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.
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.
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
Once-a-Boat-Launch at Woodway to Re-Open by Mid-December
Meanwhile Buffalo Bayou Busy Replanting, Beautifying
Sept. 5, 2015
A contractor has been found at last to take down the heavy-duty chain-link construction fencing, put up some railing, spread some gravel and sod, and restore the informational sign in that western part of Memorial Park that was once a popular boat launch and is now referred to by public officials as a drainage outfall.
Closed to the public for more than two years, including more than a year after the $1.36 million taxpayer-funded solar-irrigated “erosion control” project was completed, the ugly, massively enlarged outfall draining Post Oak Road is still officially a Texas Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail boat launch. Previously it was also a forested area with a nature trail.
But officials with the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) 16 now seem genuinely eager to do “what we can to get it open to the public,” said John Breeding, administrator, at the Uptown board meeting in a Galleria high-rise last Wednesday, Aug. 26.
The board voted without discussion to award a contract for $219,272.10 to Jerdon Enterprise, LP, which was the sole bidder for the long-delayed project. With “add-ons” the cost could go to $335,615.10. That seems like a lot of public money for taking down some chain-link fencing, putting up some standard railing, laying down some loose gravel, etc. But apparently no one else wanted to do it.
Work on the Outfall Phase II is now scheduled to begin this month and be completed by December 15, 2015.
And if you’re confused about why a TIRZ and not the parks department or the city council would be making these decisions, well, it is confusing. But the TIRZ has control of the money.
While We Wait
The Flood Control District’s Failing “Natural Channel Design” Projects
July 11, 2015
Well, the comments are in to the Army Corps of Engineers. The comment period that ended June 5 was not extended. So now we wait to find out what the Corps will do next about a permit for the Harris County Flood Control District’s controversial $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The flood control district wants to destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of the city so that engineers can “build it better,” thus demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control and bank stabilization on the bayou.
It’s the wrong thing to do because the specially adapted trees and plants on the bayou (known as the riparian zone) protect the land from erosion, slow storm water and runoff, filter pollution and bacteria (and trash) from the water, provide shade and habitat, among many other vital functions. Razing the riparian buffer, as this project would do, digging up and running heavy equipment over the banks and bayou bottom are all contrary to Best Management Practices and the policies of virtually every federal and state agency charged with protecting the health of our waters, our wildlife habitat, and our soil.
What Are the Options?
So what are the Corps’ options?
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!
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou: Banners, Signs Erected During Big Regatta Saturday, March 7
March 8, 2015
Defenders of Buffalo Bayou traipsed through clumps of wild chives and violets on the banks of the bayou Saturday, March 7, in order to hang colorful banners from bridges and trees and set out signs informing more than a thousand participants in the annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta about the grave threat to our wild bayou.
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou was a huge success as competitors paddling down the bayou waved and shouted “No bulldozers!” and “Leave it natural!” to members of the Buffalo Bayou defense team sitting on the banks in the project area.
Bayou defenders also handed out informational flyers at the end of the race in Sesquicentennial Park adjacent to the Wortham Center downtown and engaged participants and officials in conversation.
The regatta was organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a non-profit organization in charge of developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway downstream of the project area. The partnership officially supports the $6 million plan to bulldoze one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston.
Sand on the Sidewalks
BBP President Anne Olson wrote a letter of support for the destruction project to the Army Corps of Engineers in June 2014 saying that the plan would “significantly prevent” the bayou from “depositing silt on Buffalo Bayou’s downtown parks and trails.” She also claimed that the project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would demonstrate “a prototype that can be employed by bayou property owners who currently remedy their property erosion by all different types of inappropriate stabilization methods.”
In fact the amount of silt and sediment contributed by the historic nature area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District is minimal. But the project itself would likely greatly increase the sediment flowing downstream as a result of dredging the bayou, removing trees and plants, and breaking up the soil structure of the banks.
But It’s Best to Leave the Bayou Alone, Says BPA’s Water Quality Director
Feb. 5, 2015
We lost track of the number of times our jaws dropped listening to Steve Hupp present the Bayou Preservation Association’s argument for destroying one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
Hupp, who was speaking to the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood council on Jan. 20, is the water quality director for the BPA, which was founded in the 1960s to protect the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou from the bulldozers of the Harris County Flood Control District. Hupp lamented that a representative of Flood Control wasn’t there to help him make his case for bulldozing and dredging some 80 percent of a healthy stretch of our wild, southern bayou for more than a mile in and around our public Memorial Park, including the great cliffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. This $6 million boondoggle, touted as “bank restoration and stabilization,” is called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project (MPDP). Demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control by razing the riparian buffer, the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. According to the BPA, the bayou will be re-engineered to “a more natural state.”
Briar Forest, which is south of Buffalo Bayou between Gessner, Westheimer, and Dairy Ashford, has been fighting its own battle with Flood Control over a plan to destroy a significant amount of forest to create stormwater detention basins.
City Council Member Oliver Pennington was at the meeting. Pennington, who is running for mayor, represents District G, which includes Briar Forest way out there and much closer into town, the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the “bank restoration” project area. The south bank, which is half of the project, is owned entirely by the River Oaks Country Club, founded in 1924, of which Pennington is a member and which is donating $2 million or one-third of the projected cost of the “stabilization” project. The club is in the process of digging up and rebuilding its golf course, which over the decades has encroached on what was once thick riparian forest, moving closer and closer to the edges of the high banks of the bayou.
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.
Seeing What Will be Destroyed: Our Article in the Houston Chronicle
July 26, 2014
The Bayou Banks We Could Lose
Once again, a flood-control project threatens Buffalo Bayou
By Susan Chadwick for the Houston Chronicle
July 25, 2014 | Updated: July 25, 2014 3:21pm
We have pulled the canoe up to a clean, white sandy beach on Buffalo Bayou in the middle of the city. It’s still early morning, and all along our slow paddle from the bridge at Woodway great white egrets and a great blue heron fly ahead of us, leading us to our destination: the prehistoric cliffs and forested banks that could soon be obliterated by the Harris County Flood Control District.
It’s a bizarre project, all the more incomprehensible in that the project is primarily promoted by the influential Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), founded in the 1960s to prevent the flood-control district from bulldozing the natural beauty of Buffalo Bayou.
Read the rest of the article in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle. Note: This article also appeared in the print edition of the Chronicle on Sunday, August 3, 2014, Page G4.