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.
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.
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.
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.
What Flood Control Is Not Telling Us
“Maintenance” Road Planned Along Bulldozed Bank
June 4, 2015
Updated June 8, 2015. See below.
Updated June 7, 2015. See below.
The Harris County Flood Control District is planning to create a 12-foot wide pathway for maintenance vehicles along the graded bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.
The maintenance road parallel to the bayou is not included in the plans to “restore” the wild banks of the bayou submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers by the flood control district.
The district revealed the plan for what it is calling a “Monitoring Access Zone” at an invitation-only meeting Tuesday, June 2, 2015. The meeting was one of a series to develop a planting plan for the $6 million “erosion control,” “bank restoration,” “water quality improvement,” “flood conveyance” project known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Apparently the planting plan is not progressing well, as at the meeting the district proposed planting tall fescue, an invasive exotic almost impossible to control. Tall fescue has been the scourge of Texas prairies for several decades at least.
“Tall fescue forms a near-monoculture and is responsible for the loss of otherwise undisturbed prairie remnants throughout Texas and the Midwest,” reports one of our landscape ecologists.
Well, so much for the district’s native plant expertise and commitment to a native-only riparian forest.
No trees, no “better than ever” riparian forest
Little is known about the previously undisclosed but long-suspected “Monitoring Access Zone.” According to a source who was at the meeting, the 12-foot wide pathway will be planted with some sort of seed mix for several years until the district is certain the “restored” banks will hold. They won’t hold, of course, so this grassy, flat “access zone” is likely to be permanent.
Which means no trees, no “better than ever” riparian forest and wildlife habitat, banks bulldozed and leveled even through the so-called “no-work zones.”
What is Federal Jurisdiction
The district explained at the meeting that it was not required to reveal the “monitoring” road to the Army Corps of Engineers because it does not impact federal waters, presumably because the road will be above the Ordinary High Mark, which is the lateral limit of federal jurisdiction.
But it will not be above the OHWM, which in a significant section of the park extends deep into the forest as part of the flood plain, a natural detention area, including swales and wetlands, all of which are under federal jurisdiction. The road and the “bankfull bench” upon which it will sit will also fill and block at least two tributaries, which also are under federal jurisdiction, although on its plans the district labels both tributaries “gullies,” thereby attempting to remove the tributaries from federal jurisdiction. (See sheets 16 and 18.) Gullies are classified as an “erosional feature” by federal law. An actual gully leading from the South Picnic Loop parking lot is oddly labeled a “tributary.” (See sheet 16.)
So far we don’t know the length of “Monitoring Access Zone,” whether it extends along the entire north bank of the project area, including private property, or whether a “Monitoring Access Zone” will also be built on the south bank of the project, land which belongs to the River Oaks Country Club.
Guess we’ll have to ask the flood control district. And object to the Corps.
What else is the flood control district not telling us?
Update June 7, 2015
There is no “road” planned for maintenance vehicles on the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou targeted for “restoration” by the Harris County Flood Control District.
Jason Krahn, manager for the district’s controversial $6 million project to “improve” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou, wrote in an email to Save Buffalo Bayou on June 5 that “there is no road proposed for the post construction monitoring activities associated with MPDP [Memorial Park Demonstration Project].”
Participants in the district’s Vegetation Advisory Workgroup for the dredging and channelizing project had been told that for several years after “restoration” there would be a grassy 12-foot wide “Monitoring Access Zone” for maintenance vehicles to access the bulldozed and reconstructed banks of what is now a perfectly healthy historic natural area in need of no monitoring or maintenance whatsoever–other than picking up the trash and mitigating runoff from trails and parking lots.
This “Monitoring Access Zone,” workgroup participants were told, would remain in place until there was no longer any need for monitoring, replanting, watering, removal of noxious invasive vegetation, or repairs to failing “stabilized” banks, etc. Presumably removal of noxious invasive vegetation would not include the tall fescue, a noxious invasive plant, described above, that the district earlier this month was contemplating planting. Responding to objections, the district reportedly has changed its mind about the tall fescue.
Krahn said that monitoring activities would take place on both the north and south banks of the bayou in the project area, which includes Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the River Oaks Country Club on the south.
He also wrote that “no work zones” on the bayou were in fact “no work zones,” despite the fact that heavy equipment would be driven over the banks, according to the district’s plans. However, above the Ordinary High Water Mark these “no work zones” would not be graded into bankfull benches, wrote Krahn, because “these are portions of the project area that already have the necessary geomorphic characteristics for a sustainable, stable channel.” A bankfull bench is a flat or sloping area above the bank of a stream that slows overflowing floodwater.
Asked to clarify the “Monitoring Access Zone,” Krahn has not yet replied.
But it’s not a “road,” Krahn insisted. So we won’t call it a “road.”
How about sendero?
Updated June 8, 2015
Project Manager Jason Krahn has clarified the “monitoring access zone.” In an email to Save Buffalo Bayou Monday morning, Krahn wrote:
“To provide for the monitoring access as outlined in the Atkins report [the post-construction monitoring plan included in the revised permit application], the District is working to define the appropriate spacing for vegetation within a portion of the flood plain planting zone. A spacing of 12-foot in width is currently being considered to allow for this access, or ‘monitoring access zone’ as you’ve referenced it in your previous email correspondence.”
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.
BPA Claims Not True. Project Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong: Director of Cockrell Butterfly Center
June 25, 2014
On Sunday (June 22) I canoed down Buffalo Bayou with a friend, from Voss to the junction with White Oak Bayou. Seeing this transect of the bayou (which included the section slated for “restoration”) has convinced me that this project is wrong, wrong, wrong on a number of levels: aesthetically, environmentally, and financially. I have heard from proponents of the plan that the erosion in this area is “significant” and that the vegetation is “largely invasive species.” Neither of these claims are true, as far as I could see. Yes, there are areas where some erosion is taking place – but this is natural on a waterway. Property owners all along the bayou have used a variety of different means (immensely less drastic and costly than what is proposed) to shore up their banks and reduce or eliminate erosion. Certainly there were a few non-native species along the banks, but the prevailing vegetation was native vines, sycamores, box elders, and other trees and shrubs native to the area. The cliffs, which would be eliminated in the proposed reconfiguration, are important habitat for nesting kingfishers (which we saw only in this stretch of the bayou). Furthermore, the stretch that borders Memorial Park is the only part of the bayou where natural habitat (and all the animals it contains) borders the watercourse.
It was an awful shock to come out to the areas that have already been modified and “improved” = where no trees overhang the bayou, where graded, grassy slopes come down to the water’s edge, and where there is no semblance of “natural” anywhere. In these areas (from Montrose and farther east) it was hot, exposed, and little wildlife was evident. These “improved” areas were stark and ugly – a human-manipulated landscape with no shade and no wildlife.
I can only imagine the expense of carrying out the proposed “improvements” – and at what environmental cost? Seems to me the River Oaks Country Club could use some of the methods already put in place by homeowners along the bayou’s banks to shore up the areas of concern – leaving the rest alone. Taxpayers should not have to pay for this drastic plan that would have catastrophic and permanent effects on the aesthetics and environmental integrity of Buffalo Bayou along this stretch.
I thoroughly oppose the proposal and hope that you, Mayor Parker and city council members, will stand up to those trying to sell this as an improvement. It is not. Please say no to this proposed “restoration” of Buffalo Bayou.
Nancy Greig, PhD
Director Cockrell Butterfly Center
[Editor’s Note: the BPA is the Bayou Preservation Association, which is promoting this project to destroy the natural beauty of this healthy, functioning stretch of Buffalo Bayou in and around our public Memorial Park.]