Summer on Buffalo Bayou
That Bend in the River
July 11, 2017
We waited several days for just the right opportunity, checking the water flow at dawn. Even though there were loud, thunderous storms with angry winds and throwdown rain with cars alarmed in the afternoon, the gauge measuring the current at Piney Point, used by paddlers as well as the Corps of Engineers to track the volume of flow in Buffalo Bayou, barely popped up. And by early morning the bayou was down again to base flow, a very slow and shallow 150 cubic feet per second. For our summer 2017 photograph of the Bend in the River, we wanted a little more water in the stream. We have been documenting this same spot through the changing seasons since the summer of 2014.
But late Monday Jim Olive called and said a rainstorm was predicted during the night. And sure enough after nightfall the oak trees began wrestling with the wind. Lightning exploded overhead and a drenching rain shot out of the sky. At 5:45 a.m. the Piney Point gauge indicated a flow of some 500 cubic feet per second. We met in Memorial Park, at the parking lot for the South Picnic Loop. Jim looked at the sky skeptically. Gray clouds had drifted in. But we were there, so we walked towards the woods across the boggy picnic area, stepping around puddles, dodging the early morning cyclists whizzing around the loop road.
Here Comes the Sun
The Memorial Park Conservancy still hasn’t done anything about diverting the rainwater runoff from the park and parking lot that’s eating away at the ravines in the woods. But someone has pruned and slightly opened up the narrow dirt trail leading around the ravaged ravines, now decorated with summer greenery, and past the clay and concrete remnants of the drainage pipes from Camp Logan, the World War I military training camp and hospital located in the park before it was a park.
Our shady spot on the high bank overlooking the bend of the river has changed over the years. During the great rains of 2015-2016, high waters caused sections of the bank to slide down, taking trees and vegetation with it. But the living trees and plants and even some of the soil remain at the foot of the bank, collecting more sediment, and the vegetation continues to grow. The bank here and elsewhere was healing nicely.
Jim set up his tripod and waited for the sun to arrive. The sunlight had to be just perfect. This takes time and patience. So the photographer’s assistant had plenty of opportunity to roam through the woods looking for mushrooms. No luck. Too hot maybe. But a frog hopped on the trail, maybe a departing member of the hidden chorus of Mr. Froggies singing love songs late into the morning. A pair of nervous turtles swam in the clear, shallow stream that drains the center of the park and empties into the bayou nearby. The Harris County Flood Control District plans to dam this lovely stream for some reason as part of its $12 million restoration/erosion control/conveyance project.
A great blue heron flew slowly back and forth across the bayou, trying to get into the picture. Eventually the sun did arrive and struck the leaves and water just right. Jim got his beautiful photo.
Free Lecture: Houston’s Self-Inflicted Flooding
We’re Number One!
Who: Sam Brody, PhD, Texas A&M Galveston
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20
Where: Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, 11612 Memorial Drive, Houston 77024
June 19, 2017
Why does Houston have such awful flooding problems? And why do they seem to be getting worse?
A citizens’ group dedicated to reducing preventable flooding caused by development in the Houston region is presenting one of the leading experts on the subject at a free public talk Tuesday, June 20.
Sam Brody, professor and director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores in the Department of Marine Sciences at Texas A&M University in Galveston, was recently featured in an article on Houston flooding in the British Guardian newspaper. The group sponsoring his presentation Tuesday, Residents Against Flooding, was featured also, along with the Katy Prairie Conservancy.
Houston “has more casualties and property loss from floods than any other locality in the US, according to data stretching back to 1960 that Brody researched with colleagues,” the Guardian reported. Brody told the newspaper that “[w]here the built environment is a main force exacerbating the impacts of urban flooding, Houston is number one and it’s not even close.”
The Causes of Urban Flooding
Brody is conducting research for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on how to alleviate urban flooding across the United States. According to Residents Against Flooding, Brody believes “the biggest driver of this urban flood problem is human development.”
As the professor told the Guardian, and as he has repeatedly stated to audiences in Houston, each new square meter of pavement in Houston on average adds $4,000 worth of flood damage.
Going with the Most Expensive, Least Effective Flood Plan
Brody also agrees with Save Buffalo Bayou that the current public policy of widening and deepening (and destroying) our urban streams to handle increased stormwater flow is outdated and ineffective. “We can solve the problems or treat the symptoms,” says Brody. Widening and deepening our bayous is just treating the symptoms, which will only get worse with increased development, failure to enforce stormwater detention requirements, and policies that emphasize costly engineering solutions like bigger drain pipes that collect and shunt more and more rain runoff into our streams faster and faster.
