Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou: Slowing the Flow
Summer Down on the Bayou
July 17, 2018
In case you missed Jim Olive‘s summer shot of that Bend in the River, here is the latest addition to our series of photographs taken from the same high bank on the north side of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. The view has changed over the course of four years. In particular, since the high waters of Harvey, the bayou widened to accommodate the massive flow. Banks slid or slumped away, as they will do on the bayou when water rises over the banks and onto the natural floodplains. Trees and vegetation slide down too.
Ideally this woody debris, often still living, should be left in place to collect sediment, reinforce the banks, and facilitate regrowth and rebuilding of the banks. It’s a cycle that has been continuing on rivers for millions of years. Unfortunately, the Harris County Flood Control District hired contractors and paid them by the pound to collect as much of the fallen vegetation as possible.
Other Recent Photos of Buffalo Bayou
Known as Houston’s Mother Bayou, in large part because most other bayous and streams flow into it, Buffalo Bayou is some 18,000 years old, more or less, and one of the few natural waterways in the city that remains largely unchannelized. The beauty of it flowing past Memorial Park is that this forested stretch is one of the last accessible to the public. It’s a historic nature area, ever changing and adapting, filled with ancient high banks and sandstone, beaver, otter, massive turtles and other wildlife.
Though in the wake of Harvey there are calls to “improve” our bayous, including Buffalo Bayou, by widening and deepening, even straightening, the fact is that meandering streams carry more water — because they are longer. Artificially widening and deepening streams doesn’t last: the banks collapse and the channel fills with sediment. Rivers are living, dynamic systems and will adjust to stabilize themselves. The trees and vegetation on the banks help absorb and cleanse stormwaters and prevent flooding by slowing and diffusing the energy of the stream.
Our political and civic leaders should focus on slowing the flow with green spaces, prairie and wetlands, swales and rain gardens — stopping, spreading, and soaking up stormwater before it floods our natural and built drainage systems.
Watch this video of a summer sunrise on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, July 1, 2018.
High Bank on Bayou Damaged by Bike Riders
Fools Dug Up Vegetation and Drove Boards Into Top of Bluff
But Boy Scouts Do More Good Deeds, Plant Vegetation
March 7, 2018
Riding a bike along the edge of a cliff above a river is bad enough. Even walking on top of a high bank can be damaging. But the high banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s Memorial Park are already stressed and attempting to recover from the overbank flooding that came with Harvey last summer. Large sections of the bank slid away, taking down trees and vegetation. With time, however, the vegetation will grow back, the downed trees will collect sediment, and the banks will rebuild.
Now that recovery will be much more difficult. In the past weeks, off-road cyclists built a bike jump and wooden ramp right at the very edge of the bank near the main tributary draining the center of the park. This is very near the Bend in the River that Save Buffalo Bayou and photographer Jim Olive have been documenting through the seasons for the past four years.
The culprits apparently removed vegetation, dug holes, and drove large boards into ground. And then, of course, they’ve been pounding the edge of the bank with their bikes. They also dug up dirt to mound it into a jump further down the bank.
Representatives of the Greater Houston Off-Road Biking Association (GHORBA) condemned the construction.
“We would never approve this type of activity,” said C.J. Bernard, trails director for the biking association, in an email. “For anything we do at GHORBA related to trail development and maintenance, we follow the IMBA Sustainable Trails guidelines which highly emphasizes ways to identify potential erosion concerns and provides ways to eliminate and/or minimize.” (IMBA is the International Mountain Bicycling Association.)
“Most likely it is from a mountain biker that isn’t associated with GHORBA, as our trail stewards must approve features before they are built and this one, to my knowledge, was not,” wrote Christy Jones, president of GHORBA, in an email.
The dirt paths through the woods along Buffalo Bayou south of the Picnic Loop in Memorial Park are unofficial trails. However, they are much used by walkers and runners. Other trails in the park are officially open to bike riders as well as others. The neighboring Arboretum, however, does not allow bikers on its paths.
A representative of the Memorial Park Conservancy said the structure would be removed. “We are very grateful that you alerted us to this and will assess and remove the structure ASAP,” wrote Cara Rudelson, chief operating officer of the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit organization running the public park. “We always have our eyes out for unauthorized use of the unofficial trails!”
Boy Scouts Plant Riparian Rebar on Bank of Buffalo Bayou
In the meantime, some more positive news: members of Boy Scout Troop 55 are doing good deeds again. This time, under the leadership of Boy Scout Austen Furse, who developed the plan for his Eagle Scout project, they planted 200 buckets of native eastern gamagrass on the upper banks of the ugly stormwater outfall, formerly a nature trail, also known as the Woodway Boat Launch, in the Old Archery Range of Memorial Park west of Loop 610. This happened Saturday morning, March 3.
