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 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.

********

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.  

SC

Marked pine in Old Archery Range. April 6, 2021

Community Flood Resilience Task Force Membership Finalized

Replaces Old Harris County Flood Control Task Force

Also: New State Flood Group to Meet Thursday, April 8

April 5, 2021

The initial five members of Harris County’s new Community Flood Resilience Task Force have now selected the remaining twelve members of the task force. The new task force replaces the outdated Harris County Flood Control Task Force, founded nearly fifty years ago in the wake of discontent over flood control practices and plans to channelize Buffalo Bayou.

The first five members of the new task force were appointed by Harris County Commissioners’ Court last fall. The county describes the task force as a “multidisciplinary, community-driven body that Commissioners Court established to ensure Harris County develops and implements equitable flood resilience planning and projects that take into account community needs and priorities.”

Here are the current members of the task force. Here are the bylaws.

The task force, which is not subject to the Open Meetings Act, is to hold meetings at least every other month or at least six times a year.

However, the first official meeting of the task force will be in May and will be open to the public, according to Vanessa Toro, senior policy advisor to County Judge Lina Hidalgo. Toro will be joined in supporting the task force by Lance Gilliam, who previously worked with Commissioner Rodney Ellis on flood control, disaster recovery, housing, and community development policy.

Part of the mission of the task force is to advise the County’s Infrastructure Resilience Team and Commissioners Court on equitable resilience planning efforts and flood resilience projects, wrote Toro in a recent email announcing the new members of the task force.

Here is how you can sign up to join the mailing list for the task force.

San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group Meeting

The newly formed San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group will have its online monthly meeting on April 8 at 9 a.m. Known as Region 6, the group, a project of the Texas Water Development Board, is still in the process of acquiring members.

Here is information about the meeting agenda and how to join.

Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe is the chair of the San Jacinto group.

SC

Private Parks Board Presents Director of Public Boards and Commissions

Declines to Take Public Questions

March 30, 2021

Updated April 13, 2021, with date of next Houston Parks Board public meeting: June 22

The private Houston Parks Board foundation recently presented the City Director of Boards and Commissions Maria Montes in a virtual Zoom meeting. As usual with Zoom meetings, there was a Chat and a Question and Answer feature that allows participants to post questions and comments for all to see.

But the private board declined to take any public questions, oddly directing that questions be sent to another website that required a code to sign in, a first in our experience with virtual meetings. We signed in and typed in our questions. They were not asked or answered.

This was disappointing. We wanted Montes to explain publicly the difference between the private Parks Board foundation and the public Parks Board, a local government corporation. We also wanted Montes and/or the foundation to tell us when the public parks board has public meetings, as required by law, and how the public is notified about them, also required by law.

In addition, we noted that there are seven expired terms on the twenty-member public board. When was the last time the Mayor appointed a new member to the Parks Board and how does one become a member of the board? All twenty members of the public board also serve on the private board, effectively a two-thirds majority of the private board. Most other major cities have separate public parks boards or commissions and private supporting foundations, with the former often populated by experts and people whose communities benefit socially and environmentally from parks and the latter generally dominated by people who benefit financially from improved real estate values.

In July of last year Montes told us that she would be meeting with the mayor in early August to discuss whose term has expired and potential candidates for the public parks board. Apparently that was an unproductive meeting, if it occurred, because there are now more expired terms on the public board (7) than there were then (4).

Last week’s presentation featuring Montes was sponsored, as noted,  by the private Houston Parks Board foundation as part of their regular Rising Leaders Lunch and Learn series. The private foundation also runs the Houston Parks Board website. The City of Houston lists the private foundation’s website as the website of the public board. There are no notices of regular meetings, past or future, agenda, or minutes to be found there.

No Notice or Reports of Public Meetings

Montes, who has been Houston’s director of boards and commissions for nearly three years now and previously worked for real estate development and investment company Transwestern, did vaguely answer a question about ethics training, referring generally to boards and commissions. She apparently did not have time to mention that public board appointees are required by Texas law to have training in the Open Meetings Act as well as the Public Information Act.

After the virtual event we received a polite email from a staff member employed by the foundation (the public board has no staff) noting that our questions would be directed to someone who could best answer them. We also received an email linking to an expired notice on the foundation’s website about a meeting of the public board last September 22. The notice was posted four days before the meeting. Though we receive regular emails from the Parks Board foundation, we did not receive an email about the meeting.

