Changes in the New Year

That Bend in Winter. Happy Trails!

Jan. 8, 2024

The piles of tree trunks, forbidding wire and “No Entry” signs are gone! What a delight to see that, after more than four years, the entrance to the trails through the bayou woods on the southeast side of Memorial Park is now open.

The sandy paths through the enchanting wild woods, regularly cleared by anonymous volunteers, were used by park lovers anyway. Hikers and runners have been scrambling over stacks of logs and wire fencing. The “unofficial” trails appear in grey on the parks’ trail map. They connect to the green and blue trails.

Winter sunrise over that bend in Buffalo Bayou. Looking downstream from the same high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club golf course on the right. Photo Dec. 31, 2023 by SC

It’s true that high banks on the bayou should be treated with caution and respect. Not so much because they are dangerous but because putting weight on the bank stresses our vertically slumping banks.

We were there to take our winter photo of that Bend in the River, part of our seasonal series documenting the same bend for almost ten years now. As usual, the sun rose faster than we did. But miraculously, with a helping hand, we were still able to get decent shot.

Looking upstream along the path on that high bank. It is recommended that hikers and runners use another, more stable path to the north through the woods.

The Memorial Park Conservancy is the private nonprofit organization the runs our great public park. We asked them for comment on the removal of the obstructions and signs but have not yet received a response. According to a frequent user of the trails, the obstacles apparently were removed within the past month.

SC

The newly opened gate leading to the unofficial path through the bayou woods on the southeast side of Memorial Park.

Ditch Mystery Solved

Origin of False Idea That Property Owners Must Maintain Open Stormwater Ditches

Plus: Earthen Ditches Still Way Better Than Concrete Curbs, Buried Pipes

Nov. 15, 2023

A big misunderstanding about who’s responsible for maintaining open stormwater ditches in Houston is still flowing around. We figured out the source. So maybe it’s time to clear it up.

The City of Houston has always been responsible for digging out, de-silting and regrading thousands of miles of roadside drainage ditches within the city. But for years now the idea has been circulating that due to a policy change some twenty years ago, the City stopped doing this. This alleged new policy supposedly left property owners with the extraordinary burden and expense of having to hire heavy equipment and properly scrape out ditches that, like underground pipes, connect to a community drainage system.

This is false and absurd on its face. But it’s an idea that refuses to die, repeated uncorrected in our leading local news media, cited over and over again. Circulating along with it is the false idea that humble earthen ditches are less effective than costly curb and gutter systems draining into buried concrete pipes. Wrong.

Based on this false idea, journalists even mis-reported an attempt by City Council to change this alleged policy. (Not giving links in the interest of decorum.) It’s possible though that not even the mayor and city council members are fully informed about this situation, although individual council members have discretionary budgets to spend restoring ditches in their districts through the City’s Stormwater Action Teams.

Graphic from City of Houston Public Works

Truth Confirmed by Director of Public Works

So finally we deduced what actually happened back in 2001. And our conclusion was verified by the director of Public Works herself, Carol Haddock, at an October conference on flooding sponsored by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center of Rice University. Haddock, an engineering graduate of Rice, was a little miffed that our leading media refuse to correct this issue. So we’ll do it, without naming any names.

What happened back in 2001 was that the City instituted the 311 Service Helpline system, a “consolidated call center designed to make city government more user-friendly and responsive.” Citizens were to call 311 anytime of the day or week to report any problems “from traffic fines and sewer concerns to pothole problems and neighborhood complaints.” (See also here.)

At the same time, the City apparently stopped regularly sending out teams to inspect drainage ditches, relying instead on citizen reports. Or, as Haddock told the conference, the system “changed to being reactive rather than proactive.” However, the City was still responsible for grading and desilting clogged ditches, including driveway culverts, reported by citizens. This process generally requires heavy equipment like a backhoe as well as calculation of flow direction, and so on.

After several years of much publicized and largely inaccurate concerns about open ditch maintenance, the City in August 2023 reinstituted its regular inspection program. (p. 7)

This was not changing maintenance responsibility from property owners to the City. It was reestablishing inspection teams. The City, once again, has always had the responsibility of grading and desilting stormwater ditches. Property owners are responsible for raking out light debris, leaves, trash, Frito bags, etc. (See also p. 6)

Open Ditches More Effective. Streets Flood with Buried Pipes

Open drainage ditch on the south side of Houston’s Memorial Park.

