Fall Photographing with Jim Olive, a Butterfly, and a Coral Snake

Monarch Discovers Daisies on That Bend in the Bayou. Big Coral Snake Slithers By

Nov. 17, 2018

We were a little delayed for a fall photo of that Bend in the River. We have been documenting this particular place on Buffalo Bayou through the seasons for more than four years. Photographer Jim Olive has obligations elsewhere these days, so we had to go with the day he could be here and the early morning weather on that day.

It was overcast and the flow was a high, a little under 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). It had been raining. Base flow in the bayou–normal flow when it’s not raining–is about 150-200 cfs.

But we waited and waited for the right moment, which is what a professional photographer does. We were standing on that same high bank in Memorial Park in the middle of Houston looking at the bayou flowing downstream with River Oaks Country Club property on the opposite bank. It was the same location, but as you can see if you look at Jim’s series of photos, it has changed through the years. Nature is not static.

Jim Olive at work documenting that Bend in the Bayou from that same high bank in Memorial Park. Photo Nov. 6, 2018, by SC

Jim patiently shifted position and cameras and lenses. In the meantime, as usual, the photographer’s assistant wandered off, looking around, mainly for something edible to forage, and found some small puffball mushrooms growing on a rotting log. These little, round white mushrooms are variously described as “edible” or “choice.” The latter means delicious. “Edible” means they won’t kill you but they don’t necessarily taste good.

There were daisies growing on the high bank, and suddenly a big orange and black Monarch butterfly was fluttering there, feeding on the flowers on its way to Mexico. If you look closely, you can see where it had been in Jim’s photo.

Fall 2018 on that Bend in the River. Water was high and the morning was cloudy just after sunrise. Photo by Jim Olive on Nov. 6, 2018.

As we were leaving we encountered the most beautiful coral snake on the path through the woods, right where we had seen a gigantic, sleeping king snake coiled up in the old, broken drainage pipes left over from Camp Logan, the World War I training camp and military hospital that occupied this land back then. This snake was “red and yellow, kill a fellow” and not “red and black, all right, Jack,” so definitely a coral snake. Turns out there are numerous variations of this ditty we learned as children to distinguish a highly venomous coral snake from the harmless milk snake. But a coral snake is not aggressive. And it can hardly bite. So not really dangerous at all unless you try to pick it up. This one was very large and shiny. Jim, an expert naturalist, thought maybe it had just shed its skin.

Here is a video of the coral snake.

As for the little puffballs, they were okay. Ordinary, really. Not as delicious as the honey mushrooms or oyster mushrooms one can find growing in the park and along the bayou. The photographer’s assistant made a mushroom omelette.

Puffball omelette with scallions.



How Katy Prairie Landowners Could Help Houston Fight Flooding

A Conversation with Jim Blackburn

Blackburn is an environmental lawyer, founder of the Bayou City Initiative, and co-director of the  Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) at Rice University in Houston

Nov. 13, 2018

Q: How could preserving the Katy Prairie help minimize flooding?

A: Preserving the Katy Prairie alone can be useful and, with management, even private lands that are in cattle production can be useful. Mainly, it is about getting roots to penetrate the soil and water following the roots down into the ground. If you combine that will a small levee like what is in rice fields, you can perhaps pond another foot of water on the flat land. Together, the potential to store water is substantial.

Q: It’s been said that the Katy Prairie acts like a natural sponge. How does this work?

A: The roots of prairie grasses penetrate and break the soil, and in doing so, they create natural pathways. There is space around the root, and the water naturally penetrates. Those roots go down five or six feet. With roots in the soil, a very impermeable clay soil can become permeable.

Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.

The Katy Prairie west of Houston. Photograph by Steve Gonzales for the Houston Chronicle

KPFT Radio Accidentally Revives Dead Bayou Project

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. Save Buffalo Bayou was founded over four years ago to stop this pointless project, which was promoted by Kevin Shanley of SWA Group, the landscape architecture firm responsible for Buffalo Bayou Park. (See the problems here.) The firm also happened to be on retainer with the Harris County Flood Control District, which became the official sponsor of the project, believing it had community support. Shanley was then the president of the Bayou Preservation Association. And for a time the project manager for the engineering firm hired to do the project was also on the board of the association.

