July 19, 2020
We had planned to meet for an early morning float down Buffalo Bayou. This meant rising with the sun. And since we needed our summer photo of that Bend in the River, it seemed a good idea to head out to the woods first.
Every season since the summer of 2014 we’ve been documenting the same bend in the bayou from a high bank in the woods of Memorial Park. Of course, the bank changes, the woods change. The path of the bayou, however, remains remarkably stable.
You can see the entire series here. But our summer 2020 photo had been delayed because our great photographer Jim Olive was still on lockdown in California by order of his beloved. Texas in the time of Covid was too dangerous, even though it was way hotter there in the desert, with an actual high of 121 later in the day. (Not a typo.)
The woods were not exactly cool. Only slightly steamy at 7 in the morning. The temperature was already over 80 degrees. With the humidity it was going to feel like 110. However, it’s always cooler on the water.
It was surprising to hear so many human voices in the woods early in the morning, despite the fact that the Memorial Park Conservancy claimed that the unofficial trails were closed. People were talking to each other as they jogged and hiked along the narrow footpaths through the tall trees and over and around the ravines.
The banks at the water’s edge were heavily lined with giant ragweed, a native that helps protect against erosion. The water had only recently receded after ten days of flow well over 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). (Normal or base flow is about 150 cfs.) The Corps of Engineers had been releasing the stormwater pent up in the federal flood control reservoirs behind Barker and Addicks dams far upstream in west Houston. There had been some heavy rain in the western part of the county – over eight inches in 24 hours — above the dams near the end of June.
During the final days of emptying the reservoirs, the water flowing down the bayou was a dark gumbo color, almost black, and there was some concern about that. We were unable to get an explanation from the Corps, but our geologists theorized that this was likely decomposed organic matter from the bottom of the reservoir pools.
We put in at the public boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway just west of Loop 610. We were all wearing masks, slipping and sliding in the mud. Actually the boat launch, once part of a popular nature trail through the woods, is a giant concrete stormwater outfall draining Post Oak Road. Badly designed by global engineering giant AECOM, the faux-stone structure shoots stormwater directly across the stream, a violation of Flood Control District and Corps policies, blocking the flow, creating turbulence, clogging with sediment, etc. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of the storm pipes emptying into the bayou, old and new, are improperly installed.
We were five people in three kayaks and a wooden canoe, including Bruce Bodson, Save Buffalo Bayou board member and founder of Lower Brazos River Watch; Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, and musician and composer Paul English, an experienced white-water paddler on his first float on Buffalo Bayou.
The water was low and slow, with just enough of a lazy current to carry us with little effort on our part. There was, however, an unusual amount of woody debris in the channel, including the stumps of felled trees. This created a mildly thrilling obstacle course. Woody debris is good for the stream, creating wildlife habitat, collecting sediment, and reinforcing the bank, but should be moved against the bank, possibly anchored there.
We were joined by flocks of dancing, mating black-winged damselflies (also known as ebony jewelwing damselflies), landing everywhere, on our hands, the prow of the boat. In addition we had the escort of numerous elegant great egrets, cloud white with long necks and wide wings, soaring back and forth with pointed toes, wading on spindly legs with an eye on us. Also a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron, a Muscovy mother duck with her fuzzy ducklings, and just below the surface a three-foot long alligator gar. And plenty of other creatures we couldn’t see. (Look also here for more bayou photos and video.)
We were fortunate to have a light curtain of clouds to shield us from the sun, and a fair breeze cooled by the water. It was pleasant and peaceful.
But it was difficult not to feel the wounds of the numerous massive and destructive bank armoring projects in this tree-lined stretch of our Mother Bayou, the parking lots foolishly built on top of the bank, not to mention the many failed erosion control efforts that have left the privately-owned south bank littered with concrete rubble, collapsed walls, and broken pipe.
The River Oaks Country Club’s monstrous crime against nature stands out: a lengthy concrete and metal wall in three parts, virtually treeless. A once-forested high bank that now looks like the side of a high-rise garage. Creatures large and small lived here. Now bulldozed and buried under concrete and metal, the layers of soil and sandstone of the bank formerly revealed the geologic history of our 18,000-year-old river.
Projects like this contribute to flooding and erosion problems up and downstream and across the way. (p. 36)
Drifting downstream we passed the bank below the historic gardens of Bayou Bend, the former home of the late conservationist and philanthropist Ima Hogg, now part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The museum is also planning to harden the bank here, possibly with concrete and metal. We have offered them sources for alternative, less-costly approaches that mimic nature. We’ll have a more in-depth report on that soon.
Here, between Bayou Bend and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary that Hogg donated to the city, we encountered several large turtle traps (we’d also seen one earlier) set out by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. No doubt they were attempting to monitor the fate of the prehistoric gigantic alligator snapping turtles that live on the bayou, a threatened species in Texas and currently in its nesting season. Their habitat has been reduced by so many recent and ongoing bank fortification projects, including by the current chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission on his large property just downstream from Bayou Bend.
We floated past that intimidating multi-level sheet pile wall, anchored with sharp projecting bolts, only to encounter the next depressing sight: the Houston Parks Board foundation’s attempt to install sheet pile and riprap in order to expand the bank for a hike-and-bike trail. The private foundation has scraped trees and heavy vegetation on land they’ve purchased below the Left Bank apartments with the idea of placing a ten-foot wide concrete sidewalk along the water’s edge.
From there we drifted past more collapsed concrete and metal retaining walls, past the concrete embankment installed long ago by the Harris County Flood Control District, under the roar of Shepherd Bridge, and into the ongoing bank “repair” project in Buffalo Bayou Park. This is a project of the Flood Control District, funded with $10 million in public money, to repair the repairs to the “natural stable channel design” work that the district did starting in 2010. (Note that the district continues to use this controversial “natural stable channel design” as an excuse to raze trees and bulldoze the banks of the few remaining natural streams we have in Harris County. We have a report coming out on that soon too.)
In Buffalo Bayou Park, the district has been bulldozing the banks and dumping tons of concrete riprap out into the channel, essentially narrowing the channel, pounding it in, in an effort to prop up the park’s concrete sidewalks built on the bayou’s edge.
So we paddled past that, beached our boats in the sand below some giant ragweed, and ended our trip with some refreshments on the porch of The Dunlavy.
There were bright spots. New cottonwoods and willows, planted by the river (Boy Scouts been working on that too), were growing in places where the bank had been razed and graded. The seemed to be abundant native species, including the giant ragweed and smartweed, along with invasives like alligator weed and elephant ear, growing at the water’s edge.
Nature and the river always fight back.
How to Help
How to contact the Memorial Park Conservancy about the closed “unofficial” trails through the woods along the bayou:
How to contact Bayou Bend about the proposed repairs to the historic bend in the bayou:
How to contact the Houston Parks Board foundation about razing and armoring the bank and installing a 10-foot wide concrete sidewalk along the edge of the bayou:
How to contact the Harris County Flood Control District about dumping concrete riprap into the bayou and onto the banks, razing forest and bulldozing streams: