For several years in Houston, an unfortunate controversy has swirled around open drainage ditches.
The underlying idea is that roadside drainage ditches don’t work — or at least, not as well as concrete street curbs that send water through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes. Many people think that earthen ditches are backwards — too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more engineered, more advanced!
But this is wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in concrete or other impermeable surfaces, earthen stormwater ditches mitigate flooding better and more cheaply than concrete street curbs and buried pipes.
First of all, they have much greater capacity. Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to a representative of the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison, 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons
The Corps’ projects also neglect the city’s other bayous, most of which run through Black and Latino neighborhoods, according to Susan Chadwick, the director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a local environmental nonprofit. Chadwick argues that the agency should spend money on grasslands and green spaces that can soak up water across the city before it ends up in the bayous in the first place, rather than trying to control those waterways with engineered “gray infrastructure.”
“We believe in stopping storm water before it floods the streams,” said Chadwick. “We need to focus on slowing and holding water where it falls, and we need more individual and community efforts to stop and slow and spread out and soak in stormwater.”
The Corps doesn’t tend to fund that kind of green infrastructure, Chadwick said, and disadvantaged neighborhoods often lack the political clout to advocate for major federal infrastructure investments. Houston and surrounding Harris County have raised some money for local flood-control projects, including through a 2018 bond issuance, but without federal dollars it will be hard for the city and county to keep up with the risk. (The Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to questions about its inland flooding projects before publication.)
The Eastern Glades opened in July 2020 when pandemic lockdowns prevented a public celebration, even as demand for parks surged. So the new space appeared without fanfare and instantly became part of the fabric of Houston, as if it had always been there.
The next big attraction at Memorial Park opens this weekend. This time, there’s a party. On Saturday, Feb. 11, the public is invited to an event billed as “The Biggest Picnic in Texas” to celebrate a $70 million land bridge and prairie that connects the two sides of the park across Memorial Drive.
Not everyone will be celebrating. Susan Chadwick, who started Save Buffalo Bayou, calls the land bridge a “seventy-million-dollar vanity project” and argues the master plan alters rather than preserves nature.
Will my little group in Montana be successful in establishing the country’s first climate refuge? The times demand it. Growing up in Texas has inculcated in all of us the admonition to go big. I worry that 265,000 acres is, given the urgency of things, too small. But it’s a start. And if every northern region around the world protected its oldest forests, what cool, calming breath might emanate?
It’s not just the northern border that holds the key. A tree’s a tree. Groups like Save Buffalo Bayou in Houston are working to hold on to the forests that help deflect and absorb flood wrath and store carbon in the rising heat of that concrete ecosystem. As Lady Bird Johnson once espoused the value of wildflowers, how wonderful it is to see fellow Texans espouse the carbon-storing value—the cooling value—of old and mature trees.
The agency announced Wednesday that engineers will spend two more years analyzing the tunnel option and other alternatives. The Corps will use $1.8 million in federal funds to continue the study.
An additional $3.4 million from two Harris County commissioners will support complementary research at the county level.
The Corps previously considered tunneling floodwater under the city to be too expensive, with an estimated cost of $6.5 to $12 billion. Engineers envisioned a tunnel some 150 feet below ground, starting at the reservoirs to the west and perhaps following the bayou’s path to the Houston Ship Channel.
Other conservation organizations were cautious: Susan Chadwick, of Save Buffalo Bayou, pointed out that it is important to question who benefits from such a project. Katy Prairie Conservancy President and CEO Mary Anne Piacentini hopes the Corps will also consider nature-based infrastructure.
Bob Stokes, of the Galveston Bay Foundation, warned that water quality will be hugely important to analyze. Stormwater concentrated underground in a large volume and over a long distance can become depleted of oxygen, he said. That causes marine life to die, so the water might need to be treated before it’s dumped into the bay.
A spotted sandpiper flies across the water. A great egret stands on the river’s edge. Sycamore trees offer shade. According to one member of that day’s paddling group, there are three species of gar, three species of catfish and a whole host of birds.
“So many people don’t even know about it,” said Steve Green, a former river guide who left his sailboat in Clear Lake to paddle along. “Those that do really enjoy it.”
A panel discussion hosted by Scenic Houston featuring environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, Save Buffalo Bayou Executive Director Susan Chadwick, the Kinder Foundation’s Guy Hagstette, and developer David Ott with the Hanover Company.
To be sure, not everyone wants to see Memorial Park’s arboraceous expanses replaced with amenities. “This is hardly an experience of nature, and neither is it environmentally sound,” said Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a local environmental advocacy organization focused on preserving the tree-lined banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park. “Too much of the park is used for maintenance. Too much of it is blocked off. Too much of it is being landscaped.” From her perspective, the projects mar the park rather than enhancing it. The World War I memorial included in the plan would turn a verdant green space into “a giant cemetery.” The land bridge is a “seventy-million-dollar vanity project.”
As it seeks solutions to reduce flooding along Buffalo Bayou, the Army Corps of Engineers is reevaluating proposals to excavate dirt from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and to carry floodwater under the city to the Houston Ship Channel or Galveston Bay.
Many remain interested in the tunnel idea, though it is costly and raises some environmental concerns. Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, considers it to be another inappropriately big, slow and expensive fix.
She was among those calling on community members to stay vigilant, encouraging them to reach out not only to the Corps but also to their elected representatives in Congress, who will make the ultimate decision on whether to approve and fund a final project.
“It’s still very much up in the air what they’re going to do,” Chadwick said, adding that she hoped the Corps would review nature-based ideas that can be executed more quickly and benefit both the environment and human health.
The flood control district has considered tunnels since the 1990s, though plans have never advanced beyond paper. Since Harvey in 2017, which flooded more than 200,000 county residences and damaged many of the district’s defenses, the county has revisited the idea.
A study engineers completed in October reached two important conclusions — that tunnels feasibly could be constructed and they could move substantial amounts of stormwater that otherwise could pool in neighborhoods or push bayous over their banks. Encouraged by the results, the district has begun a second phase of research, which over the next year will map one to five possible routes. A third one-year phase would include a geotechnical analysis to evaluate construction challenges.
The biggest obstacle to building tunnels is likely to be the cost.
At a price tag of about $100 million per mile, even a single 20-mile route connecting the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to the ship channel would cost around $2 billion. Elmer said Harris County would have to seek funding from the state and federal governments, perhaps as a supplement to a bond passed by voters.
Susan Chadwick, executive director of advocacy group Save Buffalo Bayou, panned the tunnel idea. She said the enormous sum of money needed to construct them would be more wisely spent purchasing undeveloped land in west Harris County, which acts like a sponge during rainstorms.
Talking About Local Geology and the Formation of Buffalo Bayou
Dec. 25, 2019
Geologist, river guide and Save Buffalo Bayou board member Tom Helm joins Michael Gold, founder of the Cypress Creek Restoration Project, to discuss the geologic history of Texas and our local Houston area.
They discuss Tom’s background, how he became interested in geology, the geologic formation of our state and local area, what you can see around Texas, when and how our bayous and creeks were formed, and what you can see in our bayous and creeks.
Image: Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County by Michael Gold
Talking About Nature, Rivers, History, and Flooding
The park on that warm, sunny day looked gorgeous, lush, green and glittered with goldenrod. The feathery purple blooms of the Gulf Muhly grass wafted alongside the trails.
But what about that orange plastic netting everywhere, the iron barriers and warning signs, the closed trails and sidewalks collapsing into the water, the white entrails of irrigation pipes hanging out of the dirt?