Houston, as well as unincorporated areas and independent municipalities within the city,  has earthen drainage ditches in neighborhoods rich and poor all over the place. (Think wealthy Memorial Villages, Tanglewood etc.) Open ditches are, in fact, more effective, carrying ten times the volume of rainwater than underground concrete pipes. They are cheaper to build and maintain, more ecological, in essence a form of nature-based flood management helping to absorb, disperse, and cleanse stormwater. (See also here.)

Yes, rain can pond in open ditches for hours. That’s normal. Stormwater also backs up from underground pipes and fills streets lined with concrete curbs. That’s normal too, part of the design. Which would you prefer? A flooded street or a rain-filled roadside ditch? Residents clamoring to replace their grass-lined, frog-filled open ditches with concrete curbs and buried pipes may be surprised to find out that the street in front of their house will now flood.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency actually recommends replacing curb-and-gutter systems with open ditches. Among other things, curb-and-gutter systems are more likely to promote mosquitos.

But locally tens of millions of dollars are being spent to replace open ditches with concrete curbs and gutters.

Concrete curbs and stormwater gutters recently installed by Harris County along a street in northeast Houston. Previously rain ran off the street into open drainage ditches.

SC

Indigenous People on Buffalo Bayou and Beyond

“The Atakapa-Ishak are not extinct”

Reposting Nov. 13, 2023, in Honor of Native American Heritage Month

Oct. 11, 2021

Updated Oct. 13, 2021

Thousands of years before land speculators like the Allen Brothers arrived in 1836 or slave traders Jim Bowie and Jean Lafitte set up shop on Galveston Island around 1817 or even the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on the island in 1528, there were people living around Buffalo Bayou and the prairies, forests, rivers, and bays of the Texas Gulf Coast.

At least 13,500 years ago, predecessors of the Akokisa people were living in what is now coastal Texas. At the time the coast, along with major rivers flowing across it, extended a hundred miles further out, land and channels now covered by water. Sea level then was hundreds of feet lower.

Major Native American Cultural groups of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, c. 1700, Worrall, A Prehistory of Houston, p. 436

But inland, Buffalo Bayou and other rivers and streams were flowing along the same winding, forested paths that now carry their waters to the gulf (unless they’ve been stripped and channelized). Incised into the landscape by the drainage of the sea at the end of the last glaciation period some 20,000 years ago (no glaciers in Texas), “basically these rivers and creeks are where they were in the late Pleistocene (some 12,000-20,000 years ago),” said geologist/author Dan Worrall at a recent talk on the lifeways of the Akokisa at the Houston Botanic Garden.

We know this in part because Early Paleoindian Native American artifacts have been found along the banks, showing that the streams were there at least 13,000 years ago, he said.

Living Well on the Land

The Akokisa were a branch of the Atakapa-Ishak, who lived (and still live) along the upper coast of southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. The Atakapa spoke a unique language that was distinct from the Karankawa, for example, the people who lived further down the coast. Like the Karankawa, the Atakapa were divided into different groups, communities organized in large part around the different river basins.

Around 1700, the native people of southeast Texas were thought to number some 4,000-5,000. But by 1800 the Atakapa population in Texas had suffered a catastrophic collapse, largely due to disease brought by Europeans. Spanish missionaries tried to teach them agriculture, despite the fact that the native people were healthy and thriving, doing just fine hunting and gathering a rich, varied diet, and lightly managing the prairies and forests with controlled burning. (In fact recent research shows that Native Americans were healthier before the introduction of agriculture.)

“They lived on the land very well,” said Worrall.

Worrall’s big new book, A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas: Landscape and Culture, documents in extensive technical detail the evolution of the landscape and the people who lived here long before European settlement.

