Room for the River: What the River Scientist Had to Say

November 25, 2014

Updated Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, with a link to the video of the lecture by Mathias Kondolf.

More than 100 people gathered last Friday evening to hear Mathias Kondolf speak about rivers, river restoration, and the state of Buffalo Bayou at the Assembly Hall of St. Theresa Memorial Park Catholic Church.

Kondolf is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a world-renowned river scientist, and a leading critic of the destructive and often-failing methods proposed for a $6 million “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project on Buffalo Bayou. He spoke for nearly two hours to a crowd that included people on all sides of a controversial project to bulldoze the riparian forest and dredge and channelize nearly 1.5 miles of one of the last natural stretches of the bayou in the city.

The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was conceived by the Bayou Preservation Association, which actively promotes the plan. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit to the Harris County Flood Control District for the project.

Riparian forest or buffer, also called a riparian zone, consists of specially adapted trees and plants along the edge of a waterway. Among the many important functions of riparian zones are protecting the land from erosion, filtering pollution, cleansing the water, slowing flood water, and providing wildlife and human habitat.

Kondolf had spent hours inspecting the bayou in the rain earlier in the day. The project area is bounded entirely on the south by the River Oaks Country Club golf course, which is currently being renovated. The north bank of the project is our public Memorial Park, along with the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and some private property. Taxpayers are contributing $4 million to this project.

Rivers Are Naturally Dynamic

Kondolf spoke about the natural dynamics of rivers and gave numerous examples from around the world. “The most ecologically diverse, the most valuable ecosystems are those that are dynamic,” he said.

Because of the importance of letting the river move around, the concept of l’espace de liberté or “room for the river” has become one of the central ideas of river restoration and management in Europe, Japan, and in places like Washington state, where it’s called a “channel migration zone.”

“The basic idea is that you give the river some room,” he said. “And you don’t build right up to the edge. Because when you do that you inevitably create conflicts with the river. You give the river some place where it’s okay to erode, where it’s okay to deposit, it’s okay to be a river.”

Kondolf showed several examples of projects similar to the one proposed for Buffalo Bayou that had failed and washed out. Proponents of a failed project in Deep Run, Maryland, for example, “never did an analysis to figure out” where problems “were coming from.” (It turned out to be construction of a shopping center upstream.) The authorities removed a “nice riparian forest” and created perfectly symmetrical meander bends that increased the velocity of the river resulting in the river cutting a new channel.

“Any time that you go in and remove existing riparian forest to build some idealized form, you have to be aware that since [the river] is no longer slowed down when it goes overbank … it is going to find its own way.”

We’ll have more later on Kondolf’s highly informative lecture and the lively discussion that followed. Basically he said that the proposed project is unnecessary, likely to fail, and that in this historic natural area there is room for this river to move. So we should let the bayou be a bayou.

Here is a link to the video of Dr. Kondolf’s lecture on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014.

Professor Mathias Kondolf on Buffalo Bayou, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. Photo by Jim Olive.

Professor Mathias Kondolf on Buffalo Bayou, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. Photo by Jim Olive.

 

 

 

 

Houston Matters Broadcast Room Filled with Smoke from Burning Pants

An Outstanding Job by Environment Reporter Dave Fehling in Show on Buffalo Bayou and the Importance of Riparian Forest

October 13, 2014

Dave Fehling did an outstanding job of reporting for the Houston Matters radio show on the Buffalo Bayou bulldozing project that aired last Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (Segment starts at 18:35.) Fehling is Houston Public Media’s State Impact reporter for Energy and the Environment.

Most importantly Fehling recognized and addressed the main issue completely ignored by the project promoters: the importance of riparian forest, which are basically wetlands necessary for cleansing our waters, controlling erosion and flooding, and providing wildlife habitat. (Yes, we need hawks and dragonflies and alligator snapping turtles to survive. We are all linked in the chain of nature.)

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:

  1. This is not a disagreement between conservationists. This is a battle between conservationists on the one side and developers and profiteers on the other. The influential Bayou Preservation Association, which was instrumental in creating this project and which continues to be its strongest advocate, is no longer a preservation group. The president of the BPA works for the Energy Corridor District, the development agency for the Katy Prairie in West Houston, one of the fastest growing areas in Houston and source of Buffalo Bayou. The BPA board is heavy with representatives of major engineering, construction, and landscape design companies. On the board is a representative of KBR, the engineering contractor for this bayou project. Representatives of the flood control district sit on the advisory board.
  1. This area is not suffering from severe erosion. See below.

    Native box elder and other riparian vegetation naturally restoring a sandy bench, trapping sediment, and creating riparian buffer on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. This area, belonging to the River Oaks Country Club, will be excavated and the bayou channelized and moved. Photo taken July 2014 from the bank of the club golf course. The riparian vegetation in the foreground has since been killed, apparently in the process of preparing the golf course for reconstruction. Photo by Susan Chadwick.

    Native box elder and other riparian vegetation naturally restoring a sandy bench, trapping sediment, and creating riparian buffer on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. This area, belonging to the River Oaks Country Club, will be excavated and the bayou channelized and moved. Photo taken July 2014 from the bank of the club golf course. The riparian vegetation in the foreground has since been killed, apparently in the process of preparing the golf course for reconstruction.

It Would Be Laughable If It Weren’t So Sad

Steve Hupp, water quality director for the BPA, represented the BPA/flood control district point of view, which is sadly supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy. You couldn’t see it, but the flames from Mr. Hupps’ pants were filling up the broadcast room with smoke.

Here is the laughable premise of this project, as explained by Hupp. Actually there are two of them:

  1. Buffalo Bayou will cause erosion damage in this area over the next 200 to 300 years. Therefore let’s go ahead and spend at least $6 million ($4 million in taxpayer money) and do all that damage now! Then it will be all over with. (Not. Likely it will wash out, as similar projects have elsewhere, and then we’ve got an expensive, tragic problem.)
  1. We can and should tear down the natural forest that’s been growing there for at least ninety years and longer, dig up the ancient sandstone and rebuild the banks that were previously held together by the massive root systems of everything we are bulldozing, and plant a new, better forest. The existing forest is healthy and healing, despite having to adjust to urban runoff and high water flows from development upstream. We are not going to do anything about urban runoff or high water flows, but miraculously our new baby trees planted up on our artificially engineered banks won’t be affected by runoff and high water like the old forest was. Our new, engineered forest will be better than nature!

Here are a couple of more flaming points from Hupp during Fehling’s segment on riparian forests:

Steve Hupp is standing on an eroded cliff with a 20-foot drop to the water below.

The high cliffs on Buffalo Bayou are the most stable part of the river, serving as strong bumpers to the meandering water flow. The Bayou Preservation Association and its ally, the Harris County Flood Control District, continue to scare urban prairie dwellers by taking them out to the edge of the high, steep bluff at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and describing it as a “sign of recent erosion.” (It’s impressive though it probably doesn’t help to have people stomping all over the top.)

But these magnificent cliffs have little changed in at least fifty years. They are thousands of years old, part of what is known as the Meander Belt Ridges, and they exist on all the west-east flowing streams in the Houston area. The areas where there has been the least change in the bayou channel are the areas where the banks are the steepest.

“The banks are laying back, eroding wider, a foot a year,” Hupp said. “Basically the bayou’s trying to correct itself. It’ll be bangin’ out the sides. It’ll get there in two or three hundred years. What we’re trying to do is fast forward. “

This is a flat out lie. If the banks were eroding by one foot per year, the banks on both sides would have lost thirty feet each in the last thirty years. Aerial photos and topographic maps show that this is clearly not the case.

But let the Harris County Flood Control District refute Mr. Hupp.

A Third of the Banks Surveyed Had No Erosion At All

The district says that the annual erosion rate in the project area ranges from zero in about a third of the area surveyed to a max of 3.36 inches in one tiny segment. And please note that more than half of the project area is private land, some of which has been managed in a way to cause erosion from the tops of the banks. The best way to fix that is to change damaging land use practices, like mowing up to the edge, killing off riparian vegetation and driving golf carts on the tops of the banks.

The flood control district published this true and factual erosion rate during its public presentation at Lamar High School in December of 2013. (See slide 51.)

Our teammate Bill Heins, a prominent geologist, has studied this issue and here’s what he says, based on the flood control district’s own analysis:

The HCFCD presented the BANCS II assessment of erosion, which surveyed 32 segments of the banks along both sides, on slide 51 of the public presentation in December 2013. (BANCS II is a standardized system of assessing erosion required by the Army Corps of Engineers.)

The documented erosion rate ranged from 0.00 feet per year in 11 of the 32 segments (accounting for 27% of the surveyed area) to 0.28 feet per year in one segment, which constituted less than 5% of the surveyed area.

Averaged over the entire survey area, the mean annual bank retreat is 0.035 feet. We could recast that as 0.42 inches or 11 mm. 

According to the survey, it would take more than 28 years for the average slope to retreat 1 foot.

Even on the one little bit that is eroding the fastest, it would take over 3.5 years.

Of course, Nature only works in fits and starts. It is entirely possible that 1 foot goes away in one storm, but that event is then usually followed by a long period of quiescence.

My own observation  suggests that even if the top of the bank retreats 1 foot, that dirt doesn’t actually move very far. It probably crumbles and slides down through the high water, and winds up not far downslope and not far downstream from where it started.

Please consider donating to Save Buffalo Bayou so that we can continue to fight this battle, which will likely include a legal challenge to the construction permit currently being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must also certify the permit. And the Houston City Council must decide whether this taking of public parkland for a “demonstration” erosion control project is a proper use.

Commissioner Radack Responds

“Buffalo Bayou Not a Natural River”

Supporting Costly Engineering to Slow the Flooding River. Spending Money to Stop the River Slowing For Free.

Nov. 30, 2016

Updated April 23, 2017 — The Harris County Flood Control District reports that repair costs through March 2017 are $1.25 million. Terry Hershey Park remains closed until construction work is complete.