Buffalo Bayou Park between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is one of Houston’s great treasures, providing a rare experience of nature in the city. The lovely 160-acre park is the result of a $58 million landscaping effort, led by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, funded largely by private donations, though the public annually provides some $2 million in maintenance and operating funds for the park through the Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) #3. Designed by landscape architecture firm SWA Group, the park has won national and international awards.
But what’s happening to the banks of the bayou there?
Regularly described as “designed to flood,” the park, built in a floodway, was more or less completed just in time for what Eric Berger and Matt Lanza have called “the wettest period in Houston history.” The Harris County Flood Control District had just finished a $5 million project to stabilize the banks. Now it’s in more trouble than ever.
Part of a series exploring efforts to make Houston a food-resilient city.
Flood researcher Sam Brody is not ashamed to admit he keeps a broom in the trunk of his car at all times. If he spots a clogged street drain across Houston, he puts it to work.
“I’ll sweep those drains out,” said Brody, the director of Texas A&M University’s Center for Texas Beaches and Shores. “If these neighborhoods and associations knew how important it was, they’d be out there doing it, too. We need to make sure what we have is working before we spend billions on projects.”
Inside the heavily developed Inner Loop, the flood control district’s options are limited. There are virtually no buy-out candidates and very little opportunity for large detention ponds. But other opportunities exist, said Christof Spieler, a researcher with the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, such as the North Canal project, which would create a bypass where White Oak and Buffalo bayous meet.
“That could reduce flooding in that area by several feet alone,” Spieler said.
That project, at an estimated $100 million, is one of the priciest on the district’s bond-funded capital plan.
With large tracts of land unavailable, another solution is to think smaller.
“With microdetention, you could have several little pieces of land rather than one large pond,” he said. “Existing development, such as schools and service centers, could be retrofitted with this approach—another opportunity that has not yet been looked at fully.”
Greenways—And New Ways Of Thinking
Solutions inside the Loop will have to be outside the usual toolbox, said Susan Chadwick, the president of Save Buffalo Bayou. “What is it that makes a project? Unfortunately, most of it is designed for engineering companies to come in and solve … but we could be thinking more about the natural environment,” Chadwick said.
As new development regulations in Houston attempt to offset the effects of more frequent heavy storms, some advocates and researchers say targeting the area’s urban sprawl will do more to reduce those at risk than limiting the amount of development in the city’s core.
Researchers, including Shelton, said approaching development regulations from a watershed level rather than a jurisdictional level would make it easier to manage stormwater runoff across Houston and its suburbs and would reduce the strain downstream on bayous and tributaries. This approach also calls for more dense development on existing property rather than converting open land into new subdivisions.
“We need to be redeveloping decrepit commercial districts [outside of flood plains] that would be suitable for multi-use residential and commercial,” said Susan Chadwick, director of nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou. “Look at all those strip malls all the way up North Shepherd.”
Moving water through the city more effectively relies on less development upstream as well as more green space surrounding the bayous’ flood plains. This could be aided by the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative, which focuses on adding parks and trails along the city’s bayous.
“We’re not against development,” Chadwick said. “It should just be intelligent development.”
“As Hurricane Season Begins, ‘Green’ Flood Control Finds Support in Texas” [City Lab].
“‘Engineering companies want to do the most expensive thing they can do,’ complained Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a local advocacy group. Her group argues that chopping down trees and vegetation reduces the land’s stability and potential to absorb water and capture pollution; adds to repair and maintenance costs; and has a negative impact on residents’ wellbeing. The detention project feels like a compromise between natural and artificial flood-control techniques. ‘After Harvey, they needed to bring some stuff off the shelf and show they are ready to do something,’ Chadwick said. She is skeptical that a city that used concrete to conquer swamps, marshes, and prairies can learn to restore green spaces—or just leave them alone.”
As Hurricane Season Begins, ‘Green’ Flood Control Finds Support in Texas
HOUSTON— With the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season under way as of June 1, Texas has taken a major step toward improving its flood defenses by passing a bill to tap into the state’s savings—the aptly nicknamed Rainy Day Fund—for a sum of $1.7 billion. The move comes almost two years after Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas in August 2017, killing 68 people and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage statewide.
A chance to push for green infrastructure
With its loyal support for the oil and gas industry, it’s not often that the Texas legislature gives conservationists anything to cheer. But the text of Bill 7 cites “construction and implementation of nonstructural projects, including projects that use nature-based features to protect, mitigate or reduce flood risk.” Environmental advocates see a chance to push for green designs in a state better known for exploiting natural resources than preserving them.
Lawmakers still envision a significant role for traditional “gray” engineered solutions, such as pipes, levees, drainage channels, and retention basins. But Laura Huffman, state director for The Nature Conservancy, thinks politicians are “recognizing that green infrastructure can scale just like gray infrastructure,” she said.
“Engineering companies want to do the most expensive thing they can do,” complained Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a local advocacy group. Her group argues that chopping down trees and vegetation reduces the land’s stability and potential to absorb water and capture pollution; adds to repair and maintenance costs; and has a negative impact on residents’ wellbeing.
The detention project feels like a compromise between natural and artificial flood-control techniques. “After Harvey, they needed to bring some stuff off the shelf and show they are ready to do something,” Chadwick said. She is skeptical that a city that used concrete to conquer swamps, marshes, and prairies can learn to restore green spaces—or just leave them alone.
But now hundreds of trees, including towering pines and oaks, are being deliberately felled as part of a $200 to $300 million landscaping plan. Anyone walking in the park or even driving through can plainly see the bright plastic ribbons wrapped around the trunks of the legions of trees facing imminent doom on both sides of Memorial Drive.
Many more trees still unmarked are to be cut down on the west side of the park to make way for sports facilities, a relocated Memorial Drive and, in an unhappy irony, an ecologically damaging monoculture of pines to be planted in unnaturally regimented rows as a memorial to those who served in World War I.
As though this were not disturbing enough, the landscaping plan includes creating artificial streams and hardening them with wire, concrete rubble and “rock” of some sort.
Mature pines felled north of Memorial Drive for land bridges. Photo by SC Jan. 24, 2019
The Beauty of Memorial Park
The unique beauty of Memorial Park and its distinctive benefit to Houstonians has been its forests and clear, sand-bottomed streams flowing through deep, winding ravines to Buffalo Bayou. This is part of Houston’s natural history, and this great public park offers our city residents the rare opportunity to experience the wonder of these living trees and streams.
I have been involved with Memorial Park for more than 50 years. Before she died in 1975, I promised my friend Ima Hogg that I would always be a guardian of the natural character of the park. Miss Ima’s family sold the land for the park, previously a World War I training camp, to the city at cost in 1924.
There are admirable aspects of the current master plan for the park — notably the Eastern Glades and the “naturalization” of what are now ball fields south of Memorial Drive, facilities that will be moved to the north. However, a previous plan from 2004, approved by City Council, was less intrusive and more respectful of the character of the park. It described the park as “Houston’s foremost natural wooded bayou park” and “a refuge from intense urbanization.”
The idea is to separate parts of Memorial Park while at the same time bringing the land together.
Susan Chadwick likes the former objective. She doesn’t understand the latter.
Chadwick, the president and executive director of an environmental advocacy organization called Save Buffalo Bayou, is opposed to the land bridge project in the heart of Houston’s signature park. Part of the Memorial Park Master Plan approved by the city council in 2015, and funded by a $70 million grant from the Kinder Foundation, it features the construction of two earthen land bridges over Memorial Drive that would connect the north part of the park with the south.
Another part of the project involves moving baseball fields on the south side of the park to the north – where there are softball fields, tennis courts and a golf course – which would make the south side even more of a natural area for wetlands and wildlife.
