Seeing Buffalo Bayou Before It Is Destroyed

Permit Issued! See Why It Should Be Preserved.

New Aerial Photos!

April 24, 2017

Update: The Harris County Flood Control District last week signed the project permit sent to them by the Corps of Engineers, according to a source who was at a quarterly meeting of the Flood Control District Task Force today. But District Director Russ Poppe told the task force that the project will now cost more than the original $6 million price.

In other parts of the world – India, New Zealand, for example – rivers have been recognized as living entities, accorded the same right to health and life as a person.

In the United States, a corporation has more rights than a river – even more rights than a person.

Rivers nourish life. They are a vital part of our ecosystem — draining, cleansing the water that falls from the sky and runs over and under the land, sending it back to the sea to be used again.

In Houston we are unusually fortunate to have a long stretch of relatively wild and wooded bayou flowing past Memorial Park in the middle of the city. If we float down and around the bends of the bayou here, or walk along the neglected footpaths through the riparian forest, over and around the deep ravines that feed into the bayou, along the soft sandy banks and through boggy marsh, pausing on the high edge, we can observe our natural history, the geology of Houston, the ancient sandstone and tall bluffs, the natural cycle of growth and change, erosion and renewal of the bayou and the wetlands along its banks. We can see the tracks and nests of beaver, turtle, coyote, alligator, and more, hear the sounds of songbirds and skittish rabbits, watch herons and egrets sail gracefully downstream, hawks wheel in the sky, and breaking the surface of the water, the long back of the scaly alligator gar, one of the largest and oldest freshwater fishes in North America, now extinct except in parts of the South.

This 18,000-year-old meandering bayou flows eastward from the prairie in Katy to Galveston Bay for some 50 miles. Known as the Mother Bayou, most of our numerous bayous, creeks, and streams flow into it as it makes it wandering way to the bay. Some of the bayou has been straightened. Much of it has been thoughtlessly landscaped or reinforced without awareness of its natural process or our responsibility for the living river as a public trust. Most of it is inaccessible by foot to the public, the banks being privately owned. Our state constitution, of course, guarantees access to this publicly owned waterway through public land.

But this last remaining forested stretch flowing freely past the eastern section of Memorial Park is accessible to the public. And it is unique in that both banks are wooded, the south bank being a private golf course, though the River Oaks Country Club unwisely has cut down the tall trees from some of the upper banks of this waterway, leaving little to protect the denuded banks from erosion.

Deaf Ears

This is the 1.25 mile stretch that the Harris County Flood Control District has targeted for razing and rebuilding, reshaping every meander and most of the channel, at a minimum cost of $6 million, not including future maintenance and repairs. This is the stretch that we are fighting to preserve. Our opponents often allude to the fact that this is not pristine forest, or that settlers cut down the trees once, or that flooding has altered the banks, or that tree roots holding the bank in place are bare (as always happens along streams: the bared roots naturally grow bark for protection) and that trees fall in the water (also natural and necessary: fallen trees filter sediment, stabilize banks, and provide wildlife habitat).

None of these arguments is a reason for cutting down the trees and digging up the banks. Nature is always changing and adapting. Without change, there is no life.

But proponents of razing the forest and dredging and filling and changing the course of the bayou inexplicably press on, despite our reasoned arguments and heartfelt pleas. These proponents include the board of the Memorial Park Conservancy and engineers and developers associated with the Bayou Preservation Association, which long ago stopped advocating for preservation. Apparently they don’t like the unkempt look of nature, or the lack of profit in leaving nature alone.

The Corps of Engineers recently has completed several crucial steps towards granting a permit for the project under the Clean Water Act, a project that would never even be considered in other parts of the country. We are doing our best, through the Freedom of Information Act, to find out more and to persuade those responsible to stop.

In the meantime here are Jim Olive’s recent photographs of Buffalo Bayou taken on April 7, 2017. They were shot from the air of that magnificent stretch of the river in the proposed death zone of what’s called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Here you can compare these photographs to the map of proposed fill (orange) and excavation (yellow) in the project area created by the Harris County Flood Control District.

And please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Save Buffalo Bayou so that we can continue to fight for the bayou on your behalf.

