Damaging, Expensive, Contradictory Plan Still Threatens
Conflicts Still Apparent, Purpose Still Unclear
No Permit Yet
October 8, 2015
The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to largely critical public comments to the Army Corps of Engineers about Flood Control’s misguided project to destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, a most remarkable asset to have in the middle of a city. The Corps is reviewing the Flood Control District’s responses, says Jayson Hudson, who has been the Corps’ Galveston District project manager for the permit application.
Flood Control must apply for a permit from the Corps of Engineers because the Clean Water Act requires the Corps to ensure that projects on federal waters do not damage the health of our waters. Federal waters are defined as navigable streams (Buffalo Bayou) up to the Ordinary High Water Mark, their tributaries and adjacent wetlands, all of which form the great living veins and arteries of our limited water supply. Some studies argue that all riparian areas , the highly biologically diverse natural gardens and forests along stream banks so vital for clean water, should be considered protected wetlands .
Flood Control’s proposed $6 million project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would remove the trees and vegetation along some 80 percent of nearly 1.25 miles of Buffalo Bayou as it meanders past our public Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary in the center of the city, including along a tributary in the sanctuary. The “erosion control” project would dredge and deepen the channel, dig up and level the banks, including magnificent, very old high cliffs, ancient sandstone formations, sandy beaches, wetlands and natural floodplain detention areas. It would dam tributaries, fill in an oxbow, reroute and shorten the channel, speeding up storm water, destroying the bayou’s ecosystem and likely causing greater erosion within the reach and downstream.
The argument is sometimes made that fish and wildlife will return after their habitat and ecosystem are destroyed. Flood Control even claims (see page 41) to have conducted “before and after aquatic biological studies” on several of its Natural Stable Channel Design projects (some of which are failing; see below) and that the results were “positive.” Independent academic studies, however, have found that “[c]urrent stream restoration science is not adequate to assume high rates of success in recovering ecosystem functional integrity” and that “the assumption ‘if you build it they will come’ lacks support of empirical studies.”
Demonstrating Exactly the Wrong Thing to Do
According to Flood Control, the rational for destroying and engineering this historic natural area filled with wildlife is to “stabilize” and “restore” the banks, “improve” nature, and demonstrate to landowners on the bayou, who have used a variety of methods for stopping erosion of their property, a superior or uniform method of erosion control on the bayou banks.
But landowners on the bayou have problems with erosion of their property when they strip the trees and vegetation from the banks for views of the bayou and landscape the banks, as Flood Control proposes to do.
Flood Control plans to demonstrate to landowners exactly the wrong thing to do to protect their property.
Trees and vegetation growing naturally on stream banks form the riparian forest or buffer, which is vital for erosion control, absorbing and slowing rainfall and runoff, shading, filtering, and cleansing the water of pollutants and bacteria, slowing storm waters, collecting debris and sediment for rebuilding the banks, and providing fish and wildlife habitat. Digging up and running heavy equipment over the banks also destroys the soil structure and microbiome. Virtually every state and federal resource agency opposes the destruction of riparian areas as Flood Control proposes to do.
Watch this moving and highly informative short documentary, titled Letting the River Heal, about the devastating Memorial Day flood and riparian areas on the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas.
River Oaks Country Club Loses Patience, Armors Cliffs on South Bank
The River Oaks Country Club owns the entire south side of the project, a largely forested area of sandy beaches and steep, high banks leading to a plateau that has been mostly stripped and converted to golf course greens, contributing to erosion of the high banks. The club is a one-third partner in the project and is donating $2 million towards the initial cost. City and county taxpayers are paying the remaining $4 million. The project, however, will require ongoing maintenance, monitoring, and repair. Similar projects in the county and elsewhere have failed and washed out.
In August, however, the club, which has been upgrading its golf course, decided to go ahead and place concrete riprap on its high banks at the upper and lower limits of its property. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, armoring with riprap is one of the most environmentally damaging methods of erosion control.
Bulldozing Project Conceived and Promoted by Non-Profit Bayou Preservation Association While Board Members Profit from Contracts with Flood Control
Flood Control responded to comments received during a second period of public comment from May to June. Including the initial period of public comment in June of 2014, the Corps has received hundreds of comments opposing or critical of the project, including comments from scientists and public agencies as well as a petition of 2,656 signatures, which the Corps counted as one comment. The project, however, remains largely unchanged.
Most of the far fewer comments supporting the project came from members of the River Oaks Country Club or the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), which was founded in the Sixties to oppose similar destructive projects by the Flood Control District and the Corps. Comments supporting the project emphasized an alleged absence of overhanging tree canopy as a rationale for removing trees from the bayou banks.
Then, there’s this. (Overhanging black willow tree cut on south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the project area. Photo taken Aug. 30, 2015.)
For further irony, this project was conceived and initiated by the BPA, mainly by its influential former president, Kevin Shanley, president and principal of SWA Group, the Houston-based firm that created the landscape design for the recently opened $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park downstream between the Shepherd and Sabine bridges. That two-mile stretch between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway had long ago been deforested and channelized, although the self-healing bayou had nourished and replanted the banks over the years and continues to do so. The Flood Control District spent $5 million to remove much of this riparian vegetation and trees, dredge the channel and dig up and grade the banks, weakening the banks and causing erosion problems and the continuing loss of healthy, mature trees as well as newly planted trees.
SWA Group has been on contract for landscape and graphics services with the Flood Control District since 2004. According to documents received through a Public Information request, Flood Control has paid SWA over $140,000 through February 2015, including a payment of $6,102.50 (of which $350 went to Kevin Shanley) for graphics work on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project in November 2014. Invoices were sent to Carolyn White of the Flood Control District, who is on the advisory board of the BPA, as is Mike Talbott, director of Flood Control. Shanley also remains on the advisory board.
The BPA, now heavy with developers, contractors, and engineers, is still the main promoter for destroying the healthy riparian forest in Memorial Park, one of the loveliest and last natural stretches of the bayou remaining in the city. The project would dig up, fill in, and grade the banks, raze and landscape them with grass and new, young trees. The president of BPA, Robert Rayburn, is development director for the Energy Corridor District, which promotes real estate development in West Houston, a leading cause of increased surface runoff, flooding, and drainage into Buffalo Bayou. Until recently, the manager of the Memorial Park project for KBR, the consulting engineer hired by Flood Control, was on the board of the BPA, as are representatives of other companies that do business on drainage, highway and other projects with Flood Control, the City and the County. Two board members are property owners whose property on the bayou will be “restored” at taxpayer expense by the controversial project initiated by the BPA.
It was only this year that the non-profit BPA adopted a Conflict of Interest policy, although the policy deals only with direct financial conflicts resulting from contracts with the BPA itself, not with the organization’s actions or positions that benefit board members.
The Best Solution: Let Us Have Both Experiences
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has made some very strong criticisms in 2014 and 2015 of Flood Control’s proposed plan for this lovely, forested stretch of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial park, must certify that the project meets state surface water quality standards.
The Army Corps of Engineers rarely denies a permit. But bad projects can fade away. Otherwise, a permit approval will have to be challenged in court.
The best solution would be to leave it be. Allow both bayou experiences. Let this messy, awe-inspiring, low-maintenance natural stretch of our 18,000-year-old bayou, so critical to a healthy environment and filled with winding narrow bike and foot paths through dense, mysterious woods, stand as a contrast to the landscaped, clean and orderly, overly lighted stretch of the bayou with its grassy open spaces, rose gardens, Space Age bridges, event spaces, artificial ponds and imitation Hill Country streams, and concrete and asphalt pathways.