“If they move all the sports facilities to the north and the south is nature area, why spend so much time and money constructing large bridges for people to go from the north to the south and vice versa since they will be doing different activities?” Chadwick wondered. “I don’t see the point of what they want to do.
Houston City Council members unanimously voted Wednesday to approve plans for the renovation of the Memorial Park golf course, which will allow the PGA Tour’s Houston Open event to be held at the course as early as 2020.
The vote, which occurred after a week’s delay, will enable work to begin within days on the $13.5 million renovation plan, to be funded by the Astros Golf Foundation. Renovations need to be completed and the course open for play by Nov. 1 for the Houston Open to be played at Memorial Park in 2020.
The foundation will pay an annual tournament fee of $1 million for the PGA Tour event’s use of the city-owned course, with $750,000 going to the city and $250,000 to the Memorial Park Conservancy. Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would recommend that the city’s share of the annual fee will be used for city parks.
Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, which described itself as a watchdog group regarding development along the bayou, submitted a letter to the City Council in support of Laster’s efforts to capture the entire $1 million annual tournament fee for the city parks department.
She also questioned whether the city should seek a higher fee for the use of Memorial Park for the PGA Tour event.
KHOU Series on Buffalo Bayou with Geologist, River Guide, and Save Buffalo Bayou Board Member Tom Helm
Nov. 21, 2018
Watch this four-part series by KHOU Channel 11 reporter Brandi Smith about the scenic secrets of Buffalo Bayou. The series began airing Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 6 a.m. and the last segment airs Tuesday, Dec. 4.
Five-Year-Old Interview About Memorial Park Demonstration Project Causes Confusion
Nov. 12, 2018
Well, we were confused too and a little upset as we listened to Evelyn Merz of the Houston Sierra Club being interviewed this afternoon on KPFT by Mike Honig of Thinkwing Radio about the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. That project would have stripped, dredged, and rerouted over a mile of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. The stretch is a historic nature area, one of the last remaining publicly-accessible forested stretches of the bayou in the city.
But the more we listened, the odder is seemed. Above all because the project is dead.
The chief risk facing Houston and Harris County is not the vulnerability of new developments, which do tend to be built higher, better, and upstream, but that of the older houses downstream, many built low to the ground and served by undersize storm drains. It may not be the case that your new neighbor upstream is making you flood. But the standards could be higher. Activists say the choice between an abandoned, flood-prone golf course and a subdivision of 900 homes was a false one. Susan Chadwick, the executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a group that opposes development in and around the river, argued in June that the city should have used eminent domain on the course to create a detention pond that would relieve Brickhouse Gully.
The engineers at the Flood Control District don’t disagree it would have been a good place for a pool. As we sat in his office going over flood plains, Todd Ward conceded it was a bit of a missed opportunity. We found the course on an enormous satellite map of Houston on the wall. In a giant city, it’s a small square. But there aren’t many undeveloped parcels of that size left. Some of the just-approved $2.5 billion bond will go toward buying out existing repeat-flooding homes downstream of the newly elevated houses at Spring Brook Village. The bond calls for $35 million of channel improvements to Brickhouse Gully to reduce the risk to 1,300 homes.
Since last fall, HCFCD has cleared large downed trees along nearly 25 miles of the bayou from Highway 6 to Interstate 45, according to Facilities Maintenance Department Manager John Watson. However, an official from nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou said the work will ultimately lead to more flooding and erosion of the bayou downstream.
Save Buffalo Bayou Executive Director Susan Chadwick said the nonprofit organization was started in 2014 “to oppose a plan by HCFCD to raze the forest, dredge and reroute over a mile of one of the last forested, publicly accessible stretches of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park through the middle of the city.”
Chadwick said Save Buffalo Bayou educates community members and leaders about how natural and manmade drainage systems work and what is ineffective to prevent flooding.
She said large debris removal projects and other efforts to speed up water flow along Buffalo Bayou are not effective long term.
“The focus on speeding up the flow leads to a cascade of poor decisions, policies and practice: removing all the woody debris in the stream, for instance, dredging, straightening, shortening and enlarging channels,” Chadwick said. “These extremely costly methods are unsustainable.”
She said because Buffalo Bayou is a natural body of water, it will always evolve and correct itself when repairs or changes are made.
“A river is a dynamic living system. It adjusts itself to the width and depth necessary to become stable. An artificially deepened stream, for instance, will fill itself with silt and sediment again. The banks of an artificially widened stream will collapse. Streams flow the way they do because of the underlying geology. Rivers have a memory. They will do what they want and need to do,” Chadwick said.
A trackhoe on a barge stuck in the sandy channel bottom of Buffalo Bayou at that bend below the high bank in Memorial Park. Maintenance contractor with flood control was removing fallen trees from the banks and channel. Photo by SC May 19, 2018
Eminent Domain and the Moral Hazard in a Golf Course
But the more critical issue is that this particular golf course — and other local golf courses — are one of the few remaining sources of undeveloped land vitally needed for detaining stormwater and reducing flooding in our highly developed city.
The golf course in question, Pine Crest, drains into Brickhouse Gully, which in turn drains into White Oak Bayou. Both streams are among the top 10 fastest rising streams by flow in the state of Texas, according to a recent study by hydrologist Matthew Berg for the Texas Water Journal. Also in the top 10 is Cole Creek, which flows into the same spot.
Neighborhoods along all of these streams have experienced repeated flooding. The Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, a group of local experts organized after Harvey, recommended creating detention along these streams in its report released in April. (p. 44)
The area is the most developed watershed in the Houston region, noted Berg. “We’re not going to get any more of these,” he said. “The opportunities are extremely limited.”
The decision to allow development of this open space, instead of using it for stormwater detention, is a prime example of creating a moral hazard. Local authorities make planning decisions putting residents in harm’s way and leave it up to the federal taxpayers to pick up the tab for the damage.
“When … local governments do not share in the liabilities when a disaster occurs, they become incentivized by increased developments and tax revenue to continue making poor land-use decisions,” wrote the American Society of Civil Engineers in a 2014 report criticizing the National Flood Insurance Program, which will provide taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance for the houses built in the golf course/floodplain. (p. 24) The report also noted that “nonstructural and nature-based measures tend to be more efficient and sustainable solutions” than “traditional structural measures” like dams and pipes.
Standing on the edge of a crumbling bank of Buffalo Bayou near Memorial Park, Susan Chadwick surveys the damage with a certain grim satisfaction. Having long insisted that the natural bayou could weather any storm, she now has her proof. Harvey damaged the banks, yes, but didn’t destroy them.
“We were right,” she says. “It’s taken a beating, but it’s already coming back.” Half a year after the storm, wild violets and soft clover have sprung up near the water, and, Chadwick adds, she’s spotted wildlife—everything from turtles to cranes and even a family of otters—taking up residence once again.
As the executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a nonprofit focused on preventing the Harris County Flood Control District from deforesting and channelizing one of the last relatively untouched stretches of the ancient waterway, Chadwick has spent the last four years trying to get people to understand the bayou and to leave it alone, arguing, essentially, that messing with it would lead to needless destruction and only make flooding worse.
Read the rest of this story in Houstonia magazine.
Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Max Burkhalter for Houstonia magazine.