The Akokisa and their predecessors ate seasonally and locally, of course: oysters and clams, alligators, turtles, and fish, seabird eggs, wild grapes and berries, persimmons, pecans and acorns, the tuberous roots of cattails, arrowheads, and greenbriar, among many other flowers and plants, edible and medicinal. They left behind vast middens of shells and fish bones. As well as bison kill sites along creeks and bayous.

In the fall and winter they moved inland to hunt bison and deer on their traditional hunting grounds on the Katy Prairie at the headwaters of Buffalo Bayou in what is now northwest Harris County. The bison migrated seasonally during the winter from the interior Texas plains, moving through the tallgrass prairie on their way south to the coast to graze on the lush salt grass (except during dry periods, points out Worrall).

Buffalo Bayou, along with other bayous and streams, was surrounded then by vast riparian and flatland forests, particularly extensive north of the bayou. European settlers in the nineteenth century cut down much of the timber to create cropland on the fertile floodplains. Beyond the forest to the south of the bayou was tallgrass prairie. Further to the west there was prairie and savannah dotted with oak trees.

Read the rest of this post.

Portrait of an Atakapa man, Alexandre de Batz, 1735

A Strange Fall on Buffalo Bayou

Stuck Truck Gives Up

Oct. 23, 2023

It was a beautiful, clear morning on Buffalo Bayou in Houston. We were a little late in the day  to take our fall photo of that Bend in the River. The sun had risen faster than we had and was smiling down at us high above the treetops when we arrived out our spot, the same high bank in Memorial Park from which we have been documenting the changes in the river throughout the seasons for the last nine years.

Looking downstream on a beautiful fall morning from that same high bank in Memorial Park. Photo by SC, Oct. 16, 2023

The tangled woods seemed unusually bare and transparent as we made our way down the winding, sandy path from the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive. Remnant piles and pieces of cement drainage pipes and blocks from the World War I Camp Logan were more visible than ever. Even more visible were the rotting logs pecked and hammered by a variety of critters seeking insect sustenance.

A rotting log smorgasbord for critters in the woods. Photo Oct. 16, 2023 by SC

Perfectly natural rotting and pecking but it still somehow reeked of desperation after months of drought and record heat. However this morning was cool enough for us to be concerned about whether we were properly dressed. Weirdly discordant amongst the nearly leafless cherry laurel was the abundance of plump purple American Beautyberries. Why were they not being eaten by birds and other creatures? An ancient medicinal plant, also long used as a mosquito repellent, the berries have a peppery, somewhat bitter taste.

American Beautyberries in the woods of Buffalo Bayou, an ancient source of medicine and food. Photo Oct. 16, 2023

Nature’s Construction

We managed to get a shot of the bend through the ever-changing greenery, despite the high sun beaming and poking at the camera. For some reason, as we looked around, we were newly struck by nature’s engineering: the crisscross beams of long, sturdy roots installed along the high bank and across the path leading like stair-steps down to the nearby creek. All of which holds the bank together.

We then headed upstream along the winding path towards the distant spot where contractors with Harris County Flood Control were attempting to pull a pickup full of mud out of the bayou. Munching on beautyberries, we encountered numerous hikers and runners, as well as their happy dogs, and passed through lovely bowers of fresh sunlit greenery. However, one couple recounted how in early December they had witnessed the sad scene of the family gathered on the bank as the Houston Police recovered the body of the young driver.

Read the rest of this post.

Mayor Appoints New Public Parks Board

An Unusual Reliance on Private Funding for City Parks

Public meeting Thursday, Sept. 7, 9:30 a.m. at United Way, 50 Waugh Drive. Notice and Agenda. Sign up by noon Wednesday to comment.

Sept. 4, 2023

So the Mayor of Houston has finally appointed new members to the public Houston Parks Board, a local government corporation (see also here), in an apparent effort to fill expired and empty positions and comply with the Open Meetings Act.

The board has also announced its first public meeting in almost a year.

However, there may still be a problem.

For one thing, there are still only 18 seats filled out of 20 positions on the public board. And 9 of those seats are occupied by people who are also members of the private parks board foundation, which does not have public meetings. (Another 2 public seats are filled by former members of the private board.) So it seems that if all nine of those public board people met in a closed meeting of the private foundation, that would be a quorum of the public board and a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Yes, it’s confusing. But we’ve been reporting about this issue for several years, advocating for more transparency, accountability, and broader community involvement in the public board. The parks boards, public and private, have done good work (with notable exceptions). The board members, many of them wealthy philanthropists, are dedicated people with a history of public service, including many years of service to the park boards and other worthy causes.