In any case, it was a terrible, unpopular idea that served no good purpose and wasn’t going to work anyway. Based on a faulty analysis of bank collapse on the bayou, the project cost had increased from $6 million to $12 million. And after Harvey in August 2017, Flood Control District Director Russ Poppe, who inherited the project from his predecessor, publicly declared at a Bayou Preservation Association symposium that the project would not be going forward.

It turned out that the radio interview with Merz was five years old, and someone at KPFT had pulled it off the shelf to fill air time.

Merz, a member of Save Buffalo Bayou’s advisory board, was outside doing chores during the broadcast and just as surprised as everyone else to hear about it. She is also chair of the conservation committees of the Lone Star (Texas state) Chapter of the Sierra Club as well as the Houston Regional Group of the Sierra Club,

Station manager Don Freeman was apologetic, explaining the station operates “on a shoestring.” We urge everyone to support the nonprofit KPFT, a valuable public resource.


Looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park. Photo Nov. 6, 2018, by SC



Birds of the Bayou

Report from Buffalo Bayou beat correspondent Janice Van Dyke Walden

Nov. 11, 2018

I had the great pleasure this weekend to take wildlife photographer Greg Lavaty canoeing down Buffalo Bayou to photograph birds. In the three hours of an overcast morning in the section of Memorial Park/River Oaks, Greg heard or spotted 33 bird species (full list below, along with some of his photos). Many thanks to Gary Studwell who helped crew so Greg could have a stable experience in fast water. It is truly wonderful that we have this wild corridor in the middle of our nation’s fourth largest city. Let’s keep it wild.

  • Eastern Phoebe. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Great egret. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Red-shouldered hawk. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Red-shouldered hawk. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Northern flicker. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Juvenile cattle egret. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Great blue heron. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Great egret. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • American kestrel. Photo copyright by Greg Lavaty



List of birds heard or seen on this bayou trip:

Muscovy (domestic)
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Eurasian Collared-Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Rock Pigeon
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
White-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle

Growing, Growing Grass and Boys

Boy Scouts Help Nature on Buffalo Bayou


Oct. 31, 2018


On a fine Saturday morning last March, a small group of Boy Scouts got together with shovels and some potted plants and headed towards the public boat launch in Memorial Park near Woodway. Under the leadership of now 15-year-old Austen Furse, their goal was to plant gamagrass on the upper bank of Buffalo Bayou. The native grass is a stabilizer plant, known for its deep-rooted ability to hold the bank together.

Stabilizers are one of two basic categories of riparian plants that naturally work in succession to fix a sandy bank. There are colonizer plants that spread out near the water’s edge, sending out shallow roots. They prepare the way for the stabilizers with stronger, deeper roots. Stabilizers, which can be grassy or woody, help dissipate the erosive flow of the water and collect sediment to incorporate into the bank and hold it together. Riparian plants, including trees like willows and sycamores, generally work to absorb and cleanse water, among other benefits. The bayou, like other streams, naturally does this intelligent landscaping, although sometimes competing plants that aren’t supposed to be there intrude, fugitives from lawns and gardens, for example.

It was early March, and the bank was almost bare. Once a wooded nature trail, the public area had been stripped and graded more than four years ago to install a massive concrete outfall that drains stormwater from Post Oak Road. The mowed upper banks were planted with non-native, rapidly spreading Bermuda grass, the lower banks hardened with fake stone. And after three big floods, most recently the monster flow in Buffalo Bayou from Hurricane Harvey, the area was not looking so good.

This was Furse’s project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also a contender for the Hornaday Prize for natural resource conservation projects. The five boys helping him were all from Troop 55 of the Sam Houston Area Council. Within a few hours they had planted some 200 plants.

“Austen is a great young man,” said Daniel Walton, conservation coordinator for the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit that manages the public park. “The way he handled it all was pretty impressive.”

