Private Park Board Leads Promotion of Unpopular Engineering Scheme
Army Corps Lawyers Reviewing Environmental Assessment
March 27, 2017
The private organization running Memorial Park appears to be taking the lead in promoting a questionable and unpopular project to destroy a historic nature area belonging to the public, one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
The private board of the Memorial Park Conservancy has hired as the park’s conservation manager Carolyn White, a former long-time employee of the Harris County Flood Control District, which is sponsoring the controversial bayou project. Last month White, representing the Conservancy, gave a lengthy presentation promoting the project at a Houston conference on urban streams.
The 1.25-mile project would raze the trees, vegetation, and ancient high bluffs, dredge, fill a lovely meander, and dig a shorter channel for the 18,000-year-old bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. This forested section is the largest stretch of a bayou running through the center of the city that is both accessible to the public and never channelized, a remarkable natural asset for Houston.
The flood control district describes the goals of the project as controlling erosion, stabilizing banks, reducing sediment, and improving water quality. The agency has been seeking a permit for the project from the Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act since 2013. Opponents of the controversial plan argue that the project is scientifically unsound and environmentally damaging, will achieve none of the stated goals, and eliminates a much-needed natural refuge in the midst of the city. They had hoped that the project had been dropped.
Environmental Assessment Under Review by Corps Attorneys
But apparently the project is still being pushed forward. A representative of the Corps says the agency has conducted an Environmental Assessment of the plan as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Corps’ Galveston District, says the Office of Counsel is conducting a legal review of the assessment.
An Environmental Assessment would result in either a Finding of No Significant Impact or a requirement that the flood control district conduct a full and costly Environmental Impact Statement. Johnson could not say when or if an announcement would be made about the decision.
Controversial Methods That Have Already Failed
The controversial $6 million plan for the bayou, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would use the same “natural stable channel design” methods that have proven disastrous in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, where channel “improvements” continue to cost the taxpayers millions in repairs and maintenance.
In fact, the entire Memorial Park bayou project violates state and federal policy for protection of riparian areas, a type of wetland necessary for cleansing, filtering, slowing and absorbing polluted stormwater and runoff. And by razing the trees and vegetation, digging up the banks and channel bed, and running heavy equipment over it all, the demonstration project demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do for controlling erosion.
Apparent Conflicts of Interest
The nonprofit board of the Memorial Park Conservancy, which a year ago took over from the City responsibility for managing the 1500-acre public park, is a private group of self-selecting individuals. At least one board member who has advocated for the project and believes she would benefit from it lives on a large estate on the north bank of the bayou in the project area. Many other residents in the area are adamantly and actively opposed.
The entire south half of the 1.25-mile long project area is the River Oaks Country Club golf course. Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary are on the north bank, with residential properties in between the two public parks.
City of Houston taxpayers are paying $2 million of the initial cost of the project, along with $2 million in public funds from the flood control district. The estimated cost does not include future maintenance, and similar projects besides Buffalo Bayou Park have required additional funds.
The River Oaks Country Club is supposed to contribute $2 million, one-third of the cost. The club has already reinforced parts of the high bank with environmentally-damaging concrete riprap. There the club cut down what was once an extensive forest and extended the mowed and watered golf course to the edge, resulting in erosion problems. Hardening the bank paradoxically can destabilize a stream. Tree roots and erosion control methods that mimic nature, such as a brush mattress made of tree cuttings, are actually far stronger than concrete, according to Ann Riley, director of the Waterways Restoration Institute in San Francisco, who also spoke at the Houston stream conference.
One-Third of Conservancy Board Also Members of Country Club
At least nine of the twenty-seven members of the park conservancy board are also members of the River Oaks Country Club, including the board chairman, Steve Jenkins, vice chairman, Wendy Hines, and treasurer, Mindy Hildebrand.
Board chairman Jenkins declined to answer questions about the board’s support for the project, directing inquiries to the conservancy’s president and chief executive officer, Shellye Arnold.
The conservancy has long supported the project, which was initiated in 2010 by Kevin Shanley, then chairman and former president of the Bayou Preservation Association, an organization that was founded to oppose a similar project in the 1960s. Shanley was then a principal of SWA Group, the landscape architecture firm responsible for Buffalo Bayou Park further downstream (between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive). The firm has been on retainer to the flood control district since at least 2002, thus was being paid by flood control at the time Shanley proposed the Memorial Park bayou project, and has worked and continues to work on numerous county flood control and city projects. SWA even worked for the district on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project that its principal Shanley proposed and promoted.
The Bayou Preservation Association continues to advocate for the project. The organization’s board is heavy with engineers, developers, builders, commercial and landscape architects, corporate lawyers, commercial real estate agents, and others whose business is to profit from public contracts, including with the flood control district and the Corps of Engineers, and from construction and development, rather than advocate for the environment or greener, less costly, and more effective approaches to erosion or flooding.
