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.
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
What’s the right way to protect Buffalo Bayou?
March 18, 2015 Updated: March 18, 2015 11:20am
Is the traditional vision of local and urban flood control agencies in conflict with federal and state agencies charged with protecting the health of our waterways?
Let me explain how I came to ask myself this question about mission conflict.
I grew up on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, and since early last spring I have been involved with a campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy and then attempt to rebuild a healthy and relatively untouched riparian forest corridor running through the center of our city. It’s pretty rare to have a stretch of fairly wild river running through the middle of such a large city. The late great conservationist Army Emmott described our Buffalo Bayou as a ribbon of life running through the concrete. And that’s what it is: a living thing, a diverse and dynamic ecosystem that shows us the wondrous process of nature.
We are even more fortunate that in the words of the great river scientist Mathias Kondolf of Berkeley, this enchanting river has “room to move.” Here, in the middle of the city, we have space to “let the river be a river” — to let its banks change and its forest garden grow, as they would naturally. Dr. Kondolf traveled through this reach of the bayou in November, a reach that has never been channelized. The nearly 1.5-mile stretch targeted for destruction flows between the riparian forest and great cliffs of a public park (Memorial Park) and the forested terraces and high banks of a private golf course.
Note: This opinion piece is adapted from a presentation delivered February 12, 2015, at Texas’ first Urban Riparian Symposium, sponsored by the Texas Water Resources Institute, the Texas Riparian Association, and the City of Austin.
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.
Room for the River: What the River Scientist Had to Say
Nov. 25, 2014
Updated Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, with a link to the video of the lecture by Mathias Kondolf.
More than 100 people gathered last Friday evening to hear Mathias Kondolf speak about rivers, river restoration, and the state of Buffalo Bayou at the Assembly Hall of St. Theresa Memorial Park Catholic Church.
Kondolf is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a world-renowned river scientist, and a leading critic of the destructive and often-failing methods proposed for a $6 million “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project on Buffalo Bayou. He spoke for nearly two hours to a crowd that included people on all sides of a controversial project to bulldoze the riparian forest and dredge and channelize nearly 1.5 miles of one of the last natural stretches of the bayou in the city.
The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was conceived by the Bayou Preservation Association, which actively promotes the plan. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit to the Harris County Flood Control District for the project.
Riparian forest or buffer, also called a riparian zone, consists of specially adapted trees and plants along the edge of a waterway. Among the many important functions of riparian zones are protecting the land from erosion, filtering pollution, cleansing the water, slowing flood water, and providing wildlife and human habitat.
Kondolf had spent hours inspecting the bayou in the rain earlier in the day. The project area is bounded entirely on the south by the River Oaks Country Club golf course, which is currently being renovated. The north bank of the project is our public Memorial Park, along with the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and some private property. Taxpayers are contributing $4 million to this project.
A Misguided Project and Waste of Public Funds
July 19, 2014
Often the best project is to let the river fix itself. — Mathias Kondolf, “Meander Bends, Landscape Preferences, and River Restoration.” p. 51
Mathias Kondolf is one of the world’s leading river scientists. He recently wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers recommending that the corps deny Harris County a permit to bulldoze the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park.
The $6 million project would remove most of the riparian buffer from nearly 1.5 miles of some of the last remaining stretch of natural bayou in our city, demonstrating to landowners up and down the bayou and elsewhere the exact wrong thing to do. By far the most beautiful and healthiest stretch of the bayou, as it flows past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary this shady, slow-moving wild bayou belongs to all of us. And amazingly, it is right here in the middle of our big city.
The project, promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association and officially a project of the Harris County Flood Control District, has no scientific or any other justification, says Kondolf. He points out that even the HCFCD says in its permit application that the stream is “recovering” (from something) and questions the county’s odd claim that razing the trees and vegetation, excavating and filling in the banks, and realigning the channel would “decrease the time needed for natural recovery.”
Kondolf points out that the existing riparian habitat is of “high quality,” that the erosion rate of the banks in the target area as estimated by the county is “not really problematic,” and notes that the construction project itself would likely dump three times more sediment into the waterway than this area does in a year.