Furse said that until a recent kayak trip, he had never really seen the bayou “which we drive by everyday.” He said it was “so cool.” That he saw “snakes and things.” This brief interview took place in October, in the midst of the growing gamagrass, as giant dragonflies buzzed like noisy, low-flying helicopters all around.

In the months that followed the initial planting Furse returned to monitor the grass, documenting its growth, sending reports, notifying Walton of potential threats like mowers and competing invasive weeds. At one point the bank was overtaken by an army of horseweed, which though native, can take over and monopolize disturbed areas, pushing out other native plants, points out native plant expert Katy Emde, a member of Save Buffalo Bayou’s advisory board. A variety of native plants supports a variety of insects, which in turn support a variety of wildlife.

“I think it is always interesting to see how plants that can be annoying are beneficial, nonetheless,” wrote Emde in an email. “It turns out that most native plants are beneficial, even if they are not our favorites.”

Furse also sent photos to Save Buffalo Bayou. And it was difficult to tell which was growing faster: Austen or the gamagrass.

Thank you, Austen Furse, and your helpers and advisors in Troop 55.

  • Boy Scout Austen Furse, third from left, and his fellow scouts from Troop 55 in March 2018.
  • Planting gamagrass on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park at Woodway. March 2018.
  • Furse checking out the newly planted gamagrass (foreground) amidst a field of native Conyza (horseweed) on May 20, 2018.
  • About one week later, Furse and a shoot from the gamagrass.
  • Austen and the gamagrass on June 10, 2018.
  • Boy Scout Furse and gamagrass one month later in July. Photos by his mother, Anne.
  • View of the landscape at the outfall/boat launch at Woodway in July.
  • Austen checking out the growing gamagrass on August 26, 2018.
  • Austen surrounded by gamagrass and willows on Oct. 14, 2018. Photo by SC.

Did Straightening Upper Buffalo Bayou Make Future Residents More Vulnerable to Flooding?

Federal Project in Late Forties Reduced Bayou Capacity Upstream


October 29, 2018

(Update Nov.13, 2018: Harris County Commissioners’ Court approved a $350,000 contract to study “high-flow bypasses” through meanders on Buffalo Bayou as well as the impact of existing bridges.)

By the early morning of Aug. 28, 2017, after about thirty hours of record heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey, storm runoff was rising so fast in the two federal reservoirs in west Houston that the Corps of Engineers feared the water would overflow the aging earthen dams. They made the unprecedented decision to open the dam floodgates, slowly at first and then, in the following days, much wider, as stormwater did indeed begin to spill around the northern end of Addicks Dam north of Interstate 10.

For most people living and working on Buffalo Bayou, the peak of the flooding had already passed on Sunday, Aug. 27, when the floodgates were still closed. That Sunday storm runoff draining from the paved and built city into the bayou below the dams sent anywhere from two feet to eight feet or more into homes and other structures built on or near the banks.

But when the dam floodgates were opened in the first hours of Monday, roaring floodwaters pouring out of the dams spread out and inundated neighborhoods built on the bayou’s floodplain below the dams for more than six miles to just below Beltway 8 (West Belt). Many of these homes had not flooded earlier.

The horrific flow through the open floodgates eventually reached more than 16,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). For much of Buffalo Bayou in west Houston flood stage is around 6,000-7,500 cfs.

As a result, many more homes and other structures flooded on the upstream stretch of Buffalo Bayou between the federal dams and Beltway 8 than downstream of the beltway. (Homes built in the reservoir flood pools behind the dams also flooded, but that’s another story.)

Map of Harvey flood damage claims on Buffalo Bayou made to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Barker Reservoir, south of Interstate 10, and Addicks Reservoir, north of the highway, are the green spaces on the left. Courtesy of Matthew Berg, Simfero Consultants


Blaming the Bayou. “Kinks” and “Bottlenecks” Downstream

This six-mile stretch of the bayou upstream of the beltway was straightened and shortened by the Corps of Engineers more than seventy years ago. The bayou downstream of the beltway remains a meandering stream, largely unchannelized, twisting and turning its way nearly to Shepherd Drive. Below Shepherd the bayou was stripped and channelized in Buffalo Bayou Park by the Corps in the Fifties. From there it flows along a heavily altered route through downtown, eventually becoming the Houston Ship Channel.