Eastern gamagrass is an herbaceous stabilizer plant, described as “riparian rebar” and a “big, green leafy cousin of corn.” Though slow to establish, once established, eastern gamagrass can grow to six feet or more and has “extremely good root stability,” according to Your Remarkable Riparian, a field guide to riparian plants found in Texas.
Take note, property owners contemplating ugly and damaging concrete riprap for bayou banks.
Let’s hope the young gamagrass doesn’t get mowed down.
Austen is planning to photograph the site every week or two to document the results, says his mother, Anne Furse.
Breaking News: Trash Washes Up From Early Twentieth Century
Old Bottles Surface on the Banks of the Bayou
Site is a State Antiquities Landmark
Bonus: Some Geology and History
May 18, 2017
On a recent trip down Buffalo Bayou, pausing to document the springs seeping out of the banks, we stopped at one of our favorite spots: the wide sandy bank of what we call the middle meander — so named because it’s the middle meander in that 1.25-mile long stretch of the forested bayou targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District.
This sharp bend in the river is located at the eastern boundary of Memorial Park, with a small tributary flowing into it and very old high banks on the downstream side. It is a natural stormwater detention area, and elsewhere the flood control district is spending millions to build detention basins in or near our bayous. But here the district’s plan is to spend millions to fill in a detention area and dig a new channel for the bayou through the woods on the south bank of the bayou owned by the River Oaks Country Club. Why the members of the club would agree to that is a mystery. The plan also calls for grading the ancient high bank, leveling the area, and planting it all with turf grass. An access road for heavy construction equipment would be bulldozed through the public forest from the maintenance yard near Memorial Drive to the bayou.
Unusually, in this meander, the bayou deposits sediment on the outside bend, the park side of the stream, causing the bank to widen. (Normally sediment is deposited on the inside bends and picked up on the outside.) But the high outside bluff here is composed in part of very hard, resistant clay. This reversed phenomenon might also in part be the result of the blocking flow of the tributary shooting across the channel during rain events. And Geologist Tom Helm thinks that a fault running through the meander might have caused the bayou channel to shift somewhat to the southeast over time.
Here is a photo of Tom pointing to the downshifted layer of dark red clay in the strata of the face of the high bank, which is part of the tens-hundred-thousand years old late Pleistocene-era meander-belt ridges carved out of the earth at the end of the last glacial period, when giant sloths, zebra horses, and saber-toothed cats roamed through Memorial Park. We still have American alligators (alligator mississippiensis) and alligator gar from that period. The high cut banks of these meander-belt ridges are long-established characteristics of our west-to-east meandering streams in the Houston region and serve as as bumpers slowing the flow. The dark layer Tom is pointing to in the face of the high bank of the middle meander is offset by about three inches, possibly indicating a fault.
Invaders. Pull Them Out!
When we stepped out of the canoe onto the sandy north bank of the meander, we were dismayed to discover invasive Johnson grass growing all over the beach. In the past this lovely sand bank was naturally landscaped with native smartweed, ground cherry and young box elder and black willow, all the proper native vegetation intelligently arranged by the bayou as it worked to stabilize the sediment and plan for new growth. But now this invader was taking over. We had seen it also at the boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway. Very discouraging. Anyone who wishes to organize Johnson grass-pulling parties is encouraged to do so. The Memorial Park Conservancy unfortunately does not consider maintaining the banks or bayou woods part of its job, instead largely confining routine maintenance activities to mowing down the sedges and other wetland plants in the bogs of the park, leaving behind large, deep ruts. How nice it would be if the Conservancy respected the natural character and landscaping of our park.
A Surprise from the Past
As we inspected the springs that flowed out of the high bank, we were surprised to find a large pile of broken glass bottles and pottery embedded in the mud. The glass was thick and had an old-fashioned shape. The pieces looked very old. Geologist Bill Heins, who explores the banks of the bayou regularly with his dog, suggests that the bottles and pottery had washed out from an old trash dump in a filled gully higher up the bank.
Very possibly the pottery and bottles date from the era of Camp Logan, a World War I military training camp established in 1917, part of which would become Memorial Park after the war. Beginning in August of 1917 there was a large military hospital, as well as a landfill, operating on the north bank of the bayou, eventually occupying over 100 acres of what is now the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and extending westward into what is now the park’s South Picnic Loop, according to Janet Wagner, landscape architect and historian and former chair of the Harris County Historical Society. In 2014 Wagner wrote to the Corps of Engineers about the archeological significance of the bayou in the proposed project area. The hospital, she noted, served some 1,500 men and continued caring for veterans after the war. In 1919 the hospital and buildings were transferred to the Public Health Service, with some of them leased to the newly formed City-County Hospital District. In 1921 the Veterans’ Bureau took over the hospital and two years later began evacuating the veterans to other facilities around the state. One year later, in 1924, Will and Mike Hogg and their real estate partner, Henry Stude, purchased the hospital grounds and then sold at cost a total of nearly 1,500 acres of what had been Camp Logan to the City of Houston for the creation of Memorial Park.