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack called to comment on our article criticizing unnecessarily costly and destructive “repairs” to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. The six-mile long park is in Precinct Three in far west Houston and Commissioner Radack is the boss there.

Radack’s main point, apparently in support of needlessly spending an excessive amount of money, was that Buffalo Bayou is not a natural river. Because the bayou is not natural, it “does not naturally meander.”

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack has been in office since 1989. Official photo courtesy of Steve Radack.

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack. Official photo courtesy of Steve Radack.

For background: the naturally meandering bayou in Terry Hershey Park was stripped and straightened in the 1940s and ‘50s. Last spring high waters from record rains and extended high flows from the federal dams immediately upstream ate away at the bank in places and damaged the asphalt hike-and-bike trail on the north side. We pointed out that this had occurred where the old meanders or bends were. The bayou, we said, was seeking out its historic meanders, adjusting to the flow.

Our point was that it would make more sense, in accordance with the most advanced river management practices across the country and around the world, to move the asphalt trail slightly away from the very edge of the water and allow the river room to move and restore itself. This would be far cheaper, prettier and more natural, and healthier for the bayou, the beneficial trees and plants and creatures that grow there, and for the water flowing through it to the bay. Doing that rather than hardening the bank in an artificial straight line is also less likely to cause flooding and erosion downstream and less likely to require expensive repairs all over again. It’s also federal policy.

But according to Radack, this doesn’t matter, because Buffalo Bayou is not natural. It’s not natural  because the Corps of Engineers “controls the flow.” The bayou “only has water in it,” Radack explained patiently, if the Corps opens the floodgates. “The water comes from the reservoir system.”

Therefore, according to Radack, the bayou is “not natural.”

Is that all true? Beg pardon, but no.

But here’s a puzzle: Radack supports spending tens of millions in public funds to carve up the banks and engineer some two dozen in-channel detention basins on the bayou in Terry Hershey Park. (See below.) But he opposes allowing the bayou to carve out for free its own detention by widening and restoring its old bends. Instead he approves spending taxpayer funds to keep the bayou from doing that.

Does that make sense? Seems contradictory to us.

Read the rest of this story.

Commissioner Radack Responds

“Buffalo Bayou Not a Natural River”

Supporting Costly Engineering to Slow the Flooding River. Spending Money to Stop the River Slowing For Free.

Nov. 30, 2016

Updated April 23, 2017 — The Harris County Flood Control District reports that repair costs through March 2017 are $1.25 million. Terry Hershey Park remains closed until construction work is complete.

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack called to comment on our article criticizing unnecessarily costly and destructive “repairs” to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. The six-mile long park is in Precinct Three in far west Houston and Commissioner Radack is the boss there.

Radack’s main point, apparently in support of needlessly spending an excessive amount of money, was that Buffalo Bayou is not a natural river. Because the bayou is not natural, it “does not naturally meander.”

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack has been in office since 1989. Official photo courtesy of Steve Radack.

Harris County Precinct Three Commissioner Steve Radack. Official photo courtesy of Steve Radack.

For background: the naturally meandering bayou in Terry Hershey Park was stripped and straightened in the 1940s and ‘50s. Last spring high waters from record rains and extended high flows from the federal dams immediately upstream ate away at the bank in places and damaged the asphalt hike-and-bike trail on the north side. We pointed out that this had occurred where the old meanders or bends were. The bayou, we said, was seeking out its historic meanders, adjusting to the flow.

Our point was that it would make more sense, in accordance with the most advanced river management practices across the country and around the world, to move the asphalt trail slightly away from the very edge of the water and allow the river room to move and restore itself. This would be far cheaper, prettier and more natural, and healthier for the bayou, the beneficial trees and plants and creatures that grow there, and for the water flowing through it to the bay. Doing that rather than hardening the bank in an artificial straight line is also less likely to cause flooding and erosion downstream and less likely to require expensive repairs all over again. It’s also federal policy.

But according to Radack, this doesn’t matter, because Buffalo Bayou is not natural. It’s not natural  because the Corps of Engineers “controls the flow.” The bayou “only has water in it,” Radack explained patiently, if the Corps opens the floodgates. “The water comes from the reservoir system.”

Therefore, according to Radack, the bayou is “not natural.”

Is that all true? Beg pardon, but no.

But here’s a puzzle: Radack supports spending tens of millions in public funds to carve up the banks and engineer some two dozen in-channel detention basins on the bayou in Terry Hershey Park. (See below.) But he opposes allowing the bayou to carve out for free its own detention by widening and restoring its old bends. Instead he approves spending taxpayer funds to keep the bayou from doing that.

Does that make sense? Seems contradictory to us.

A Natural River

Buffalo Bayou is a natural river, of course, with important biological and ecological functions, like cleansing the water. Created by nature some 18,000 years ago, the bayou has its source in the Katy Prairie west of Houston and flows through Barker Reservoir and the floodgates of Barker Dam, then for some six miles through Terry Hershey Park, a 500-acre linear forested park, and continues on for another sixteen river-miles into downtown Houston before ending up in Galveston Bay.

Barker Reservoir and, just to the north, Addicks Reservoir are both dry reservoirs, located in Buffalo Bayou’s upper watershed. Built exclusively to control flooding downstream, both federal dams drain into Buffalo Bayou and hold storm water only temporarily to prevent the river from causing or adding to dangerously high flows downstream. The floodgates are always open except when it rains at least an inch downstream–or half an inch if the Corps is already in the process of releasing impounded storm water from the reservoir pools–explains the Corps’ Galveston District Water Control Manager Charles Scheffler.

Damage to asphalt hike-and-bike trail built at edge of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Commissioner Radack says trail will be put back where it was. Photo Aug. 16, 2016

Damage to asphalt hike-and-bike trail built at edge of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Commissioner Radack says trail will be put back where it was. Photo Aug. 16, 2016

The bayou, a perennial river, meaning it flows all the time, has water in it even when the dam floodgates are closed. The bayou even floods when the floodgates are closed. This is because rain that falls in Terry Hershey Park and downstream of the dams runs off the ground (and through drainage pipes, etc.) into the bayou. (That’s unless it can soak into the ground or be absorbed by trees and plants, which helps recharge the groundwater and reduces flooding.) In addition, three ditches or sloughs that run around the outside perimeters of the dams carry rainwater from the south and north and empty a significant amount of stormwater into Buffalo Bayou even when the floodgates are closed.

Radack is surely aware of the controversy over the impact of these free-flowing ditches on Buffalo Bayou, particularly the Clodine Ditch, which brings stormwater from Fort Bend County.

Numerous tributaries and creeks, not to mention ditches, storm and wastewater drains downstream of the dams flow freely into the bayou. But the Clodine and Barker ditches and Turkey Creek empty into the bayou right below the dams. Clodine Ditch, which has its origin in the Longpoint Slough in Fort Bend County, drains an area of 10-15 square miles, runs along the east side of Barker Dam and flows into Buffalo Bayou at Highway 6 just below the dam floodgates. There it meets Barker Ditch, which drains runoff from Interstate 10 and runs along the northern outside edge of Barker Reservoir and then south into Buffalo Bayou. Turkey Creek  receives water from as far north as Jersey Village, flows along the outside eastern edge of Addicks Reservoir and enters the bayou in Terry Hershey Park near N. Eldridge Parkway.

Together the uncontrolled Clodine and Barker ditches can contribute as much as 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water to the bayou when it rains and the dam gates are closed, according to Michael Huffmaster, president of the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood and a homeowner on the south bank of the bayou in Terry Hershey Park. During major storms such as the April Tax Day storm last spring, when the dam floodgates were closed, the combined flow of Clodine and Barker ditches reached nearly 5,000 cfs at Highway 6, based on the USGS gauge on Buffalo Bayou at Highway 6. The flow downstream at Beltway 8 measured nearly 6,500 cfs that day, and by the time it reached Piney Point, the bayou was flowing at at over 7,000 cfs.

People “start to get wet,” as the Corps’ Scheffler puts it, when the flow downstream goes above 4,150 cfs as measured by the USGS gauge at Piney Point, which is part of what the Corps uses to decide whether to open or close the floodgates.

However, Richard Long, the Corps’ supervisory natural resources manager of the dams on Buffalo Bayou, cautions that the gauge at Highway 6 can reflect water that has backed up from rainfall or “other discharge points” downstream. Other discharge points would include, for instance, this very big drainage pipe on the south bank of the bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Drainage aimed directly across the stream acts like a dam and causes blockage of the flow.

Big drain pipe on south bank sends water directly across Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park, acting as dam during storms. Photo October 2015.

Big drain pipe on south bank sends water directly across Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park, acting as dam during storms. Photo October 2015.

 

There are also two City of Houston wastewater treatment plants discharging treated water into the bayou in Terry Hershey Park: Turkey Creek east of North Eldridge Parkway and West District west of Beltway 8.

Detention! Detention!

Residents in the Briar Forest area are opposed to Harris County Flood Control District plans, supported by Radack (see below), to remove forest and scrape out detention ponds for floodwater on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the park. The unpopular detention plan, known as Charting Buffalo, would carve out some two dozen detention basins overall on both sides of the bayou in the park but create only about 280 acre-feet of detention at a cost of millions of dollars.

Trees are important natural storm water detention devices, and it makes little sense to remove them to create detention ponds. Destroying forests is a violation of the flood control district’s legal obligation to conserve forests.

The Briar Forest group was successful last year in persuading the City of Houston not to build up to six large detention basins at a cost of $3.5 to $8.5 million on the south bank in the park. But the flood control district’s plan, though apparently dormant, is still alive. The Briar Forest group proposes, instead of the destructive in-channel detention basins, that Harris County work with Fort Bend County to build a regional detention basin in the Clodine area that would temporarily hold 700-1000 acre-feet of storm water, reducing the peak flow in Buffalo Bayou under Highway 6 by half, according to Huffmaster.

“Developers are buying up Clodine,” says Huffmaster. “We are losing the opportunity.”