Leading experts nationally agree that the emphasis should be on slowing down, spreading out and soaking in stormwater before it hits our streams. Unlike other major cities such as Philadelphia and New York, flood-prone Houston has no plan for managing stormwater through Green Infrastructure, which typically brings greater benefits – including more parks and green space – at far less cost.
The Harris County Flood Control District project opposed by Save Buffalo Bayou would spend some $12 million to raze the trees, dig up, channelize and shorten one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in order to send more stormwater downstream faster, a practice that even the US Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges causes more flooding and erosion downstream. (See Buffalo Bayou Partnership 2001 Master Plan Project, p. 18.)
Brody will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, at the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, 11612 Memorial Drive, Houston 77024.
Breaking News: Trash Washes Up From Early Twentieth Century
Old Bottles Surface on the Banks of the Bayou
Site is a State Antiquities Landmark
Bonus: Some Geology and History
May 18, 2017
On a recent trip down Buffalo Bayou, pausing to document the springs seeping out of the banks, we stopped at one of our favorite spots: the wide sandy bank of what we call the middle meander — so named because it’s the middle meander in that 1.25-mile long stretch of the forested bayou targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District.
This sharp bend in the river is located at the eastern boundary of Memorial Park, with a small tributary flowing into it and very old high banks on the downstream side. It is a natural stormwater detention area, and elsewhere the flood control district is spending millions to build detention basins in or near our bayous. But here the district’s plan is to spend millions to fill in a detention area and dig a new channel for the bayou through the woods on the south bank of the bayou owned by the River Oaks Country Club. Why the members of the club would agree to that is a mystery. The plan also calls for grading the ancient high bank, leveling the area, and planting it all with turf grass. An access road for heavy construction equipment would be bulldozed through the public forest from the maintenance yard near Memorial Drive to the bayou.
Unusually, in this meander, the bayou deposits sediment on the outside bend, the park side of the stream, causing the bank to widen. (Normally sediment is deposited on the inside bends and picked up on the outside.) But the high outside bluff here is composed in part of very hard, resistant clay. This reversed phenomenon might also in part be the result of the blocking flow of the tributary shooting across the channel during rain events. And Geologist Tom Helm thinks that a fault running through the meander might have caused the bayou channel to shift somewhat to the southeast over time.
Here is a photo of Tom pointing to the downshifted layer of dark red clay in the strata of the face of the high bank, which is part of the tens-hundred-thousand years old late Pleistocene-era meander-belt ridges carved out of the earth at the end of the last glacial period, when giant sloths, zebra horses, and saber-toothed cats roamed through Memorial Park. We still have American alligators (alligator mississippiensis) and alligator gar from that period. The high cut banks of these meander-belt ridges are long-established characteristics of our west-to-east meandering streams in the Houston region and serve as as bumpers slowing the flow. The dark layer Tom is pointing to in the face of the high bank of the middle meander is offset by about three inches, possibly indicating a fault.
Invaders. Pull Them Out!
When we stepped out of the canoe onto the sandy north bank of the meander, we were dismayed to discover invasive Johnson grass growing all over the beach. In the past this lovely sand bank was naturally landscaped with native smartweed, ground cherry and young box elder and black willow, all the proper native vegetation intelligently arranged by the bayou as it worked to stabilize the sediment and plan for new growth. But now this invader was taking over. We had seen it also at the boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway. Very discouraging. Anyone who wishes to organize Johnson grass-pulling parties is encouraged to do so. The Memorial Park Conservancy unfortunately does not consider maintaining the banks or bayou woods part of its job, instead largely confining routine maintenance activities to mowing down the sedges and other wetland plants in the bogs of the park, leaving behind large, deep ruts. How nice it would be if the Conservancy respected the natural character and landscaping of our park.
A Surprise from the Past
As we inspected the springs that flowed out of the high bank, we were surprised to find a large pile of broken glass bottles and pottery embedded in the mud. The glass was thick and had an old-fashioned shape. The pieces looked very old. Geologist Bill Heins, who explores the banks of the bayou regularly with his dog, suggests that the bottles and pottery had washed out from an old trash dump in a filled gully higher up the bank.