If the last meeting was Sept 22, and if as we’ve been told, the public board meets twice a year, shouldn’t there be another public meeting or a notice of a meeting by now? Six months was March 23.

Update: A follow up email from the staff member said that the next meeting of the public board would be in June 22, with the following meeting scheduled for Sept. 28, and that notice would be posted on the private parks board foundation’s website. No word yet on the whereabouts of minutes of those meetings.

Major Project is Bayou Greenways

The Parks Board foundation’s major project is Bayou Greenways, an excellent and very popular concept. If only the bayous were green, or had some shade trees, like Buffalo Bayou. Or like it used to be.

Here is what the private Parks Board did to Buffalo Bayou upstream of the Shepherd Bridge in an effort to make room for a ten-foot wide concrete sidewalk: bulldozed the bank, cut down trees, drove sheet pile into the bank so that creatures large and small can no longer live there, essentially deadening that part of the stream. (This in addition to the bizarre and damaging concrete sidewalk to nowhere the foundation installed on the high bank of the bayou in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park (and parking lot) on Westscott Street opposite the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, the former home of Ima Hogg, conservationist, philanthropist, and collector, among other things, who also donated the 15.5-acre park as a nature sanctuary.

Sadly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which now owns Bayou Bend, is planning a major “bank repair” project below Miss Ima’s beloved garden and woods. We have a report coming up on that soon, along with discouraging news about the Memorial Park Conservancy’s plans to bulldoze the banks and possibly channelize and reroute Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park.

Another Path

Memorial Drive from Houston Avenue downtown to Loop 610 West is six lanes for cars, three lanes going each way. We have suggested that the City look into dedicating a couple of lanes out of those six lanes to bikers and hikers who want to go safely from Buffalo Bayou Park below Shepherd to Memorial Park and beyond.

We’d also like to see the Parks Board separate from the private foundation and follow the law about open meetings.

There are three ways to become a candidate for the public Houston Parks Board, according to Montes: a recommendation from a city council member, making an application online, and by recommendation from a current parks board member.

SC

The Houston Parks Board foundation’s concrete path on a high bank overlooking Buffalo Bayou in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on February 23, 2021. “Tread softly,” it says. “Look up, listen.”

Panel Discussion: Conservationist Rick Bass on His New Book of Essays

Saving Wildlife

March 18, 2021

Native Texan, conservationist, and honorary Save Buffalo Bayou board member Rick Bass will discuss his new book of essays, Fortunate Son: Selected Essays from the Lone Star State, with SBB board member, environmentalist and author Olive Hershey. The virtual event, hosted by Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, takes place Monday, March 22, at 7 p.m.

Michael Berryhill, chair of the journalism department at Texas Southern University, will moderate. Also taking part in the conversation are Dr. Michelle Lute, National Carnivore Conservation Manager for Project Coyote, and Texas wildlife advocate Pam Harte.

Registration is required. For more information, visit bluewillowbookshop.com.

Late Winter on the Bayou

Plus Houston Stronger Survey, Scenic Houston Panel Discussion About Buffalo Bayou, Flood Planning Vacancies, Resiliency, and More

March 7, 2021

Our famous photographer Jim Olive was back in town, so a few days ago we went out into the woods in the drizzle just after dawn to photograph that bend in the bayou in late winter for our years-long series documenting the same bend through the seasons. The backup photographer, fearing that winter would soon be over despite the record freeze, had taken a sunny interim photo, which received some criticism from the master. (“Too flat,” he said.)

But now we were standing in a parking lot off the Picnic Lane/Loop in Memorial Park in the middle of Houston staring at sawed-up pieces of a big, old oak tree, new wooden fencing reinforced with moss-covered oak limbs, and a pile of sawdust.

New wooden fencing in front of wire fencing blocking popular footpath through the bayou woods in Memorial Park. Photo March 2, 2021 by SC

Apparently it is a priority of the Memorial Park Conservancy to keep people off these lovely trails. In addition to a new wooden fence, there was extensive wire fencing winding along the edge of the tangled woods.

We found a way in, noting the tiny buds of green in the trees. Jim set up his borrowed tripod, and we waited for just the right light in the fog.

