Cures Worse Than Problems

Costly, Puzzling Repairs on Buffalo Bayou: How Will This End?

May 7, 2020

There’s talk these days about cures being worse than problems. We think about that when we watch with alarm what the Harris County Flood Control District has been doing to Buffalo Bayou in our lovely public park between Sabine and Shepherd bridges near downtown Houston.

Gouging the banks with bulldozers. Heavy trucks on the bank. Dumping and pounding huge amounts of concrete riprap and dirt onto the slopes and into the channel. For those of us who value the bayou as a living stream, it’s difficult to watch this costly abuse. The bayou will fight back. “Repairs” will continue, at great expense to taxpayers.

And what about the creatures, the giant alligator snapping turtles, the beavers that live on and in the banks, the bats that live under the Waugh Bridge? The Corps of Engineers dismissed any environmental impact in its 2019 approval of this 4,540-foot long project. (p. 1)

A Long History of Abuse

The Flood Control District has been “fixing” these banks for over a decade now.

The current project, billed as fixing “erosion and bank failure caused by Harvey,” is costing the taxpayers some $10 million, virtually  all of it going to the private engineering company Primoris, with an unknown amount having been paid to Jones Carter for the design plans.

The Flood Control District was established in 1937, in large part to assist the Corps of Engineers in stripping, straightening, and concreting our creeks and bayous, then the dominant method of managing flooding, now discredited. (See also here.) But the district’s limited legal tools and authority have hardly changed. Within that narrow framework, its approach has modernized only slightly. With a capital improvement budget of $496 million in Fiscal Year 2019, (p. 2) the district’s main job, seemingly with little oversight, is handing out lucrative contracts to private engineering companies.

Who is to say whether they are doing a good job? Whether this is the most scientific, proven, cost-effective approach? (p. 27)

  • Trucks and backhoe importing heavy riprap and dirt to build base for extended south bank of Buffalo Bayou downstream from the Waugh Bridge. Photo April 13, 2020.
  • View from the Waugh Bridge of backhoes spreading dirt on riprap base extended into and pounded into the channel. Work has now progressed to just beneath the bridge. Photo April 21, 2020
  • New bank has now been covered with dirt. Photo looking downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 27, 2020.
  • Strips of turf grass laid into bank. Photo taken April 29, one day after big rain storm that blew out the riprap bench used by heavy equipment to pass in front of large stormwater drain pipe slightly further downstream.
  • View from the opposite bank of newly rebuilt south bank downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 29, 2020.
  • Turf grass has died but seeded grass is beginning to grow. Photo May 5, 2020
  • Reconstruction has begun on the troublesome south bank below and upstream of the Dunlavy. Photo May 5, 2020

Once A Wooded Stream

Like the flow in a river, the population of Houston is always changing. There are people in the city who think a bayou is a man-made drainage ditch, who do not realize that all our bayous were once forested streams winding through the prairie. They are shocked if you tell them we have alligators, beavers, otter, giant alligator snapping turtles, and more in Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries. These contributing streams include numerous other bayous as well as many small ravines and gullies that make (or made) our local landscape much more undulating than recognized. Many ravines have been filled in and paved over. But the aforementioned water creatures, who have been here longer than we have, do the same work they have always done, part of a timeless mutually-beneficial system.

This stretch of the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine streets was also once a meandering wooded stream, the vegetation on its banks naturally filtering the water for free. In the late 50s the Corps of Engineers scraped the trees and vegetation, bulldozed the banks, and straightened much of the channel, eliminating or reducing many of the meanders.

Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway in 1962 after stripping and channel realignment by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Over time, the trees and vegetation grew back, helping the banks stand firm, replanted by the flowing stream. But the bayou today continues to seek out its original meanders, as rivers will do. Many of the most troublesome areas of bank failure in Buffalo Bayou Park (and elsewhere), requiring repeated repairs, are where the meander bends once were.

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