SBB On the Radio
Understanding Flooding and Our Bayous
Hot News: Save Buffalo Bayou and Corps of Engineers Agree About Something
Feb. 6, 2018
Save Buffalo Bayou was on KPFT’s Open Journal on Monday evening. We had a lively discussion with hosts Duane Bradley and Sherri McGinty, who asked a lot of good questions about what Save Buffalo Bayou is doing now and how we are working to focus flood mitigation efforts on stopping stormwater before it enters our streams. Flooding begins on the land. Digging up and widening our bayous is outdated, costly, and only causes more flooding. Amazing development: Save Buffalo Bayou supports a Corps of Engineers project to study our regional Houston watershed, beginning with where raindrops fall and how we can slow them down to reduce our flooding. The faster the runoff from our homes, businesses, streets, parking lots and sidewalks, the higher peak flow in our natural drainage systems. Slow the flow. Citizens need to support this and contact their representatives. The project needs funding and the Corps by law cannot lobby. So who’s going to lobby?
Regarding “Enough flood studies!” (Page A12, Jan. 26), John Moody, chairman of the West Houston Association, wrote a letter complaining about a Corps of Engineers proposal to study flooding in the region.
It should be noted that the third reservoir in the Corps’ original 1940 plan was on White Oak Bayou, not Cypress Creek, as described by Moody. That nearly 80-year-old plan included a levee running next to Cypress Creek. A great deal has changed in 80 years.
The Corps’ proposal to study the overall pattern of rainfall and drainage in the region is an excellent and necessary project if we are to understand our problem, prioritize our solutions and get the most flood reduction benefit for our tax dollars. The study will analyze the impact of impervious surfaces – such as roofs, roads and driveways – and the usefulness of widespread individual actions to hold back and soak in rainwater. The Corps conducted such a study in New Orleans after Katrina.
The idea, proposed by the West Houston Association, of channelizing Buffalo Bayou to accommodate a massive, pre-development flow of 15,000 cubic feet per second is an absurd pipe dream. A flow above 4,100 cfs already floods property on the bayou. The executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, Russ Poppe, has pointed out that merely purchasing the right-of-way on the banks would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the cost of digging out the channel, mitigating the environmental damage to the waterway, and then continuously repairing the banks and dredging the sediment that will naturally fill in the artificially deepened river. Oh, then there’s the damage that would be caused by the massive flooding downstream from such a fast, powerful flow.
Focusing on bigger channels, faster flows and big engineering projects is outdated and counterproductive. Modern flood risk management emphasizes slowing the flow, spreading out and soaking in rainwater before it floods a stream – and staying out of the way.
The West Houston Association wants to develop more of west Houston, including the land surrounding Cypress Creek. That means adding more runoff to Cypress Creek and to our reservoirs on Buffalo Bayou. It means moving people into harm’s way.
Susan Chadwick, executive director, Save Buffalo Bayou
America’s fourth largest city is built on an ancient river network that flooded catastrophically after Hurricane Harvey. With 400,000 homes in the watershed, achieving resilience is the Texan boom town’s greatest challenge
Buffalo bayou’s waters flow east for more than 50 miles from fast-vanishing western prairieland, through Houston’s centre and out to its heavily industrial ship channel.
Long before the city’s tangle of freeways were built, the bayou’s existence helped draw settlers in the 19th century. But after thousands of homes flooded this August as Hurricane Harvey ravaged the city, proximity to water is increasingly seen as a liability.
“Previous generations understood that you came here to make money and that was it,” says Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a local advocacy group.
The notion that Houston could be pretty as well as practical came relatively recently to a city where a climate-controlled tunnel system links 95 blocks so that office workers need not venture outside. “People don’t come here for the nature experience – never did. It was not a hospitable place. It was a place you’d pave over,” she says.
Note that the KUHF reporter describes the issue as Not in My Backyard. No one on the Save Buffalo Bayou board or advisory board lives anywhere near this proposed project. This series of detention basins (not just one) will be built in a public park, public forest, riparian forest in west Houston. Creating only a modest amount of holding capacity (280 acre feet), they will not hold back water flowing into the bayou but will temporarily peel off water that is already in the bayou, and will have to be continually maintained and scraped of sediment.
Detention is important and vital. Bigger, wider floodplains are important. That means buyouts.
New motto: Stop Raindrops Where They Fall!
Public tax dollars should be spent where they will create the most benefit. Flood management policy should be focused on detaining stormwater before it enters our streams. The flood control district had the choice years ago of building bigger, more useful detention basins elsewhere. They chose not to do that.
KHOU reporter Adam Bennett’s report on the flood control proposal to remove trees on the forested public banks of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. The controversial plan, long in the works, is to create a series of basins to temporarily hold water overflowing from the bayou. Save Buffalo Bayou thinks the time to stop stormwater is before it gets into our streams. Forest provides valuable detention. Removing it makes no sense.
Flood control “improvements” will definitely destroy public forest along Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. They’ve pulled an existing, long-opposed plan off the shelf to look like they are doing something, anything, about reducing flood damages. This won’t help. We are not in favor of trees because they look pretty. We’re in favor of trees because they help reduce flooding.
The Chronicle‘s Mihir Zaveri’s report on the issue and the vote:
Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to let the Harris County Flood Control District sketch out what exactly a study of that segment of the bayou would examine.
The Court would have to vote again to green light the actual study, which could recommend flood reduction measures, such as clearing trees and installing detention ponds.
Susan Chadwick, executive director of the nonprofit Save Buffalo Bayou, opposed the flood control district’s study, stating that residents in the area had been fighting for years to keep the forests’ natural aesthetic.
City Hall must reject the pre-Harvey status quo of paving over the floodplain.
Nov. 1, 2017
Thanks to Houston Chronicle reporter Mike Morris and local advocacy groups like Residents Against Flooding and Save Buffalo Bayou, the scandalous MUD proposal was brought to public attention and referred back to the mayor for the time being. Were it not for media scrutiny and civic activism, this MUD, which was originally supported by District A Council Member Brenda Stardig, and the underlying master-planned community would have proceeded like any number of the oft-ignored issues that come before City Council.
City Hall got lucky that someone else caught its mistake.
The folks fighting a longstanding battle to prevent the reconfiguration of a section of Buffalo Bayou fronting the southeast corner of Memorial Park and the River Oaks Country Club have posted a remarkable series of images showing how a section of the bayou’s bank at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary responded on its own over the course of 2 years to a soil collapse suffered during the 2015 Memorial Day flood. The geologists behind Save Buffalo Bayou claim that the promoters of the Harris County Flood Control District’s proposed $12 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project they’re trying to stop have mistaken a natural bayou-bank process called vertical slumping (or sloughing) for erosion, and that attempting to stabilize the bayou banks to fix the supposed erosion will leave the area “a wasteland of denuded and weakened banks.”
But you don’t have to buy or even follow the riverine logic the organization steps through in a lengthy article posted to its website earlier this week to appreciate one of the examples of waterway-bank adaptation exhibited there. The first image (at top) shows the immediate aftermath of the Memorial Day storm or 2 years ago on the high bluff facing the bayou at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary in Memorial Park, which stands at the downstream end of the proposed project area. According to the organization, an HCFCD consultant claims that this is one of 4 spots within the bayou area that suffers from severe lateral erosion. But to Save Buffalo Bayou, this isn’t erosion; it’s just a slump, which is what bayous do naturally, and which on their own create the distinctive bluffs on the bayou’s banks. There’s no way to fix a slump, the organization’s geologists say — if left alone it’ll restore itself.
Susan Chadwick, executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, was on KPFT’s Open Journal Thursday, July 20, talking with Duane Bradley and Marlo Blue about the organization’s campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou for no good reason.
Here’s a link to the show. The discussion about Buffalo Bayou doesn’t come on until about thirty minutes into the hour-long show.
This stretch of Buffalo Bayou would be filled and the bayou rerouted further south in the proposed Harris County Flood Control District plan. Looking upstream with Memorial Park on the right. Photo by Eric Boatman on July 15, 2017.
