Memorial Park, the Master Plan, and Our Wild Buffalo Bayou
Sept. 15, 2014
Proposals for a new master plan for Memorial Park will be presented at a public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin Street. Anyone concerned about the future of our great Memorial Park and Buffalo Bayou as it flows past the park will want to attend this meeting, one of four “update” meetings scheduled about the plan over the next several months.
The prominent national landscape architecture firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz is leading development of the plan. Thomas Woltz, principal of the firm, and his team will share results of their research and analysis, as well as initial design concepts at the Wednesday meeting co-hosted by Houston City Council Members Dwight Boykins and Robert Gallegos.
Do Nothing to Our Wild Bayou is the Best Policy
The last master plan for Memorial Park in 2004 recommended that nothing be done to disturb the natural environment of Buffalo Bayou. After extensive analysis by a team of fluvial geomorphologists and hydraulic engineers, the plan wisely concluded 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.”
It is not yet known, to us at least, what recommendations the new master plan will make about our treasured last stretch of wild bayou in Houston. However, contradicting the clear conclusions of the 2004 master plan, the Memorial Park Conservancy officially and actively supports the Bayou Preservation Association‘s bizarre project to bulldoze the bayou’s riparian forest, level and grade the banks and cliffs, dredge, channelize, and reroute the bayou. This would forever destroy a valuable and historic natural resource in our great public park, an amazing oasis of riverine wilderness in the middle of the city.
Talking to Parks and Wildlife Commissioners and Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle
Aug. 26, 2014
What We’ve Been Doing Lately in Defense of Buffalo Bayou
Last week several of us went to the annual public meeting of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission held in Houston this year at the Museum of Natural Science. We wanted to urge the commissioners to protect our wild Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park and the wildlife that lives in the bayou and its riparian forest.
We found the commissioners who were present attentive, sympathetic, and even encouraging. These included the Honorable Reed Morian of Houston and the Honorable Dick Scott of Wimberley.
Two days later we visited with Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle during a canoe trip on beautiful Spring Creek in northwest Harris County sponsored by the Bayou Land Conservancy. Commissioner Cagle, a very likable, nature-loving fellow, represents Memorial Park, the River Oaks Country Club, both in the bulldozing project area, as well as points north and west.
The Bad Things That Happen When You Strip Forest from the Banks of Bayous
Aug. 2, 2014
We Have Forgotten The Wisdom of Our Predecessors
The early settlers knew better than to cut down the trees and vegetation from the banks of Buffalo Bayou and other streams.
Even where they set up sawmills along the bayou in the 1820s and ’30s, the mill owners had the common sense to leave the trees standing along the riverbank to protect the land from erosion, says Janet Wagner, chair of the Harris County Historical Commission.
Before that, says Wagner, the indigenous people who lived and camped along the bayou left the riparian forest intact, understanding its importance for holding the banks in place, cleansing and cooling the waters, slowing storm waters, providing fish and wildlife habitat, and much more.
The Harris County Flood Control District, in a wrongheaded plan promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association and supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy and the City of Houston, is proposing to strip most of the riparian forest buffer from some of the last wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the controversial $6 million project is demonstrating to landowners up and down the bayou and elsewhere exactly what they should not do to protect their property. Preservation of riparian zones along waterways is both federal and state policy, but apparently the city and the county have not yet understood that message.
Recently the flood control district announced another misguided “restoration” project to strip trees and vegetation from the banks of a tributary of Greens Bayou.
The costly experience of the Houston Country Club ought to be instructive. The club not too long ago bulldozed a significant amount of trees and vegetation from the banks of Buffalo Bayou as it passes by the club golf course in Tanglewood. This was a project designed by the engineering firm AECOM, which also designed the failing “erosion control” project in the former Archery Range in Memorial Park at Woodway. A representative of AECOM sits on the board of the Bayou Preservation Association.
Watch this slide show of the disastrous results of razing riparian forest at the Houston Country Club. The photographs were taken on June 27, 2014, and annotated by geophysicist Richard Hyde, a longtime supporter of Buffalo Bayou.
Here is another shocking slide show of photographs taken almost three months earlier on April 2, 2014, of the same, formerly forested area of the Houston Country Club. (See comparison aerial photos below.) The photos were provided by Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Houston Regional Group of the Sierra Club. Note in the photos shown above how much more damage had been done three months later.
The flood control district proposes to bulldoze, dredge, and trample with heavy equipment nearly 1.5 miles of Buffalo Bayou and its banks as it flows between Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the River Oaks Country Club on the south. The taxpayers of Houston and Harris County are paying $4 million and the country club $2 million for this project.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering whether to issue a permit for the project to the flood control district.