Harris County officials have objected to the cost of buying the land to build detention. Terry Hershey Park, on the other hand, is owned by the flood control district and leased to the county. (The flood control district and the county are separate entities, but the county commissioners appoint the director and govern the agency, which is supported by a dedicated tax on property value.)

Fast Rains, Low Flows

It’s true that the flow in Buffalo Bayou is very low when it’s not raining. Called the base flow, at this time of year the median base flow is about 150 cubic feet per second, which is very leisurely. It’s been reported that much of the base flow in the bayou, normally the result of groundwater seeping into the river, is recycled wastewater, which is the case for many urban rivers, including White Oak and Brays bayous, now surrounded by so much impervious surface in the form of buildings and pavement that the rain cannot soak into the ground, or in the case of White Oak and Brays, seep into the concrete channel.

Note that there was a time in the 1940s when the Corps was releasing up to 7,900 cfs into the bayou following rains. (The dams were designed to allow a combined discharge of 15,700 cfs, but that was back when they had plans for a south canal, among other things.) But having made the bayou downstream safe for development, development on the bayou downstream forced the Corps to reduce the flow in the 1960s to 2,000 cfs to avoid flooding lawns and flower gardens, etc. (“People were getting wet,” says Scheffler, who’s been with the Corps for forty-one years.) This year development upstream and heavier, more intense rainfall pushed the Corps to double the maximum allowed discharge from the dams to 4,000 cfs. With a record amount of water impounded by the dams last spring, the Corps was forced to release as much water as quickly as possible in order to be prepared for future storms. With continuing rains, draining the reservoirs took months, and caused erosion problems up and down the river.

“It’s not a natural flow at all,” said Radack, unswayed by the observation that the bayou was a living river, with trees and plants and fish, behaving as rivers do, naturally adjusting to the high flows that it probably once had. “It’s a man-made occurrence,” he insisted, referring to the disturbed banks and broken path.

So Radack is going to forge ahead with the most expensive solution, even if it damages the natural beauty of the park of which he is so proud. “I believe that what we’ve done is an enhancement to Buffalo Bayou,” he said, referring to the creation of Terry Hershey Park in 1993. Radack has been commissioner of Precinct Three since 1989.

“We’ve built that park in a way that makes it a real asset to Harris County and the City of Houston,” he said. “And we’re going to keep it that way.”

“Maybe there will be one or two, a few places” where he would consider moving the path away from the bank. But “right now we’re putting it back together the way it was,” said Radack. “We’re going to continue and I would say there will be detention on the bayou too,” referring to the flood control district’s controversial and seemingly contradictory plans to remove trees and excavate detention basins along the bayou in the park while simultaneously “repairing” the banks where the bayou was naturally doing practically the same thing.

“Any detention in the Buffalo Bayou channel is symbolic,” says Briar Forest’s Huffmaster, referring to the costly creation of artificial detention areas by digging up the forested banks. “Approximately 1000 to 3000 acre-feet are needed to address structural flooding, and Charting Buffalo identified only 280 acre-feet from detention along the bayou channel.

“Let us not undermine those endeavoring to preserve and enhance green space along the bayou.”

For more information on the most advanced ideas in river management and working with nature to reduce the hazards of flooding, we recommend the book Floodplain Management, A New Approach for a New Era.

 

 

"Repairs" to north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Photo on Nov. 3, 2016, by Jim Olive

“Repairs” to north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Photo on Nov. 3, 2016, by Jim Olive

Wasting Money the Old-Fashioned Way

Costly Bayou Repairs Do More Harm Than Good, Won’t Last

Nov. 21, 2016

Updated April 23, 2017 — The Harris County Flood Control District reports that repair costs through March 2017 are $1.25 million. Terry Hershey Park remains closed until construction work is complete.

See also “Commissioner Radack Responds.”

From a distance you could hear the monstrous roar of the heavy equipment in the woods. Following deep, wide tracks smashed into the bare dirt along the bank of Buffalo Bayou, passing large cottonwoods apparently cut to make way for the big equipment, we came across a scene of troubling destruction.

A gigantic articulated 30-ton dump truck with six massive wheels was slowly rolling towards us with a large load of fresh dirt and dripping mud dug up from the bayou bank. Further along a 60-ton excavator on tracks sat on the very edge of the bank, expertly swiveling back and forth, scraping up the dirt bank and dumping it into the truck, scooping up loads of white limestone rock and dropping it in a layer where the excavated bank once was.

We’d seen the eroded bank before the “repairs” began. This damage was far worse.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Dump truck and excavator at work on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park on Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive

Dump truck and excavator at work on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park on Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive

Fallen trees and eroded path on north bank of Buffalo Bayou before repairs began. Note darker patch of asphalt indicating trail had been repaired previously. Photo taken August 19, 2016.

Fallen trees and eroded path on north bank of Buffalo Bayou before repairs began. Note darker patch of asphalt indicating trail had been repaired previously. Fallen trees should have been left in place against the bank to collect sediment and rebuild the bank naturally and for free. Note riparian plants already stabilizing the sediment. Photo taken August 19, 2016.

What Was Wrong With This Scene and Why Was It Happening?

The heavy equipment was at work in Terry Hershey Park in far west Houston, where contractors hired by the Harris County Flood Control District were making what were described as “emergency repairs” to the north bank of the bayou. Flooding and extended high waters released from the dams last spring had eaten away at the bank and the asphalt path built on the water’s edge. The district has identified at least a dozen sites to be repaired between Dairy Ashford Road and Beltway 8.

But everything they were doing was among the more environmentally damaging, expensive, and outdated practices possible—short of actually lining the bayou with concrete—and also likely will end up needing to be done all over again.

And if you don’t care about the biological health of our bayous and streams, or about the cleanliness of the water flowing through them, past our houses and parks and into the bay, or about erosion and flooding downstream, you might care about your tax dollars being flushed down the river.

And yes, in addition to clean water and common sense, we are concerned about flooding upstream and downstream and the predicament we have with the dams that drain into the bayou here. But note that this repair project is not about increasing the flow in the bayou or fixing flooding. (It may increase flooding. See below.) It’s about putting the banks and sidewalks back where the bayou doesn’t want them to be and trying to make them stay there.

We have to ask why.  There are cheaper and more sensible courses of action.

Looking upstream at the excavated north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. A layer of limestone rock will be covered with fill and more rock. Photo by Jim Olive, Nov. 3, 2016

Looking upstream at the excavated north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. A layer of limestone rock will be covered with fill and more rock. Photo by Jim Olive, Nov. 3, 2016

Some History

Terry Hershey Park is a popular 500-acre linear park with hike and bike trails, both paved and natural, stretching for about six miles along Buffalo Bayou in West Houston between Barker Dam (Highway 6) and Beltway 8 (Sam Houston Tollway), and along a tributary draining Addicks Dam south of Interstate 10.

The bayou here was once a forested, meandering stream. More than half of the bayou along this stretch was stripped, dredged, and straightened by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1940s to serve as a drainage channel for the federal dams then under construction. There are still oxbow lakes in the area that were once part of the slow-moving, winding river. In the 1950s much of the rest was stripped and channelized, and plans were developed to line the channelized bayou in concrete all the way downstream to Shepherd Drive. That project was eventually stopped in the 1960s by a popular movement of concerned Houstonians, including Terry Hershey, George Mitchell, then US Rep. George H.W. Bush, and a great many others, whose concern proved to be far-sighted. Stripping, straightening, and hardening the banks of streams is no longer accepted practice for flood control.

More recently homeowners on the south bank of the bayou have been successful in persuading the city not to raze forest for detention on the bayou. (Detention, now considered the first line of defense against flooding, is temporarily detaining or slowing stormwater so that all the water doesn’t rush into storm drains, pipes, streets, and streams all at once, overwhelming the system. Detention can be anything from angled gutter pipes to porous driveways, swales and rain gardens to tall grass, trees, prairies, wetlands, and large ponds.) The flood control district also has promoted plans to cut trees in the park for detention. Members of Save Our Forest urge the city and county to seek regional alternatives for detaining storm water.

Shortly after the concrete project was dropped in the 1960s, the federal government sold the 500 acres that are now the park to the flood control district, and in the following decades the district left the stripped, straightened bayou to revert to a more natural state. Trees and plants grew back. In the 1990s the district entered into an agreement to lease the land to Harris County. Dirt paths were paved with concrete and asphalt. The county created Terry Hershey Park, now managed and maintained by Harris County Precinct 3.

But the bayou, growing stronger with increasing rains and higher flows from development upstream, continues to seek out its historic meanders. And our research shows that the historic meanders are where the banks and sidewalks have repeatedly failed.

Geologist Tom Helm has done the research connecting the meanders and the bank erosion. Watch this brief slide show created by Helm showing the historic meanders and the geologic fault lines that caused the river to wind in a section of Buffalo Bayou between N. Wilcrest and Beltway 8. The slideshow also includes for comparison a map of the disturbed areas being repaired in the area.

  • Compare sites being repaired by Harris County Flood Control with locations of historic meanders. Image by HCFCD.
  • Enlargement of area bounded in red in previous slide, with N. Wilcrest on far left. Image and text created by Tom Helm.

 

And here is a slide show of photographs taken by Helm of other disturbed areas of the north bank of Buffalo Bayou scheduled for repair. The photos show evidence of repeated repairs of the sidewalk along the bank in the form of patched cracks and darker colored sections of the path.

  • Identified by the flood control district as Washout #15, this section west of N. Wilcrest shows old patching of cracks where the trail broke apart possibly due to shifting caused by a geologic fault associated with a meander. Photo by Tom Helm, Nov. 6, 2016
  • Washout #12 between N. Wilcrest and Dairy Ashford shows the trail built too close to the bank, possibly also affected by the presence of a geologic fault creating a meander. Downed trees and brush here should be left in place on the bank to allow the bank to restore itself naturally. Photo by Tom Helm, Nov. 6, 2016
  • A closer look at the same site. The darker colored, newer asphalt used to repair previously this collapsed section of the trail is plainly visible in this photo taken by Helm on Nov. 6, 2016
  • This photo by Helm shows a second level of asphalt exposed by the collapse, also indicating the path had been previously repaired. This is Washout #10 along what was once a meander.
  • This collapsing concrete was possibly used to fill in a meander. Meanders here tend to coincide with the presence of geologic faults. Photo by Tom Helm, Nov. 6, 2016

 

“They’re trying to fix a problem that’s not fixable,” says Helm.