In May of 2013 the Texas Historical Commission designated the former site of Camp Logan a State Archeological Landmark, now known as a State Antiquities Landmark. The designation requires that the landowner receive a permit from the historical commission before conducting any work on the site.
Here are photographs of the glass and pottery remnants we discovered on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in April 2017.
Spring 2017 on Buffalo Bayou
Never the Same River Twice
March 18, 2017
Out on Buffalo Bayou early this morning, Saturday, March 18, 2017, with photographer Jim Olive. We were looking for our Spring 2017 shot of the same bend of the bayou we have been documenting for the last three years throughout the seasons. Flow was low base flow, about 150 cubic feet per second. Birds singing. Frogs burping. Squirrels quarreling. Warmth wafting off the water. Was foggier than Jim had hoped, and he had to be patient, as always, for just the right shot. We’d been waiting for a clear morning for days.
For the entire series see A Bend in the River under Photos and Films. This scene is in the historic nature area targeted for destruction and “restoration” by the Harris County Flood Control District, the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the Bayou Preservation Association.
An update on that costly, misguided project, which sadly still threatens, is coming up next.
Frank Smith, Conservationist
A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down
Update April 7, 2023
Frank Smith has finally escaped this earth. He passed away peacefully at his home in Houston on Thursday, April 6. He was 101.
“Just say ‘Frank Smith croaked,’” he joked to his wife of 42 years, Katherine Bel Fay Sadler Smith.
In 2021 the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club recognized Smith’s lifetime of environmental activism with the Evelyn R. Edens award for river conservation.
October 16, 2016
The year was 1933. Frank Smith was twelve years old and he had just climbed to the 14,255-foot summit of Long’s Peak while at Camp Audubon in Colorado.
It’s an achievement that still makes him proud. But more importantly, being in the snow-capped Colorado mountains changed the perspective of a young boy born and raised in a flat, humid city, albeit in one of the leafiest, most privileged neighborhoods in Houston.
“They made us pay attention to the flowers and the trees, and study and identify the mammals,” he recalls of his summers at Camp Audubon. “It was the first time my attention was directed toward natural things.” He had learned “a lot of other things,” he says. “But I had never been taught anything about the natural world.”
Those fortunate summers in the Rocky Mountain high forest wilderness during the Great Depression set Smith on a remarkable path of conservation and environmentalism. He read the books of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, including The Mountains of California. That path would lead Smith to found and lead numerous organizations, most recently Save Buffalo Bayou, that have helped protect and preserve bayous and streams, including Buffalo and Armand bayous, Galveston Bay and its estuaries, and create public park lands around the state of Texas. He would work with virtually all of the region’s prominent conservationists, all of them becoming close personal friends. Some of them had been friends since childhood.
But first he would have to grow up, join the Navy, establish several engineering businesses, invent some things, and meet Terry Hershey.
Tracking Wildlife on the Bayou
Boys Scouting Part III
September 20, 2016
Boy Scout Paul Hung rallied his troop for the third floating inventory of the banks of Buffalo Bayou on a recent Saturday morning. Hung is documenting the tracks of wildlife as an Eagle Scout service project, and his fellow scouts in Sam Houston Council Troop 55 are helping.
Hung and other scouts have so far found over 130 tracks of animals including raccoon, beaver, possum, coyote, grey fox, bobcat, great blue heron, egret, otter, nutria, wild boar, and others. The tracks are being plotted on a map, and the information will be published as a pamphlet with the help of Save Buffalo Bayou, which is the beneficiary of the project.
Anyone who wishes to donate to help Paul Hung publish his Buffalo Bayou wildlife pamphlet can do so here.
About a dozen Boy Scouts and adult observers gathered with their Boy Scout wooden canoes at the Memorial Park boat launch at Woodway Sept. 10. It was a steamy morning, and they planned to paddle past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary all the way to Lost Lake in Buffalo Bayou Park. Hung handed out clipboards and gave instructions for identifying and photographing the tracks and recording their location using a compass app on a cell phone. Nearby was the wooden box, built and recently installed by Troop 55 Boy Scout Saswat Pati, containing reusable bags for picking up trash on the bayou.
State of the Bayou
Downed Trees. New Channel. New Riprap. Washed Out Sidewalks, Beavers, and Turtles
But Some Banks Naturally Rebuilding
Does It Make Sense to Repair?
Sept. 1, 2016
Updated Sept. 11, 2016
You could not step twice into the same river. Heraclitus
We finally had a chance recently to float down beautiful Buffalo Bayou to see how things have changed. Our trip took us past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. We also biked along the bayou through Terry Hershey Park far upstream in west Houston below the dams to see what was happening there.