What we found canoeing Buffalo Bayou
A group of scouts discover wildlife and a habitat worth preserving
Launching canoes on Buffalo Bayou for the first wildlife excursion in January 2016. Photo by Jim Olive
Rays of Texas sunlight peeked through the riparian forest and reflected off the river current, guarded by sandy banks and high cliffs. A blue heron seemed to be following us as it soared overhead, releasing its echoing call through the clear skies. An alligator gar splashed in the water as it sensed our approach. We saw evidence of recent beaver activity: Footprints in the sand and chew marks on the tree stumps.
As our journey continued along Buffalo Bayou, the 18,000-year-old waterway, I was awed by the abundance of wildlife, the scenery that surrounded us.
I live in a subdivision in the southwest part of the city, and we were in the middle of Houston, the fourth-largest in the U.S., with a population over two and a quarter million people. And here I was floating down a dreamlike river in what seemed like a faraway land.
I had been preparing for this expedition for months. My mission was to inventory the wildlife along the bayou. This was my public service project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Eleven of my fellow Boy Scouts in Troop 55 had volunteered to help. Our plan was to photograph the animal tracks we found and carefully catalog them with their GPS coordinates. The weather conditions had to be just right, and today was the perfect Saturday to explore – sunny and clear.
We needed good weather, because we were going to canoe down the bayou, and the water level had to be low enough so that we could see the animal tracks on the sandy banks. The Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the two federal dams upstream, had assured us that the water level in the bayou would stay low throughout the weekend.
This would be the first of four trips documenting wildlife tracks on the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park. These expeditions spanned a year. In the end, more than 30 volunteers documented 225 animal tracks and logged 327 conservation hours towards this project. I published a guide that summarizes our discoveries and illustrates some of the most common tracks. But this is what we saw that day.
Army Corps of Engineers Green-Lights Memorial Park Demonstration Project
By Dianna Wray, Houston Press
Wednesday, April 26, 2017 at 6 a.m.
After years of controversy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has finally decided to approve the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, which proposes to reroute and reshape a section of Buffalo Bayou running through Memorial Park and the River Oaks Golf Course.
The Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the permit last Wednesday and Harris County Flood Control officials received approval of the individual permit for the project on Monday.
The Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t like to get dragged into controversy, so maybe that’s why it issued the permit Harris County Flood Control needed to move forward with the project without fanfare last week. Flood Control officials then followed up with their own quiet approval of the project, marking an abrupt, undramatic end to the fight over whether or not to alter the riparian forest that lines the banks of Buffalo Bayou, one of the last relatively untouched sections in the heart of Houston.
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project has been a contentious issue since it was first proposed in 2011, as we wrote in our January 2014 cover story.
Houstonians last week once again found themselves facing flooded homes and cars, closed schools, roads and transport. No doubt they were asking, “Why does this keep happening?”
Maybe it’s because our political leaders are prioritizing the wrong solutions and are treating the symptoms instead of the problem. Widening and deepening bayous, a top priority for city and county officials, is an ineffective, environmentally damaging and unnecessarily costly approach to reducing flooding.
Yet widening and deepening bayous is the stated policy and practice of the Harris County Flood Control District and a recommendation of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s 2016 Transition Report on ReBuild Houston, a report largely written by engineers. The practice also is embraced by conventional wisdom. Widening bayou channels was one of a number of responses to the region’s flooding problems listed in a recent Chronicle article, “How to Fix the Houston Floods,” by Dylan Baddour (HoustonChronicle.com, Dec. 31), as well as in a commentary by former mayoral candidate Bill King (“Homeowners puzzled by increase in floods” Page A13, Jan. 13).
Here’s why widening and deepening our bayous and streams is the wrong approach:
The folks at Save Buffalo Bayou send over some before-and-after photos of the Memorial Park boat launch and companion drainage structure just east of where the stream crosses beneath Woodway Dr. The group says the canoe and kayak put-in spot, on a 30-acre section of the park once used as an archery range, had been slowly greened back up by native river plants following the area’s multi-year closure and workover by the Uptown TIRZ, which involved some de-treeing work and the planting of some contractor-friendly non-native grasses on the newly reshaped slope.
Memorial Park director Jay Daniels told the group that the mowing was not planned, as park groups are currently trying to promote native plant growth in the park. Daniels said that he talked to a work group clearing some bayou access paths this weekend about removing some invasive Johnsongrass at the site; the conversation apparently led to some confusion, which led to mowing, which led to many folks being given a stern talking to.
New channel cut by Buffalo Bayou. Heron posing in lower right. Photo Susan Chadwick Aug. 4, 2016
The waterway enthusiasts at Save Buffalo Bayou just issued their report on their recent tours of the waterway, with an eye toward how the scene has changed in the wake of the Tax Day flooding and the extended high flows from the try-not-to-make-things-worse paced drainage of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. The photo above, taken during the organization’s scouting, shows an area of the bayou where the river channel dug through a curve and moved over, such that some landmarks previously on the north bank are now on the south side. The authors take issue with a number of current and proposed plans to keep the bayou’s banks in place, and suggest that the best way to end up with a relatively stable channel is to step back and let geology do the job.
Among other things, we talked about proposals from the city and from the county and others to buyout property owners and widen and enlarge our bayous, creeks, and streams to handle increasing rains. This prospect might be alarming to those of us who recognize the importance of trees and vegetation along our waterways — for erosion control, cleansing our water, removing pollutants, slowing runoff, providing wildlife habitat, and many other life-sustaining functions, not to mention social benefits like we need nature to be sane.
But what if they didn’t bulldoze our waterways and widen them artificially? What if they removed the built structures and created parks and allowed room for our rivers and streams to move and adjust on their own by letting them flood into their natural floodplain?
The water in the normally empty reservoir had dropped only a few feet by the time we stood on the earthen dam looking down at the dark, opaque blue-gray surface. After almost a month, the rippling water below was still some 23 feet deep, and extended as far as we could see along the thirteen-mile long dam and far into the thousands of acres of flooded woods.
It had taken only a little more than 24 hours for the rains that began on April 18 to fill the vast flood control reservoirs in west Houston with a record amount of water: a total of more than 206,000 acre feet, a massive amount of water. Imagine 206,000 acres covered in a foot of water. Enough to cover more than eight times the acreage of both reservoirs to a depth of one foot. That much water would take an estimated four weeks to drain, according to reports at the time.
But that was only if there was no more rain. There was more rain, and it was taking much longer. The reservoirs, vast wooded parks with recreational facilities and nature paths, are still draining. As of May 24, the combined total of the two reservoirs was still about 90,000 acre-feet, down to a little less than half.
Contemporary Art Museum Fort Bend is pleased to announce their participation in this year’s biennial FotoFest. This year’s theme, “Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet,” features an array of breathtaking and intellectual work that offers important commentary on our world and its rapid evolution. Much of the artwork in the exhibitions of FotoFest center in the themes of science, philosophy, politics, and environmental issues along with other global topics.
In the exhibition, Coastal Essence, internationally known photographer Jim Olive delves into the complex world of protecting delicate habitats in our area. The well-known idiom, A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, first appeared in English publications in the early 1900s. The statement was true then, but has never been truer than today. Everywhere we click on the internet and social media, we are bombarded with images. The high demand for photographic content in almost every form of present day media is relentless. Oftentimes, we learn an entire news story from a couple of images. For environmental organizations needing to express a compelling idea, nothing succeeds like a great picture.
This exhibit by Houston-based photographer Jim Olive demonstrates how local environmental organizations have used photographs to illustrate their cause in both print and social media. Many of the photographs point to specific environmental problems, capture the delicacy of the landscape, and underscore the need for protection of sensitive habitats. “Bottom line, environmental organizations must get the word out of what they do”, states Olive. “Nothing will spread their word faster than a photograph that grabs attention.”