Working Against Nature

Would it be a smarter idea to allow the bayou to meander once again? After all, as the authors write in the important book, Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era, “We don’t really control nature, and an everlasting truth is rivers will do what rivers do.” (p. 7)

There is room for the river to move in Terry Hershey Park, and a river that has room to move is healthier, cleaner, and more biologically diverse, cheaper to maintain, and more effective at filtering and controlling runoff and flood waters. Also called a river migration corridor, “room for the river” is the most advanced practice in river and floodplain management across the country and around the world, along with slowing down and spreading out stormwater before it reaches the river, including upstream of the dams. (An important reason to preserve forests, as trees are powerful rainwater detention devices.)

However, the flood control district’s overall policy and practice here is to immobilize the banks of the bayou, in this case with limestone rock (a material foreign to the bayou), and to make the banks smooth by removing the riparian vegetation so vital for cleansing the water and protecting against erosion. Flood control’s goal is to move stormwater down the river as fast as possible, a goal that unfortunately often only causes more erosion and flooding downstream, as fast moving waters meet obstacles and bottlenecks, including, for instance, bridges.

Other expensive, wasteful, and outdated flood control district practices: widening and deepening channels, mowing the grass on the banks, cutting trees for detention ponds. But those important issues are for another story.

Why Is Everything They Are Doing Wrong?

Besides immobilizing the riverbank and making sure it stays straight, here are other ways that what they are doing is wrong:

1. Driving heavy equipment on the bank compacts and kills the soil, making it less porous, less permeable, less nutritious for vegetation, less stable and more likely to erode, and also kills all the beneficial creatures small and large living and working under there. It’s all part of the system. Everything is connected.

2. Digging up or excavating the riverbank destroys the structure of the soil and kills the healthy bacteria or biome, neutralizing its amazing pollution-fighting powers and turning it into useless dirt. Also see above.

3. There has been no attempt to restore the healthy bacteria or microbes to the excavated dirt, and according to the district, there is no plan to do that. The soil and sand excavated from the banks in the park was being stored in large piles somewhat discreetly dumped behind some trees. It was then returned via the big dump trucks to the bayou and spread by the tank-like excavator on top of the limestone riprap and pounded into place.

4. Trees and vegetation on the banks, so important for erosion control, slowing and filtering stormwater and runoff, were removed to provide access for the heavy equipment. The district says the rock and compacted soil will be planted eventually with turf and other vegetation.

5. The repairs are ugly and unnatural.

6. Riprap, even buried riprap, is one of the most ecologically damaging methods of erosion control. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency describes the problems with riprap:

“Riprap impedes the natural functions of a riverbank or shoreline, as it interrupts the establishment of the riparian zone, or the point of interface between land and flowing water. A properly functioning riparian zone is important for a number of reasons; it can reduce stream energy and minimize erosion; filter pollutants from surface runoff via biofiltration; trap and hold sediments and woody debris, which assists in replenishing soils and actually rebuilding banks and shorelines; and it provides habitat diversity and an important source of aquatic nutrients. Not to mention, a naturally functioning riparian zone simply looks better.” (p. 8)

The agency also points out that “riprap also tends to suffer from structural integrity issues during and after high-water events,” ultimately requiring constant and expensive monitoring and maintenance. (p. 9)

7. The asphalt path is too close to the river’s edge in places anyway. Sidewalks constructed too close damage the banks and tend to get washed away, requiring costly repairs. Impermeable pathways also increase runoff and erosion. There is plenty of room to move the path slightly out of the way and still have a lovely view and experience of the bayou. Greg Wyatt, Harris County Precinct 3 maintenance manager for Bear Creek and Terry Hershey parks, said in a recent phone conversation that the asphalt trail would be put back “exactly where it was prior to the damage.” But he also said there had been “consideration” and a “possibility” that some parts of the asphalt trail might be moved out of harm’s way.

What Are the Alternatives?

The repairs began in late September and so far mostly have been focused on five priority sites near Wilcrest in the park. There are still other sites to be repaired in the park and across the county. According to a report in the Houston Chronicle, the flood control district has identified almost 2,000 locations on the banks of county streams that need repairs as a result of the floods in 2015-2016.

The initial estimate for repairing the banks in Terry Hershey Park was $600,000, as reported by the Chronicle. The contractors for the work are Freese and Nichols, an architecture and engineering firm, and Serco, the construction company. But a spokesperson for the district said in a recent email that the disturbance to the bank was more extensive than originally thought. Park manager Wyatt said that more damage was discovered when vegetation was removed from the banks to make way for the heavy equipment. New cost projections are still being developed. And apparently that initial $600,000 cost estimate does not yet include the cost of replacing the asphalt trails.

Let’s see. Using just the initial estimate of $600,000 for 12 sites, multiply by 166 (2,000 countywide sites divided by 12), that comes to a potential cost to county taxpayers of $100 million to repair county streams using the methods being used in Hershey Park. That figure doesn’t include the lost economic value of riparian corridors for treating water.

The flood control district received a blanket regional general permit in 2013 from the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers to do essentially whatever it thinks it needs to do anywhere. That permit apparently covers digging up and rebuilding these bayou banks, which are essentially wetlands, performing the same vital function as wetlands, and should be protected as wetlands. The Corps is responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act, the federal law passed to protect the health of our waters.

“Especially since there is no infrastructure imminently threatened, it would be very hard/impossible to get away with this in the San Francisco Bay region nowadays,” Mathias Kondolf, professor of environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email.

Could the flood control district have chosen a better, more effective, more practical, less costly and less damaging response to the changes in the banks in Terry Hershey Park?

We think so, and so does FEMA.

Letting the River Heal

The best response in this case would have been—perhaps still could be—to move out of the way. A few picks and shovels to pick up the damaged asphalt. Leave the fallen trees and brush in place on the banks to collect sediment and rebuild. Let the river restore its edges naturally over time; seek out its meanders if necessary. It’s going to do that anyway. Watch this beautiful film called Letting the River Heal that explains the benefits of doing just that.

Where necessary, new asphalt paths could be built higher up the banks, or merged with the paved trails already in place in those higher locations. Nobody has to sacrifice access to or appreciation of the bayou.

We are not advocating letting the bayou meander all the way through people’s houses or through subdivisions, although it’s possible that there are still sections of the bayou here secretly meandering underground through neighborhoods, via culverts. A representative of the flood control district mentioned that at a neighborhood meeting earlier this fall.

As an alternative method of stopping erosion, FEMA recommends brush mattresses, which are essentially constructed versions of the natural process described above. Here is some advice about brush mattresses as well as other softer, more natural, and cheaper methods of erosion control on rivers from our neighbors up East.

But keep in mind that erosion and flooding are natural, even necessary. Included in the advice in the link above: “People cannot stop erosion—they can only speed it up or slow it down. It is the nature of rivers and streams to move, and there is no guarantee for the success of any erosion control project. … The most cost-effective approach by far is to avoid setting up an erosion-prone situation in the first place.”

Did the flood control district consider alternatives before embarking on the current repair program in Terry Hershey Park?

“The repair methods that we are using are time tested, reliable and appropriate for existing conditions along Buffalo Bayou” was the written response from the district.

“We have a history of thinking we have the engineering expertise to redesign rivers to be more efficient or to be fixed. Over the long run, we don’t.” — Floodplain Management, A New Approach for a New Era, p. 141.

State of the Bayou

Downed Trees. New Channel. New Riprap. Washed Out Sidewalks, Beavers, and Turtles

But Some Banks Naturally Rebuilding

Does It Make Sense to Repair?

Sept. 1, 2016

Updated Sept. 11, 2016

No man ever steps into the same river twice. Heraclitus

We finally had a chance recently to float down beautiful Buffalo Bayou to see how things have changed. Our trip took us past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. We also biked along the bayou through Terry Hershey Park far upstream in west Houston below the dams to see what was happening there.

The good news is that some of the high banks that had slumped in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary during the Memorial Day 2015 flooding are naturally rebuilding.

The bad news is that the River Oaks Country Club has added more riprap to the south bank, hard armoring the bank with ugly, damaging concrete rubble, including where it should not be.

Nature’s Miraculous Way of Restoring. For Free.

Houston has had multiple record-breaking rains and flooding since the spring of 2015. When Buffalo Bayou overflows its high banks, as it did in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, the banks in places sometimes slump or slide away. This happens when the overflowing water seeps through the ground and saturates layers of sandy clay that liquefy, sometimes causing the bank to give way. Buffalo Bayou is 18,000 years old, and this has been happening for a very long time.

This natural tendency to slump is one reason why we think attempting to engineer these banks as proposed by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project won’t work. It’s also the reason why we think building and repeatedly repairing sidewalks at the bayou’s edge is wasteful and foolish.

When the bayou’s banks slump or collapse, the brush and fallen trees left in place collect sediment during subsequent high waters, gradually rebuilding naturally reinforced banks. These new nature-built banks are better able to withstand subsequent floods as well as the more powerful flows being released from the dams upstream as a result of increasingly intense rains on a landscape increasingly covered with impervious surface.

Amazingly, the bayou itself then reseeds these and other sandy areas with the proper succession of plants that first colonize then stabilize the sediment, turning sand into soil, preparing the way for seedlings of trees. It’s part of the natural function of riverine flooding that we rarely have opportunity to observe, especially in the middle of a city where we have dug up and covered in concrete most of our bayous and streams. Having built in the way of flooding and even increased flooding by cutting down trees and paving over prairies, most of us have little understanding or sympathy for the way rivers and wetlands work.

