Down on the Bayou in Summertime

Documenting the Changes on that Bend in the River

July 5, 2021

The silver threads suspended across our path glistened in the early morning sun. We apologized for smashing through the delicate traps the spiders had worked on during the night, weaving the nearly invisible sticky webs from one side of the narrow trail to the other.

It was just after sunrise on a hot summer morning, though technically we had a couple of days to go before the official start of summer. Our devoted photographer Jim Olive was finally back in town, and we were walking down a dirt path between tall pines and thick stands of cherry laurel, yaupon and young American beautyberry, headed towards that bend in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou we have been documenting since the spring of 2014. (See the entire series here.)

Looking downstream at Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park on June 18, 2021. Flow was high, over 2,000 cubic feet per second. River Oaks Country Club golf course on the opposite bank. Photo by Jim Olive.

Apparently we were the first large creatures on this unofficial trail through Memorial Park’s bayou woods this morning. These public woods are technically closed by the private Memorial Park Conservancy, with ever increasing wire and wooden fencing and piles of cut branches blocking the entrances from the parking lots off the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive. But the popular, long-established path was obviously well used and even maintained by anonymous volunteers. It’s true, however, that hiking or running along the edge of the high bank is destabilizing. It’s best to keep to the interior of the woods.

We reached our spot on the high bank. Jim set up his tripod and waited for just the right light. The assistant wandered off, as usual.

Wandering through the bayou woods, admiring the morning sun on the trees. Photo by SC.

The cicadas sang in the trees, a rattling rising and falling. Beneath the towering sycamores, oaks, cottonwoods, elm, and pine, the woods were populated with blossoming dewberries, elderberries, mulberry, as well as the aforementioned beautyberry.

We heard excited young female voices. We walked downstream towards the nearby sandy creek and found two fit young women using the rope swing suspended from the trees above the stream to cross from one bank to the other. Usually the water is clear and the flow low enough simply to step and jump across. The creek is one of the main tributaries draining and flowing from the center of Memorial Park into the bayou. (See this 1955 topographic map of Buffalo Bayou flowing between Memorial Park and the River Oaks Country Club.)

Here is another lovely photo Jim took, in addition to the above photo of the bend. This is looking upstream at the River Oaks Country Club golf course, in recent years stripped of trees, graded, and reinforced with sheet pile and concrete in three areas, much to the detriment of the bayou and the public.

SC

Looking upstream at high flow from a high bank on Buffalo Bayou towards the River Oaks Country Club golf course. The long-standing high bank in the distance has been stripped, graded, and reinforced with concrete and sheet pile. Photo by Jim Olive on June 18, 2021.

Regional Flood Planning Meeting July 8 to Select New Members

Planners Developing Interactive Flood Map to Gather Info from Public

Also: Bayou Bank Destruction/Repair Underway at Bayou Bend

And Public Parks Board Holds Public Meeting. Public Attends.

July 1, 2021

The executive committee of the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group has completed interviews with over a dozen candidates for two new voting positions. At the end of its executive session on June 25, outgoing Chair Russ Poppe announced that the committee had voted to recommend Rachel Powers for the Environmental Interests position and Neil Gaynor for the new Upper Watershed position.

The full committee will vote on the recommendations at its next meeting July 8. See here for the agenda and how to sign up for the meeting and make public comments.

Rachel Powers has been the executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition for eight years. Prior to that she was a senior environmental planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council for five years and before that a community services coordinator for the Harris County Flood Control District. She also worked for the Hermann Park Conservancy and the Mercer Botanic Garden.

If approved she will be taking the seat of Sarah Bernhardt, a landscape architect and urban planner specializing in coastal and environmental planning, recently the chief executive officer of the Bayou Preservation Association, who has resigned to move to Alaska.

Neil Gaynor is a geologist, president of the Montgomery County Utility District 6, board member of the Grogan’s Mill Village Association in The Woodlands, and a member of the community’s One Water Task Force, focused on regional drainage issues.

