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.
Becoming an Eagle
What we found canoeing Buffalo Bayou
A group of scouts discover wildlife and a habitat worth preserving
By Paul Hung, for the Houston Chronicle, May 16, 2017
Rays of Texas sunlight peeked through the riparian forest and reflected off the river current, guarded by sandy banks and high cliffs. A blue heron seemed to be following us as it soared overhead, releasing its echoing call through the clear skies. An alligator gar splashed in the water as it sensed our approach. We saw evidence of recent beaver activity: Footprints in the sand and chew marks on the tree stumps.
As our journey continued along Buffalo Bayou, the 18,000-year-old waterway, I was awed by the abundance of wildlife, the scenery that surrounded us.
I live in a subdivision in the southwest part of the city, and we were in the middle of Houston, the fourth-largest in the U.S., with a population over two and a quarter million people. And here I was floating down a dreamlike river in what seemed like a faraway land.
I had been preparing for this expedition for months. My mission was to inventory the wildlife along the bayou. This was my public service project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Eleven of my fellow Boy Scouts in Troop 55 had volunteered to help. Our plan was to photograph the animal tracks we found and carefully catalog them with their GPS coordinates. The weather conditions had to be just right, and today was the perfect Saturday to explore – sunny and clear.
We needed good weather, because we were going to canoe down the bayou, and the water level had to be low enough so that we could see the animal tracks on the sandy banks. The Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the two federal dams upstream, had assured us that the water level in the bayou would stay low throughout the weekend.
This would be the first of four trips documenting wildlife tracks on the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park. These expeditions spanned a year. In the end, more than 30 volunteers documented 225 animal tracks and logged 327 conservation hours towards this project. I published a guide that summarizes our discoveries and illustrates some of the most common tracks. But this is what we saw that day.
Project Cost Doubles: $12 Million to Destroy Bayou
Corps of Engineers Refuses to Release Environmental Assessment
May 2, 2017
Updated May 3, 2017
Updated May 17, 2017: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment yesterday, May 16. We’ll have a report soon.
The estimated cost of the controversial project to “restore” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston has doubled to at least $12 million, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
On April 19 the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers approved a permit allowing the unpopular project to go forward. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the project would raze the trees and vegetation, grade the ancient high banks, dredge and reroute the channel, including altering the curves of the meanders, along more than a mile of the bayou flowing past the public forests and sandy banks of Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The federal permit basically allows an exception to the Clean Water Act.
Opponents of the project question the purpose of it, pointing out the lack of scientific basis and even common sense to flood control district claims that destroying a healthy riparian forest and digging up and rearranging the bayou channel and banks will improve nature and water quality and reduce erosion. In fact, the costly result will be the opposite: the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem and create more erosion and flooding, especially downstream, not to mention cause the wasting of a major, invaluable public asset.
The project, by razing the vegetation and digging up the banks, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do for controlling erosion. And it will fail, requiring expensive repairs and maintenance.
The long-delayed plan was initiated in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association, once an environmental organization and now essentially a lobbying and networking organization for engineering, landscape design, construction and building contractors, commercial and industrial architects, developers and their agents. Two members of the board live in the project area.
The Hershey Foundation, founded by Terry Hershey and her husband Jake, issued a resolution opposing the project in May 2014. Terry Hershey, along with Save Buffalo Bayou’s board president, Frank Smith, were among the original members of the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in the 1960s to oppose a similar though much longer project to channelize the bayou and cover it with concrete from the federal dams upstream all the way to the Shepherd Bridge.
The initial estimate for the current project was $6 million, including $4 million already contributed by city and county taxpayers and $2 million to be paid by members of the River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south half of the project area. The Memorial Park Conservancy is also promoting the project. One-third of the 27 members of the board of the conservancy are also members of the country club, including the board chairman, Steve Jenkins, vice chairman, Wendy Hines, and treasurer, Mindy Hildebrand.
“The original project funding was established in 2010,” the project manager for the flood control district, Jason Krahn, explained in a recent email through a district representative. “The District’s Construction Manager speculates that the project, including contingencies, could cost double the currently funded amount. The Construction Manager expects to have a better idea of the final costs once they are allowed to formally bid the project out to the contracting community and receive actual bids to conduct the work.”
At least four major engineering firms have been involved so far. The Construction Manager is SpawGlass, which is working with Shamrock Environmental Corporation of North Carolina, according to the flood control district. Stantec, one of the world’s largest engineering firms, in 2016 acquired the previous engineering firm KBR, which had provided the design services for the project. Atkins is responsible for the Monitoring Plan. (p. 60)
A Historic Nature Area: A Public Trust
The nature area to be razed and rebuilt as a “demonstration project” is the longest, publicly accessible, forested and never channelized stretch of the bayou in the middle of Houston. It contains ancient high bluffs and sandstone formations and is considered a historic nature area. Filled with wildlife, it is one of the few places in Houston where the public can observe the city’s natural history and geology, as well as the natural process of a living river. It is extremely rare to have a public stretch of forested river running through the center of a large city.
The flood control district, the sponsor of the project, is legally responsible for the “conservation of forests” under its 1937 state charter.
Corps Refusing to Release Assessment of Impact on the Environment
(Update May 17: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment on May 16. We’ll have a report on that soon.)