Very possibly the pottery and bottles date from the era of Camp Logan, a World War I military training camp established in 1917, part of which would become Memorial Park after the war. Beginning in August of 1917 there was a large military hospital, as well as a landfill, operating on the north bank of the bayou, eventually occupying over 100 acres of what is now the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and extending westward into what is now the park’s South Picnic Loop, according to Janet Wagner, landscape architect and historian and former chair of the Harris County Historical Society. In 2014 Wagner wrote to the Corps of Engineers about the archeological significance of the bayou in the proposed project area. The hospital, she noted, served some 1,500 men and continued caring for veterans after the war. In 1919 the hospital and buildings were transferred to the Public Health Service, with some of them leased to the newly formed City-County Hospital District. In 1921 the Veterans’ Bureau took over the hospital and two years later began evacuating the veterans to other facilities around the state. One year later, in 1924, Will and Mike Hogg and their real estate partner, Henry Stude, purchased the hospital grounds and then sold at cost a total of nearly 1,500 acres of what had been Camp Logan to the City of Houston for the creation of Memorial Park.
In May of 2013 the Texas Historical Commission designated the former site of Camp Logan a State Archeological Landmark, now known as a State Antiquities Landmark. The designation requires that the landowner receive a permit from the historical commission before conducting any work on the site.
Here are photographs of the glass and pottery remnants we discovered on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in April 2017.
Becoming an Eagle
What we found canoeing Buffalo Bayou
A group of scouts discover wildlife and a habitat worth preserving
By Paul Hung, for the Houston Chronicle, May 16, 2017
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.
Project Cost Doubles: $12 Million to Destroy Bayou
Corps of Engineers Refuses to Release Environmental Assessment
May 2, 2017
Updated May 3, 2017
Updated May 17, 2017: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment yesterday, May 16. We’ll have a report soon.
The estimated cost of the controversial project to “restore” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston has doubled to at least $12 million, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
On April 19 the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers approved a permit allowing the unpopular project to go forward. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the project would raze the trees and vegetation, grade the ancient high banks, dredge and reroute the channel, including altering the curves of the meanders, along more than a mile of the bayou flowing past the public forests and sandy banks of Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The federal permit basically allows an exception to the Clean Water Act.
Opponents of the project question the purpose of it, pointing out the lack of scientific basis and even common sense to flood control district claims that destroying a healthy riparian forest and digging up and rearranging the bayou channel and banks will improve nature and water quality and reduce erosion. In fact, the costly result will be the opposite: the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem and create more erosion and flooding, especially downstream, not to mention cause the wasting of a major, invaluable public asset.
The project, by razing the vegetation and digging up the banks, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do for controlling erosion. And it will fail, requiring expensive repairs and maintenance.
The long-delayed plan was initiated in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association, once an environmental organization and now essentially a lobbying and networking organization for engineering, landscape design, construction and building contractors, commercial and industrial architects, developers and their agents. Two members of the board live in the project area.
The Hershey Foundation, founded by Terry Hershey and her husband Jake, issued a resolution opposing the project in May 2014. Terry Hershey, along with Save Buffalo Bayou’s board president, Frank Smith, were among the original members of the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in the 1960s to oppose a similar though much longer project to channelize the bayou and cover it with concrete from the federal dams upstream all the way to the Shepherd Bridge.
The initial estimate for the current project was $6 million, including $4 million already contributed by city and county taxpayers and $2 million to be paid by members of the River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south half of the project area. The Memorial Park Conservancy is also promoting the project. One-third of the 27 members of the board of the conservancy are also members of the country club, including the board chairman, Steve Jenkins, vice chairman, Wendy Hines, and treasurer, Mindy Hildebrand.
“The original project funding was established in 2010,” the project manager for the flood control district, Jason Krahn, explained in a recent email through a district representative. “The District’s Construction Manager speculates that the project, including contingencies, could cost double the currently funded amount. The Construction Manager expects to have a better idea of the final costs once they are allowed to formally bid the project out to the contracting community and receive actual bids to conduct the work.”