  • Buffalo Bayou flowing into the 1.25 mile destruction zone, which begins just above the outcropping of concrete slabs (visible on the lower right ) that someone has been dumping into the water, apparently in an effort to deflect the flow, possibly from the stormwater outfall on the opposite privately-owned bank. Memorial Park on the right.
  • The beginning of the flood control district's 1.25 mile project area is just upstream of the small fence on the upper (south) bank (visible in the upper left corner). Memorial Park is on the lower (north) bank; River Oaks Country Club property opposite. The trees in this area will be razed, and the banks and channel dredged and rebuilt extending for a hundred feet or more from the center on both sides.
  • An aerial view taken April 7, 2017, by photographer Jim Olive shows the mowed country club golf course extended up to the edge of the old slumped bank. In the proposed plan, the trees and sandy bank on the left, which is Memorial Park, will be dug up and the country club bank on the right, already armored with riprap, will be filled in, moving the channel northwards, shortening the river, and cutting off public land.
  • Looking upstream over the beginning of the flood control district project. The trees here would be razed to a width of about 100 feet on both sides, the channel dredged and altered, and the forested point on public parkland on the right would be excavated.
  • Here one sees the impact of removing the trees on the far (south) bank and extending the country club golf course and concrete path to the edge of the eroding bank. The project in this stretch would primarily shore up country club property to the detriment of public woodlands in the park.
  • Slightly downstream, this forested meander, including a major tributary draining the park, also would be razed and filled on the public side (Memorial Park, on the left) and the channel, trees, and the bank on the private (right) side excavated.
  • A long view of the same forested meander with the country club golf course in the distance. A large amount of forest was removed on this section of the golf course during the recent renovation. The club receives an annual multi-million dollar state property tax reduction for maintaining a "green belt."
  • Looking upstream. The original project plan showed a wide path for heavy equipment cut through this public forest on the right. Current plans are not yet known. No heavy equipment was to enter through private country club land.
  • Coming round the bend and looking back. Erosion is part of the natural process of a river. Trees falling into the stream or on the banks are also a necessary and natural part of a river ecosystem. Woody debris collects and removes sediment from the stream, naturally rebuilds banks, and provides wildlife habitat.
  • Looking downstream as the bayou flows directly towards the ancient high bluffs and sandy banks of a meander called the middle meander. The eastern edge of Memorial Park is directly ahead. This stretch would be filled and a new bayou channel cut through the woods on the right, shortening the channel, accelerating the flow and force of the bayou, potentially causing greater flooding and erosion downstream. A heavy-equipment access road leading from the maintenance yard on the left would be bulldozed through the public forest.
  • A closer look at the sandy banks and the high bluffs, typical of the region's west-to-east flowing streams, of the meander known as the middle meander. All this would be destroyed beyond recognition.
  • This is the middle meander at the eastern edge of the park that will be completely filled, the ancient high banks leveled and graded. This is a natural floodwater detention area. The Harris County Control District is spending millions to create detention ponds elsewhere. The new channel, to be cut through the woods on the south (right) bank, would detach the bayou from its natural wetland floodplain area.
  • Looking south over the same meander that would be filled. The park forest (containing neglected trails) in the bottom of the photo is a wetland and natural detention area. It would be isolated from the bayou and destroyed by heavy equipment accessing the project area from the city maintenance yard in the park.
  • Moving slightly downstream and looking upstream over this meander, called the middle meander. Public park forest on the right.
  • Moving slightly downstream and looking back at the bayou winding around the publicly-owned wooded point, the tip of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, owned by the people of Houston. These undulations will be obliterated and redesigned. Beavers live here. People also live behind the trees on the right, though the bank upstream of the point is owned by the flood control district.
  • Looking directly at the forested point that is the tip of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. It will be dug up and cut back, while the private club land on the opposite bank, which has been denuded of trees, will be shored up. This entire stretch in both directions, just downstream from the high cliffs of the middle meander, will be dredged, rebuilt, and reshaped.
  • The woods of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park, on the right. This entire stretch, including a tributary, would be dredged and filled on both sides, including the channel.
  • Looking upstream towards the west. A wider view of Buffalo Bayou flowing between the city-owned Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the right and the River Oaks Country Club golf course. There was an extensive forest on the club bank decades ago, and some trees on the upper bank until recently. This entire stretch will be extensively dredged, filled, reshaped, and rechanneled.