New Chair and Voting Member Sought

Having resigned as executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District effective July 2, Poppe has also resigned as the chair and flood control district representative to the San Jacinto planning group effective July 2, according to Fatima Berrios, assistant project manager in the Harris County Engineering Department. Until the next chair is selected, Vice Chair Alia Vinson will act as interim chair. The county is sending out a solicitation notice for any interested parties to submit their application for the “Flood District” voting member position.

Engage in Flood Planning

At the July 8 meeting the regional flood planning group will also consider proposals developed for the technical committee by the engineering firm Freese and Nichols to solicit flooding information from the public. The firm has developed an interactive flood map as well as a survey and a webpage to upload data. The information would go towards developing the regional flood plan by January 2023, which will in turn be incorporated into the state’s first flood plan.

The San Jacinto group is one of fifteen regional groups established by the Texas Water Development Board in 2020 to develop a state plan to manage flood risk.

Trees, Vegetation, Bank Removed at Bayou Bend on Buffalo Bayou

The Museum of Fine Arts has begun its long-planned, controversial and costly project to rebuild the high bank of Buffalo Bayou below the historic Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens.

Here is a recent photo and a video taken on June 21 at high flow, over 2,000 cubic feet per second, as the Corps of Engineers was continuing to release stormwater into the bayou from the federal flood control dams in west Houston.

Bank scraped of vegetation and trees and graded in preparation for reconstruction with sheet pile, riprap, buried tree trunks and dirt. Photo June 21 on Buffalo Bayou below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens just upstream of the footbridge.

Watch the short video here.

Bigger Bank Project Slated for Historic Woods of Memorial Park

The bank project was designed by Stantec, which is also designing a controversial bank stabilization project in the little-known Old Archery Range of Memorial Park that would cut through meanders and scrape and grade the ancient high banks and nearly half the property. This small wooded section of the park off Woodway west of Loop 610 is the site of a public boat ramp as well as historic remnants of an old brick factory, a farmhouse, and Boy Scout camp. Filled with wildlife, it is the site of at least two ancient sandstone crossings used by indigenous people, settlers, and bison to ford the bayou (Dutchman’s Crossing going west and Indian Crossing going south).

It is also one of the only remaining areas where the public can observe the geologic history of our city as revealed in the banks of the bayou, as well as witness the natural process of a living river, even as it responds dynamically to the changes caused by urban development.

Related: When Making Mistakes Is Profitable

The museum’s bank work downstream is taking place below the former home and garden of philanthropist and conservationist Ima Hogg, accessible to the public through the public parking lot in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary at the end of Westscott Street. Hogg also donated the 15.5 acres for the bird sanctuary. In 1924 her family sold to the city at cost the nearly 1500 acres that is now Memorial Park, and Hogg, with the help of our founding board president Frank C. Smith Jr, Terry Hershey and others, continued to protect it until her death in 1975.

Brief Public Parks Board Meeting, No Questions Answered Yet

We managed to attend the very brief meeting of the public Houston Parks Board, which is different from the private parks board foundation, though they are basically the same people. The meeting took place virtually (it was real but online) on June 22 and lasted about 25 minutes. Unfortunately we were not admitted to the meeting until about 10 minutes after it started.

In any case the meeting was significant because the public parks board has only recently begun posting notices about its meetings, required by the Open Meetings Act, online on the website of the private foundation.

Interestingly, though the next meeting of the public board is scheduled for Sept. 28, according to a spokesperson for the private foundation, this meeting is not now posted on the foundation’s Events calendar, though later events are posted. Possibly because the parks board is required legally only to post a notice a minimum of seventy-two hours before the meeting, as noted in an email to us by City Director of Boards and Commissions Maria Montes. So why give the public more notice?

We do appreciate the work the parks board is doing to create more public access to our bayous. We don’t think the parks board should destroy our bayou in order to do it. And we think the public and private parks boards should be separate, as they are in most major cities, including Texas, with the public board representing a diversity of communities, instead of real estate, developer, and financial interests.

We had some questions for the public parks board at the June 22 meeting. These included:

Where can we find the bylaws for the parks board?

Who are the elected officers?

Where are the minutes?

Will the parks board have regularly scheduled meetings?

