How Old Is Buffalo Bayou? Where Does It Come From?

Geology Lessons on the Bayou

March 27, 2016

Want to learn about the geology and natural history of Buffalo Bayou?

Save Buffalo Bayou is partnering with professional geologist Tom Helm, who also happens to be an outstanding naturalist and river guide, to offer floating classes on the geology of our 18,000-year-old mother bayou.

Paddle with Tom on a two-hour canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou and see some of our Pleistocene natural history right here in the middle of Houston. Learn all about the formation of the bluffs and sandstone rocks during the last ice age. See examples of depositional environments and fluvial processes. Find out why the banks are sandy and how sand moves downstream, why the river looks the way it does, and much more.

Geologist Tom Helm explaining 500,000-year-old sandstone on Buffalo Bayou.

Geologist Tom Helm explaining 500,000-year-old sandstone on Buffalo Bayou. Photo taken March 18, 2016

Where, When, Cost

The classes start at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park and float past the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, through the historic natural area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District. Multiple stops will be made along the way to examine features of interest.

The schedule depends on class size. One to four persons can be scheduled any day of the week, usually with no more than 48 hours’ notice. Groups larger than four persons (up to 30 persons maximum) are accepted only on weekends. These larger weekend groups need to schedule at least one month in advance.

Cost is $50 per person, which includes canoe and equipment, and light refreshments at the end. Discounts are available for academic faculty and students.

Note that the classes will be not take place if the flow of Buffalo Bayou is greater than 300 cubic feet per second (as measured by the Piney Point USGS gauge). At water levels above this, the sandstones are mostly obscured. If a trip is cancelled due to high water, students have the option of rescheduling or receiving a full refund.

For more information, contact Tom Helm.

Some Things We Learned Already: Why Mud Stinks

We floated with Tom recently for a preview of the geology class. Among the things we learned is why some of the mud stinks. The mud and the sand are filled with layers of organic matter, leaves mostly, and as the organic matter decomposes, it smells like … decomposing stuff. But it also builds soil for future vegetation. This process produces the mysterious oily sheen that you see floating on top of the mud sometimes.

We also learned to tell mud from sand from silt. (Hint: it’s a matter of the size of the grains.) Tom showed us how geologists rub the mud between their thumb and fingers to feel the size of the grains.

We studied the patterns in the sand, watched the grains of sand moving in the water, and learned about eddies and sediment deposition and transport. We saw a lot of animal tracks.

We learned to put the constantly changing bayou in the context of its natural process.

In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
Rachel Carson

Update on Our Campaign to Save the Last Natural Stretch of Buffalo Bayou in Houston

Oct. 5, 2014

Where are we now and what should you do?

The Harris County Flood Control District has applied for a permit to bulldoze most of the riparian forest and vegetation along both banks of more a mile of the last remaining stretch of natural Buffalo Bayou in the city. This is our bayou as it passes by Memorial Park. Also targeted are the tributary and high bluffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, as well as other ancient cliffs and prehistoric sandstone used in the past as water crossings by buffalo and people. The project would excavate, fill, grade, and artificially rebuild the banks; dredge, deepen, and reroute the bayou channel, damming tributaries. Hundreds of trees will be cut down, many of them riparian species too small or too young to be counted by the district’s inappropriate tree survey. The shading tree canopy will be removed (project proponents claim there is no tree canopy!); the water temperature increased. The soil, packed with protective, binding roots small and large, will be dug up, tossed around, and compacted by heavy equipment. Wetlands and lovely sandy beaches will be obliterated along with the colonizing and stabilizing plants that have taken root there, a crucial stage of the natural process of building the riparian buffer so important to water quality, flood and erosion control.

All of this and more violates best management practices for riparian zones. It will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. And this is a project developed and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association, supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy.

Timelines Are Difficult to Predict — Updated Oct. 30, 2014

The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to the public comments sent to the Army Corps of Engineers during the public comment period, which ended June 30. The district has posted its responses on its website, and you can read them here. (Caution: big pdf.)

Read the rest.

The River Oaks Country Club has killed the grass on its golf course, along with vegetation on the high banks, in preparation for redoing the golf course. Photo on Sept. 20, 2014, by Jim Olive.

The River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south bank of the bayou project, has killed the grass on its golf course, along with some vegetation on the high banks, in preparation for redoing the golf course. Photo on Sept. 20, 2014, by Jim Olive.