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.
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.
Buffalo Bayou Flooding: A Historical Perspective
Oct. 7, 2016
Louis Aulbach, author of the definitive guide to Buffalo Bayou, will speak on Tuesday, Oct. 11, on the history of flooding in Buffalo Bayou. The free lecture is from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Houston Maritime Museum, 2204 Dorrington St.
Aulbach’s book is titled Buffalo Bayou, An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings.
Registration is required. For more information, go here.
How Old Is Buffalo Bayou? Where Does It Come From?
Geology Lessons on the Bayou
March 27, 2016
Want to learn about the geology and natural history of Buffalo Bayou?
Save Buffalo Bayou is partnering with professional geologist Tom Helm, who also happens to be an outstanding naturalist and river guide, to offer floating classes on the geology of our 18,000-year-old mother bayou.
Paddle with Tom on a two-hour canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou and see some of our Pleistocene natural history right here in the middle of Houston. Learn all about the formation of the bluffs and sandstone rocks during the last ice age. See examples of depositional environments and fluvial processes. Find out why the banks are sandy and how sand moves downstream, why the river looks the way it does, and much more.
Where, When, Cost
The classes start at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park and float past the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, through the historic natural area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District. Multiple stops will be made along the way to examine features of interest.
The schedule depends on class size. One to four persons can be scheduled any day of the week, usually with no more than 48 hours’ notice. Groups larger than four persons (up to 30 persons maximum) are accepted only on weekends. These larger weekend groups need to schedule at least one month in advance.
Cost is $50 per person, which includes canoe and equipment, and light refreshments at the end. Discounts are available for academic faculty and students.
Note that the classes will be not take place if the flow of Buffalo Bayou is greater than 300 cubic feet per second (as measured by the Piney Point USGS gauge). At water levels above this, the sandstones are mostly obscured. If a trip is cancelled due to high water, students have the option of rescheduling or receiving a full refund.
For more information, contact Tom Helm.
Some Things We Learned Already: Why Mud Stinks
We floated with Tom recently for a preview of the geology class. Among the things we learned is why some of the mud stinks. The mud and the sand are filled with layers of organic matter, leaves mostly, and as the organic matter decomposes, it smells like … decomposing stuff. But it also builds soil for future vegetation. This process produces the mysterious oily sheen that you see floating on top of the mud sometimes.
We also learned to tell mud from sand from silt. (Hint: it’s a matter of the size of the grains.) Tom showed us how geologists rub the mud between their thumb and fingers to feel the size of the grains.
We studied the patterns in the sand, watched the grains of sand moving in the water, and learned about eddies and sediment deposition and transport. We saw a lot of animal tracks.
We learned to put the constantly changing bayou in the context of its natural process.
In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
― Rachel Carson
Immutable Plan. Invisible Rocks.
“Revised” plan to destroy Buffalo Bayou not really “revised” at all.
Project manager says no significant changes to much criticized original plan.
No sandstone in project area, says flood control, contradicting itself.
June 3, 2015
Despite the hundreds of comments criticizing the purpose, methods, impact, cost, benefit, and harm of Harris County Flood Control District’s proposed “erosion control” project on Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park, the district has made no significant changes to the plans recently re-submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Jason Krahn, project manager for the controversial Memorial Park Demonstration Project, told Dianna Wray of the Houston Press that the district was “simply following the guidelines” and that there were “no significant changes” to the original project plan.
Indeed, many of the “revised” plan sheets posted by the Army Corps of Engineers on its website appear to have been simply relabeled with new dates, though there are some with new details.
The public has until June 5 to send comments to the Corps about the district’s “revised” permit application and the district’s responses to previous comments. There is no limit on the number of comments one can make. So if you’ve already made a comment, make another!
Talking to Parks and Wildlife Commissioners and Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle
Aug. 26, 2014
What We’ve Been Doing Lately in Defense of Buffalo Bayou
Last week several of us went to the annual public meeting of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission held in Houston this year at the Museum of Natural Science. We wanted to urge the commissioners to protect our wild Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park and the wildlife that lives in the bayou and its riparian forest.
We found the commissioners who were present attentive, sympathetic, and even encouraging. These included the Honorable Reed Morian of Houston and the Honorable Dick Scott of Wimberley.
Two days later we visited with Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle during a canoe trip on beautiful Spring Creek in northwest Harris County sponsored by the Bayou Land Conservancy. Commissioner Cagle, a very likable, nature-loving fellow, represents Memorial Park, the River Oaks Country Club, both in the bulldozing project area, as well as points north and west.
The Bad Things That Happen When You Strip Forest from the Banks of Bayous
Aug. 2, 2014
We Have Forgotten The Wisdom of Our Predecessors
The early settlers knew better than to cut down the trees and vegetation from the banks of Buffalo Bayou and other streams.
Even where they set up sawmills along the bayou in the 1820s and ’30s, the mill owners had the common sense to leave the trees standing along the riverbank to protect the land from erosion, says Janet Wagner, chair of the Harris County Historical Commission.
Before that, says Wagner, the indigenous people who lived and camped along the bayou left the riparian forest intact, understanding its importance for holding the banks in place, cleansing and cooling the waters, slowing storm waters, providing fish and wildlife habitat, and much more.
The Harris County Flood Control District, in a wrongheaded plan promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association and supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy and the City of Houston, is proposing to strip most of the riparian forest buffer from some of the last wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the controversial $6 million project is demonstrating to landowners up and down the bayou and elsewhere exactly what they should not do to protect their property. Preservation of riparian zones along waterways is both federal and state policy, but apparently the city and the county have not yet understood that message.