What are the plans for a Bayou Greenway on Buffalo Bayou? Has the Parks Board considered alternate routes, like asking for a dedicated lane on Memorial Drive? Using the powerline right of way through the forest?

Equity is an important issue today. What is the parks board’s plan for more equitable representation on the board from diverse neighborhoods and communities around the city?

Barron Wallace, who is the chairman of both the public and private board, asked someone to respond by email to the questions posed by us and others. So far we have not had any response.

SC

Parks, Flooding: Update on Past and Upcoming Meetings

Corps of Engineers Releases Long-Awaited Regional Watershed Assessment

June 19, 2021

The wonderful thing about this virtual world is that you can go to meetings anywhere, anytime, stay cool and collected, and save time and gas.

And we have plenty of meetings of regional and local councils and committees to attend, plus a new federal watershed report to read.

Parks Board Public Meeting June 22

After some prodding, the Houston Parks Board has graciously revealed the time and date of its next public meeting, which is Tuesday, June 22. They’ve even announced it on the Intertubes! Previously a board spokesperson claimed that notices for its rare public meetings were posted on the bulletin board outside City Hall as required by law. The catch was you sorta had to know there was an upcoming meeting to go downtown to try to find the notice. We never saw one posted.

We and many others think the Houston Parks Board (along with the private conservancies that run some of our major public parks) should be more accountable, more transparent, and more representative of the public, which is why we are telling you about this. Also, they’ve done some damaging things to Buffalo Bayou.

Apparently the board also posted a notice online for the last meeting, which was Sept. 22, 2020. But even though we receive regular emails from the very nice people on the parks board staff, we missed the notice about this, which was quietly posted on the Houston Parks Board website on Sept. 18, 2020.

No idea what happened at that meeting because there don’t seem to be any minutes available to the public, which would seem to be contrary to the Open Meetings Act.

This is all very confusing because there are two Houston parks boards, a public local government corporation, which is subject to the Open Meetings Act (see also here), and a private Houston Parks Board foundation, which is not.

The public face of the parks board is the private foundation, which hires the staff and runs the website and major projects, like Bayou Greenways. All twenty appointed members of the public parks board, nominated by the mayor and approved by city council, are also on the private foundation board, which has an additional fifteen members.

The public Houston Parks Board meets virtually on June 22 at 10 a.m. Here is information about how to register for the meeting and make comments. Note that you must register before noon on Monday, June 21.

Note that the Uptown Development Authority, which is now co-managing and providing funding for development of Memorial Park along with the private Memorial Park Conservancy, is also a local government corporation. The authority has regular meetings open to public comment. Notices and agendas are posted on the Uptown website. The meetings, which are now both virtual and in-person, are scheduled for the fourth Wednesday of the month at 3:30 p.m., though the last meeting was on the third Wednesday.

Related: Shocking Plan to Bulldoze, Reroute Buffalo Bayou. Historic Banks of Memorial Park to Be Radically Altered

Planning for Flooding

Here are some of the upcoming meetings and events:

San Jacinto Region, June 23 and 25

The executive committee of the recently formed San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group will meet virtually Wednesday, June 23, at 9 a.m. to vote on two new voting members of the group. These two positions represent the Upper Watershed and Environmental Interests.

Here is how to register for that meeting, which also allows public and written comments.

The executive committee will meet again on June 25. Here is how to register for that meeting. (Public notice here.)

There are fifteen regional flood planning groups in the state of Texas. They are charged by the Texas Water Development Board with developing regional plans to reduce flood risk. The draft plans are to be delivered to the state board by Aug. 1, 2022.

At the full meeting of the group on June 10, Chair Russ Poppe announced that there were twelve applications for the two positions, out of which the committee selected five candidates.

The group, which represents Region 6, may now have to find another member and new chair since Russ Poppe resigned as executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District effective July 2.

Read the rest of this post to find out about other flood planning meetings and reports.

Flood Planning Meetings, Comments

Flooding Begins on the Land

June 2, 2021

The technical and executive committees of the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group are meeting Thursday morning and Friday afternoon. The San Jacinto river basin includes Buffalo Bayou and many other tributaries and major streams. It extends from Galveston to Huntsville, from Sugarland to Winnie.

