Environmental Photography That Works

Coastal Essence in Fotofest 2016

March 29, 2016

How do environmental and conservation organizations get their message across?

By showing the public photographs of what they are trying to protect.

That’s what Houston-based, internationally-known photographer Jim Olive has been doing for Save Buffalo Bayou and many other conservation organizations. Without Jim’s stunning photos of the historic natural stretch of the bayou flowing past Memorial Park, far fewer people would have any idea of the rare and valuable treasure we have running right through the middle of Houston.

A Fotofest 2016 exhibition titled Coastal Essence features Jim Olive’s photographs that have been used by local environmental organizations to illustrate their cause in print and social media. The exhibition, which includes a photograph of Buffalo Bayou at dawn used by Save Buffalo Bayou on its Facebook page, is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land, Texas. The show runs through May 8 at the museum at 13016 University Blvd.

Fotofest is one of the world’s leading photography festivals, and this year the theme is Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet. The festival, which continues through April 24, takes place every two years in galleries and exhibition spaces across the Houston metropolitan area, and draws photographers, curators, collectors, and other photography experts from all over the world.

Jim Olive, a native Houstonian, has been a professional photographer for fifty years and has traveled around the world on assignments. A longtime conservationist, he is the founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation.

Buffalo Bayou at dawn in the area targeted for destruction and "restoration" by the Harris County Flood Control District. Photo taken by Jim Olive on Dec. 9, 2014, from the bluffs of Memorial Park looking downstream towards the bank of the River Oaks Country Club.

This photo of Buffalo Bayou at dawn in the area targeted for destruction and “restoration” by the Harris County Flood Control District is on display in the Coastal Essence Fotofest exhibit through May 8 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land, Texas. Photo taken by Jim Olive on Dec. 9, 2014, from the bluffs of Memorial Park looking downstream towards the bank of the River Oaks Country Club.

 

 

 

Buffalo Bayou Spring 2016

A Few New Photos of Springtime on Buffalo Bayou

March 28, 2016

  • High water released from the west Houston dams backs up in Memorial Park's main tributary into Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive on March 21, 2016.
  • Early morning shadows on steps formed by tree roots in the ravine of the same Memorial Park tributary of Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive on March 21, 2016.
  • The track of an alligator sliding into Buffalo Bayou? Photo by Jim Olive, March 21, 2016.

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.

Geologist Tom Helm explaining 500,000-year-old sandstone on Buffalo Bayou.

Geologist Tom Helm explaining 500,000-year-old sandstone on Buffalo Bayou. Photo taken March 18, 2016

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

Possible Alligator Tracks

A Small Alligator On Buffalo Bayou

March 19, 2016

We were out on the bayou Saturday morning with geologist/naturalist river guide Tom Helm for a geology lesson about Buffalo Bayou and how rivers work. Save Buffalo Bayou is going to be offering classes on the bayou in conjunction with Helm, as well as nature photography classes with professional photographer Jim Olive. More about that soon.

It was a beautiful morning, and the water flow was relatively low, around 500 cubic feet per second (cfs), not great for seeing a lot of geologic formations on the lower banks of this historic natural area, but good enough. We saw a lot of tracks, including what may have been the tracks of a small alligator climbing out of the water in the mud of the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park. Tom estimated it could have been about four feet long. Tom, who floats the bayou as often as several times a week, said he hasn’t seen an alligator in the bayou in a couple of years, and the last one was also small, although some people may not think a four-foot alligator is small.

Tracks possibly of small alligator emerging from water at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park March 18, 2016.

Tracks possibly of small alligator emerging from water at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park March 18, 2016.

 

Reminder: The Threat is Still Alive

Operation Save Buffalo Bayou II

March 14, 2016

Okay, so we harshed the mood a little with our small, silent reminders that regatta contestants were paddling through a historic natural area still threatened with destruction.

“Thanks for polluting my day,” yelled one paddler in the crowd of hundreds of Buffalo Bayou boaters playing loud music and stopping to pee in the woods. We were watching from the sandy bank of the lovely middle meander, forested with young willows and box elder that would all be cut down, the meander filled, graded, and planted with grass.

The event was the 44th Annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta on Saturday, March 12. And once again we hung our beautiful Save Buffalo Bayou banner (Night Heron by Houston artist Frank X. Tolbert 2) from the railroad bridge and set out small white signs alerting participants to the fact that the wild stretch they were passing through would all be bulldozed under a plan proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA).

Save Buffalo Bayou banner hanging from the railroad trestle crossing Buffalo Bayou from Memorial Park. Photo March 12, 2016, by Richard Hyde.

Save Buffalo Bayou banner hanging from the railroad trestle crossing Buffalo Bayou from Memorial Park. Photo March 12, 2016, by Richard Hyde.