The good news is that some of the high banks that had slumped in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary during the Memorial Day 2015 flooding are naturally rebuilding.
The bad news is that the River Oaks Country Club has added more riprap to the south bank, hard armoring the bank with ugly, damaging concrete rubble, including where it should not be.
Nature’s Miraculous Way of Restoring. For Free.
Houston has had multiple record-breaking rains and flooding since the spring of 2015. When Buffalo Bayou overflows its high banks, as it did in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, the banks in places sometimes slump or slide away. This happens when the overflowing water seeps through the ground and saturates layers of sandy clay that liquefy, sometimes causing the bank to give way. Buffalo Bayou is 18,000 years old, and this has been happening for a very long time.
This natural tendency to slump is one reason why we think attempting to engineer these banks as proposed by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project won’t work. It’s also the reason why we think building and repeatedly repairing sidewalks at the bayou’s edge is wasteful and foolish.
Cool Off With Geology Classes On The Bayou
A Good Time for Floating with Tom Helm
August 13, 2016
You may think it’s way too hot to go outside. But it’s actually much cooler down on the bayou, thanks to the water and the shade from overhanging trees.
Also it’s free of mosquitoes since the damselflies eat them up. Nature works that way. Bats eat mosquitoes too. Mosquitoes don’t breed in flowing water anyway.
So now is the perfect time (unless it’s raining) to cool off and learn about the amazing geology of one of the last natural stretches of our 18,000-year-old Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park.
Float for a couple of hours through this historic nature area with geologist, naturalist, and river guide Tom Helm. Tom will explain the ancient sandstone formations and high Pleistocene bluffs, the patterns in the sand, why the river changes course and how sediment taken away from one side gets deposited on the other. And much more. See mole cricket tracks and watch diving hawks! Witness the grace of a great blue heron flying in front of your canoe!
Right here in the middle of Houston.
Tom takes care of everything. Look under Classes at the top page of this website. Or contact Tom directly. Scheduling is flexible so arrange a time that suits you and your family and friends.
Get outside, have a good time, and learn something new! The water is low now so the sandstone formations and sandy banks are visible.
But if it’s raining or the flow is too high, classes will be postponed.
It’s Not Dead Yet
Flood Control Still Pushing Costly, Destructive “Stabilization” Project on Buffalo Bayou
July 31, 2016
It’s a pointless, wasteful, ill-conceived, and maybe illegal project to rip up and raze trees and plants and wildlife habitat, dig up the banks, plug up tributaries, dredge and reroute the channel along one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. This is a dreamy stretch of the river in the middle of the city, filled with beaver, otter, alligators, fish and flying creatures, and even edible plants. It flows for more than a mile past our great public Memorial Park, a natural detention area and significant geologic site that features very old high bluffs and sandstone formations. All of which would be obliterated.
And after almost three years of adamant public opposition, the Harris County Flood Control District is still promoting the project, which will cost the taxpayers at least $4 million plus, not including future costs of maintenance and repair.
It’s mystifying why they want to do this, why they think it would even work, why they don’t realize that the bayou would wash it away or that it would simply all slump away, as has happened in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, where taxpayers are footing the ever-mounting bill for constantly repairing the banks dug up and stripped of trees and vegetation by Flood Control.
Do They Not Have More Urgent Problems?
Surely, the flood control district has more urgent problems that require our hard-earned tax money. Harris County is one of the most flooded places in the country. And this project, billed as a “stabilization” and “bank restoration” program, will do nothing to address flooding and could even make it worse. The county should focus on the hundreds of miles of channelized bayous and streams unwisely covered in now-aging concrete that should be restored to something more natural and beneficial.
The project, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was first proposed in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association under then board chair, Kevin Shanley, landscape architect and principal with SWA Group, the firm responsible for the ugly, obtrusive bridges, collapsing sidewalks, poorly-functioning dog park and non-functioning faux Hill Country fountain and stream in Buffalo Bayou Park.
Summer on Buffalo Bayou
A Bend in the River in July
July 11, 2016
Here is the latest photo from Jim Olive of that lovely bend in Buffalo Bayou we have been documenting through the seasons since the summer of 2014. This most recent photo was taken by Jim at around 8 a.m. on Friday, July 8, 2016, from the same high bluff in Memorial Park looking downstream with the River Oaks Country Club on the opposite bank. The record high flows from the reservoirs behind Addicks and Barker dams in western Harris County had finally drained the last of the waters impounded from the record April 18 Tax Day rains, and the flow in the bayou had dropped to its base flow of around 100-200 cubic feet per second, as measured by the gauge at Piney Point.
To see all the photos of this same spot since 2014, go to A Bend in the River under Photos and Films.