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.
Reminder: The Threat is Still Alive
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou II
March 14, 2016
Okay, so we harshed the mood a little with our small, silent reminders that regatta contestants were paddling through a historic natural area still threatened with destruction.
“Thanks for polluting my day,” yelled one paddler in the crowd of hundreds of Buffalo Bayou boaters playing loud music and stopping to pee in the woods. We were watching from the sandy bank of the lovely middle meander, forested with young willows and box elder that would all be cut down, the meander filled, graded, and planted with grass.
The event was the 44th Annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta on Saturday, March 12. And once again we hung our beautiful Save Buffalo Bayou banner (Night Heron by Houston artist Frank X. Tolbert 2) from the railroad bridge and set out small white signs alerting participants to the fact that the wild stretch they were passing through would all be bulldozed under a plan proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA).
The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do. (See Buffalo Bayou Park and Fonteno Park.) It would raze most of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the 18,000-year-old bayou as it passes by Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. These trees and vegetation and even the sand are part of the riparian zone, essentially wetlands, that hold the banks together, cleanse and filter the water, slow and absorb storm runoff, provide wildlife habitat, among many other important ecological functions. The $6 million “natural channel design” project, financed with $4 million in county and city taxpayer funds, would dredge and reroute the bayou and plug tributaries, obliterate ancient cliffs, destroy 250,000-year-old sandstone formations, and fill in our lovely meander (a natural detention area). Killing the bayou’s ecosystem in the name of “restoration.” And landscape design.
And no, contrary to rumors, the project, although holding its breath, is not dead. The Army Corps of Engineers is still deciding whether to issue a permit for the project, which is otherwise a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The Bayou Preservation Association first formulated the plan for the project in private meetings in 2010 and former BPA president Kevin Shanley, then a principal with the landscape architecture firm SWA Group, was the primary promoter. SWA Group is the design firm that is also responsible for the landscape design of Buffalo Bayou Park downstream east of Shepherd.
So this is why we had signs up warning of landscapers lurking. In Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, we set out a few signs pointing out that landscaping has washed away (several times actually) and that removal of vegetation has caused erosion problems, and that repairs were $$$$ (paid with City funds). Yes, we were bad! Those signs did not last long, however.
Upstream around Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary our signs pointed out where beavers live, where banks were being naturally rebuilt by the bayou, and the Pleistocene bluffs that would be graded into a slope. Interestingly, the bayou, during and after the Memorial Day flood in 2015, has already graded the lower banks of those steep bluffs into a slope.
The River Oaks Country Club is theoretically a one-third partner in the demonstration project and owns the entire south half of the project reach. But in the meantime the club in two places has armored its banks with ugly concrete riprap, one of the most environmentally destructive methods of erosion control (pdf), and also, we allege, in this case illegal, as we contend that much of the riprap was placed in public waters, also a violation of the Clean Water Act.
The club, unfortunately, is having erosion problems on its high banks in those places because it cut down a lot of trees and extended the mowed and watered grass of its golf course up to the edge of the banks.
We put out signs pointing out that riprap damages the ecosystem and is part of the problem, not the solution.
But we’re glad people had fun, enjoyed the bayou, and picked up some of trash.
Maybe they’ll think about the future of the bayou.
And special thanks to river guide Tom Helm and to Richard Hyde for extra long duty putting out and picking up our banner and picking up our signs.
A Beaver Has Died
Boy Scouts Documenting Wildlife on Buffalo Bayou Make Unexpected Find
February 2, 2016
A group of Boy Scouts researching wildlife on Buffalo Bayou came across a sad scene on a sandy bank opposite the Arboretum last Saturday, Jan. 30.
Paul Hung is a fifteen-year-old Boy Scout from Bellaire who is working with Save Buffalo Bayou on a project to inventory the wildlife on the 18,000-year-old bayou as it flows past the Arboretum, Memorial Park, and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The project is Paul’s Eagle Scout Service project, and he had organized a group of six Boy Scouts with Troop 55, Sam Houston Area Council, to float down the bayou looking for and photographing wildlife tracks on the sandy banks. Paul had carefully organized his float trip, checking first to see that the water level was low enough to see the banks, and accompanied by several adults, the group put in at the recently re-opened boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway west of Loop 610, a wooded area known as the Old Archery Range.
The group floated round a bend and another, passing under the West Loop 610 bridge, working in pairs in canoes to identify and photograph tracks and record their locations. But on a sandy south bank below a high-rise parking lot, the group encountered something surprising: the corpse of what appeared to be an otherwise healthy beaver.