The BPA board also includes a property owner in the project area.
Contradictory, Inconsistent Goals
White, a former project manager in the Environmental Services Division for the flood control district, for which she worked for ten years, went to work for the Memorial Park Conservancy in December. In February White gave a presentation at an Urban Riparian conference in Houston sponsored by the Texas Riparian Association. She devoted much of her presentation to promoting the Memorial Park project and to highlighting the results of the largely damaging work done by Flood Control on the bayou in the 2.3 mile-long, 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd and Sabine streets.
That downtown project is falsely billed by the City as “restoration of the original meanders to improve water quality.”
No meanders were restored. And even if they were, that would not in isolation necessarily “improve water quality.” However, restoring the original meanders, or better yet, allowing the bayou to restore naturally and with little cost its own meanders would still be a good idea. Meanders lengthen the stream and slow the energy of floodwaters, a goal sometimes stated and even put into practice by the flood control district, which in its policy and practice appears to take inconsistent, opposite and contradictory approaches to meanders, stormwater detention, and the benefits of vegetation on streambanks.
For example, in the contested Memorial Park project, the flood control district proposes not to restore but to eliminate a natural meander, filling it in, also obliterating and leveling ancient cliffs, and cutting a new and shorter route for the bayou. This will cause floodwaters to flow faster, resulting in greater flooding and erosion downstream. (P. 36)
Our research shows that the bayou does continue to seek out its natural meanders, as rivers always do. Allowing the river to retain or recover its naturally meandering channel on public land such as Buffalo Bayou Park and Terry Hershey Park would serve the quadruple purpose of slowing stormwaters, reducing erosion, having a healthier and more natural stream, and eliminating the constant repeat expense of repairing banks where the bayou is endlessly trying to restore its own curves. (P. 36.)
Watch this slide show of the historic meanders and the bayou today in Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Park and Allen Parkway.
Recycling Misrepresentations, Deceptions, Baseless Claims
White’s presentation at the riparian conference included the same misleading and baseless claims that proponents, including the flood control district in its federal permit application, have been making for years. These claims have been thoroughly refuted by the hundreds of critical comments made by scientists and other experts as well as the public during the public comment period on the permit application that took place in the spring of 2014, followed by a second comment period on the “revised” permit application in 2015.
White’s claims in her presentation included:
Claim 1. That the bayou in this stretch is radically moving around, “whipping back and forth.”
In fact, the bayou channel here and elsewhere is remarkably stable, due in large part to the hard red clay and sandstone channel banks and bed, as noted in a 1995 erosion control study conducted for the flood control district by Brown and Root. (See pages 59 and 75.) (The district wrongly claimed in its federal permit application that there was no sandstone in the project area.)
In the project area there is a meander (called the middle meander, referred to above) that has shifted over time, a long time, like decades, possibly due to a fault in the area, where it has room to do that. (And leaving room for the river to do that is the most advanced approach to management of healthy rivers worldwide.) The district’s plan to spend millions of dollars to fill the channel in this location and reroute it further south because the bayou might eventually shift that way sometime in the distant future is an absurd, counterproductive waste of money and of a natural resource.
Claim 2. That studies show that sixty percent of all the sediment in Buffalo and Halls bayous comes from the banks.
In fact, due to the existence of healthy riparian buffer (trees and vegetation) on the banks in this short stretch, as noted in the flood control district’s own permit application, erosion here is miniscule, about 276 cubic yards per year, again according to the permit application.
Claim 3. That all that sediment carries bacteria, the implication being that reducing the sediment will reduce the bacteria.
But reducing the sediment load is not going to reduce bad bacteria, which enters the stream independently of sediment. Case in point: White Oak Bayou, which carries less sediment, is more polluted than Buffalo Bayou. Blaming the sandy sediment for bacteria is like blaming the ground for the leaves that fall on it.
And sediment actually has a beneficial function, serving as a chemical filter, transforming pollutants into something more benign. Which is one reason why it’s damaging to dig up the banks and drive heavy equipment over them: it destroys the beneficial structure of the soil, turning it into simple dirt.
But the argument further assumes that the project will result in less sediment in the bayou. There is no evidence to support that claim. More likely, the project will result in greater sediment loss due to the removal of vegetation and destabilization of the banks.
Claim 4. That the project will turn this section of the bayou into a stable stream, which means that it will neither aggrade or degrade, according to White. (That means sediment building up and washing away. Or as Riley describes a stable stream: the same amount of sediment flows in as flows out.) Transporting sediment is part of a river’s job, and healthy, living, biologically diverse rivers need to do some eroding and depositing, which is why it’s a good idea to let the bayou do that where it has room to do that.