Recently the flood control district announced another misguided “restoration” project to strip trees and vegetation from the banks of a tributary of Greens Bayou.
The costly experience of the Houston Country Club ought to be instructive. The club not too long ago bulldozed a significant amount of trees and vegetation from the banks of Buffalo Bayou as it passes by the club golf course in Tanglewood. This was a project designed by the engineering firm AECOM, which also designed the failing “erosion control” project in the former Archery Range in Memorial Park at Woodway. A representative of AECOM sits on the board of the Bayou Preservation Association.
Watch this slide show of the disastrous results of razing riparian forest at the Houston Country Club. The photographs were taken on June 27, 2014, and annotated by geophysicist Richard Hyde, a longtime supporter of Buffalo Bayou.
Here is another shocking slide show of photographs taken almost three months earlier on April 2, 2014, of the same, formerly forested area of the Houston Country Club. (See comparison aerial photos below.) The photos were provided by Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Houston Regional Group of the Sierra Club. Note in the photos shown above how much more damage had been done three months later.
The flood control district proposes to bulldoze, dredge, and trample with heavy equipment nearly 1.5 miles of Buffalo Bayou and its banks as it flows between Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the River Oaks Country Club on the south. The taxpayers of Houston and Harris County are paying $4 million and the country club $2 million for this project.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering whether to issue a permit for the project to the flood control district.
Reminder: Meeting With City Council Members Representing Buffalo Bayou
July 29, 2014
Public Meeting with Council Members Pennington and Cohen
It’s about Shepherd Drive, but go and ask why they support the project to destroy Buffalo Bayou.
Don’t forget the public meeting tonight (Wednesday, July 30, 2014) with City Council Members Oliver Pennington (District G) and Ellen Cohen (District C), who represent the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou to be bulldozed by the misguided project known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Even the natives and the early settlers (including mill owners) knew better than to cut down the riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou, recognizing its importance for naturally controlling erosion of the banks, slowing storm waters, filtering pollution and bacteria, trapping sediment, and providing wildlife habitat.
Cohen represents Memorial Park, which belongs to all of us. And Pennington, who is running for mayor, represents the south bank of the project, owned by the River Oaks Country Club, stewards of the riparian forest for which it is named since 1923. Pennington also represents that little-known section of Memorial Park just west of 610, now known as the Bayou Woodlands, formerly the Archery Range. There, just off Woodway, a failing “erosion control” project is spewing mud and silt into the bayou. Previously this was a lovely forested ravine with a nature trail. The TIRZ 16, encompassing the Galleria area, now including Memorial Park, and a special kind of improvement district that gets to keep and spend tax money that would have gone into the city treasury, spent $1,147,934 on this particular drainage boondoggle designed by engineering firm AECOM, which also designed the failing “erosion control” project on the banks of the Houston Country Club.
So go and ask these city council members why they support the destruction of some of the last best, healthiest and most beautiful bayou we have in the city. The project would destroy nearly 1.5 miles of the bayou, including most of the forest on both banks, dredging up and rechanneling our lovely, shady stream, obliterating creeks and prehistoric bluffs too old even to contemplate, killing and driving away wildlife, trampling and removing habitat, and so much more that is wrong. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit for the project.
The meeting, held in conjunction with the city Public Works and Engineering Department, is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church (St. Basil’s Hall), 2140 Westheimer Road. The purpose is to review a paving and drainage project, set to begin in a few weeks, on Shepherd Drive from Westheimer to Buffalo Bayou. So it’s not exactly about the bayou project. But there will be a question and answer period.
A Moving Comment from Preservation Texas
July 6, 2014
The period is now closed for public comment to the Army Corps of Engineers on the application from the Harris County Flood Control District to bulldoze the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park. The fight for the life of our beautiful southern bayou grows stronger. We must continue to raise awareness about this little known project, educate our friends and neighbors about the senseless destruction that is planned, and try to change the minds of our politicians and civic leaders. See What To Do Now.
The Army Corps received numerous comments opposing the project from experts in the field and ordinary citizens who cherish access to this unique treasure in the middle of our city. Among other things, the project violates state (pdf) and federal policy (pdf) protecting riparian buffer on our waterways.
Here is a particularly eloquent comment sent to the ACE from Preservation Texas:
June 30, 2014
Mr. Dwayne Johnson
Regulatory Branch, CESWG-PE-RB
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
P.O. Box 1229
Galveston, Texas 77553-1229
Re: SWG-2012-01007 (Memorial Park Demonstration Project)
Dear Mr. Johnson:
We write this letter to urge denial of the permit application referenced above.
Preservation Texas included the site of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project on our 2014 Texas’ Most Endangered Places list. The scope of the project far exceeds the limited erosion problem this particular stretch of Buffalo Bayou faces. The project should be narrowed to address only portions of the Bayou that are actively eroding and in a manner that does not destroy significant vegetation, rock outcroppings, potential archaeological sites and otherwise alters the slowly, naturally evolving course of the historic waterway by cutting and filling.
A recent 14-mile paddle down the Bayou reveals that most of the erosion in the project area has been caused by the removal of trees. Coupled with increased water volumes caused by overdevelopment of areas in the Bayou’s watershed, it becomes clear that the challenges of the Bayou extend beyond the waterway itself. A radical grading and replanting project does not address root causes.