Going Round the Bend in Summer

July 19, 2020

We had planned to meet for an early morning float down Buffalo Bayou. This meant rising with the sun. And since we needed our summer photo of that Bend in the River, it seemed a good idea to head out to the woods first.

Every season since the summer of 2014 we’ve been documenting the same bend in the bayou from a high bank in the woods of Memorial Park. Of course, the bank changes, the woods change. The path of the bayou, however, remains remarkably stable.

You can see the entire series here. But our summer 2020 photo had been delayed because our great photographer Jim Olive was still on lockdown in California by order of his beloved. Texas in the time of Covid was too dangerous, even though it was way hotter there in the desert, with an actual high of 121 later in the day. (Not a typo.)

The woods were not exactly cool. Only slightly steamy at 7 in the morning. The temperature was already over 80 degrees. With the humidity it was going to feel like 110. However, it’s always cooler on the water.

It was surprising to hear so many human voices in the woods early in the morning, despite the fact that the Memorial Park Conservancy claimed that the unofficial trails were closed. People were talking to each other as they jogged and hiked along the narrow footpaths through the tall trees and over and around the ravines.

Looking downstream from a high bank in Memorial Park just after sunrise on July 12, 2020. The recently expanded River Oaks Country Club golf course is on the opposite bank. Photo by SC

The banks at the water’s edge were heavily lined with giant ragweed, a native that helps protect against erosion. The water had only recently receded after ten days of flow well over 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). (Normal or base flow is about 150 cfs.) The Corps of Engineers had been releasing the stormwater pent up in the federal flood control reservoirs behind Barker and Addicks dams far upstream in west Houston. There had been some heavy rain in the western part of the county – over eight inches in 24 hours — above the dams near the end of June.

Black Water

During the final days of emptying the reservoirs, the water flowing down the bayou was a dark gumbo color, almost black, and there was some concern about that. We were unable to get an explanation from the Corps, but our geologists theorized that this was likely decomposed organic matter from the bottom of the reservoir pools.

The Float

We put in at the public boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway just west of Loop 610. We were all wearing masks, slipping and sliding in the mud. Actually the boat launch, once part of a popular nature trail through the woods, is a giant concrete stormwater outfall draining Post Oak Road. Badly designed by global engineering giant AECOM, the faux-stone structure shoots stormwater directly across the stream, a violation of Flood Control District and Corps policies, blocking the flow, creating turbulence, clogging with sediment, etc. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of the storm pipes emptying into the bayou, old and new, are improperly installed.

We were five people in three kayaks and a wooden canoe, including Bruce Bodson, Save Buffalo Bayou board member and founder of Lower Brazos River Watch; Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, and musician and composer Paul English, an experienced white-water paddler on his first float on Buffalo Bayou.

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