These committees and our regional flood planning group are responsible for developing flood reduction and protection projects to be funded by the Texas Water Development Board. The deadline to deliver the draft regional flood plan to the board is Aug. 1, 2022.

The technical committee, which consists of four voting members of the group, meets at 9 a.m. Thursday, June 3. You can join the virtual meeting by registering here. You can also register with that link to make public comments or send in comments before or after the meeting.

Save Buffalo Bayou sent in a comment asking for clarification on the purpose of the technical committee. The regional group has selected technical consultants headed by Freese and Nichols to assist the planning.

The executive committee of the regional group, known as Region 6, meets on Friday, June 4, at 1 p.m. You can join that virtual meeting, register to make a public comment, or send in comments using this link.

The agenda for the executive committee meeting includes discussion of recommendations for new voting members on the committee to represent the Upper Watershed and Environmental Interests. The committee recently selected Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell for the new Coastal Communities position and Christina Quintero for the Public Position.

Save Buffalo Bayou’s Comment

Save Buffalo Bayou sent in a general comment to both committees emphasizing that the focus of flood-risk and floodplain management should be on stopping stormwaters before they flood our streams. And while riverine flooding is only one aspect of our regional and state flooding problem, the goal of collecting as much stormwater as possible and moving it as quickly as possible is outdated, ineffective, and should be dropped. Enlightened practice focuses on managing flooding in place, stopping raindrops where they fall, and spreading out, slowing down, and soaking in the rain.

As a 2018 study of urban flooding reported, “[m]any cities and towns across the United States are giving considerable attention to plans that support the capture of rain in areas where it falls.” (p. 32)

We hope that the technical committee and the San Jacinto Regional Group will address the role of individuals, neighborhoods, homeowners’ associations, businesses, communities, cities and counties in reducing flood risk. Shared policies and strategies should be developed explaining, encouraging, even requiring responsible stormwater management from rooftops to parking lots.

Read the rest of Save Buffalo Bayou’s comment to the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group.

SC

A win for wetlands and communities affected by flooding!

By Kristen Schlemmer, Bayou City Waterkeeper, May 27, 2021

We’re excited to share an update in our lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last summer, Bayou City Waterkeeper sued the Corps, challenging its decisions to allow development over wetlands and increase flood risk for residents in the Bayou Brae neighborhood of League City, Texas. The Corps sought to dismiss our lawsuit, saying our members’ concerns about flood risk were not something that they — the federal agency in charge of wetlands regulation — could address. In refusing to dismiss our lawsuit today, the court disagreed, validating our concerns about the important role wetlands play in mitigating flood risk. This victory will allow us to continue this important fight in court.

The Corps facilitated wetland destruction without required mitigation

In 2012, Broad Reach Partners, a residential real estate developer, applied for a permit from the Corps of Engineers under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Broad Reach requested permission to fill about an acre of wetlands on a 30-acre tract along Robinson Bayou, just across the county line in Galveston County in League City—but failed to disclose effects on nearly 9 additional acres of forested wetlands. 

Broad Reach’s permit request fell through when the U.S. EPA raised concerns about the effect its project would have on these wetlands. Broad Reach moved forward with the project anyway and permanently filled in all wetlands but those closest to the bayou. Broad Reach also elevated the property several feet above the subdivision next door. When a resident complained, the Corps issued approvals based on information provided by Broad Reach’s consultant, allowing the developer to avoid the federal permit process altogether.

Unmitigated wetland losses have increased flood risk across our region

Read the rest of this report.

When Making Mistakes is Profitable

Museum, Park Conservancy Hire Firm That Gets Bank Collapse Wrong

Result: Costly Engineering, Bulldozing, Tree Cutting, Logs, Sheet Pile, Concrete Block and Damaged Buffalo Bayou

May 16, 2021

A decade ago a prominent engineering firm misdiagnosed bank failure on Buffalo Bayou for a controversial $12 million bank “restoration” project that was subsequently dropped. Now the same company has been rewarded with new bank repair contracts.  And it appears to be making a similar error.