But it is a long-accepted fact that park development favors real estate interests, among the many other benefits to public health and well-being (including reducing flood risk and increasing biodiversity) that green spaces provide.

Heavy Reliance on Private Funding for Parks, Yet Still Below Average Funding Per Capita

Houston has an unusual reliance on private funding for its parks, which may be why our public parks board has been so decidedly private compared to other major cities. It could also be a reason why park development in Houston seems to have favored more affluent areas.

A 2019 study of ten major US cities found that park area in Houston was narrowly spread and skewed towards higher income, higher educated people, a finding reinforced by the city’s 2023 Park Score from the Trust for Public Land. (Note that we are not enthusiastic about the Trust’s use of “living within a ten-minute walk” of a park since in a high-density neighborhood a lot of people could live near a tiny park. Neither do they distinguish between concrete slabs and nature parks.)

Private funding for our city parks is seven times greater than the national average for the top 100 most populous cities, according to the 2023 Trust report. Public funding is two-thirds the national average, with city funding a mere one-third the national average.

Overall the City of Houston spends far below average per capita on parks and recreation.

Graphic showing relative Houston spending sources from Trust for Public Land 2023 Parks Report

The open meetings issue was that so many people on the 20-member public parks board were also on the private parks board foundation. So whenever the foundation board met in private they often had a quorum of the public parks board. Which meant the public board was illegally meeting in private. It’s been happening routinely, even intentionally, for many years.

Houston’s public parks board is supposed to have regular public meetings, with public notice, public agendas and public minutes. Among large cities, some of which even televise their parks board meetings, Houston is exceptionally un-public.

Appointed Months Ago

In fact, Mayor Sylvester Turner nominated the new public board members (and renominated some old members) to the city council back in May. On May 31, to be exact. The law requires that the city council approve (or not approve) the nominations.

We don’t closely follow the city council agendas so we missed the nominations, despite the fact that we had written to the mayor’s office in October and in February inquiring about this issue and in March communicated with the mayor’s director of boards and commissions, Olivia Lee, about it. There was no announcement, no polite heads up. However, back in March Lee did send us the link to check the city council agenda for ourselves every week.

When we did finally notice that new board appointments had been made with terms starting May 31, we called Lee’s office to ask for the resumes of those appointed. Those resumes were sent to the city council members with the agenda notice back in May but left off of the agenda published online.

Lee’s helpful suggestion was that we file a Public Information request. Which we did.

Here is what we received from the City about the newly appointed or reappointed members of the public Houston Parks Board, LGC.

The new members and the old members are all highly successful and dedicated people. They include 8 people who are either wealthy philanthropists and/or work in the nonprofit industry, including in economic development, one of them an environmental scientist active in conservation and research; 4 commercial or public finance lawyers, a government lobbyist and 3 former or active public officials, an academic (women’s studies), and 2 in construction or real estate investment and development.

Some have been on the board for nearly a decade or more.

Here is the public board’s financial statement from 2022.

SC

That Truck in the Bayou

A truck has been stuck in Buffalo Bayou for nine months. Here’s why.

The white Dodge has been lodged in the bayou since November.

The truck has been stuck in Buffalo Bayou since it mysteriously plunged into the water in late November 2022. A body was later found downstream. Image from Google Earth showing truck south of Memorial Park.

By Brittanie Shey, Houston Chronicle, Aug. 30, 2023

A white Dodge pickup truck has been stuck in the section of Buffalo Bayou that runs through Memorial Park for nine months, and nobody knows when it will be removed.

….

But Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, said it’s the responsibility of Harris County Flood Control to remove any obstacles within waterways. Chadwick’s organization is dedicated to preserving the waterway, the only completely unpaved bayou in the city. She expressed concern that the truck was still in the water and wondered what pollutants might be leaking into the bayou, or what might happen if a big flood dislodges the vehicle and sends it downstream, toward the bridges that cross the bayou at Allen Parkway.