The Memorial Park Demonstration project has been a point of contention since the plan was first proposed back in 2013. Since then there have been strident public disagreements and arguments over how the bayou should be handled — or if it should be altered at all — but the ultimate decision on whether to approve the project has been in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And so far, even though it’s been more than two years, the Corps has yet to actually choose whether to approve a permit that will give Harris County Flood Control the right to alter one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou running through the city.
At this point, we’re starting to wonder if the Corps is ever going to make a decision at all.
“The permit is still under evaluation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District staff is working to finalize a decision in the coming months,” Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Galveston District office of the Corps, stated in reply to our inquiries about where things are in the permit process.
Fighting to Save Our Public Forests on Buffalo Bayou
Oct. 28, 2015
Listen to Susan Chadwick of Save Buffalo Bayou and Landrum Wise of Save Our Forest talk about community campaigns to protect public forest along some twelve miles of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
They spoke with Pat Greer and H.C. Clark on Eco-Ology on KPFT 90.1 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, about efforts to keep the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District from destroying woodlands on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park in the center of Houston and in Terry Hershey Park in far west Houston.
In addition to their great social value and benefit to our health, well-being, and quality of life, the trees and vegetation that grow naturally along the bayou perform vital ecological services and are a key part of the bayou’s living system. Known as riparian zones or buffers, these specially adapted trees and plants cleanse and filter pollutants from the water. They protect the banks from erosion, absorb and slow storm water runoff and provide natural flood detention. They shade us and cool the stream, and provide wildlife habitat.
It’s a place where people have been battling the power of water for decades. So we took a canoe to see how that power is re-shaping Buffalo Bayou.
“So what we’re going to do is have you sit in this chair in the middle,” says our guide, Tom Helm as we ease into what he tells us is his most stable canoe. Helm is a canoeist and also a geologist in the oil and gas industry.
We start our journey from where Buffalo Bayou runs under the West Loop. We’re soon floating along at a leisurely pace, going under a railroad bridge as a freight train passes overhead. We pass the backside of the Omni Hotel. We hit a few obstacles.
“Whoa! That was a log we ran into, by the way,” says Helm.
We manage not to tip over, and soon we are just a few miles upstream from downtown Houston.
Where Buffalo Bayou runs alongside Houston’s Memorial Park, you can imagine you’re nowhere near a big city, because you’re surrounded by flora and fauna. But this weekend, on the other side of the bayou the quiet was broken by power shovels and bulldozers.
They were working on the grounds of the River Oaks Country Club whose golf course occupies the bluffs above the bayou.
After the rains started coming down on Memorial Day weekend, geologist Bill Heins, an ardent opponent of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening as the waterway continued to swell and slop over its usual banks along the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou that exists in Houston.
The flood waters haven’t fully receded yet, but both those in favor of the project and those against it have been out on the bayou looking for anything to back up their arguments. Project proponents point to signs of erosion on the soggy banks as evidence that we need this project. Those against it, including Heins, argue that the banks are showing signs of only minor erosion and that the evidence so far shows the natural system of the bayou — even during a record-setting flood — is working perfectly, meaning the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is unnecessary.
If you have something to say about the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, you’d best speak up during the new public comment period opened up on May 5 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Changes have been made to the proposed project.
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project has been a contentious issue since it was first proposed in 2011, as we wrote in our cover story published in January 2014. The project seeks to reroute and reshape a section of Buffalo Bayou that runs through Memorial Park and the River Oaks Golf Course. Harris County Flood Control officials put a $6 million price tag on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The City of Houston, the River Oaks Country Club and Harris County Flood Control have each chipped in $2 million. Since the beginning of the whole thing, Harris County Flood Control has been running the show at the behest of the other entities involved. Harris County Flood Control has been trying to get the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a permit for the project for years now, but so far it seems as if the project keeps getting hung up on permit-type snags in the process, partly because it’s a complicated thing to get the Army Corps of Engineers to permit just about anything, and partly because the project has drawn some rather vocal opposition from local environmentalists.
Is the traditional vision of local and urban flood control agencies in conflict with federal and state agencies charged with protecting the health of our waterways?
Let me explain how I came to ask myself this question about mission conflict.
I grew up on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, and since early last spring I have been involved with a campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy and then attempt to rebuild a healthy and relatively untouched riparian forest corridor running through the center of our city. It’s pretty rare to have a stretch of fairly wild river running through the middle of such a large city. The late great conservationist Army Emmott described our Buffalo Bayou as a ribbon of life running through the concrete. And that’s what it is: a living thing, a diverse and dynamic ecosystem that shows us the wondrous process of nature.
We are even more fortunate that in the words of the great river scientist Mathias Kondolf of Berkeley, this enchanting river has “room to move.” Here, in the middle of the city, we have space to “let the river be a river” — to let its banks change and its forest garden grow, as they would naturally. Dr. Kondolf traveled through this reach of the bayou in November, a reach that has never been channelized. The nearly 1.5-mile stretch targeted for destruction flows between the riparian forest and great cliffs of a public park (Memorial Park) and the forested terraces and high banks of a private golf course.
Save Buffalo Bayou is One of the Top Ten Most Intriguing Ideas of 2014
By Lisa Gray, the Houston Chronicle,December 31, 2014Updated: December 31, 2014 2:20pm
In May, when I pitched Gray Matters to the Chronicle, I wrote that it would be “about ideas” — a description that, I realized later, was fabulously broad. Everything worth talking about has an idea in it. I love you is an idea. I want a cookie is an idea. I want to do tequila shots at 9 a.m. is a bad idea. But it is an idea.
Obviously, some ideas are better than others. They’re more original. Or more powerful. More able to transform our lives — or, just as important, the way that we see our lives.
Anyway: In the six months since Gray Matters launched, these are the ideas, big and small, that have rocked my world. Or at least made it wobble on its axis.
Buffalo Bayou – Memorial Park Demonstration Project
By Alex Gonsalez. Art by Dorsey. Free Press Houston, Dec. 15, 2014
Sitting more than 50 miles from the nearest beach, it is difficult to think of Houston as a water city. When we consider its history, however, Houston has everything to do with water.
According to Houston historian Louis Aulbach, even before European explorers found their way to the Gulf of Mexico, Native Americans camped and traded along the clear, clay-bottomed waters of Buffalo Bayou. Aeons before that, this land was built from sediment flow from the Rockies.
Houston’s location near the Gulf of Mexico has put it in the path of hurricanes and constant rain. This land was prone to flooding long before the arrival of humans, and natural-disasters in Houston are always related to water — either the lack of it or abundance. As Houstonians, we have always been in a constant fight with water — trying to extract it, contain it, drain it, or, most recently: control its flow.
A national environmental argument moves to Buffalo Bayou
By Rebecca Elliott, The Houston Chronicle, December 8, 2014 (and in the print edition Dec. 31, 2014)
It was pouring, and the rainwater had been rolling down the banks of the Buffalo Bayou for hours. Here, between Memorial Park and River Oaks, the bayou’s waters rippled with a speed that’s lost downstream, where the manicured river ambles between city blocks.
This part of the bayou is one that few other than canoers and wealthy landowners ever see. Its water is murky, and plastic bags dangle from many trees. But it has an untamed, wild luster to it all the same. The roots of thick, tendril-rooted sycamores descend into the water, and the sandy bank is run through with delicate striations.
To the paddlers who know it well — paddlers like those from Save Buffalo Bayou, the group that took me out on that wet November day — this length of bayou is precious. They worry, though, that its days are numbered.