In the wake of this disastrous flooding upstream of the beltway, distraught and shell-shocked property owners, many of them without flood insurance and dealing with severe losses, have been blaming the “kinks” and “bottlenecks” in the meandering bayou below Beltway 8 for flooding their homes. The belief is that the meandering bayou constricted the flow and caused water to backup and flood property upstream. The common complaint is that the bayou downstream is too narrow and is “like a hose” that gets a “kink” in it, causing the water to stop and back up.

Read the rest of this post.

Who Owns the Bayou?

Rights, Responsibilities, and Flooding Your Neighbor


Sept. 20, 2018

Update Sept. 29, 2018: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released new rainfall statistics and adjusted rainfall frequencies in Texas and Houston.

Updated Oct. 29, 2018, with recent photo of completed massive erosion control project on Buffalo Bayou.

Over the past several years, in the wake of extreme floods, we have received numerous complaints about damaging “erosion control” projects on the banks of Buffalo Bayou – projects damaging not only to the natural functioning and ecosystem of the bayou but also potentially to people living and working up and downstream of the projects.

Property owners bulldoze the banks, build massive retaining walls made of concrete block or sheet metal, dump piles of concrete construction debris into the bayou, strip and line the banks with concrete riprap.

This in addition to stripping the banks of trees and vegetation, reshaping the banks, gouging out pathways, and landscaping with walkways and non-native flower gardens.

Do they have the right to do this? Is it a good idea? Who owns the bayou really? What permits are required, if any, to do these things?

And does the bayou itself have rights?


Did Retaining Wall Make Flooding Worse?

What happens if someone installs concrete riprap or a massive retaining wall that deflects the flow of the bayou away from their property and floods neighbors or damages public park property? This has happened repeatedly on Buffalo Bayou.

In one case, a large property owner in River Oaks, whose bank is likely affected by a large stormwater outfall directly across the way, installed a controversial concrete block wall along several hundred feet of bank in 2016, initially without a permit from the City of Houston. That armoring washed away during Harvey, and the property owner has now rebuilt the eroded bank, apparently dumping material into the channel, and installed a massive sheet metal wall that has alarmed residents across the bayou and elsewhere, threatening a narrow strip of land that the Houston Parks Board has been eyeing for a hike-and-bike trail.

Is that legal? Is it right? Does it work?

  • This extensive hardening of the bank of Buffalo Bayou, installed by a private owner in 2016, failed in August 2017 during Harvey, which washed away the bank. Photo January 2018.
  • The failed concrete block hardening of the bank of Buffalo Bayou after the flood of July 4, 2018, and after reconstruction had begun. Grading, bulldozing, or generally digging up the bank and running heavy equipment over it damages the structure of the soil, makes it more prone to erosion, and increases stormwater runoff into the bayou, raising flood levels.
  • In 2018 the owner began rebuilding the bank, dredging and apparently dumping material into the channel. The channel of the bayou belongs to the public, essentially in trust through the Port of Houston, and according to Texas law property lines shift when the channel shifts. Dredging and filing the channel requires a permit from the Corps of Engineers. Photo July 2018
  • Another view of heavy equipment filling the shifted channel and rebuilding the bank of Buffalo Bayou. Photo July 15, 2018.
  • Sheet piling being driven into the rebuilt bank of Buffalo Bayou to form a retaining wall. Photo July 19, 2018
  • Another view of the extensive grading and construction work ostensibly for erosion control on Buffalo Bayou. Photo July 26, 2018
  • Reconstruction and hardening of the bank of Buffalo Bayou as of August 21, 2018. Residents across the way are concerned that this project will increase flooding and erosion of their property.
  • The completed project on Oct. 27, 2018, as seen from Buffalo Bayou during a relatively high flow of about 550 cubic feet per second.