These miraculous riparian plants and trees, forming a type of wetland, not only absorb and deflect rainwater during storms but also naturally filter and cleanse the water flowing in the stream as well as the runoff heated and polluted by our hot, filthy pavement and fertilized yards. Riparian vegetation can be more effective at treating sewage than costly treatment facilities. Natural, green systems provide better defenses for flooding.

Yes, this wonder of nature happens even on our urban bayous.

Here is a slideshow of photographs of the south bank of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary that collapsed during the Memorial Day 2015 flood and is now naturally stabilized and blooming with new growth.

  • Slumping and downed trees on a high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary in June 2015 following the Memorial Day flood.
  • Another view of the same bank, same day.
  • May 9, 2016, following the April 18 Tax Day storm, during extended record high water releases from the federal dams.
  • The same high bank three months later on August 4, 2016.
  • The same south-facing high bank nine months later on April 29, 2017, greening with spring growth.
  • South-facing bluff in Hogg Bird Sanctuary on July 11, 2017. Photo by SC.

 

Try This At Home

You can try this at home, if your home happens to be on the bank of a bayou or creek and you haven’t already cut down all your trees and removed the native vegetation for landscaping, which is something you should not do if you want to protect your land from erosion. Keep in mind, though, that some erosion on a river is natural.

We haven’t had a chance to see for ourselves, but we know that many trees fell in the residential areas upstream. Landowners, as well as the public owners of our parks, saw extensive bank slumping and erosion due to the record high flows that lasted for months in Buffalo Bayou.

As always, the best way to restore banks and protect against future land loss is to leave the fallen trees and brush in place on the banks. (We are not advocating leaving debris in the middle of the bayou that blocks the flow or poses a danger to paddlers.)

But on the banks the brush, as noted above, serves a practical purpose. If you don’t have trees or brush lying on your banks, you can create a “brush mattress,” mimicking nature, by dragging brush there, preferably live willow or box elder branches or other native trees and bushes that naturally grow on the bayou, layering it, tying it together, and pinning it to the banks, if necessary. And wait, patiently.

Ecological Conversion. Woods Closed.

We put in at the Texas Parks and Wildlife boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway, just west of Loop 610, in an area known as the Old Archery Range. Boy Scout Saswat Pati had not yet installed the wooden boxes he had built to distribute reusable mesh bags for paddlers to collect trash on the bayou.

The bayou, flowing so high and fast for so long, had disguised the huge, ugly concrete Redi-Rock stormwater outfall with high mounds of sediment and new native plants. The drainage outfall was gashed out of the forest there more than two years ago by the Galleria-area Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) to drain Post Oak Road. Sediment collects around the outfall because of its poor design. Stormwater shooting from the outfall blocks the flow of the bayou and creates an eddy that washes sediment up onto the bank.

However, it was pleasing to see how nicely the bayou was once again stabilizing and landscaping the new sediment with native plants. Thankfully, these important riparian plants have been allowed to grow.

Smartweed and other native plants growing naturally around the Woodway drainage outfall/boat launch. Photo Aug. 4, 2016.

Smartweed and other native plants growing naturally around the Woodway drainage outfall/boat launch. Mowed Bermudagrass above. Photo Aug. 4, 2016.

It was less pleasing to see that the Memorial Park Conservancy continues to waste money mowing the non-native Bermudagrass planted by the TIRZ farther up the bank where trees had been cut down. Mowing grass shortens its roots, and tall grass with long roots provides better erosion control. This is true even with the noxious Bermudagrass, though it would be far preferable to have native grasses on this slope. The $1.58 million outfall/drainage and landscaping project, which removed a large number of trees in what was once a nature area, was described as an “erosion control” project. Trees and their roots, leaves, and branches are also important for erosion control, as noted above.

It’s puzzling to contemplate the logic of planting non-native Bermudagrass on the slope and retaining walls of the outfall/boat launch while removing invasive, non-native trees and plants in the adjacent woods. According to Shellye Arnold, executive director of the conservancy, the work in the woods is part of an “ecological conversion” project in the park paid for in part with $1 million in taxpayer funds annually through the Uptown TIRZ, which also paid to plant the difficult-to-remove Bermudagrass next to the woods.

However, while noting its preference for native riparian grasses, the Texas Riparian Association approves the use of exotic Bermudagrass because of its “functional benefits” and does not consider it invasive. (p. 165-166)

The woods undergoing ecological restoration in the Old Archery Range of Memorial Park at Woodway west of Loop 610. Photo Aug. 20, 2016.

The woods undergoing ecological restoration in the Old Archery Range of Memorial Park at Woodway west of Loop 610. Photo Aug. 20, 2016.

The ecological work also involves the removal of some hazardous trees, though other dead trees have been left in place, as a forest ecosystem requires dead trees for wildlife habitat, said Arnold.

Small signs warn that the woods are closed to the public due to hazardous conditions, which seems perhaps excessive, as much of the park’s woods, indeed most woods, where limbs and even entire trees fall, are similarly hazardous. Even yard and sidewalk trees do this.

Still, it’s best that people be warned of the hazard. Though perhaps it would be useful to say what the hazard is.

Turtles and Beavers

Dragging our canoes, we climbed over the high dunes of sculpted sandy mud that have buried the outfall’s useless concrete maintenance ramp. We dropped the boats into the water and commenced paddling. Or rather Tom Helm commenced paddling, as he usually does most of that. The flow was base flow that day, a very slow current, about 120 cubic feet per second, and the water was so low we soon scraped bottom a number of times.

But it was cool on the water, and shady under the overhanging trees. We drifted downstream with the natural banks of the Arboretum and Memorial Park on our left, clear water seeping through layers of red clay. On our right were numerous unpermitted, private erosion control projects, ugly piles of concrete chunks dumped into the water, metal retaining walls, attempting to hold back landscaped gardens, houses, and high-rise parking lots built too close to the water.

Legions of silver-winged damselflies accompanied us downriver, lighting on our cameras and wooden paddles, as we noted the changes in the high banks and bends, the newly revealed outcroppings of ancient sandstone, and maneuvered around trees that had fallen, including a favorite sycamore that had long been leaning over the water, clinging to the sandstone with its intricate mass of roots.

It was evident that a powerful force had moved through the bayou channel, carrying and shifting tons of sediment from one side of the river to the other.

We looked for signs of beaver and turtles, concerned that the high flows might have washed out turtles and their eggs and also might have flooded the beaver lodges burrowed into the bank from beneath the water, forcing out the beaver.

Naturalist/environmental attorney Bruce Bodson, who floats the bayou frequently, as does Tom Helm, had reported that he had “noticed a really sharp decline in the number of turtles” from what he normally saw when paddling the bayou. “I was seeing on the order of thirty to forty turtles a trip from Woodway to Sabine, and I am now seeing more like five to ten,” he wrote in an email.

As for beavers, “I am finding beaver tracks in most of the usual places, but it isn’t possible for me to tell if the numbers have changed,” Bodson wrote.  “I suspect that the prolonged high water would be hard on the bank burrowers. Things appear normal with the birds and bats.”

We did see a few turtles, but not a lot of turtle tracks.

The Bayou Changes Course

We soon came upon a major shift in the channel. A young heron was standing there, waiting to have its picture taken.

The bayou had decided to cut through the point of a bend where a large cottonwood on public parkland on the north bank had fallen during the Memorial Day 2015 flooding. [Corrected Sept. 11, 2016. Story previously said property owners on south bank had cut down trees.] During the high flows the bayou, running up against the stone and metal-reinforced bank on the residential south side, had deposited a massive amount of sediment, almost filling in the bend, and slicing through the point of the north bank. The tree stumps were now on the south side of the channel.

New channel cut by Buffalo Bayou. Heron posing in lower right. Photo Susan Chadwick Aug. 4, 2016

New channel cut by Buffalo Bayou. Heron posing in lower right. Photo looking upstream with residential areas on left, Memorial Park on right by Susan Chadwick Aug. 4, 2016

Ugly Riprap Damages Water Quality and Hurts Our Bayou Ecosystem and Neighbors

Further on we came to the sharp left bend that marks the beginning of the River Oaks Country Club golf course and the beginning of the stretch of the river proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District  for the destructive Memorial Park Demonstration Project. This is the project that we oppose. Here the club, which was to be a one-third partner in the long-delayed project, has dug up and removed the vegetation growing on a terrace under the high south bank and hard armored the bank with ugly concrete riprap.

Here is what the flood control district says about hard armoring with riprap or any other material in its 2014 application for a federal permit from the Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers:

“Bank armoring at a single point of erosion has been shown to be ineffective along Buffalo Bayou. The isolated bank armoring installed to deflect the erosive shear stress at the point of failure, in most cases, is attacked at one or both of its terminal ends, resulting in eventual failure. This type of armoring redirects stream energy to a new spot location downstream, creating a new point of stress.”

The Corps has so far wisely not decided to issue a permit for the project, though we keep hearing rumors that this is going to happen soon, next month, any day.

The controversial and destructive demonstration project was meant to demonstrate “natural channel design” methods for bank stabilization and restoration. Unfortunately, in this stretch of the river, “natural channel design” would have razed shading trees and vegetation and bulldozed the banks, breaking up the healthy organisms in the soil, destroying healthy, functioning riparian forest and wildlife habitat. This was demonstrating to landowners exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control. It also violates federal and state policy and regulations for the preservation of riparian areas, so vital for the health of our water.

The project, initiated by the Bayou Preservation Association in 2010, would do nothing to help with flooding.

It is not a project to widen the bayou channel or increase the volume of water running through it. It would likely increase the velocity and erosive force of the water running through a deeper, narrower, shorter, denuded channel, causing greater damage downstream, including in Buffalo Bayou Park east of Shepherd, where the banks engineered by Flood Control using “natural stable channel design” are constantly sliding away, requiring constant costly repair.

And the Memorial Park project would likely fail, as have many similar projects across the country as well as here at home. In this case failure would in large part be due to the bayou’s slippery geology, as described above. And did we mention that the “restored” banks, unlike the natural banks, would require repeated maintenance and repair at taxpayer expense?