Jim Olive’s photo of that bend in the bayou in late winter. March 2, 2021

Conservancy Plans to Bulldoze, Smother the Bank

We couldn’t help but notice a couple of the conservancy’s Keep Out signs someone had tossed down the bank. The photographer’s helper wandered downstream a bit, contemplating the slumped, eroded bank, the colors of the revealed earth, the powerful forces that shaped the irregular mounds and valleys of the downward sloping bank. This was an area damaged by the Harris County Flood Control District when it removed the stabilizing woody debris, scraped and mucked around in the channel with an excavator and barge during its “maintenance” operations after Harvey.

Studying the slump brought back poignant memories of playing on the wild sandy bank of the bayou as a child in Houston, of being in awe of the force of nature, that early sense of the bayou as a living thing. It was a rare learning experience to have, and a privilege.

These memories were prompted by the sad news that the conservancy is planning to bulldoze and “restore,” smothering and landscaping the public banks of the bayou in the Old Archery Range, a small section of the park west of the 610 Loop off Woodway Drive.

We’ll have more on that soon. But as a historical note, an earlier, far more enlightened and ecologically sensitive master plan for Memorial Park in 2004 (the current plan dates from 2014-15) said that “the recommended course of action for the Bayou is simply to leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature. Possible solutions such as concrete surfacing and decreasing the bank slope would only destroy the habitat value and visual amenity of the bayou and conflict with the ability to observe natural process.” (p. 11)

Houston Stronger Survey due Tuesday, March 9

Houston Stronger is a coalition of civic groups and business associations in the Houston region that came together after Harvey in 2017 to advocate for flood and storm resiliency.  A major flood problem during Harvey was too much stormwater flowing too fast into Barker and Addicks reservoirs in west Houston. The normally dry reservoirs drain into Buffalo Bayou.

In response, last October the US Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates those flood control dams, announced a tentative proposal to build a new dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek and the Katy Prairie and deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou for some 22 miles from the dams all the way to downtown.

The Corps’ Interim Plan was widely unpopular, and while continuing to gather public input, they are working on the next draft due out in late spring or early summer. In the meantime Houston Stronger has come up with an alternative to the Corps’ proposals. It includes elements of a plan proposed by the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which is part of the Houston Stronger group. Both plans include digging a 23-mile long tunnel, perhaps 40-feet wide, to take stormwater from Addicks and/or Barker dams to the Houston Ship Channel.

Save Buffalo Bayou is opposed to a $4 billion flood tunnel, which has no ancillary public benefit, among other problems, and favors a stronger focus on slowing the flow of stormwater from commercial and residential property into streams that feed into the reservoirs. SBB supports other elements of the Houston Stronger/Katy Prairie plans, including expanding, protecting, and restoring the Katy Prairie.

Houston Stronger is asking for public feedback on its plan, called the Buffalo Bayou Community Plan. So take a look at the plan and answer the eight questions in their brief survey by Tuesday, March 9, if possible.

Here is a link to the Houston Stronger Plan. Here is a link to the survey.

Resilient Houston One-Year Update

The City of Houston has released a one-year update on the progress of its Resilient Houston Plan. The plan, released in February 2020, addressed climate, housing, health, flooding, neighborhoods, parks, and more.

According to a press release from Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office, “56 of 62 prioritized actions (90%) are in progress, five actions (8%) are paused or haven’t started, and one action (2%) is complete.”

Open Positions on Regional Flood Planning Group, Meeting March 11

The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group is looking for two new members.

In April 2020 the Texas Water Development Board set up 15 regional groups to help formulate regional and state flood plans.

The San Jacinto Region 6 includes Harris, Montgomery, Galveston, and parts of Brazoria, Fort Bend, Waller, Grimes, Walker, San Jacinto, Liberty, and Chambers counties.

The two new positions are in the Coastal Communities and Public categories. Nominations are due by March 26.

Here are the current members of San Jacinto Region 6 Flood Planning Group. See also here.

The next meeting of the group is March 11 at 9 a.m.

Scenic Houston Panel with Developers, Environmental Attorney Jim Blackburn, and SBB, March 23

Scenic Houston is sponsoring a panel discussion about Buffalo Bayou titled “Don’t Mess with Buffalo Bayou.” The free event takes place online March 23 from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m.

