May 26, 2014
We had a good, lively, informative meeting on Thursday, May 22, about Harris County’s plan to bulldoze 14.35 acres or almost 1.5 miles of riparian forest on both banks of Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park, the River Oaks Country Club, and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. Around 200 people attended, including Harris County Flood Control District Director Mike Talbott, who was accompanied by his communications manager, Kim Jackson. It was a diverse crowd in St. Stephen’s Pecore Hall and included worried residents who live along the north bank of the bayou between the bird sanctuary and the 1,500-acre public park. Also birdwatchers, tree huggers, lawyers, engineers, academics, mountain bikers and poets, landscape architects and urban planners, a uniformed employee of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and people from across the political spectrum. This is an issue that is drawing passionate support from conservatives and liberals and people who are neither or some of both.
As one conservative activist has commented: “If there is anything that upsets me more than destroying the environment, it’s doing it with taxpayer money.”
Mr. Talbott was called to take the mic when a member of the audience asked the question that is perplexing many people: Why? What is the point of this hugely destructive project?
The HCFCD director launched into a lengthy history of the project, which has the surprising support of influential groups such as the Bayou Preservation Association, the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. However, Mr. Talbott was unable to clarify why such a costly, extensive, and destructive project was necessary.
A Waste of Taxpayer Money
The $6 million project is almost three times the cost of other bank stabilization techniques that work in harmony with the closed-canopy riparian forest and bayou ecosystem. The controversial method being used has a history of failure and requires both the removal of riparian forest and wildlife habitat and the involvement of lengthy parts of the stream not experiencing erosion.
According to the HCFCD, the “restoration” plan would eliminate 80 percent of the vegetation along nearly 1.5 miles of the bayou in wide swathes extending as far as 100 feet from the water line on both banks. The course of the 18,000-year-old bayou would be changed, and hundreds of shading trees, some more than a hundred years old, would be felled, including in the interior of the park, which is already losing more than half its trees to drought.
Speakers at the meeting, organized by SaveBuffaloBayou.org, included noted environmental attorney and writer Jim Blackburn, Evelyn Merz and Brandt Mannchen of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, and environmental activist and writer Olive Hershey. Frank Salzhandler of the Endangered Species Media Project showed a film of the bayou area slated for destruction.
Hershey Foundation Announces Unanimous Opposition to Bulldozing Project
To enthusiastic applause, Hershey read a unanimous resolution opposing the bulldozing project from the Hershey Foundation, which was established by her late father, Jake, and stepmother, Terry, a noted conservationist and a founder of the Bayou Preservation Association some fifty years ago when Buffalo Bayou faced a similar threat. The resolution read:
“The Hershey Foundation, whose founders have protected Buffalo Bayou beginning in the 1960’s, is absolutely opposed to Harris County Flood Control District’s plans to bulldoze natural, wild riparian forest on both sides of the bayou. The Directors of the Hershey Foundation ask that Harris County Flood Control withdraw its application for the permit to construct the Memorial Park Demonstration Project in Memorial Park. Less destructive alternative methods are available.”
Susan Knight, who lives on Crestwood overlooking the bayou, said that she and her neighbors were despairing over the project to bulldoze the bayou. She said twenty years ago they consulted with Dutch engineers, who recommended planting black willows on their banks to prevent erosion. She said that simple, inexpensive technique worked well, and the county should consider it.
Carlos Calbillo said that he feared that if the bulldozing project went forward on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, the same thing would happen to the natural banks of the bayou in the Second Ward on the east side of downtown where there is new development.
The targeted area is riparian forest and includes two dozen wetlands, according to the HCFCD. Riparian forests stabilize stream banks, filter sediment and pollutants from runoff, slow storm waters, and support a greater diversity of wildlife than upland forests. This ecologically important riparian habitat cannot be replaced, according to environmental experts, who say that Houston’s wild Buffalo Bayou will become a hot, lifeless ditch, devoid of wildlife.
A Petition to the Army Corps of Engineers
Jamie Campbell, who attended the meeting, has started a MoveOn.org petition titled “Stop the Bulldozers n the Wild Banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s Memorial Park.” It will be sent to the Army Corps of Engineers before June 30, the end of the public comment period on a permit for the HCFCD plan.
The full, final 719-page permit application can be downloaded from this link (warning: big pdf file) from the Harris County Flood Control District website.