A Harris County Flood Control District proposal, submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers in April, would reconfigure and stabilize about a third of the semi-natural bayou left inside Loop 610. And it would do so using an approach called Natural Channel Design that, though in wide use across the country, is denounced in many scientific circles.
One of the method’s foremost critics, G. Mathias Kondolf, a Berkeley professor of environmental planning, was with our group on the bayou.
A plan to destroy the forest and dredge and channelize one of the last wild stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it passes by Memorial Park would also damage popular bike, hike, and running trails on the south side of the park. The controversial proposal, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, is costing taxpayers $4 million. A fifty-foot wide access road for heavy equipment from the park maintenance area would cut across trails and forest in the park. The road may be left in place, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
The project, described as “erosion control” and “bank stabilization,” would demonstrate to landowners on the bayou exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control. Landowners have problems with erosion on the bayou when they cut down the riparian buffer on their property for views and gardens, and mow lawns and build paths near the water. Riparian buffer consists of trees and plants that hold the riverbank together, filter and cleanse the water, and provide wildlife habitat. Federal and state agencies have numerous programs encouraging the preservation of riparian zones and educating the public about their importance.
Bayou Demonstration Project Compared To ‘Open Heart Surgery’
By Jocelyn Kerr, Bellaire, River Oaks, West University Examiner. Posted: Friday, November 28, 2014 4:00 am
Dr. Mathias Kondolf spoke before a crowded room at the St. Theresa Memorial Park Catholic Church on Nov. 21. The event was organized by nonprofit association Save Buffalo Bayou.
Kondolf arrived in Houston to tour Buffalo Bayou and weigh in with his opinion on the controversial Buffalo Bayou Demonstration Project. Kondolf is a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at Berkeley who has consulted on river restoration projects around the world. He’s also a critic of the Natural Channel Design stabilization techniques proposed in the Demonstration Project.
At the heart of the controversy is the Harris County Flood Control District’s proposed plan to stabilize the bayou using Natural Channel Design. The proposed plan would re-align the bayou’s form, narrow it and deepen it in an effort to stabilize the bayou’s path and limit erosion.
Supporters of the Demonstration Project include the Bayou Preservation Association and the Memorial Park Conservancy.
Kondolf, however, wasn’t convinced the bayou needed such drastic measures. He compared the process to open-heart surgery.
“If we could use a medical analogy, first, is the patient really sick?” He asked the crowd. “I don’t see any evidence of that. If there is something wrong, should we go directly to open-heart surgery before trying less invasive approaches?
“To completely rebuild the channel, that is open-heart surgery,” Kondolf said. “Is there some less invasive way to address whatever is wrong?”
River Science Expert Says Buffalo Bayou is in Good Shape
By Dianna Wray, Houston Press, Mon., Nov 24, 2014 at 9:00 AM Categories: Environment
G. Mathias Kondolf climbed up the muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou with a small smile on his face. Kondolf, one of the leading fluvial geomorphologists in the world (he’s a river scientist) and one of the most vocal opponents to a method of river restructuring called natural channel design, was brought on by local environmentalists who are still hoping to stop the Memorial Demonstration Project from happening. Kondolf was brought to give his opinion on the state of Buffalo Bayou. Knocking the mud and river muck off his boots after a tour of the waterway on Friday morning, Kondolf’s smile widened.
As both a leading river science expert and as one of the leading voices speaking out against the so-called natural channel design approach to rivers, Kondolf, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley College, is always getting invitations to come check out various projects across the country. He took the people with Save Buffalo Bayou, a nonprofit organization that is in opposition to the project, up on their offer to assess Buffalo Bayou because the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue their ruling on whether or not to permit the Memorial Demonstration Project. So there is still a chance to have an impact on what is happening, he says.
As two deputy constables stood on either side of the door of a meeting room at flood control headquarters, Susan Chadwick with the group Save Buffalo Bayou waited in the hallway. She and a handful of other conservation activists wanted to be inside to hear the discussion of the Flood Control Task Force which is a 31-member panel of engineering, environmental, government and business people. But they were told only members would be allowed inside the room.
“It always has been opened. There’s never been a question of it being a closed meeting for these task force meetings,” Chadwick told News 88.7.
October 24, 2014 | Updated: October 24, 2014 5:22pm
I feel responsible.
In 1966 Terry Hershey asked me to join with her, George Mitchell, and then Congressman George Bush in their campaign to stop the Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District from bulldozing the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou near our homes on the west side of Houston.
At the time none of us knew what we know now: that the trees and vegetation that grow on the bayou’s banks are so important to the quality of our water, to erosion and flood control. We just knew that we preferred and respected nature. My house backed up to the bayou, and I let the enchanting forest back there grow wild. I was one of the only homeowners in our small neighborhood on the river who never had problems with erosion. Others who cut down the wild trees and plants saw their backyard gardens and lawns wash away.
We stopped the bulldozers on the bayou back then, and at other times too over the years. The organization that we formed became the Bayou Preservation Association, and eventually I became the president of it. I am still on the executive committee of the BPA, as it is called, though the organization no longer serves the cause of preservation. The BPA has lost its way.
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:
We have pulled the canoe up to a clean, white sandy beach on Buffalo Bayou in the middle of the city. It’s still early morning, and all along our slow paddle from the bridge at Woodway great white egrets and a great blue heron fly ahead of us, leading us to our destination: the prehistoric cliffs and forested banks that could soon be obliterated by the Harris County Flood Control District.
It’s a bizarre project, all the more incomprehensible in that the project is primarily promoted by the influential Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), founded in the 1960s to prevent the flood-control district from bulldozing the natural beauty of Buffalo Bayou.
By Susan Chadwick, Memorial Examiner, Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Over time, the mission and purpose of citizens’ organizations can erode and change course. Tragically, this is the case with the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in 1966 “to protect the natural beauty” of Buffalo Bayou against the bulldozers of the Harris County Flood Control District.
In a 1984 KUHT documentary, BPA founding member Terry Hershey warned that we must always be vigilant because the HCFCD would always try to find a way to strip and channelize our southern, slow-moving bayou and turn it into a drainage ditch. How shocking that the BPA itself is now promoting a Harris County project to bulldoze nearly 1.5 miles of our last remaining wild bayou in the middle of Houston in order to do just that.
Will Dispute Sink $6 Million Buffalo Bayou Erosion Plan?
By Ted Oberg, ABC 13 Eyewitness News, Tuesday, June 24, 2014
HOUSTON — Ask my kids about canoeing down a Texas river and they’re probably more likely to tell you about Sea World’s Rio Loco or a lazy river at the nearby neighborhood pool. The notion of dropping a canoe in under the 610 West Loop bridge for a lazy paddle down Buffalo Bayou is as far from their mind as it was from mine; afterwards my only regret is that I waited 13 years since arriving in Houston to do it.
A few unsure steps down a sandy bank underneath one of the most congested stretches of highway in Texas leads to another world. Egrets glide over the banks, fish jump, rapids run around World War I relics, turtle tracks slide up and down the banks, sandy beaches perfect for picnics emerge around hidden corners.
To those unfamiliar with the mysteries of Houston, a visit to Hogg Bird Sanctuary yields surprising results. When you turn at the traffic-choked intersection of Memorial Drive and Westcott, then park in the lot across from Bayou Bend, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston satellite location that was once home to Ima Hogg, you don’t expect that you’re about to enter a wooded wonderland. But once you’ve stepped out of the parking lot and into the sanctuary, carved out of forest and terrain that’s downright hilly by Houston standards, you feel almost completely removed from the roaring city just a few yards away.