Jeremy Phillips, director of asset management for Harris County Flood Control, said he shares Chadwick’s concerns and confirmed that Flood Control has taken over removal of the truck. Flood Control has been working for a few weeks to get access to the bayou from private property holders, which include the Houston Parks Department and CenterPoint Energy. Flood Control hopes to use a tow truck and the Centerpoint power easement that intersects with the bayou, which is several hundred feet upstream of where the Dodge truck is located.

Phillips said removal of the truck is a top priority, and that Chadwick’s calls helped reignite Flood Control’s efforts to coordinate removal with the city. He expects access to the property to be approved within the next few weeks. Then it’ll only be a matter of days before the truck is pulled out.

Phillips said they’re taking the easement route in an effort to preserve as much parkland as possible. He also said there will be crews on-site during removal to constantly monitor whether chemicals from the truck are leaking into the water or parts of the truck become dislodged from the body.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

Hot Summer on the Bayou

July 19, 2023

The days have been long and impossibly hot. Getting shorter now but not cooler. The humid woods even in the early morning were already well above 80 degrees. Gangs of crows were complaining about it, circling high above the treetops.

Buffalo Bayou was low flow, around 110 cubic feet per second, pretty much base flow. Outcroppings of the broken sandstone channel bottom were visible from the high, sloping bank in Houston’s Memorial Park where we were standing. Turtles paddled around. A smallish alligator gar made a splash.

We were there to take our summer photo of that Bend in the River, part of our eight-years-long documentation of the same spot throughout the seasons.

A hot summer morning on the bend in the bayou. Photo taken looking downstream July 15, 2023, by SC.

Alas, we have sad news: the tall, handsome sycamore that’s been standing strong on the south bank upstream of the bend is down, lying across the stream. A couple of brave hikers we encountered said it’s been down for a while, likely felled during the powerful storm earlier in June, likely destabilized by the extreme bank work, involving removal of vegetation and bulldozing of the nearby bank, undertaken by the River Oaks Country Club in 2019.

Last Tango

But we have even sadder news: tall, handsome Frank X. Tolbert 2 is down too. The well-known Texas artist departed the scene last Thursday afternoon at the Houston Heights home he shared with his beloved wife, artist Ann Stautberg. The night heron which is Save Buffalo Bayou’s logo, visible on our Facebook page as well as on our t-shirts, was created by our good friend Frank as part of his “Texas Bird Project.” So long, X.

Frank Tolbert’s “Night Heron”

Full view of the bend. Broken sandstone channel bottom visible.
Checking out the nearby creek, the main tributary flowing from the center of the park under Memorial Drive, as the waters join the bayou.

SC

In Praise of Open Ditches (Opinion)

By Susan Chadwick, Houston Chronicle Outlook, May 27, 2023

For several years in Houston, an unfortunate controversy has swirled around open drainage ditches.

The underlying idea is that roadside drainage ditches don’t work — or at least, not as well as concrete street curbs that send water through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes. Many people think that earthen ditches are backwards — too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more engineered, more advanced! 

But this is wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in concrete or other impermeable surfaces, earthen stormwater ditches mitigate flooding better and more cheaply than concrete street curbs and buried pipes.

First of all, they have much greater capacity. Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to a representative of the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison, 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons

Read the rest of this editorial in the Houston Chronicle.

An open ditch on East 18th and Harvard Streets in the Heights is planted with canna lillies and other water loving plants. Photo by Sharon Steinmann, Chronicle Staff Photographer

In Praise of Open Ditches

More Effective, Cheaper, Easier to Maintain, Better for the Environment than Buried Stormwater Pipes

May 22, 2023

For several years a controversy over open drainage ditches has been swirling around the city of Houston. We’ve been scraping behind the scenes, trying to clear up some of the misunderstanding. But the flow of misinformation hardly slows.

The basic misunderstanding is that roadside drainage ditches — grass-lined, maybe filled with lilies, cattails, frogs, fishes, crawdads — don’t work as well as concrete curbs on the street funneling stormwater through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes.