Shocker: The Port of Houston Owns Buffalo Bayou

This will come as a surprise to many people: The Port of Houston owns the submerged lands of Buffalo Bayou all the way from the bay to the headwaters. In 1927 the Texas State Legislature gave the Port of Houston “all the submerged lands lying and being situated under the waters of Buffalo Bayou, San Jacinto River, White Oak Bayou, Bray’s Bayou, Simms Bayou [sic], Vinces Bayou [sic], Hunting Bayou, Greens Bayou, Carpenters Bayou, Old River, Lost River, Goose Creek and Cedar Bayou, and all other streams within the authority tributary to the Houston Ship Channel, so far up said streams as the State may own same …  for public purposes and for the development of commerce only …” (See Sec. 5007.004)

Many people with property on Buffalo Bayou would think they own to the center line of the channel since the Harris County Appraisal District describes it that way and taxes it too.

Read the rest of this post.

Is the water in Galveston Bay really that clean?

Bay’s ‘A’ grade on water quality misleading, clean water advocates say

By Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 7, 2018

“I think it’s kind of misleading to label water quality an ‘A,’ ” said Brian Zabcik, clean water advocate for Environment Texas, after reviewing the [Galveston Bay] report. “But it’s a very narrow definition of water quality.”

So narrow, in fact, that Erin Kinney, a [Houston Advanced Research Center] research scientist, said researchers didn’t take into account any chemical spills in the water.

The levels of dissolved oxygen and nitrogen in water samples from rivers, bayous and the bay “were most often at acceptable levels for supporting diverse and healthy aquatic life,” the report stated. “The water quality problems that did exist — relating to high levels of phosphorus — typically occur in bayous that receive runoff and wastewater from human activity in residential, industrial, commercial, and agricultural areas.”

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

Public Comment Invited on Spending Plans for Harvey Aid

Plans, Priorities for City, County to Spend Federal Housing and Urban Development Funds

By Mike Morris, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 10, 2018

Houston area residents are inching closer to getting long-awaited Hurricane Harvey aid, and have until Oct. 6 to comment on the city of Houston and Harris County’s draft plans outlining how the governments will spend the more than $1 billion each soon will receive.

You can find the plans at this link.

In a mid-May memo to city council members, Houston’s Housing Director Tom McCasland expected the Department of Housing and Urban Development aid to be arriving in early September. Local officials now are hoping to launch their housing repair programs sometime in November.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

And The Waters Will Prevail

What if Houston’s survival depends not just on withstanding a flood, but on giving in to it?

By Henry Grabar, Slate, Aug 30, 2018

Unprecedented storms have brought three straight years of biblical floods, culminating in Harvey, which inundated 154,170 homes in Harris County—the Delaware-sized area that contains the city of Houston and another Houston’s worth of people outside it. Nearly half of those houses were in neither the 100-year nor the 500-year FEMA flood plain. Why did they flood? In part because Harvey was a leviathan of a storm swollen by a carbon-thick atmosphere, a once-in-10,000-years rainfall event. The weight of the water flexed the earth’s crust and temporarily sank the city a half-inch. And the homes flooded in part because Houston, like other cities, has reshaped its natural flood plains with concrete. Human construction now decides where the floods go.


Several experts I spoke to found that suggestion—that new development was not having an effect on flooding—ridiculous. As Houston has sprawled westward over the Katy Prairie, 75 percent of its flood-absorbent grasslands have been paved over, turning natural detention basins into roads and houses. In Brays Bayou, on the south side of the city, Rice environmental engineering professor Philip Bedient has found that rainfall is up 26 percent over the past 40 years—but runoff is up 204 percent. From 1996 to 2011, impervious surface in Harris County increased by a quarter, and from 1992 to 2010, the area lost almost a third of its wetlands—nearly 16,000 acres. It’s a correlation that’s been noted again and again. “There’s no question that the amount of impervious surface and the destruction of natural ecosystem surfaces has impacted the amount of runoff and flooding that we have seen,” said Shannon Van Zandt, the head of the landscape architecture and urban planning department at Texas A&M. “There’s no question about that. I don’t think it’s plausible to suggest that the detention is taking care of the issue.”

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.

Read the rest of this article in Slate.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker for Slate. Flood map by Harris County Flood Control District, Flood Education Mapping Tool

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