Dumping Concrete Rubble in Our Public Waters a Violation of the Clean Water Act

So we were floating at base flow, no recent rain, scraping bottom. The water level hardly gets any lower than that. Yet one can see (in the slide show of photos below) that the riprap here (and further downstream) comes down nearly to the water’s edge. Notice also the mud stain about half way up the riprap. What does that mean?

It means that the riprap was placed below the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) (paragraph e) in violation of the Clean Water Act. The OHWM is defined as that “line on the shore established by the fluctuations of water and indicated by physical characteristics such as clear, natural line impressed on the bank, shelving, changes in the character of soil, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, the presence of litter and debris, or other appropriate means that consider the characteristics of the surrounding areas.”

It does not mean the water’s edge at lowest possible flow.

The Clean Water Act is meant to protect the cleanliness of our water in a navigable stream and in its tributaries, all of which flow into our bays and oceans. As mentioned above, riparian areas and wetlands are vital for the health of our water, as well as for controlling flooding. So you’re not supposed to dump anything or dig up or build anything below the OHWM (or in an adjacent wetland) without a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act.

We have studied the engineering drawings outlining the OHWM in this stretch of the river submitted by the flood control district with its 2014 permit application to the Corps. We have studied the 2015 engineering drawings of the proposed riprap installation submitted by the River Oaks Country Club to the flood control district. The district told the club that no federal permit was needed.

Yet it is clear that the riprap has been placed below the OHWM both upstream and downstream.

  • Upstream limit of golf course and project area, July 14, 2014. Note trees and vegetation growing on bench below high bank.
  • Same upstream location covered with concrete riprap on August 9, 2015.
  • View of upstream riprap from Memorial Park bank showing Ordinary High Water Mark. Note staining in rubble, debris line and change in soil on bank. Photo Jan. 2016, by Bill Heins.
  • Another photo taken the same day showing the Ordinary High Water Mark, the brown stain on the new white rubble.
  • Same riprap on Aug. 4, 2016, at base flow. Photo by Jim Olive.

 

Last fall we complained about this. And Mathias Kondolf of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the world’s leading river experts, wrote a letter to the commander of the Corps’ Galveston District, observing that in his opinion the club’s concrete rubble appeared in photographs to have been installed in federal waters. The Corps sent out someone to inspect, and Commander Richard Pannell, since retired, politely wrote back to Dr. Kondolf that the inspection revealed that the riprap was not in federal waters.

So we sent out our own expert, an experienced geologist, who waded into the middle of the stream with his dog, took photos, looked up and down, and analyzed the elevation and evidence of “the natural line impressed on the bank, shelving, changes in the character of soil, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, the presence of litter and debris,” etc. The evidence showed that the nearly one-third to one-half of the vertical extent of the riprap had been installed below the OHWM in both locations.

In late February we sent a registered letter outlining our evidence to Commander Pannell. He did not respond. We sent a copy of the letter to the country club along with a Texas Riparian Association booklet on managing and protecting riparian areas. The club did not respond. And obviously it made no difference in their riprap plans.

More Riprap, Still in Public Waters

We continued paddling through a sharp bend that we call the Middle Meander of the project area. It’s a lovely wild spot at the eastern edge of the park, a natural stormwater detention area on the park side, with clean sandy banks on both sides, a tributary and high cliffs with tall trees, some of them proud pines killed by drought years ago but still standing. It’s an area favored by beavers, hawks, herons, egrets, and all sorts of wildlife.

Headed toward the Middle Meander. Memorial Park beach, tributary, and big old cliffs on left and front. Bank of country club on right. Photo by Jim Olive, Aug. 4, 2016

Headed toward the Middle Meander. Memorial Park beach, tributary, and big old cliffs on left and front. Bank of country club on right. Photo by Jim Olive, Aug. 4, 2016

This natural detention area would be bulldozed and filled in by the Demonstration Project, the ancient cliffs, part of the region’s Meander Belt Ridges, obliterated, the sandy banks leveled, the bayou shortened, straightened, and rerouted further south.

The sandy banks had changed shape, with the beach on the north side expanding. The area below the cliff is littered with tall trees that have fallen over a period of decades and remained in place, but we did not see that any new trees had fallen.

Continuing round the bend we paddled through a stretch that was known for beaver activity but we could not see any sign.

Floating downstream, River Oaks Country Club golf course ahead.  Photo by Jim Olive, Aug. 4, 2016

Floating downstream, River Oaks Country Club golf course ahead. Photo by Jim Olive, Aug. 4, 2016

Round the next bend we came upon the new riprap that had just been installed days before by the country club at the edge of the golf course. It too had been placed down to the water’s edge. The bank, once heavily forested, was denuded, covered in a carpet of grass.

  • Approaching downstream riprap installed in 2015 opposite Hogg Bird Sanctuary with view of new riprap being installed. Photo Aug. 4, 2016, by Jim Olive.
  • New downstream riprap installed just days earlier at low water's edge. Photo Aug. 4, 2016, by Jim Olive.
  • A closer view of the downstream riprap recently installed. Photo Aug. 4, 2016, by Jim Olive.
  • Downstream border between same recently installed riprap and natural bank showing rubble below flag at impression line in bank and below changes in vegetation. Photo Aug. 4, 2016, by Jim Olive.

 

Repairs to Terry Hershey Park: Should the Sidewalks Be Moved Instead?

Days later two of us loaded our bikes with some difficulty into the car and drove out to Terry Hershey Park to inspect the damage to the trails.

Unlike the bayou flowing past Memorial Park, which has never been channelized, the 6.2 mile stretch of the bayou flowing through Terry Hershey Park was stripped of trees, dredged, widened and straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1940s during construction of Addicks and Barker dams. The bayou there has since replanted itself.

But high waters have washed out some of the trails and asphalt sidewalks on the north and south sides of the bayou in the park. And the flood control district has announced plans to repair the banks and sidewalks on the north side. The repairs reportedly will cost $600,000.

The damaged trail on the north side was closed, but we rode around the barricades. We wanted to see whether there was room to move the sidewalks farther away from the water. It seems to us that repairing sidewalks so close to the water’s edge is a waste of public funds. The bayou will continue to wash out the banks. The river is attempting to adjust to the high flows.

A Continuing Waste of Public Funds in Our Bayou Parks

And indeed there is room to move the sidewalks farther away from the water. In fact, there are existing adjacent trails slightly upland that could easily be connected, trails that still have views of the bayou.

Let the bayou adjust and rebuild its own the banks. Bringing in heavy equipment, digging up the banks, will only undermine them further. And continue to cost the taxpayers money.

The same is true in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream. It’s time to reconsider the constant costly repairs of sidewalks installed too close to the bayou. We can have the same lovely experience of biking, jogging, and walking along the bayou without having to be so close to the water, where in any case the banks look forever distressed.

Let the bayou be. Move the sidewalks instead.

  • Headed upstream on the damaged trail adjacent to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Aug. 19, 2016
  • Washed-out trail immediately adjacent to Buffalo Bayou further upstream in Terry Hershey Park. Aug. 19. 2016.
  • Washed out trail that should be moved away from edge of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park. Photo Aug. 19, 2016.

 

 

Can An Urban Stream Restore Itself?

Yes, With Room to Move. Free Rivers Are Healthier and Better for Flood Control

June 15, 2016

Updated with August 2016, April 29 and July 11, 2017, photos of self-repaired Hogg Bluff

By Susan Chadwick, Executive Director, Save Buffalo Bayou

This article is adapted from a presentation made at the Southwest Stream Restoration Conference in San Antonio, Texas, on June 2, 2016.

Save Buffalo Bayou is a non-profit organization founded two years ago to fight a public project described as a “restoration” project on one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows through the middle of Houston, past 1,500-acre Memorial Park and another 15-acre public nature preserve, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. Since then our organization has expanded into broader, related issues. But today’s topic is restoration.

Here are some of the most common responses I would get when I would say that this mile-long plus stretch of the bayou is natural, along with what were some of the most common defenses of the project.

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

The river’s not natural because the river changes.

It’s not natural because it’s been altered by high runoff from urbanization.

Trees fall into it.

It has terrible erosion problems. Look at those steep high banks!

It’s terribly eroded. Look at those sandy banks!

It’s eroding terribly. Sediment from the banks in Memorial Park washes up on the sidewalks of Buffalo Bayou Park we built downstream in the floodway right next to the river.

All that sediment carries bacteria. If we stop the banks from eroding so much sediment, we will reduce the bacteria. (Although sediment-laden Buffalo Bayou is less polluted than White Oak Bayou, which runs relatively clear and extremely foul due to being encased in concrete.)

And of course the big one: the river needs to be stabilized because it moves around.

Then there’s the argument, both implied and explicit, that prompted me to select this topic for presentation today: an urban stream cannot restore itself.

A Profound Misconception About How Nature and Rivers Work

All of those statements, of course, indicate a profound misconception about nature, about how a river works and how rivers benefit us.

A river is a living symbol of change. A living system. A dynamic process of nature that works for our benefit. Even the simple grains of sand work on our behalf to cleanse the water.

Read the rest of this post.

 

Can An Urban Stream Restore Itself?

Yes, With Room to Move. Free Rivers Are Healthier and Better for Flood Control

June 15, 2016

Updated with August 2016, April 29 and July 11, 2017, photos of self-repaired Hogg Bluff

By Susan Chadwick, Executive Director, Save Buffalo Bayou

This article is adapted from a presentation made at the Southwest Stream Restoration Conference in San Antonio, Texas, on June 2, 2016.

Save Buffalo Bayou is a non-profit organization founded two years ago to fight a public project described as a “restoration” project on one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows through the middle of Houston, past 1,500-acre Memorial Park and another 15-acre public nature preserve, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. Since then our organization has expanded into broader, related issues. But today’s topic is restoration.

Here are some of the most common responses I would get when I would say that this mile-long plus stretch of the bayou is natural, along with what were some of the most common defenses of the project.