Reminder: Meeting With City Council Members Representing Buffalo Bayou
July 29, 2014
Public Meeting with Council Members Pennington and Cohen
It’s about Shepherd Drive, but go and ask why they support the project to destroy Buffalo Bayou.
Don’t forget the public meeting tonight (Wednesday, July 30, 2014) with City Council Members Oliver Pennington (District G) and Ellen Cohen (District C), who represent the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou to be bulldozed by the misguided project known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Even the natives and the early settlers (including mill owners) knew better than to cut down the riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou, recognizing its importance for naturally controlling erosion of the banks, slowing storm waters, filtering pollution and bacteria, trapping sediment, and providing wildlife habitat.
Cohen represents Memorial Park, which belongs to all of us. And Pennington, who is running for mayor, represents the south bank of the project, owned by the River Oaks Country Club, stewards of the riparian forest for which it is named since 1923. Pennington also represents that little-known section of Memorial Park just west of 610, now known as the Bayou Woodlands, formerly the Archery Range. There, just off Woodway, a failing “erosion control” project is spewing mud and silt into the bayou. Previously this was a lovely forested ravine with a nature trail. The TIRZ 16, encompassing the Galleria area, now including Memorial Park, and a special kind of improvement district that gets to keep and spend tax money that would have gone into the city treasury, spent $1,147,934 on this particular drainage boondoggle designed by engineering firm AECOM, which also designed the failing “erosion control” project on the banks of the Houston Country Club.
So go and ask these city council members why they support the destruction of some of the last best, healthiest and most beautiful bayou we have in the city. The project would destroy nearly 1.5 miles of the bayou, including most of the forest on both banks, dredging up and rechanneling our lovely, shady stream, obliterating creeks and prehistoric bluffs too old even to contemplate, killing and driving away wildlife, trampling and removing habitat, and so much more that is wrong. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit for the project.
The meeting, held in conjunction with the city Public Works and Engineering Department, is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church (St. Basil’s Hall), 2140 Westheimer Road. The purpose is to review a paving and drainage project, set to begin in a few weeks, on Shepherd Drive from Westheimer to Buffalo Bayou. So it’s not exactly about the bayou project. But there will be a question and answer period.
Seeing What Will be Destroyed: Our Article in the Houston Chronicle
July 26, 2014
The Bayou Banks We Could Lose
Once again, a flood-control project threatens Buffalo Bayou
By Susan Chadwick for the Houston Chronicle
July 25, 2014 | Updated: July 25, 2014 3:21pm
We have pulled the canoe up to a clean, white sandy beach on Buffalo Bayou in the middle of the city. It’s still early morning, and all along our slow paddle from the bridge at Woodway great white egrets and a great blue heron fly ahead of us, leading us to our destination: the prehistoric cliffs and forested banks that could soon be obliterated by the Harris County Flood Control District.
It’s a bizarre project, all the more incomprehensible in that the project is primarily promoted by the influential Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), founded in the 1960s to prevent the flood-control district from bulldozing the natural beauty of Buffalo Bayou.
Read the rest of the article in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle. Note: This article also appeared in the print edition of the Chronicle on Sunday, August 3, 2014, Page G4.
Tell the Bayou Preservation Association What You Think About Its Plan to Destroy Buffalo Bayou
July 21, 2014
BPA Board Meeting Tuesday, July 22, at Noon
The Bayou Preservation Association, which is promoting the project to bulldoze Buffalo Bayou, is having a board meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, July 22, at noon. The meeting is open to the public, so go and let the BPA know what you think about its plan to raze nearly 1.5 miles of perfectly healthy riparian forest along both banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around our public Memorial Park. The meeting is in the AECOM Building, 5444 Westheimer, third floor. (Update: The BPA is a private, non-profit organization, and its meetings do not have to be open to the public.)
Do be aware that not everyone on the BPA board nor every member of the BPA supports this ugly boondoggle, which would channelize one of the last remaining stretches of natural bayou left in the city, change the course of the bayou, excavate and fill in the banks, and obliterate magnificent cliffs, lovely creeks, and tributaries. It would replace the shady, wild banks with sun-baked Bermuda grass. Wildlife habitat would be eliminated.
Note that the meeting is in the AECOM Building. AECOM, you may recall, was the engineering contractor for the failing “erosion control” project in Memorial Park at Woodway as well as for the disastrous Houston Country Club erosion control project. (Story about that coming up.)