What could be the motive for repeating such basic mistakes? And why does it matter?

Inappropriate streambank projects can result in costly failure, of which there are too many examples littering Buffalo Bayou. Any alteration of the channel and banks can cause unforeseen problems, including environmental and property damage, increased flooding and erosion.

Watch this slideshow of some of the many failed erosion control projects on Buffalo Bayou:

  • Riprap, concrete bags, and concrete puzzle block all slid away.
  • Dumped debris and failed concrete erosion wall on south bank.
  • This bank hardening, installed in 2016, failed during Harvey. Photo January 2018.
  • Slumped backyard garden wall on Buffalo Bayou.
  • Slumping of the denuded bank of the River Oaks Country Club golf course where riprap was installed in 2015. Bank face slid down anyway. Photo 10.28.17

There are two kinds of riverbank failure: banks that wash away with the horizontal flow of the stream and banks that collapse vertically from the top down. True, sometimes they do both.

But the slippery sand and clay banks of Buffalo Bayou primarily collapse vertically, usually when they get soaked from the top. They quiver and slump, sliding across the ancient hard red clay layer at the base of the bank. There’s not a whole lot to be done about that. However, common sense solutions include: stop doing what is causing the bank collapse.

But that doesn’t generate high-dollar contracts for engineering companies.

What does cost a lot of money? Cutting trees, bulldozing, scraping, grading, filling, pounding sheet pile, concrete, and logs into the bank, none of which will necessarily provide a long-term solution to bank slumping and can even make it worse.

Concrete rubble or riprap dumped on slumped bank below the Bayou Bend garden. Adding weight to slumping banks increases slumping. Photo April 6, 2021

The Background

Around 2010 a long-established engineering company was hired by the Harris County Flood Control District to develop a plan for a “natural channel design” project on Buffalo Bayou flowing between Memorial Park and the River Oaks Country Club in the center of Houston. The project, initiated by the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA) and supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy, was called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. It would have stripped the trees and vegetation, scraped and graded the banks and channel and rerouted the stream for over a mile along one of the last publicly accessible forested stretches of the bayou in the city, a historic nature area. Though it would have destroyed the natural habitat and most aquatic life in the stream, the project was billed as “hastening recovery” of the river.

The engineering company was KBR (Kellogg Brown and Root), but at the end of 2015 KBR was purchased by Stantec. KBR’s manager for the demonstration project was Betty Leite, who also served on the advisory board of the nonprofit BPA at the time.

Now Stantec has been hired to develop plans for stabilizing the bank of the bayou below the historic Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens and in Memorial Park. The project manager is Betty Leite.

Read the rest of this report.

Public Flood Planning Meeting May 18

Regional Group Seeks Public Comments

Plus Meeting May 13 to Consider New Members

May 12, 2021

Updated May 17, 2021

The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group is inviting the public to contribute comments about regional flood planning at a virtual meeting Tuesday, May 18, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The purpose of the meeting is to “gather community concerns to aid with the development of the regional flood plan,” according to an announcement.

The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), which now appears to have only two members, has divided the state into fifteen groups based on river basins in order to develop regional plans to reduce flood risk, as required by the state legislature in 2019. The San Jacinto group is Region 6.

The deadline to deliver the draft regional flood plan to the TWDB is Aug. 1, 2022. The groups must then deliver regional flood plans to the TWDB on January 10, 2023, and every five years thereafter. The state flood plan, to be based on adopted regional plans, must be prepared and adopted by the TWDB by September 1, 2024, and every five years thereafter.

The state board is also charged with administering the Flood Infrastructure Fund, which will be used to finance flood-related projects.

Here is how you can find out more about the Water Development Board and the regional flood planning groups.

Register in advance at http://hcfcd.org/regfloodplan to join the San Jacinto regional meeting on May 18.

Find the meeting notice and agenda here.

If you wish to provide written comments prior to or after the meeting, email your comments to SanJacFldPG@eng.hctx.net and include “Region 6 Flood Planning Group: Pre-Planning Meeting” in the subject line of the email.