The panelists are environmental attorney and Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, also founder of the Bayou City Initiative; Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, Guy Hagstette, senior vice-president of parks and civic projects for the Kinder Foundation, and David Ott, Texas development director for the Hanover Company.

Marlene Gafrick, chair of Scenic Houston and director of planning for MetroNational, an investment, development, and management firm, will moderate the discussion, which will focus on the history and design of the bayou, responsible development and threats to it.

Here is how to register. Please join the discussion!

SC

That Bend in Winter: A Hidden Landscape

Waiting for the Return

Feb. 24, 2021

We are quite a bit late posting a winter photograph for our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons. Our devoted and generous photographer Big Jim Olive is living with his beloved in fiery California these days where the air is supposed to be better. But he still frequently returns to his native Texas for photography jobs and visits with his many friends. Founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation, he also participates with other volunteers in Texas Parks and Wildlife’s annual Abandoned Crab Trap Removal program, which takes place from February 19-28.

Last week he was on his way, driving cross country, stopping to take photos of icy cacti. But by Seguin the frozen, snowy highway was closed, and after two nights in a motel there Jim was forced to turn back, leaving behind the excellent barbecue.

He’s returning this week, despite the forecast for stormy (warm) weather. But in the meantime the backup photographer had already gone out into the forbidden woods of the city’s Memorial Park to document that bend in winter. The fear was that winter would soon be over before Jim returned, despite the historic weather that froze the city and state just a few days earlier, leaving us all in the dark.

Frozen. Still Living. Still Closed. Sighting of a River Otter. Dumping of Picnic Tables

Whether you think a bare winter landscape is lovely is a matter of personal taste. For some people, the sight of seemingly dead trees and plants can be alarming. Will they come back?  But winter, particularly a harsh and deadly winter, however disturbing, does reveal a landscape that would ordinarily be hidden.

On a happy note, we did receive after the freeze a report of multiple sightings of a river otter in the bayou across from the park around Pine Hill. And many have surely noticed the flocks of handsome cedar waxwings in the city flitting from tree to tree, often yaupon, feasting on berries.

Looking downstream in winter at Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park, another installment in our ongoing series, A Bend in the River. Photo by SC, Feb. 20, 2021, because JO wasn’t there yet.

The popular trail through the bayou woods on the southeast side of Houston’s Memorial Park was still fenced off and posted with the same fictitious warning signs. In fact, the gates to the Picnic Loop itself were still locked on this sunny, warm Saturday after the horrible freeze. No doubt this was due to a shortage of staff still coping with the disastrous impact of the winter weather. People were forced to park their cars in any spot they could find and squeeze with their kids and bikes and strollers through or around the gates.

Flow in the bayou was around 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) and dropping.

Looking upstream from the same high bank at the costly and damaging concrete walls and riprap needlessly installed by the River Oaks Country Club. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

Violets and Dandelions

After documenting the bend upstream and down, we ventured further down the path and reached the steep banks of the creek that flows from the center of the park, noting that there were several new spontaneous foot paths through the woods.

The ground was mostly bare, scattered with spikey sweetgum seed balls, which like pine needles (see also here), black willows, American beautyberry, and many other things growing on the bayou, have medicinal qualities. The small green leaves of edible wild violets and dandelions were peeking hopefully out of the earth. (Before the freeze, in another part of the park, we had seen some young stinging nettle, a delicacy served in the finest Parisian restaurants.) The water in the winding creek was clear and made a gentle tinkling sound as it flowed over the sand and woody debris. There were large trees fallen across the creek, and in a youthful past the backup photographer, who grew up on the bayou, might have carefully stepped or scooted across these bridges laid down by nature. Or at least watched her brother do it.

Fallen trees lying across a creek, a tributary of Buffalo Bayou that flows from the center of Memorial Park. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

The bare winter landscape revealed a haphazard pile of concrete picnic tables, benches, and grills that had apparently been removed from the Picnic Loop and tossed in the woods near the creek. We’ll ask about this thoughtless trashing of the park.

Concrete picnic tables, benches and grills tossed in the woods of Memorial Park near the creek. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

The Bayou in the Snow

Here’s the way the bayou looked on Feb. 15 after the snow.

SC

Next Page »