Houston Matters Broadcast Room Filled with Smoke from Burning Pants

An Outstanding Job by Environment Reporter Dave Fehling in Show on Buffalo Bayou and the Importance of Riparian Forest

October 13, 2014

Dave Fehling did an outstanding job of reporting for the Houston Matters radio show on the Buffalo Bayou bulldozing project that aired last Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (Segment starts at 18:35.) Fehling is Houston Public Media’s State Impact reporter for Energy and the Environment.

Most importantly Fehling recognized and addressed the main issue completely ignored by the project promoters: the importance of riparian forest, which are basically wetlands necessary for cleansing our waters, controlling erosion and flooding, and providing wildlife habitat. (Yes, we need hawks and dragonflies and alligator snapping turtles to survive. We are all linked in the chain of nature.)

This project would destroy most of the perfectly healthy riparian buffer along almost a 1.5 miles of the last natural stretch of our 18,000 year-old Buffalo Bayou as it flows between Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the golf course of the River Oaks Country Club on the south. (The club happens to be in the process of rebuilding its entire golf course.)

Two important points that we’d like to clarify and that are causing a lot of confusion in the public mind:

  1. This is not a disagreement between conservationists. This is a battle between conservationists on the one side and developers and profiteers on the other. The influential Bayou Preservation Association, which was instrumental in creating this project and which continues to be its strongest advocate, is no longer a preservation group. The president of the BPA works for the Energy Corridor District, the development agency for the Katy Prairie in West Houston, one of the fastest growing areas in Houston and source of Buffalo Bayou. The BPA board is heavy with representatives of major engineering, construction, and landscape design companies. On the board is a representative of KBR, the engineering contractor for this bayou project. Representatives of the flood control district sit on the advisory board.
  1. This area is not suffering from severe erosion. See below.

    Native box elder and other riparian vegetation naturally restoring a sandy bench, trapping sediment, and creating riparian buffer on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. This area, belonging to the River Oaks Country Club, will be excavated and the bayou channelized and moved. Photo taken July 2014 from the bank of the club golf course. The riparian vegetation in the foreground has since been killed, apparently in the process of preparing the golf course for reconstruction. Photo by Susan Chadwick.

    Native box elder and other riparian vegetation naturally restoring a sandy bench, trapping sediment, and creating riparian buffer on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. This area, belonging to the River Oaks Country Club, will be excavated and the bayou channelized and moved. Photo taken July 2014 from the bank of the club golf course. The riparian vegetation in the foreground has since been killed, apparently in the process of preparing the golf course for reconstruction.

It Would Be Laughable If It Weren’t So Sad

Steve Hupp, water quality director for the BPA, represented the BPA/flood control district point of view, which is sadly supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy. You couldn’t see it, but the flames from Mr. Hupps’ pants were filling up the broadcast room with smoke.

Here is the laughable premise of this project, as explained by Hupp. Actually there are two of them:

  1. Buffalo Bayou will cause erosion damage in this area over the next 200 to 300 years. Therefore let’s go ahead and spend at least $6 million ($4 million in taxpayer money) and do all that damage now! Then it will be all over with. (Not. Likely it will wash out, as similar projects have elsewhere, and then we’ve got an expensive, tragic problem.)
  1. We can and should tear down the natural forest that’s been growing there for at least ninety years and longer, dig up the ancient sandstone and rebuild the banks that were previously held together by the massive root systems of everything we are bulldozing, and plant a new, better forest. The existing forest is healthy and healing, despite having to adjust to urban runoff and high water flows from development upstream. We are not going to do anything about urban runoff or high water flows, but miraculously our new baby trees planted up on our artificially engineered banks won’t be affected by runoff and high water like the old forest was. Our new, engineered forest will be better than nature!

Here are a couple of more flaming points from Hupp during Fehling’s segment on riparian forests:

Steve Hupp is standing on an eroded cliff with a 20-foot drop to the water below.

The high cliffs on Buffalo Bayou are the most stable part of the river, serving as strong bumpers to the meandering water flow. The Bayou Preservation Association and its ally, the Harris County Flood Control District, continue to scare urban prairie dwellers by taking them out to the edge of the high, steep bluff at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and describing it as a “sign of recent erosion.” (It’s impressive though it probably doesn’t help to have people stomping all over the top.)

But these magnificent cliffs have little changed in at least fifty years. They are thousands of years old, part of what is known as the Meander Belt Ridges, and they exist on all the west-east flowing streams in the Houston area. The areas where there has been the least change in the bayou channel are the areas where the banks are the steepest.