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

Sandy bank on a meander of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on April 2, 2016

The river’s not natural because the river changes.

It’s not natural because it’s been altered by high runoff from urbanization.

Trees fall into it.

It has terrible erosion problems. Look at those steep high banks!

It’s terribly eroded. Look at those sandy banks!

It’s eroding terribly. Sediment from the banks in Memorial Park washes up on the sidewalks of Buffalo Bayou Park we built downstream in the floodway right next to the river.

All that sediment carries bacteria. If we stop the banks from eroding so much sediment, we will reduce the bacteria. (Although sediment-laden Buffalo Bayou is less polluted than White Oak Bayou, which runs relatively clear and extremely foul due to being encased in concrete.)

And of course the big one: the river needs to be stabilized because it moves around.

Then there’s the argument, both implied and explicit, that prompted me to select this topic for presentation today: an urban stream cannot restore itself.

A Profound Misconception About How Nature and Rivers Work

All of those statements, of course, indicate a profound misconception about nature, about how a river works and how rivers benefit us.

A river is a living symbol of change. A living system. A dynamic process of nature that works for our benefit. Even the simple grains of sand work on our behalf to cleanse the water.

To be fair, I should add this complaint:

It’s eroding terribly, the golf course is falling in. (That would be on the high south bank opposite Memorial Park where a country club cut down the trees, killed off the vegetation, and mows and waters the grass up to the edge, among other things. An excellent example of not Best Management Practice for a riparian area.)

The country club armored its bank with riprap in two places late last summer. Hardening the bank, as most of you well know, is one of the most damaging things you can do to the ecological health of a stream. Not to mention what it does to your neighbors up and downstream and across the way.

Another complaint: the Hogg Bird Sanctuary is falling apart.

  • High bluff and tributary in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, March 2016
  • Aerial view of a lovely meander in Memorial Park showing very old high bluffs on the right. The meander would be filled and the high bluffs leveled by the proposed Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Jim Olive photo, Oct. 2, 2015
  • Sandy forested banks of the River Oaks Country Club on the right. Sandy beach on the left owned by the Harris County Flood Control District, though the property behind is privately owned. Photo by Jim Olive Oct. 2, 2015.
  • Riprap installed by the River Oaks Country Club on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in August 2015. Photo by Jim Olive on Oct. 2, 2015.

 

What is the Goal of Restoration?

In order to answer the question of whether an urban stream can restore itself, we first have to ask: what do we mean by restore?

Now there are projects in places like Seattle in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere where urban stream restoration can mean ecological restoration, focusing for instance on the microorganisms in the streambed and the water below ground. But all too often, what is meant by restoration is stabilize. Stop the river from moving. Stop the channel from shifting. Stop the banks from eroding.

From our point of view and that of many scientists, stabilizing – or attempted stabilizing — is killing the river. A river, in order to be alive, in order to be healthy, to be biologically diverse, to serve its purpose of cleansing the water and sustaining life, needs room to move. In order to restore itself and adjust to floods and high flows, a river has to move.

Not that Buffalo Bayou has shifted that much.

Known as the Mother Bayou, this 53-mile long central bayou is some 18,000 years old. The majority of all other bayous and streams in the region flow into it before it reaches Galveston Bay. And within recorded time — that would be topographic maps from the last hundred years – the bayou channel has shifted very little. In large part due to those high cliffs, part of the Pleistocene-era (really old) Meander Belt Ridge, that act as stabilizers, bumpers, on all our west to east moving streams in the Houston area.

Slide08

 

Rebuttals

The scientific literature is replete with rebuttals to the common complaints about erosion and shifting and movement of sediment that I mentioned above.

But let me quote first of all Texas’ great Steve Nelle, wildlife biologist and natural resources specialist. In February 2013 he wrote about erosion in his excellent series, Riparian Notes, focusing in part on myths about rivers. This myth about erosion, he wrote, is pervasive.

“… Vertical eroding cut banks are not always bad. Often time they are beneficial.  Cut banks normally occur on outside bends where energy and stress is greater. … Erosion on cut banks is “good” when the eroded soil material is carried downstream and deposited on the opposite side, forming point bars on inside bends. … We must learn to grit our teeth and let the ugly work of bank erosion do its job.”

Erosion As Part of the Repair Process

What does this mean? It means that eroding banks, sediment transport and deposition, shifting meanders are in fact a part of the natural repair and restoration process. Nelle doesn’t call the impacts of droughts and floods “damages.” He and other scientists refer to those changes in a river caused by droughts and floods as “disturbances,” disturbances necessary to the vital function of a stream.

“Disturbance is often the prerequisite for change in nature,” Nelle wrote in a Riparian Note of January 2013.

“Static banks are not the norm, and static rivers and streams do not sustain ecosystems,” wrote Joan Florsheim, Jeffrey Mount, and Anne Chin, the authors of a June 2008 paper in Bioscience titled “Bank Erosion as a Desirable Attribute of Rivers.”

Florsheim et al pointed out that the all-important riparian plant succession, the natural sowing by the river of the plants that fix and build the soil and prepare the sandy banks for future forests, is “initiated with the establishment of patches of seedlings that favor bare substrate created during floods.”

Here are some images of Buffalo Bayou landscaping riparian plant succession on its naturally sandy banks. And I should point out that Buffalo Bayou has always had and always will have sandy banks.

 

Room for the River to Heal

In order for an urban river to heal itself, however, it has to have room to move. It also has to have sediment and occasional high flows. It has to have time. And we have to have patience.

Mathias Kondolf of the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world’s leading river experts, wrote a 2011 paper titled “Setting Goals in River Restoration: When and Where Can the River ‘Heal Itself’?” Kondolf said that “allowing the river channel to ‘heal itself’ through setting aside a channel migration zone, or erodible corridor, is the most sustainable strategy for ecological restoration.”

In Europe this concept is known as l’espace de liberté, or the erodible corridor or fluvial territory or “room for the river.” In the United States it’s referred to as the channel migration zone or the conservation area.

Watch this slideshow of the progress of a south-facing high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, self-repaired by Buffalo Bayou following severe slumping during and after the May 2015 and April 2016 flooding and extended high water releases from the upstream dams. The slumped slope, which took out a gravel path, was in the process of naturally rebuilding at no cost, using brush and collected sediment, and now resembles the slope that the Harris County Flood Control District wanted to build with bulldozers and millions in taxpayer funds in the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

  • Slumping and downed trees on a high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary in June 2015 following the Memorial Day flood.
  • Another view of the same bank, same day.
  • May 9, 2016, following the April 18 Tax Day storm, during extended record high water releases from the federal dams.
  • The same high bank three months later on August 4, 2016.
  • The same south-facing high bank nine months later on April 29, 2017, greening with spring growth.
  • South-facing bluff in Hogg Bird Sanctuary on July 11, 2017. Photo by SC.

 

Fortunately, on Buffalo Bayou as it passes by Memorial Park, the river does have room to move. The healing process requires not just time and patience, however, but also understanding on the part of the public and public officials about what is going on. It may not look pretty right away. But then neither do the much more costly and constantly failing “restored” banks of the park downstream. A park that was foolishly premised on the idea that the banks can be fixed in place, that the bayou will remain the same, that it won’t ever try to change, that it would never shift its banks in response to changes in its energy and flow. And we have seen this year and last that we have had and will continue to have record high flows in our bayous and streams.

  • South bank of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park just upstream from The Dunlavy, December 21, 2014
  • Same south bank upstream of The Dunlavy, November 15, 2015, after taxpayer-funded repairs
  • Grass applied to bank in attempt to stabilize. Photo March 4, 2016.
  • South bank west of The Dunlavy on May 10, 2016
  • Slumping again of same south bank repaired again on May 16, 2016
  • Costly repairs lost on Dunlavy bank, June 13, 2016
  • Same location on Feb. 8, 2017.
  • Collapsed sidewalk on March 30, 2018
  • The same collapsed sidewalk on Oct. 27, 2018
  • Same bank and sidewalk on Jan. 27, 2019, after numerous failed repairs.
  • Wider view of continuously collapsing sidewalk on south bank in Buffalo Bayou Park immediately upstream from The Dunlavy. Photo Jan. 27, 2019
  • Looking upstream at the same bayou bank naturally stabilising and restoring itself with vegetation west of the Dunlvay. Photo Sept. 15, 2019 by SC

 

But what if there isn’t room in an urban area for the river to move? What if homes and parking lots and apartment buildings are already built too close to the bank and the banks are falling away?

Room for the River to Flood

Increasingly in the United States and around the world, even in the flat, below-sea-level Netherlands, people are making room for their rivers, recognizing that a channel migration zone or erodible corridor is more practical and effective for flood control, that it is more beneficial and cost-effective to buy out properties that flood and allow room for rivers to erode, adjust, and widen themselves. Creating public parks along these self-restoring waterways, true bayou greenways, is an added social benefit. While putting this concept into practice is easier in rural areas like along the Missouri River, Harris County has an existing buyout program.

Letting the Rivers Widen Naturally

Recently Flood Control District Director Mike Talbott told the Houston Chronicle that buying up and tearing down properties to widen our waterways to handle increasing storm water could cost $26 billion. A transition committee report to Mayor Sylvester Turner on Rebuild Houston, the city’s controversial drainage program, concluded that “major upgrades” need to be made to our bayous, streams, and tributaries in order to expand their capacity to handle storm water (page 17). We hope and expect, for the sake of the health of our waterways, our own well-being, and the public purse, that these officials are talking about creating room for our waterways to move, and that rather than bulldozing and dredging, our leaders will have the vision and common sense to allow this widening and “expansion” to occur naturally.

“Widening the channels themselves usually results in channel instability, and the wider channels do not maintain themselves, as the river cannot maintain such an artificially expanded width, and sediment deposits within the channel,” University of California, Berkeley Professor Kondolf wrote in an email last fall. “This then requires expensive dredging and an endless cycle of ‘serial engineering’ – in which each engineering intervention produces a reaction, which prompts another engineering intervention, and so on.