Nope. Wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in impermeable surface, earthen stormwater ditches work much better than concrete street curbs and buried pipes, according to our expert sources.

A drainage ditch next to the Picnic Loop in Houston’s Memorial Park, which was originally constructed with open roadside ditches. In recent years concrete curbs were added in some areas. Photo June 20, 2022

An Age-Old Prejudice

It’s an age-old prejudice. People look at earthen ditches and think they are backwards. Too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more modern, more advanced! (Other people look at flowering roadside ditches and think: how lovely. They look at a brutal concrete curb and sense that the earth is being smothered.)

Developers discovered this long ago. Private developers are responsible for installing drainage systems in new residential areas, systems which are then turned over to the city for maintenance. Over time developers found that while some people appreciated the natural aesthetic and function of vegetated open ditches, home buyers often viewed ditches with distaste, as noted in a comparative study of The Woodlands. (p. 2) So, despite being more expensive and less effective, developers switched to concrete curbs and buried pipes solely in order to sell more homes. It had nothing to do with function. It was purely aesthetic.

How Much More Effective, More Beneficial? Ten Times More

Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes, among other important benefits. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons.

Note, however, that the City is not fond of all that pretty greenery inside the ditch, even if it helps filter trash and nasty stuff from the water.

A mowed and scraped drainage ditch in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. Photo May 7, 2021

People assume that open ditches foster mosquitoes. But in fact mosquitos are more likely to breed in pipes and in catch basins under storm drains. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mosquitoes breed in shallow water – less than 3 feet – that has been standing for at least 7 days. The agency actually recommends replacing curbs and gutters with open ditches.

Concrete Increases Flooding

The reason is that open ditches have more co-benefits than storm sewers and culverts, as noted in a recent watershed study by the US Army Corps of Engineers. (p. 14) Ditches help cleanse polluted stormwater runoff, allow the earth to soak up rain, and are cheaper and easier to install and maintain. (p. 22) Curbs and gutters, on the other hand, actually increase flooding by collecting more water faster, eventually overwhelming our built and natural drainage systems (creeks and bayous), according to the National Research Council. (p. 183) And pipes settle and crack and need to be replaced. Ditches don’t.

Note that Houston property owners actually get a modest drainage fee reduction for having an open ditch, which is considered pervious surface, which helps reduce runoff and flooding.

Maintenance. Another Misunderstanding

No, property owners do not have to maintain the ditches in front of their property. Yes, they are responsible for picking trash or other debris out of the ditch that might block the flow of water in front of their house. This is equally true in lower-income neighborhoods and well-to-do neighborhoods, like Hunters Creek Village in west Houston (actually a separate municipality). (p. 263)

But the Ditch Maintenance Section of Houston Public Works is responsible for de-silting and re-grading ditches, as well as flushing culverts under driveways and streets within the city.

And yes, there are wealthy, older neighborhoods all over the city with open ditches: Memorial, Briar Oaks, historic Avondale and Courtland Place in the Montrose area, just to name a few, not to mention in the Heights, Rice Military, as well as in dense, shadeless Gulfton and other parts of southwest Houston; Sunnyside to the southeast, Scenic Woods to the northeast, and much more. Friendswood and the Woodlands, too. Usually it’s a mix of open ditches and buried pipes, perhaps a compromise, perhaps the result of ditches getting (illegally) covered over.

Problems: Dumping, Size, Complaints

The most frequently cited problem with open ditches, particularly in front of empty or sparsely inhabited areas, is illegal dumping of heavy trash and construction debris that blocks the flow during storms. The City of Houston provides facilities for residents to dispose of tires, appliances, heavy trash, tree waste, and more for free, but contractors and commercial businesses are prohibited. Privately operated landfills charge a fee. (See info here.) So likely its cheaper, quicker, and easier for some to just dump stuff where nobody’s looking.

Read the rest of this post.

Lost in the Woods

The Wonders of Houston’s Great Memorial Park

May 17, 2023

We’ve been spending some time recently exploring the enchanting bayou woods of Houston’s magnificent Memorial Park. Some of these woods were familiar: the marked trails, for instance, part of the Bayou Wilds, open to both hikers and bikers, on the west side of the park south of Memorial Drive.

