has been criticized for damaging property on the bayou and killing trees and vegetation that control erosion.
After the enormous Memorial Day storm last year, the Corps began releasing impounded stormwater at 3000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the first time. Normally the release rate is limited to 2000 cfs as measured by the Piney Point gauge. The Corps does not release water from the dams during a rain event, and the high releases began on June 1 and continued for ten days, finally dropping on June 12. The banks were already saturated from the storm, and the damage from the extended high flow was plainly visible up and down the bayou.
Support Your Forest on Buffalo Bayou
Annual District G Meeting with City Officials Thursday, March 3
March 2, 2016
Citizens concerned about our forests on Buffalo Bayou will want to attend the annual District G Capital Improvement Plan meeting tomorrow evening, March 3, 2016. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Stratford High School Auditorium, 14555 Fern Drive, and features the district’s new city council member, Greg Travis, who was elected to City Council District G last November.
Capital Improvement Plan meetings “afford citizens an opportunity to learn, voice their concerns and address their respective City Council Members and City of Houston officials regarding project planning and delivery,” according to a statement on Travis’ website.
District G extends along Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Barker Reservoir in far west Houston.
Members of Save Our Forest, which was successful last year in persuading the City of Houston to drop its plan to raze forest in Terry Hershey Park for a stormwater detention basin, are urging citizens to “show your support for the forest to our new City of Houston administration.”
“We now have a new city council representative, a new mayor and a new [Public Works and Engineering] director since we began our campaign to Save Our Forest,” wrote community activist George Crosby in an email. “It is important that they know how much you care about Buffalo Bayou.
Detention Alternatives Without Destroying Forests
“Last year there were two major rainfall events which caused structural flooding in Houston. Regional detention alternatives that can reduce local flooding without having to destroy the forested areas of Buffalo Bayou are not happening. Cooperation between the City, County and Federal governments is required for a successful regional detention initiative.
“A cooperative inter-governmental effort begins with the City of Houston understanding our support for this approach. Please help us give emphasis to Save Our Forest,“ wrote Crosby.
The public forests of Buffalo Bayou are still threatened by a Harris County Flood Control District plan to build some 24 detention basins on both banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park.
The flood control district is also waiting for a federal permit to raze the forest along more than 1.25 miles of one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.
It makes no scientific sense to destroy forests to create detention basins. Forests provide valuable natural detention by slowing, absorbing, and deflecting rainwater, in addition to many other valuable ecological services, including cleansing and filtering the water and protecting against erosion.
In October of 2015, the Obama administration issued an executive order directing all federal agencies to incorporate the value of ecosystem services in their decision-making.
In addition, the Harris County Flood Control District is obligated by state law to conserve forests. (PDF. See page 6.)