At least four major engineering firms have been involved so far. The Construction Manager is SpawGlass, which is working with Shamrock Environmental Corporation of North Carolina, according to the flood control district. Stantec, one of the world’s largest engineering firms, in 2016 acquired the previous engineering firm KBR, which had provided the design services for the project. Atkins is responsible for the Monitoring Plan. (p. 60)
A Historic Nature Area: A Public Trust
The nature area to be razed and rebuilt as a “demonstration project” is the longest, publicly accessible, forested and never channelized stretch of the bayou in the middle of Houston. It contains ancient high bluffs and sandstone formations and is considered a historic nature area. Filled with wildlife, it is one of the few places in Houston where the public can observe the city’s natural history and geology, as well as the natural process of a living river. It is extremely rare to have a public stretch of forested river running through the center of a large city.
The flood control district, the sponsor of the project, is legally responsible for the “conservation of forests” under its 1937 state charter.
Corps Refusing to Release Assessment of Impact on the Environment
(Update May 17: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment on May 16. We’ll have a report on that soon.)
Houston Press on Bayou Destruction Project
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.
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 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.
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.
Read the rest of this post and watch a stunning slide show of aerial photos of Buffalo Bayou taken by Jim Olive on April 7, 2017, in the proposed destruction zone.
Celebrating the Life of Terry Hershey
A Joyous Celebration of a Force for Nature
April 23, 2017
The public is invited to a celebration of the life of Terry Hershey, who long ago not only helped save the life of Buffalo Bayou but worked for decades for parks and the environment. Hershey died in January in Houston. She will be honored Tuesday, April 25, at 10:30 a.m. with a planting of five bur oak trees in Buffalo Bayou Park on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou between Eleanor Tinsley Park and the Henry Moore Sculpture.
Apparently the ceremony is taking place in Buffalo Bayou Park because the park named after her on Buffalo Bayou in far west Houston remains closed for $1.25 million in “repairs” by the Harris County Flood Control District. Hershey most certainly would have objected to this damaging construction work involving the removal of trees and extensive excavation and armoring of the banks with heavy equipment.
Bayou Destruction Project Still Threatens
Private Park Board Leads Promotion of Unpopular Engineering Scheme
Army Corps Lawyers Reviewing Environmental Assessment
March 27, 2017
The private organization running Memorial Park appears to be taking the lead in promoting a questionable and unpopular project to destroy a historic nature area belonging to the public, one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
The private board of the Memorial Park Conservancy has hired as the park’s conservation manager Carolyn White, a former long-time employee of the Harris County Flood Control District, which is sponsoring the controversial bayou project. Last month White, representing the Conservancy, gave a lengthy presentation promoting the project at a Houston conference on urban streams.
The 1.25-mile project would raze the trees, vegetation, and ancient high bluffs, dredge, fill a lovely meander, and dig a shorter channel for the 18,000-year-old bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. This forested section is the largest stretch of a bayou running through the center of the city that is both accessible to the public and never channelized, a remarkable natural asset for Houston.
The flood control district describes the goals of the project as controlling erosion, stabilizing banks, reducing sediment, and improving water quality. The agency has been seeking a permit for the project from the Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act since 2013. Opponents of the controversial plan argue that the project is scientifically unsound and environmentally damaging, will achieve none of the stated goals, and eliminates a much-needed natural refuge in the midst of the city. They had hoped that the project had been dropped.
Environmental Assessment Under Review by Corps Attorneys
But apparently the project is still being pushed forward. A representative of the Corps says the agency has conducted an Environmental Assessment of the plan as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Corps’ Galveston District, says the Office of Counsel is conducting a legal review of the assessment.
An Environmental Assessment would result in either a Finding of No Significant Impact or a requirement that the flood control district conduct a full and costly Environmental Impact Statement. Johnson could not say when or if an announcement would be made about the decision.
Spring 2017 on Buffalo Bayou
Never the Same River Twice
March 18, 2017
Out on Buffalo Bayou early this morning, Saturday, March 18, 2017, with photographer Jim Olive. We were looking for our Spring 2017 shot of the same bend of the bayou we have been documenting for the last three years throughout the seasons. Flow was low base flow, about 150 cubic feet per second. Birds singing. Frogs burping. Squirrels quarreling. Warmth wafting off the water. Was foggier than Jim had hoped, and he had to be patient, as always, for just the right shot. We’d been waiting for a clear morning for days.
For the entire series see A Bend in the River under Photos and Films. This scene is in the historic nature area targeted for destruction and “restoration” by the Harris County Flood Control District, the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the Bayou Preservation Association.
An update on that costly, misguided project, which sadly still threatens, is coming up next.