But we hadn’t been on the little-known trails in the far west of the park north of Memorial Drive and between Memorial and Woodway since riding horses through there as a teenager. And there are still horse riders through there. And bike-riders.

Walking the gentle trails north of Memorial Drive on the far west side of Memorial Park. Photo SC, March 13, 2023.

Oddly, we managed to get lost on the marked trails, the purple, blue, red, yellow, orange, and aqua trails of the Bayou Wilds west of the Picnic Loop on the south side of Memorial Drive. The signage can be confusing and even wrong, confirmed a helmeted, middle-aged man on a mountain bike who was studying the map posted on a trail. In fact, we encountered numerous people puzzling over the posted maps and color-coded posts, which, though they give a helpful coded location in event of a 911 emergency, sometimes seemed to point in two directions at once. Some public woods elsewhere have simple, easy-to-read directional signs with arrows and names and distances.

Purple or blue trail?

But it was a lovely walk through the shady, tangled woods, and not just because of the trees. We encountered numerous couples holding hands, people exploring together and having a romantic stroll through wild nature, individuals who nodded and smiled, families with happy young children, all reflecting the wondrous diversity of Houstonians.

Couple exploring creek in the bayou woods of Memorial Park. Photo by SC, March 4, 2023

But we did get lost, not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re on a time schedule. We ended up far to the east (downstream) of where we planned to be, emerging from the woods near the eastern end of the Picnic Loop. Traipsing across the mushy grass in the middle of the picnic area, we couldn’t help but remark that these were actually wetlands—mowed for some reason. It seemed contradictory, given the amount of money recently spent to create a large wetland prairie pond to the west where the playing fields had been. Seems like letting these wetlands grow in the middle of a large grassy area would be beneficial. And attractive.

Mowed wetland in the center of the Picnic Loop of Memorial Park. Photo SC March 4, 2023

Magically Lost Again

On another occasion we got delightfully lost entering the woods on a well-worn footpath, on a whim, having already lost a sense of direction, thinking we were somewhere else. (Okay. Getting old and distracted, too.) Actually it was Easter Sunday, and the Picnic Loop area was jammed with people grilling, playing volleyball, playing music, tossing colored Easter eggs; massive, oversized trucks parked everywhere.

Following an informal footpath into the woods (obviously other nature-loving humans were doing this too, treading exploratory paths all over the park as well), we ended up on the main tributary creek that flows from the center of the park, stepping down and across the sandy banks as we did as a child growing up on the mysterious bayou. Then clambering up the bank and walking back on the lengthy, wonderful, winding Green Trail. The parked car was somewhere.

The lovely creek flowing through the center of Memorial Park and into Buffalo Bayou. Photo SC April 9, 2023

We hope these magical woods survive the landscaping projects of the park’s Master Plan, though the future seems to be removing a lot of trees (and undergrowth) and taking out the popular picnic area. (p. 78) Some of that may be good. The picnic areas will be disbursed throughout the park. We hope it’s not turning a truly rare wild area in an urban setting into a more managed experience.

Far West Trails

The little-known far west trails seem to be mostly used by mountain bikers, though the enchanting paths north of Memorial are mostly flat and easily walkable. They are accessible from the sidewalk along the northern edge of Memorial Drive. Go to the Living Bridge near the railroad tracks and the Running Center at the western side of the park, take the stairs on the north side of Memorial Drive (or the roadside sidewalk if you don’t do stairs), and walk until you see an empty wooden sign on the right. The path to the right leads into what are known as the Northwest Trails, which are mostly flat, filled with tall Loblolly Pines, wild berries and flowers. The path to the left leads down into the creek bed which takes you through a drainage culvert and then another which leads you into the rugged, hilly trails known as the Triangle between Memorial Drive and Woodway. These trails are also accessible through a large drainage culvert in the Arboretum.

Note that these are some of the large culverts used by wildlife to cross under Memorial and Woodway, as our late founding president Frank Smith repeatedly argued to anyone who would listen.

Read the rest of this post.

Culvert in the Arboretum leading north under Woodway Drive to the wooded trails known as the Triangle in western Memorial Park.
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