The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do. (See Buffalo Bayou Park and Fonteno Park.) It would raze most of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the 18,000-year-old bayou as it passes by Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. These trees and vegetation and even the sand are part of the riparian zone, essentially wetlands, that hold the banks together, cleanse and filter the water, slow and absorb storm runoff, provide wildlife habitat, among many other important ecological functions. The $6 million “natural channel design” project, financed with $4 million in county and city taxpayer funds, would dredge and reroute the bayou and plug tributaries, obliterate ancient cliffs, destroy 250,000-year-old sandstone formations, and fill in our lovely meander (a natural detention area). Killing the bayou’s ecosystem in the name of “restoration.” And landscape design.

And no, contrary to rumors, the project, although holding its breath, is not dead. The Army Corps of Engineers is still deciding whether to issue a permit for the project, which is otherwise a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The Bayou Preservation Association first formulated the plan for the project in private meetings in 2010 and  former BPA president Kevin Shanley, then a principal with the landscape architecture firm SWA Group, was the primary promoter. SWA Group is the design firm that is also responsible for the landscape design of Buffalo Bayou Park downstream east of Shepherd.

So this is why we had signs up warning of landscapers lurking. In Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, we set out a few signs pointing out that landscaping has washed away (several times actually) and that removal of vegetation has caused erosion problems, and that repairs were $$$$ (paid with City funds). Yes, we were bad! Those signs did not last long, however.

Educational signs posted on expensive repairs to eroding banks that previously had been "stabilized" by the Harris County Flood Control District in Buffalo Bayou Park. Photo March 12, 2016, by AC Conrad.

Educational signs posted on expensive repairs to eroding banks that previously had been “stabilized” by the Harris County Flood Control District in Buffalo Bayou Park. Photo March 12, 2016, by AC Conrad.

Upstream around Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary our signs pointed out where beavers live, where banks were being naturally rebuilt by the bayou, and the Pleistocene bluffs that would be graded into a slope. Interestingly, the bayou, during and after the Memorial Day flood in 2015, has already graded the lower banks of those steep bluffs into a slope.

The River Oaks Country Club is theoretically a one-third partner in the demonstration project and owns the entire south half of the project reach. But in the meantime the club in two places has armored its banks with ugly concrete riprap, one of the most environmentally destructive methods of erosion control (pdf), and also, we allege, in this case illegal, as we contend that much of the riprap was placed in public waters, also a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The club, unfortunately, is having erosion problems on its high banks in those places because it cut down a lot of trees and extended the mowed and watered grass of its golf course up to the edge of the banks.

We put out signs pointing out that riprap damages the ecosystem and is part of the problem, not the solution.

But we’re glad people had fun, enjoyed the bayou, and picked up some of trash.

Maybe they’ll think about the future of the bayou.

And special thanks to river guide Tom Helm and to Richard Hyde for extra long duty putting out and picking up our banner and picking up our signs.

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.

Read the rest of this story.

Tree on private property downed by extended high water releases from Buffalo Bayou dams in June 2015. Photo courtesy of Don Jones.

Tree on private property downed by extended high water releases from Buffalo Bayou dams in June 2015. Photo courtesy of Don Jones.

 

Public Meeting on Buffalo Bayou Dams

Corps of Engineers to Issue Repair Update Wednesday, March 9

March 7, 2016

Updated March 14, 2016

The US Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District, is holding a public meeting Wednesday, March 9, 2016, to update the public about progress in repairing the Addicks and Barker dams on South Mayde Creek and Buffalo Bayou in rapidly developing west Houston.

The two earthen dams, completed in the 1940s, were labeled “extremely high risk” in 2009 when engineers noticed seepage around the dams’ gates and ends following a heavy storm. The “extremely high risk” designation did not mean the dams were in danger of failing soon. But the possibility of failure combined with the dams’ location upstream of a major metropolitan area lifted the dams into the urgent category.

As a result, the reservoirs, which are dry reservoirs and contain one of the region’s largest parks and recreation areas, cannot be filled to capacity during storms, which impacts the way water is released from the dams before and after storms: faster and more often. (Correction: The Corps of Engineers says that the structural problems with the dams have had no impact on the capacity limit or release rates. This unnatural flow regime in turn impacts Buffalo Bayou downstream. (South Mayde Creek joins Buffalo Bayou just below the dams.) However, most of the flooding in Buffalo Bayou during heavy storms is caused by surface runoff from buildings, highways, streets, parking lots, and other paved surfaces below the dams, which are closed during rain events.

Read the rest of this post.

Barker Reservoir. Undated photo courtesy of USACE, Galveston District.

Barker Reservoir. Undated photo courtesy of USACE, Galveston District.

 

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.

The banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in West Houston. Straightened and channelized by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to speed storm waters, the bayou has since restored itself but remains threatened by public projects to slow storm waters.

The banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park in West Houston. Straightened and channelized by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to speed storm waters, the bayou has since restored itself but remains threatened by public projects to build detention basins.

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.)