Here is background on the May 18 public meeting, the San Jacinto region and the voting and non-voting members of the group.

Update May 17: Board Selects Technical Consultants, Presents Draft Drainage Plan at May 13 Meeting

At its regular virtual meeting May 13, the board of the San Jacinto group revealed that the Freese and Nichols engineering firm had been selected as the technical consultants for the regional flood planning effort.

They also selected Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell for the new Coastal Communities position and Christina Quintero for the Public Position.

The group received a presentation on the San Jacinto River Regional Watershed Master Drainage Plan.

As the outgoing representative for Environmental Interests, Sarah Bernhardt pointed out that the drainage plan is heavy on channelizing streams, which has been shown to increase rather than reduce flooding.

Presenter Andrew Moore responded that the channelized streams would be lined with grass rather than concrete. However, they would still be streams stripped and excavated to increase the flow, which is what causes flooding.

Here is how to submit a comment to Harris County Flood Control about the proposed master drainage plan.

Elisa Donovan, who represents agricultural interests, questioned the definition of “nature-based solutions” in the technical guidelines recently released by the Texas Water Development Board.

She also pointed out that berms and levees were not a benefit to agricultural interests and that agricultural lands should remain agricultural.

Bernhardt is the outgoing chief executive officer of the Bayou Preservation Association. The public has until May 28 to nominate someone to take her place as a voting member representing Environmental Interests on the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning board.

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Regular Meeting to Consider New Voting Members

The San Jacinto group is also holding a regular virtual meeting Thursday, May 13, at 9 a.m. The meeting will address recommendations for the new voting positions representing Public and Coastal Communities. Find meeting materials here.

Register at https://bit.ly/3tigMgp prior to the meeting for login information.

SC

Graphic courtesy of the Texas Water Development Board

Spring on the Bayou Bend

Temporary Photo While We Wait for the Pro

April 23, 2021

Well, spring has sprung, and we were getting impatient looking at a bare, wintry photo of that Bend in the Bayou taken in early March. Our devoted and generous photographer Jim Olive, a native Houstonian, has been transplanted as an invasive to the California desert, where he has adapted by taking beautiful photos of local cacti and flora.

Jim is a sought-after commercial photographer, as well as a naturalist who can name virtually every tree and plant in Latin as well as identify bird songs, eggs, and nests, animal scat, tracks, etc. He is also the founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation as well as the photographer for The Book of Texas Bays, written by environmental attorney and poet Jim Blackburn.

Photographer Jim promises he will be flying through soon. But in the meantime the impatient backup photographer climbed over the fences and followed the well-used dirt path out to the forbidden bank of the bayou in our public Memorial Park. There to document the greenery flowering along one of the last relatively natural, historic stretches of Buffalo Bayou.

So here is the temporary photo until Jim lands here. Taken later in the afternoon, around 6 pm, with the poor excuse that since Jim always shoots the bend just at dawn, why not something different.

See the whole series of that Bend in the River starting in the spring of 2014.

SC

That bend in Buffalo Bayou, taken from the same high bank in Memorial Park, looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the right. Photo by SC on April 21, 2021

Regional Flood Planning Group Has Vacancies, including Environmental Rep

Executive Meeting May 7, Planning Meeting May 13, Public Meeting May 18

April 23, 2021

Updated May 8, 2021

The San Jacinto Region Flood Planning Group is the local committee, one of fifteen river-basin groups in Texas, developing regional flood plans to deliver to the Texas Water Development Board by 2023. The state board in turn is charged by the state legislature with administering the Flood Infrastructure Fund.

There are now fifteen voting positions in the San Jacinto group, known as Region 6, which had its first meeting last October. The group began with twelve voting members. However, in the interim the members voted to create positions for representatives of the Upper Watershed and Coastal Communities as well as an additional Public seat.

The executive committee will consider formal recommendations for the new Coastal Communities and Public positions at its executive committee meeting on May 7 at noon, according to Fatima Berrios, assistant project manager for the group. Nominations for those two positions are closed.

 Nominations for the Upper Watershed category are still open until May 7.