Again, the claim that the project will necessarily result in a stable stream is baseless. Promoters don’t know if the result will be a more “stable” bayou, but they are willing to spend millions of public dollars and destroy an irreplaceable natural asset just to find out. We do know it hasn’t happened downstream in Buffalo Bayou Park, where Flood Control spent more than $5 million in public funds on a “natural, stable channel design project.” (P. 33)
Watch this slide show of repeat repairs attempting to halt the continuing “aggrading and degrading” of the banks in Buffalo Bayou Park, where flood control removed trees and vegetation, dug up and graded the banks that had been previously razed and reconfigured in the late 1950s.
Aside from whether “fixing” a river and stopping it from performing its natural functions is a good idea, the entire concept is based on the flawed assumption that repairing “damage” without fixing the cause of the damage will somehow result in something more resilient and better than what nature can engineer.
And note that in the link above (P. 33), the flood control district spent $245,000 to excavate the banks and remove invasive species at Sabine Street in Buffalo Bayou Park, right where the park’s private managers, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, paid Kevin Shanley’s SWA Group to plant Mexican petunia, an invasive species.
Claim 5. That the bayou, rather than the managers of Memorial Park, is responsible for severe and ongoing damage to the wooded ravines in the south side of the park.
White showed a photo of a badly eroded gully and described it as “headcutting,” a term most often used to describe a type of erosion caused by a stream, and White’s implication was that this erosion was caused by the bayou.
But as described in a 2004 study of the park (see below), and as our geologists have confirmed, this erosion is clearly caused by stormwater runoff from the park itself, from the concrete parking lot and pipes draining into the gullies.
Watch this slideshow of erosion damage to the sensitive bayou woods caused by unrestricted stormwater runoff from the parking lot and storm drains in Memorial Park.
Mismanagement or A Policy of Deliberate Neglect of Park Land on the Bayou?
During the question-and-answer period at the end of White’s presentation, Save Buffalo Bayou pointed out that the “headcutting” White referred to was in fact erosion from runoff in the park, damage that had been going on unchecked for many years. We asked when the Conservancy planned to do anything about it.
White responded that “it was in the Master Plan,” referring to the $3.2 million 2014 master plan, which proposes eventually to rearrange the parking lots and south side of the park. In other words, no immediate steps were planned to stop the damage to the bayou woods from runoff from the park.
In a later phone conversation, Memorial Park Director Jay Daniel acknowledged the problem of park runoff eroding the ravines and gullies. He cited a lack of money to study what to do about it. However, the 2004 Master Conservation Plan for the park has already studied the issue of runoff eroding gullies and ravines in the valuable bayou woods.
Our experts have suggested that at a minimum a simple solution such as a couple of well-placed hay bales would help divert the concentrated stream of runoff that surges into the ravines.
As the 2004 park plan reported, “[t]he majority of the erosion problems in Memorial Park can be attributed to four basic erosion mechanisms: sheet flow concentrated by a manmade structure, ditch, or a natural drainage swale; inadequate erosion protection at storm sewer outfalls and culverts; inundation by high floodwater in Buffalo Bayou; and pedestrian, bicycle, and equestrian traffic on the trails that form swales alongside that eventually lead to concentrated flow and erosion.” (P. 8)
The Solution: Slow It Down, Spread It Out, Soak It In
And what should be done to “fix” the alleged problems in Buffalo Bayou?
Stop trying to fix it. If stormwater runoff and high flows are causing damaging erosion (and flooding) in the bayou, prevent stormwater from collecting so fast and rushing into the bayou all at once. Solutions need to focus on stormwater before it enters our streams or even before it enters our existing concrete drainage systems.
Slow it down, spread it out, and soak it in.
Learning from a Historic Nature Area
The 2004 master plan for Memorial Park, which described the park as “Houston’s foremost natural wooded bayou park,” recommended of the bayou flowing past: “leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature.” (P. 11)
It appears that all of the findings and recommendations of that costly 2004 plan have been ignored, including recommendations for controlling erosion from park runoff in the “most sensitive” areas of the park – the riparian woods along the bayou. (Pp. 5-6) Also ignored was a recommendation for a nature trail through these woods “using techniques most appropriate to sensitive areas.” (P. 6)
Instead, the Conservancy spent $3.2 million on a new master plan now under construction in coordination with the Uptown Galleria-area Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which in 2013 expanded its boundaries to include Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The new master plan is projected to cost Houston taxpayers at least $100 million, not including increased maintenance. The Conservancy is expected to raise another $100 million or more to cover the total of cost of more than $200 million for planned changes to the park .
Meanwhile the people’s valuable and highly sensitive bayou woods and ravines have been allowed to deteriorate, along with the existing informal paths for strolling through nature’s “refuge from intense urbanization.” (P. 6)