A representative of AECOM is on the board of the BPA as well as a representative of KBR, the engineering contractor for the Buffalo Bayou project and a major donor to the BPA (along with the Harris County Flood Control District). Also on the BPA board are two property owners (Mike Garver and Terri Thomas) out of the half dozen or so private property owners whose property is to be “restored” by the $4 million taxpayer-funded portion of the $6 million HCFCD project. A major BPA donor (Michael Dishberger) is also a property owner benefiting from the public project.
BPA President Robert Rayburn works as development and natural resource director at the Energy Corridor District, which means promoting development of the Katy Prairie, which means more runoff and storm waters going into the dams and into Buffalo Bayou. The Energy Corridor District has written a letter of support for the project, citing “the importance of biotechnical drainage way stabilization and riparian restoration” [sic] and “the important role that stable, sustainable drainage corridors provide to surrounding properties …”
A Misguided Project and Waste of Public Funds
July 19, 2014
Often the best project is to let the river fix itself. — Mathias Kondolf, “Meander Bends, Landscape Preferences, and River Restoration.” p. 51
Mathias Kondolf is one of the world’s leading river scientists. He recently wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers recommending that the corps deny Harris County a permit to bulldoze the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park.
The $6 million project would remove most of the riparian buffer from nearly 1.5 miles of some of the last remaining stretch of natural bayou in our city, demonstrating to landowners up and down the bayou and elsewhere the exact wrong thing to do. By far the most beautiful and healthiest stretch of the bayou, as it flows past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary this shady, slow-moving wild bayou belongs to all of us. And amazingly, it is right here in the middle of our big city.
The project, promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association and officially a project of the Harris County Flood Control District, has no scientific or any other justification, says Kondolf. He points out that even the HCFCD says in its permit application that the stream is “recovering” (from something) and questions the county’s odd claim that razing the trees and vegetation, excavating and filling in the banks, and realigning the channel would “decrease the time needed for natural recovery.”
Kondolf points out that the existing riparian habitat is of “high quality,” that the erosion rate of the banks in the target area as estimated by the county is “not really problematic,” and notes that the construction project itself would likely dump three times more sediment into the waterway than this area does in a year.
Another Failed Erosion Control Project on Buffalo Bayou
July 15, 2014
Kayaked down Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park the other day with geophysicist Richard Hyde, a longtime supporter of Buffalo Bayou, an early member of the Bayou Preservation Association, and an opponent of the BPA’s very bad plan to destroy the natural beauty of Buffalo Bayou in order to … well, no one can quite figure out the purpose of this bizarre and heart-breaking project that would raze over a mile of perfectly fine riparian forest along both banks in and around our great Memorial Park. The proposal, created and promoted by the BPA and officially a project of the Harris County Flood Control District, would also dig up and fill in the bayou, its banks and high bluffs, dam up or bulldoze tributaries, causing enormous loss of land and forest to the River Oaks Country Club, which is paying $2 million for the privilege. It is a mystery why anyone thinks this is a good idea; a mystery how a project with no public benefit and so much public harm ever got funded ($4 million from county and city taxpayers); and a mystery why the BPA, an organization founded to “preserve the natural beauty” of the bayou, would be so hell-bent on eradicating it.
The water was very low — known as base flow, the bayou’s natural flow during fair weather, which is very slow and shallow. Except it wasn’t really base flow because a thunderstorm had just passed over, so even as we were slip-sliding in under the Woodway bridge the water was rising and the current picking up from runoff.
Our first shocking encounter was the new Woodway drainage outfall, recently constructed at a cost of $1,147,934 to Houston taxpayers (i.e. taxes that went to the Galleria area TIRZ 16 rather than into the city treasury). Laughably, this project, no longer under construction but still closed to the public, is described as an “erosion control” project in the TIRZ 16-Uptown 2013-2017 Capital Improvement Plan. “This drainage outflow project is to mitigate erosion in banks of Buffalo Bayou at Woodway,” says the budget description.
Please note the horrific erosion from the dissolving banks of this new massive outfall, the sand and mud clogging the channel, the concrete sidewalk and steps. There were trees here once, and a nature trail. Update 8.4.2014: In 1848, the rock-bottomed ford here was known as “Dutchman’s Crossing.”
The budget shows no funds allocated for operating and maintenance.
The big, new drainage pipe was also supposed to be set at an angle that allowed the often powerful flow of water to be released in the direction of the flow of the bayou, instead of shooting directly at the opposite bank. But apparently someone forgot to tell that to AECOM, the engineers who designed the project (as well as the tragically unsuccessful “erosion control” project at the Houston Country Club, which razed much of the riparian forest buffer on the banks of Buffalo Bayou along its golf course). AECOM designed the Woodway outfall so that the water blasts directly at the opposite bank, which is already being eaten away by the force.