“Rather than a wider channel, what is needed is a wider river corridor.”

The river, a bayou, will still do what it needs to do. Failure to understand this can lead to “undesirable secondary effects,” as one scientific paper put it. (Page 7.)

But the fact is that in an urban area, with enough space to run freely, a river can and does restore itself. A free-flowing river is always in the process of restoring itself.

 

 

 

It’s For the Birds

Report on Plans for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on Buffalo Bayou

May 11, 2016

First the positives about the presentation Monday evening, May 9, by the Houston Parks Board about plans for the little-known 15.56-acre nature preserve on Buffalo Bayou known as the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.

The sanctuary at the end of Westcott Street south of Memorial Drive is probably better recognized as the mostly impenetrable woods next to the parking lot for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, located across the bayou, accessible by a footbridge. Bayou Bend is the former home of the Hogg Family, who developed River Oaks and in 1924, along with partner Henry Stude, sold at cost to the city the 1,503 acres that became Memorial Park. (The Hogg Brothers also sold to the city at cost 133.5 acres of land intended to be part of Hermann Park. In 1943 the city sold that land for the establishment of the Medical Center, much to the continuing ire of their sister, Ima Hogg.) Ima Hogg, a cultural and civic leader and one of the city’s most revered philanthropists, donated the family house and gardens to the museum in 1957 and then donated to the City of Houston the woods on the north side of the bayou as a nature preserve.

The mouth of the tributary and Pleistocene-era bluffs off the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on March 18, 2016. This tributary once flowed to the east across the upper part of the nature preserve into the bayou. Photo by Susan Chadwick

The mouth of the tributary and ancient bluffs in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on March 18, 2016. This tributary once flowed to the east across the upper part of the nature preserve into the bayou. Photo by Susan Chadwick

Ima Hogg a Defender of Nature and Public Parks

Ima Hogg, who died in 1975, was also an ardent conservationist, early civil rights activist, mental health activist, and defender of park space for the public, in particular Memorial and Hermann parks. In her letters to city officials over the years, available in the Museum of Fine Arts archives, she described her firm belief that woodland parks should be kept as natural as possible and criticized in a 1964 letter to then Mayor Louie Welch, who famously thought public parks unnecessary, the “alarming situation” of rapidly diminishing park areas in Houston and “throughout America,” including through construction in the parks by “worthy institutions” that really ought to look for building sites elsewhere, she wrote. Miss Ima was still angry that the city had “relinquished so much of the acreage” in Memorial Park for highways and a golf course and in an earlier letter to then city director of public works, Eugene Maier, demanded that the money the city received from the state for the highway land be used to acquire and improve additional park sites. Let’s guess that probably didn’t happen.

Hogg pointedly called Maier’s attention “to the fact that [the] Hogg Brothers relinquished all the acreage on which now stands the Medical Center to the City for park purposes only [emphasis in the original], as an addition to Hermann Park. It was our great concern for future park sites which impelled us to turn over to the City this valuable acreage, with the understanding that it would be a permanent park site. … The deed to that land was never intended to be for any other purpose than for the enjoyment of a free park for the people of Houston.”

Ima Hogg, c. 1900.

Ima Hogg, c. 1900.

In her 1964 letter to Mayor Welch, Hogg wrote that she had “often wondered why Houston did not have an ordinance which would require a vote of the citizens before public lands could be converted to any other use than that which had been prescribed by gift or by original designated purpose.”

Nearly twenty years later, the Texas state legislature did pass a law requiring at least that the public be notified and hearing held before the taking or change in use of any park or recreation, scientific or wildlife area or historic site, a law often ignored.

The Positives

The roughly outlined proposals for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary are based on what is already described in the controversial 2014 Master Plan for Memorial Park, implementation of which may be delayed due to city budgetary constraints. The Galleria-area Uptown TIRZ (which stands for Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone) was planning to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the long-term capital improvements outlined in the master plan. But Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked some of the wealthier TIRZ like Uptown to use some of their money to pay for city services they receive. The TIRZ, originally intended to help out underserved neighborhoods, are a much-criticized mechanism that enables certain areas to keep property tax revenue and spend it in their districts based on the decisions of unelected, politically-appointed boards, which typically are mostly developers.

“The TIRZ ability to implement the improvements [to Memorial Park] as we had hoped for a year ago is different today,” said John Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District, in a phone conversation. But it is “far too early on in the budgetary process” to determine the “near or long term ability” of the Uptown TIRZ to help fund the planned improvements to Memorial Park or the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, he said.

However, the Parks Board’s Interim Executive Director Mike Nichols told the meeting that the improvements to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary would be paid through donations, including donations already made. The Parks Board reportedly has received a $1 million private gift dedicated to to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.

Here are some of the positives outlined by Rebecca Leonard, president of Design Workshop, at the meeting Monday night in the Assembly Hall of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church near Memorial Park. Design Workshop is a landscape architecture and urban planning firm that also designed the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center Master Plan currently under way.

1. They plan to uncover the stream that flows across the park property through a pipe along the original path of the tributary that was diverted decades ago to the west, now bisecting the preserve and fed by a huge outfall draining the paved residential and commercial areas to the north. It was interesting to see a slide shown by Leonard describing the tributary’s attempts to move back over to its original channel. Streams do have their own intelligence and life force.

2. Clean up the woods on the east side of the tributary by removing invasive midstory and understory vegetation and replanting with appropriate native plants. This would be a lengthy task of several years.

3. Remove a row of parking on the west side of the parking lot to allow for more greenery.

4. Plant some plants in the grassy meadow north of the parking lot. (See detailed analysis of the planting plan and more below.)

5. Develop some as yet undefined, possibly natural surfaced trails through the woods south of the parking lot and along the northern edge of the sanctuary, with maybe some boardwalks across the wetland areas up there near the banks of the tributary. Leonard acknowledged in a conversation after the presentation that the site is difficult, filled with steep slopes and ever-changing topography. Most of it is in the floodway of the bayou. “Most of the site is inaccessible to most park patrons,” Leonard told the audience of about 75 people.

6. Not do much, which is probably a good idea since most of the park is in a floodway of the bayou and the park was intended as a nature preserve. The plan is to “keep human activity to a minimum” in the heart of the park by focusing on the edges of the site, said Leonard.

The Bayou Doing Flood Control’s Work for Free

The Negatives

1. A six-foot high, possibly solid fence along the northern edge of the sanctuary that alarmed homeowners there on Glenn Cove Street who enjoy their proximity to the woods. How was this natural and how would rabbits and other wildlife move freely about? they asked. The diplomatic response from Nichols of the Parks Board was that design of the fence was still open to discussion.

2. No forest management (and no fence) on the west side of the tributary, which, according to one supporter of the sanctuary in the neighborhood, means no enforcement against encroachment by landowners on Rains Way who landscape and alter public land as if it were part of their property.

3. We were dismayed to hear Leonard bemoan the ever-changing nature of nature by displaying a slide of the slumped high bank of the nature sanctuary and saying, “How can the birds and humans have any experience there when the land is completely moving?” We later tried to explain that this was an important natural dynamic. A river is a living symbol of change. The bayou was in the process of rebuilding the bank, we pointed out, and the trees and brush lying there were capturing sediment and restoring and strengthening the slope. Ironically this slope, created by the Memorial Day flooding, now has the angle the Harris County Flood Control District proposed to create with bulldozers and $4 million in public funds as part of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The bayou did it for free.

The south-facing high bluff of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on May 9, 2016, at neear maximum flow from the dams upstream. The slumped slope, which took out a gravel path, is in the process of naturally rebuilding, using brush and collected sediment, and now resembles the slope that the Harris County Flood Control District wanted to build with bulldozers and millions in taxpayer funds in the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

The south-facing high bluff of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on May 5, 2016, at near maximum flow from the dams upstream. The slumped slope, which took out a gravel path, is in the process of naturally rebuilding, using brush and collected sediment, and now resembles the slope that the Harris County Flood Control District wanted to build with bulldozers and millions in taxpayer funds for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

A Continuing Failure to Respect the Natural Process of the Bayou

4. Leonard also showed a slide that purported to show the sinuous bayou channel moving slightly back and forth over time, the implication being that this was a bad thing. The bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the bird sanctuary in fact has shifted remarkably little over time, in large part due to the enduring presence of those ancient high bluffs, part of our region’s Meander Belt Ridges. But movement is not a bad thing. It’s a healthy thing, and rivers that have room to move, as Buffalo Bayou does in this stretch, are healthier, cleaner, and more biologically diverse. It’s far beyond time for public officials, including parks officials, to stop wasting money and understand and respect the fact that the bayou will do what it wants to do, that there’s good reason for a river to do what it does, and that it’s better to work with the river rather than against it.

Let’s hope the planners for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary do not make the same kind of expensive mistakes that were made in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive.

5. The suggestion of a piece of sculpture in the preserve next to the parking lot seems unnecessary and inappropriate.

How Much Will It Cost?

There were numbers attached to the different parts of the plan. The numbers seemed to add up to a million dollars or so, but they were difficult to read.

The Parks Board has promised to post the presentation on its website at www.HoustonParksBoard.org.

In the meantime here are some trenchant personal observations of the presentation and planting plan by Brandt Mannchen, an environmental scientist in Houston and longtime activist with the Sierra Club.

Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It

What’s the right way to protect Buffalo Bayou?

March 18, 2015 Updated: March 18, 2015 11:20am

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.

Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.

Note: This opinion piece is adapted from a presentation delivered February 12, 2015, at Texas’ first Urban Riparian Symposium, sponsored by the Texas Water Resources Institute, the Texas Riparian Association, and the City of Austin.

Looking over Buffalo Bayou from Memorial Park towards the River Oaks Country Club. This area is targeted for destruction by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Photo by Jim Olive.

Looking over Buffalo Bayou from Memorial Park towards the River Oaks Country Club. This area is targeted for destruction by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Photo by Jim Olive.

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