Nominations to Represent Environmental Interests Due May 28

In addition, another seat is now open. Dr. Sarah Bernhardt, who was chosen to represent Environmental Interests with the San Jacinto group, is leaving her position as president and chief executive officer of the Bayou Preservation Association to move to Alaska with her family.

So the state board is also looking for nominations to fill her environmental position with the San Jacinto group.

Nominations for the environmental seat are due by May 28. Here is the notice and nomination form from the Texas Water Development Board.

The full San Jacinto group will also hold a planning meeting on May 13 at 9 a.m.

Update: In addition, the San Jacinto group will hold a virtual public “pre-planning” meeting May 18 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. to gather public comments on the regional flood plan to be delivered to the Texas Water Development Board.

If you wish to provide written comments prior to or after the meeting, email your comments to SanJacFldPG@eng.hctx.net and include “Region 6 Flood Planning Group: Pre-Planning Meeting” in the subject line of the email.

These virtual meetings are open to the public, which can also deliver comments both before and during the meetings.

Note that this local state-sponsored planning group is different from the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force, a product of the 2019 Harris Thrives resolution and intended as more of an oversight committee for the Harris County Flood Control District.

Killing the Bayou: Shocking Plan to Bulldoze, Reroute Buffalo Bayou

Historic Banks of Memorial Park to Be Radically Altered

April 6, 2021

The private organization running Houston’s great public Memorial Park on the forested banks of Buffalo Bayou is developing a plan to bulldoze and landscape the ancient high banks, channelize and reroute the bayou, cutting off long-standing meanders in a way that seems to shift a significant amount of public land to private owners.

Ironically, the alleged purpose of the project is in part to reduce the loss of public property, according to Carolyn White, the recently departed conservation director for the Memorial Park Conservancy.

The focus of this initial intervention is a little-known but historic section of the park west of Loop 610 known as the Old Archery Range, a long-neglected and poorly maintained wooded section of the park off Woodway Drive. (Some maps do not even include it as part of Memorial Park.)

A tentative plan promoted by White, who previously worked for the Harris County Flood Control District, proposes to raze and scrape nearly half of it.

Conceptual plans for the Old Archery Range in Memorial Park provided by the Memorial Park Conservancy. Purple shows land area on Buffalo Bayou to be graded and landscaped. Blue are new channels cut through meanders. Green is public parkland transferred to opposite bank of new channel.

In a recent presentation to Save Buffalo Bayou, White described the natural slumping of the high banks as lost property, though it would seem the proposed grading of the banks would result in a similar though far more drastic slope, along with considerable structural damage to the soil through disturbance and compaction by heavy equipment. (p. 14) (Not to mention the crushing loss of aquatic life and habitat.)

The high banks of Buffalo Bayou are prone to slumping (and naturally rebuilding), and there has been considerable loss of trees and widening and shifting of the upper channel in recent years. (Trees normally fall onto the slumped banks and remain there to collect sediment, naturally rebuild and protect the bank, and create habitat.) The first great meander in the archery range, which would be sliced in two by proposals under consideration, appears to have narrowed even in just the last few years.

But the general configuration of the sandstone-lined channel flowing past the park has remained pretty much the same for hundreds of years. (See, for instance, the 1898 survey on pp. 12 and 13 compared to the image above and this 1840 survey further downstream.) See also the footnote below from a letter written in 2014 by landscape architect Janet Wagner, then chair of the Harris County Historical Commission, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Slumped banks in the Old Archery Range naturally rebuilding with new growth taking hold. Fallen trees also help fortify the bank, protecting against erosion, and collecting sediment. Flat stones are a broken, underlying layer of ancient sandstone typically lining the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Photo April 6, 2021

Rumors Swirling

Rumors had been swirling for over a year about the Conservancy’s interest in “stabilizing” the bayou banks in the Old Archery Range. Once containing nature trails, a 19th century nursery and brickworks, a farmhouse, a Boy Scout camp, and the archery range for which it is named, the 20-25-acre wooded site is the location of the park’s only boat ramp, part of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s 26-mile long Buffalo Bayou paddle trail. The ramp, actually a giant, badly designed, and constantly eroding stormwater outfall, is situated near the early 19th century sandstone ford known as Dutchman’s Crossing, used by settlers heading west. (p. 5)

Cost, Length, Purpose

The Conservancy, together with the Uptown Development Authority, has hired the engineering firm Stantec at a cost of $500,000 to explore plans to “reduce channel erosion” and “improve habitat,” while landscaping and building trails, initially along some 2,700 feet of bank, according to documents provided by Randy Odinet, vice president for Capital Improvement Projects with the Conservancy.