Mr. Hyde just shook his head.
This “erosion control” project is in City Council Member Oliver Pennington’s district and Mr. Pennington is running for mayor, as he tells everyone he meets, so be sure to let him know what you think about Mr. Pennington’s “erosion control.” He’s holding a public meeting on Wednesday, July 30, 2014, from 6:00 to 7:30 pm at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, St. Basil’s Hall, 2140 Westheimer (at the corner of Shepherd). The meeting is to discuss “storm drainage improvements” on Shepherd from Westheimer to Buffalo Bayou. The project is scheduled to begin in a few weeks and will last over a year, so it’s very kind of Mr. Pennington to offer a public meeting about it.
Mr. Pennington supports the “erosion control” project that requires razing the wild banks and destroying our natural bayou in and around Memorial Park. So let him know what you think about that too. Might be time to bring out the pitchforks pickets and banners.
To be continued.
A Moving Comment from Preservation Texas
July 6, 2014
The period is now closed for public comment to the Army Corps of Engineers on the application from the Harris County Flood Control District to bulldoze the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park. The fight for the life of our beautiful southern bayou grows stronger. We must continue to raise awareness about this little known project, educate our friends and neighbors about the senseless destruction that is planned, and try to change the minds of our politicians and civic leaders. See What To Do Now.
The Army Corps received numerous comments opposing the project from experts in the field and ordinary citizens who cherish access to this unique treasure in the middle of our city. Among other things, the project violates state (pdf) and federal policy (pdf) protecting riparian buffer on our waterways.
Here is a particularly eloquent comment sent to the ACE from Preservation Texas:
June 30, 2014
Mr. Dwayne Johnson
Regulatory Branch, CESWG-PE-RB
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
P.O. Box 1229
Galveston, Texas 77553-1229
Re: SWG-2012-01007 (Memorial Park Demonstration Project)
Dear Mr. Johnson:
We write this letter to urge denial of the permit application referenced above.
Preservation Texas included the site of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project on our 2014 Texas’ Most Endangered Places list. The scope of the project far exceeds the limited erosion problem this particular stretch of Buffalo Bayou faces. The project should be narrowed to address only portions of the Bayou that are actively eroding and in a manner that does not destroy significant vegetation, rock outcroppings, potential archaeological sites and otherwise alters the slowly, naturally evolving course of the historic waterway by cutting and filling.
A recent 14-mile paddle down the Bayou reveals that most of the erosion in the project area has been caused by the removal of trees. Coupled with increased water volumes caused by overdevelopment of areas in the Bayou’s watershed, it becomes clear that the challenges of the Bayou extend beyond the waterway itself. A radical grading and replanting project does not address root causes.
Deadline Monday, June 30, for Comments Opposing the Bulldozing of Our Beautiful, Wild Buffalo Bayou
June 29, 2014
The deadline is Monday, June 30, for the Army Corps of Engineers to receive your comments opposing a permit for Harris County to destroy nearly 1.5 miles of our wild Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park, including the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The fight for the life of our proud, southern bayou will continue, and we will prevail with your help.
However, you must let the ACE as well as all our political representatives know that you oppose this bizarre, wasteful $6 million project. Here’s how to do that. In addition you can sign the MoveOn.org petition that will be sent to the proper authorities on Monday.
The pointless, destructive project that we oppose is being dishonestly promoted as a “restoration project aimed at reducing erosion and sedimentation and improving water quality, while providing for improved aquatic resource functions,” according to the permit application from the Harris County Flood Control District. (See page 13 of the permit application. Warning: big pdf file.)
Their project will do none of those things, and the plain proof is in their own permit application.
Our Buffalo Bayou Is Not in Need of Restoration
1. The first thing to know is that the bayou here is not in need of restoration. Buffalo Bayou as it flows between Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the River Oaks Country Club on the south is some of our last natural bayou and riparian wilderness remaining to the people of Houston.
This, our most beautiful reach of the bayou, long preserved as part of our public park, is in better condition than any altered stretch of the bayou, and to know why it’s important to understand what a riparian forest buffer is. A riparian forest already does everything that they claim to be the purpose of this boondoggle: it controls erosion and sedimentation, improves water quality, filters pollution, slows storm waters, etc. Every single academic and professional paper you can find emphasizes the importance of protecting riparian buffer. No true river scientist advocates bulldozing riparian buffer.
- The condition of most of the riparian buffer on the banks of our Memorial Park is rated as near-perfect, a score of 4.5 out of 5, according to the county’s own permit application. See page 450 in the permit application.