With a few more steps you’re at the edge of a steep and unexpectedly tall cliff overlooking an oxbow bend in the bayou below, its graceful arc framed by trees. You’re standing in one of the most dramatic spots, natural or man-made, the city has to offer. Given Houston’s when-in-doubt-pave-it ethos, the thought that you’re on the edge of a highly developed and well-monied neighborhood just minutes from downtown produces a touch of vertigo.
Published On: May 22 2014 06:06:49 PM CDT Updated On: May 22 2014 06:46:05 PM CDT
Critics of the plan say the project would bulldoze the last remaining wilderness banks of the bayou and destroy the natural habitats of birds, fish and other wildlife.
“I don’t think you can call this a restoration plan if you remove 80 percent of the vegetation and you cut through meanders of the bayou. That’s not restoration,” said Evelyn Merz, with the Houston Sierra Club.
Merz said those opposed to the project would rather see targeted efforts along the bayou. They also don’t want the channel changed.
Endangered by bulldozers: Houston wildlife sanctuary in path of bayou project gets Preservation Texas attention
By Barbara Kuntz, Culture Map Houston, May 21, 2014 | 4:45 pm
A bird and wildlife refuge in Houston is now the 11th most endangered spot in the state, a designation announced just days before public comments were extended on a “restoration” project to bulldoze the area along Buffalo Bayou.
$6 million Memorial Park project would do more harm than good, opponents say
By Kiah Collier, The Houston Chronicle, May 20, 2014
A $6 million plan to tame a mile-and-a-quarter stretch of Buffalo Bayou is drawing an ever-louder outcry from several prominent environmental and conservation groups who say the project aimed at reducing erosion and improving water quality would only make things worse.
Opposition to the so-called Memorial Park Demonstration Project, targeting a segment of the historic bayou that snakes between Memorial Park’s secluded southern edge and the River Oaks Country Club golf course, has grown more vocal as a deadline to submit feedback to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approaches. The project requires a permit from the Corps.
The agency on Thursday announced it would extend the public comment period by 30 days, until June 30, citing “the complexity of the project studies and stream restoration techniques.”
Borne of a 2010 workshop hosted by the Bayou Preservation Association, the project calls for reshaping the banks of the bayou that wind past the posh country club, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a residential neighborhood and the southernmost border of the 1,503-acre park.
The plan calls for the segment of Buffalo Bayou – stressed, both sides agree, by the increased runoff that has come with urban development – to be widened, its course adjusted in some places and its crumbling banks shaped into stable slopes. A mass of vegetation would be stripped away from its banks and trees removed. Replanting would occur toward the end of the project, the cost of which Harris County, the city of Houston and the country club have agreed to share.
“If we strip off 80 percent of the vegetation, if we remove the trees that shade the water, we will actually ruin a mile and a quarter of the main channel of Buffalo Bayou,” said Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The group is proposing an alternative that involves promoting the existing habitat by planting native vegetation. It would impact the area less “because it will be aimed at the areas that most need support,” Merz said.
Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which oversees the waterway from Shepherd Drive east to the Turning Basin Terminal, said the proposed project will reduce the amount of sediment that ends up on hike-and-bike trails farther east.
“What happens for us downstream is that the silt that sloughs off the banks in Memorial Park ends up down on our trails, and it’s a huge maintenance issue for us, so anything that can be done to alleviate the erosion of those banks is an important thing,” Olson said.
Members of the Save Buffalo Bayou defense team were on the Eco-Ology radio show on KPFT Tuesday, May 20, from 3 to 4 p.m. with Pat Greer and H.C. Clark. Listen to Olive Hershey, Brandt Mannchen, and Frank Salzhandler talk about why bulldozing the riparian forest on both banks of Buffalo Bayou as it flows through our historic Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary is an appalling idea. Hershey is a poet, novelist, and environmental activist. Mannchen is chair of the Forestry Committee of the Houston Sierra Club. Salzhandler is a former All-American UT swimmer, rabble rouser, director of the Endangered Species Media Project and chair of the Natural Heritage Program for the Harris County Historical Commission.
Invasive Erosion Control Plan Could Destroy Buffalo Bayou
Memorial Park plan would reduce unique waterway to a ditch
By Olive Hershey and Frank Salzhandler, Houston Chronicle OUTLOOK, May 18, 2014 Section B
A Harris County plan to alter Buffalo Bayou as it runs through our publicly owned Memorial Park would destroy one of the last remaining river forests in Houston, an ecologically important riparian wilderness that cannot be replaced.
The county intends to bulldoze both sides of the bayou – up to 100 feet from the water’s edge in places and including a tributary in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary – stripping wide swathes of native trees, vines and undergrowth from the bayou’s natural sandy banks.
Vital habitat for hundreds of species of birds, animals and water creatures will be lost. The slow-moving bayou’s shady banks will be denuded and replanted as a sun-baked lawn.
This expensive, invasive plan is called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now considering whether to issue a permit for it. Citizens have only until May 30 to submit comments. We urge you to ask the Corps for a 60-day extension of time to submit comments on the damage this badly planned project will do to our bayou and park. (Visit our website, SaveBuffaloBayou.org, for information about how to contact the Corps and what you can do to help.)
River science tells us there are better and cheaper ways to control erosion and help Buffalo Bayou without destroying the bayou’s unique ecosystem and turning it into an ordinary ditch.
Controversial Buffalo Bayou project open for public comment
By Robin Foster, Bellaire, River Oaks, West University Examiner, Thursday, May 15, 2014 4:00 am
Local conservationists are dusting off their extensive notes after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a public notice that the comment period is open through May 30 on a controversial Buffalo Bayou restoration project that would impact Houston’s signature Memorial Park and the adjacent Hogg Bird Sanctuary.
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project is proposed to repair severe erosion on a natural segment of the bayou that flows between the park and River Oaks Country Club. Plans for it were unveiled last December and include what are referred to as natural channel techniques.
Groups like the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter and the Endangered Species Media Project contend an equally scientific but less destructive, targeted approach exists to stabilize the banks of the bayou through the more than mile-long section. They are concerned over the potential loss of an unrivaled riparian forest and associated habitats within it. And some also worry that groups once committed to conserving the bayou’s natural state now view it as a playground for the city’s increasingly dense population.
“This is actually a battle to determine what the bayou is going to be, not only for this segment but for other reaches as well,” said Sierra Club’s Evelyn Merz.
Fighting for Control: Can Buffalo Bayou Survive the Latest Plan to Save It?
By Dianna Wray, Houston Press, January 8, 2014.
Despite decades of miscalculation about Buffalo Bayou, [HCFCD Director Mike] Talbott is asking the public to once again trust the Harris County Flood Control District, this time with something called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. This is a proposal to use natural channel design — a method that shifts and locks a stream’s curves into shape using stacked tree trunks — on a stretch of the bayou about a mile long. …
What many don’t know, however, is that there isn’t a consensus on the project. While proponents see it as the only answer for this section of the bayou, those against it say that the method of natural channel design will destroy one of the last natural stretches of riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou in a quest to shift and control the river using a controversial method that they say will also destroy the ecosystem and unnecessarily channelize the waterway.
There is also a question of profit to be made in the deal. Martin Doyle, a professor of river science and policy at Duke University, said that restoring about a mile of stream costs around $2 million today. Harris County Flood Control has put a $6 million price tag on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The City of Houston, the River Oaks Country Club and Harris County Flood Control each put in $2 million. …
Doyle questions whether Rosgen’s methods will even work in Houston. Rosgen used his technique of natural channel design on western rivers in the early 1980s. But as his approach caught on and moved east, applying his practices to waterways formed on flat, sandy coastal plains proved to be a problem, Doyle said.