“The banks are laying back, eroding wider, a foot a year,” Hupp said. “Basically the bayou’s trying to correct itself. It’ll be bangin’ out the sides. It’ll get there in two or three hundred years. What we’re trying to do is fast forward. “

This is a flat out lie. If the banks were eroding by one foot per year, the banks on both sides would have lost thirty feet each in the last thirty years. Aerial photos and topographic maps show that this is clearly not the case.

But let the Harris County Flood Control District refute Mr. Hupp.

A Third of the Banks Surveyed Had No Erosion At All

The district says that the annual erosion rate in the project area ranges from zero in about a third of the area surveyed to a max of 3.36 inches in one tiny segment. And please note that more than half of the project area is private land, some of which has been managed in a way to cause erosion from the tops of the banks. The best way to fix that is to change damaging land use practices, like mowing up to the edge, killing off riparian vegetation and driving golf carts on the tops of the banks.

The flood control district published this true and factual erosion rate during its public presentation at Lamar High School in December of 2013. (See slide 51.)

Our teammate Bill Heins, a prominent geologist, has studied this issue and here’s what he says, based on the flood control district’s own analysis:

The HCFCD presented the BANCS II assessment of erosion, which surveyed 32 segments of the banks along both sides, on slide 51 of the public presentation in December 2013. (BANCS II is a standardized system of assessing erosion required by the Army Corps of Engineers.)

The documented erosion rate ranged from 0.00 feet per year in 11 of the 32 segments (accounting for 27% of the surveyed area) to 0.28 feet per year in one segment, which constituted less than 5% of the surveyed area.

Averaged over the entire survey area, the mean annual bank retreat is 0.035 feet. We could recast that as 0.42 inches or 11 mm. 

According to the survey, it would take more than 28 years for the average slope to retreat 1 foot.

Even on the one little bit that is eroding the fastest, it would take over 3.5 years.

Of course, Nature only works in fits and starts. It is entirely possible that 1 foot goes away in one storm, but that event is then usually followed by a long period of quiescence.

My own observation  suggests that even if the top of the bank retreats 1 foot, that dirt doesn’t actually move very far. It probably crumbles and slides down through the high water, and winds up not far downslope and not far downstream from where it started.

Please consider donating to Save Buffalo Bayou so that we can continue to fight this battle, which will likely include a legal challenge to the construction permit currently being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must also certify the permit. And the Houston City Council must decide whether this taking of public parkland for a “demonstration” erosion control project is a proper use.

2 thoughts on “Houston Matters Broadcast Room Filled with Smoke from Burning Pants”

  1. Ray Thomas says:

    We have lived on the Bayou since 2006 along the reach of the proposed project. In the first 12 months we saw our tall banks erode back by some 50 feet into our property. We spent a lot of money with a well-known evironmental engineer, using concrete rip-rap instead of toewood at the base, and step planted the slopes. Within a few years, the greenery was better than it was before and we have suffered no more erosion.

    We have seen the tall banks on the River Oaks golf course continuously erode, with many large trees falling into the Bayou. The banks erodes at their base in a flood, the water recedes, and the overhanging bank and vegetation collapses. The process then begins again. From the practical experience of living on the Bayou, I can assure you that these silty banks will erode very rapidly and the riparian forest does not prevent this erosion, especially so on bends in the Bayou.

    1. Ray and Terri Thomas are property owners on Rains Ways whose property will be “restored” at taxpayer expense by this destruction project.

      Terri Thomas was instrumental in creating the project, and Terri Thomas was a board member of the Memorial Park Conservancy when she voted in favor of it.

      Why Terri and Ray think they need their land “restored” at all is a mystery, as it is healthy and doing fine since they paid to have it restored some years ago, just as Ray describes. They have no erosion problem now, says Mr. Thomas. We floated past the Thomas property Friday, Oct. 24, 2014, and it looked lovely to us.

      Please note that the Thomas property and other large properties along Rains Way had erosion problems years ago because the developer, Jack Rains, stripped most of the riparian forest from the land before he sold it to people like the Thomas’s in 2006. These are the problems that Ray Thomas refers to when he talks about trees and banks washing out twelve months later.

      But the bayou’s natural healing process probably has more to do with how well the Thomas property is doing now. The river works in stages, collecting sediment on the banks, planting stabilizing and colonizing vegetation, cleansing bacteria and pollution, building riparian forest. That’s what it’s doing now: healing and adjusting to the increased flow from super highways and parking lots promoters of the destruction project speak about with so much false sympathy and regret

      Stuff washing out and banks crumbling from the top is what happens when you destroy riparian buffer along a waterway. (And mow your golf course up to the edge of the bank and drive golf carts along it.)

      And that’s the main reason why this project to destroy riparian buffer on Buffalo Bayou is so wrong.

      It demonstrates to landowners on the bayou exactly the wrong thing to do to protect their property from erosion.

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