- A magnificent, very old high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, and the lovely tributary it overlooks, have perfect riparian buffer. (Pages 533 and 557).
- Even much of the south bank owned by the country club has near perfect riparian buffer.
- Overall the riparian forest in the entire project area has a near-perfect average score of 4.5, and there will be no significant improvement from this costly project. “The overall Riparian Buffer Variable is anticipated to stay at high sub-optimal (Score 4.5) level.” (Page 452.)
- The average score of our natural riparian forest in this area is significantly reduced by the eroding lawns of a few large, private homes on the north bank and the inclusion of edges of the manicured golf course on the south bank.
The riparian forest of our public park is functioning as it should. Why should we sacrifice our beautiful, naturally functioning bayou because private homeowners stripped the riparian buffer on their property to create lawns? Why should we taxpayers pay millions to restore private property while destroying our own public property?
When They Say Restoration, They Mean Destruction
2. What do they mean by “restoration?”
Since our bayou forest is fine, in order to “restore” it, they first have to destroy it.
They will do this by bringing heavy equipment into our park and cutting access roads to the bayou through the forest. (See Map 1.) They will use the bulldozers and backhoes to strip the trees and vegetation from eighty percent of the project area (not thirty percent as claimed by the Bayou Preservation Association), regardless of its condition and including in the scenic Hogg tributary. (See Map 2.) They will scrape up the riparian sand and soil in the banks, the ancient sandstone and red clay (our geologic history) and archeological remains, and cart it away somewhere. They will dig out and cut new channels in the bayou, lay down logs and other stuff, fill in parts of the bayou, which includes more than two dozen wetlands, deface and cover up the thousands-year-old high bluffs, bring the soil and sand back, grade the banks and create new slopes, cover the new banks with fiber mats and Bermuda grass, and plant some lilies and trees.
Why Do They Need to Bulldoze the Forest In Order to Restore It?
3. Why don’t they just plant trees and shrubs, etc. on the few bank areas where the riparian buffer is poor? Much cheaper and less complicated. The Bayou Preservation Association, which bizarrely supports this destructive project, in a four-page position paper dated June 23, 2014, says that “the pattern of storm water releases … from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs makes the re-vegetation approach untenable.”
But doesn’t this also apply to their purported plans to re-vegetate the 80 percent of the project length that they plan to strip and recreate? Or do they plan to leave their newly “restored” banks essentially bare and shadeless?
Erosion and Sedimentation Will Not Be Reduced, and Water Quality Will Not Be Improved.
4. The HCFCD permit application claims that this small natural riparian area contributes “approximately 359 tons per year of soil erosion.” (Page 447.) That sounds like a lot, but our analysts have put that into perspective. If you spread out that entire year’s worth of soil erosion on a football field between the twenty and forty yard lines, the sediment would be only nine inches high.
The vast majority of the sediment comes from further upstream. (See page 446.) Buffalo Bayou is twenty-six miles long from the Addicks and Barker dams in Katy to the Sabine Street bridge downtown. This short but significant project area in and around our Memorial Park is our best natural, functioning bayou. It contributes only an infinitesimal amount of sediment to the waterway. There is no evidence anywhere in the application permit, no scientific studies, no explanation of how or why excavating and filling in and rechanneling the bayou reduces erosion better than the natural system already in place.
Furthermore, removal of sediment from the water has no impact on the amount of bacteria in the water. This is according to the expert analysis of Dr. George Guillen, executive director of the Environmental Institute of Houston and an associate professor of biology and environmental science at UH-Clear Lake.
But don’t listen to us. Read the HCFCD’s application permit. Page 452: Water quality will not be improved.
This Project to Destroy Our Beautiful Buffalo is Nothing Other than the Same Old Flood Control Project to Make Buffalo Bayou a Bigger Drainage Ditch.
“The project purpose is … improvements to the dimension, pattern, and profile allowing the stream to convey storm water and sediment loads more efficiently.” Page 2 of the permit application.
This stealth flood control project is a joint venture between Harris County, the City of Houston, and the River Oaks Country Club. Each entity is contributing $2 million to the $6 million cost of the “demonstration” project, and the Houston city council voted last June to approve and fund it. This zombie channelization plan, a “holistic” variant of proposals long opposed by the Bayou Preservation Association, was largely conceived by the board of the BPA, who must be in need of work, do-nothing preservation being too passive and non-remunerative to somebody, and is actively promoted by the BPA and the Memorial Park Conservancy despite the huge of loss of trees and wildlife habitat, and damage to the bayou and our great public park.