Erosion and deposition are natural functions of living streams, and dynamic streams are healthier, cleaner and more biologically diverse.

Note also as with virtually all meanders in Buffalo Bayou, flow naturally cuts across the meanders in the Old Archery Range during high water. But the Conservancy is contemplating spending a great deal of money to cut artificial channels through the meanders, an idea rejected by the Harris County Flood Control District.

Woods of the Old Archery Range in Memorial Park. Photo April 6, 2021

Wildness Wanted

As a recent study of urban parks found, city residents want and need “wildness” in their parks. We need to be able to observe and interact with nature, to be able to study and learn about our natural history.

Stantec is a national specialist in the lucrative and controversial business of “stabilizing” and “restoring” streams, in particular using “natural channel design,” a pseudo-scientific but widely used methodology developed by Dave Rosgen in the 1990s. Natural channel design was the basis of the flawed Memorial Park Demonstration Project that would have razed the trees and vegetation, dredged, bulldozed and reshaped some 1.25 miles of the bayou past the park further downstream.

The same local Stantec team, headed by Betty Leite, is in charge of a project to “stabilize” the forested banks below the Bayou Bend, Collection and Gardens owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  We have asked for more information about this project and will have a report soon.

Heavy concrete rubble dumped on the bank of Buffalo Bayou adds weight to bank and contributes to slumping. Photo taken of the bank below the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens on April 6, 2021.

Bayou Bend, just downstream from Memorial Park, is the former home of the late Ima Hogg, who donated the large home and garden, along with the 15.5-acre woods of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the opposite bank. Hogg and her family arranged for the City of Houston to purchase at cost the more than 1,500 acres that became Memorial Park in 1924. Hogg intended for the park to remain as natural as possible.

Unfortunately years of poor management practice at Bayou Bend, including planting short-rooted monkey grass and other exotics on the bank, paving the top of the bank and building on it, irrigating the bank and draining stormwater directly onto it, have contributed to bank collapse.

Left for Dead

Harris County Flood Control District uses its own version of “natural stable channel design” as an excuse to strip and channelize streams all over the county. The district’s “natural stable channel design” project in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream of the Shepherd Bridge has resulted in endless repairs and a once vibrant stream now lined with concrete chunks like a dead drainage ditch.

This initial project in the Old Archery Range is no doubt only the beginning of an effort to bulldoze and landscape the historic banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Soon there will be no life remaining in the bayou. With the massive crime perpetrated on the bayou by the River Oaks Country Club opposite the park, the Houston Parks Board’s recent pointless project downstream of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, the museum’s planned work at Bayou Bend, and the vast amount of the bayou now lined with concrete rubble by Harris County Flood Control and countless private projects, there will soon be little left of our living bayou.

Footnote:

On August 4, 2014, landscape architect Janet Wagner wrote the following about Buffalo Bayou to the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

The alignment of Buffalo Bayou, fronting along the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and upstream along Memorial Park, exhibits a historic land formation documented in 1840 Harris County Surveyor George H. Bringhurst.  He traveled several days along the north side of Buffalo Bayou (now Memorial Park) beginning at Shepherd Drive to beyond Dutchman’s Crossing (near Woodway Bridge).  Bringhurst’s survey mapping along the bayou ridge matches the current alignment of Buffalo Bayou meanders, giving rise that the present bayou bank pattern is well over 175 years old.  The alluvial nature of the old Archery Range dates the Range alignment to 12,000 years.  A canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou or visit to Memorial Park reveals a step back in time that is outstanding for stream preservation, education and reverence to historic vistas.  

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Marked pine in Old Archery Range. April 6, 2021
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