According to witnesses, the deceased beaver showed no signs of trauma and there were no tracks surrounding the beaver’s final resting place in the sand, which was near an area of willows known for beaver activity.
Otherwise, he and his fellow scouts had a “great trip,” reports Paul. They saw an “amazing” amount of wildlife.
“I was surprised by how many animal tracks we found on the Bayou,” he writes in an email. “My partner and I alone found over 30 tracks. We saw Great Blue Heron, Coyote, Turtle, Raccoon, Beaver, and Great White Egret evidence.
“This gives us a better appreciation of the Bayou, because it is right in the middle of Houston. This is the first of many expeditions on the Bayou. It will take 6 to 8 months to complete [the wildlife inventory], and I hope this will be helpful for Bayou education.”
Save Buffalo Bayou and Paul plan to publish the results of his Eagle Scout Service project as a pamphlet in order to educate the public about the abundance of wildlife living on Buffalo Bayou.
Update on Puzzling Project to Bulldoze Wild Buffalo Bayou
Damaging, Expensive, Contradictory Plan Still Threatens
Conflicts Still Apparent, Purpose Still Unclear
No Permit Yet
October 8, 2015
The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to largely critical public comments to the Army Corps of Engineers about Flood Control’s misguided project to destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, a most remarkable asset to have in the middle of a city. The Corps is reviewing the Flood Control District’s responses, says Jayson Hudson, who has been the Corps’ Galveston District project manager for the permit application.
Flood Control must apply for a permit from the Corps of Engineers because the Clean Water Act requires the Corps to ensure that projects on federal waters do not damage the health of our waters. Federal waters are defined as navigable streams (Buffalo Bayou) up to the Ordinary High Water Mark, their tributaries and adjacent wetlands, all of which form the great living veins and arteries of our limited water supply. Some studies argue that all riparian areas , the highly biologically diverse natural gardens and forests along stream banks so vital for clean water, should be considered protected wetlands .
Once-a-Boat-Launch at Woodway to Re-Open by Mid-December
Meanwhile Buffalo Bayou Busy Replanting, Beautifying
Sept. 5, 2015
A contractor has been found at last to take down the heavy-duty chain-link construction fencing, put up some railing, spread some gravel and sod, and restore the informational sign in that western part of Memorial Park that was once a popular boat launch and is now referred to by public officials as a drainage outfall.
Closed to the public for more than two years, including more than a year after the $1.36 million taxpayer-funded solar-irrigated “erosion control” project was completed, the ugly, massively enlarged outfall draining Post Oak Road is still officially a Texas Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail boat launch. Previously it was also a forested area with a nature trail.
But officials with the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) 16 now seem genuinely eager to do “what we can to get it open to the public,” said John Breeding, administrator, at the Uptown board meeting in a Galleria high-rise last Wednesday, Aug. 26.
The board voted without discussion to award a contract for $219,272.10 to Jerdon Enterprise, LP, which was the sole bidder for the long-delayed project. With “add-ons” the cost could go to $335,615.10. That seems like a lot of public money for taking down some chain-link fencing, putting up some standard railing, laying down some loose gravel, etc. But apparently no one else wanted to do it.
Work on the Outfall Phase II is now scheduled to begin this month and be completed by December 15, 2015.
And if you’re confused about why a TIRZ and not the parks department or the city council would be making these decisions, well, it is confusing. But the TIRZ has control of the money.
Who’s Cutting the Black Willows on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park?
Dec. 21, 2014
We’ll Get to the Bottom of This Meander Mystery
Updated Dec. 24, 2014. Mystery solved! See below.
Revisiting a beautiful meander last week in Memorial Park we came across something strange. This is what we call the middle meander in the area of the Harris County Flood Control District’s project to bulldoze the riparian vegetation, dredge and channelize one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in the middle of Houston. You can see photos taken earlier in October of this lovely spot.
This is a flat, marshy area of the north bank, filled with wildlife, mullet jumping and landing on their backs, where the bayou has gradually shifted to the east and has been naturally revegetating the sandy banks with native smartweed, ground cherry, boxelder, black willow, and sycamores.
Here is what it looked like last week.
This area will be totally obliterated by the flood control district’s “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The bayou here will be filled in, the magnificent, very old cliffs defaced and leveled, and the bayou rerouted further to the south. Why? Because that’s what the flood control district imagines the bayou will do 200-300 years from now. So we taxpayers are paying $4 million to do all the damage now that the bayou might possibly do in several centuries.
The odd thing was that someone has been cutting down the native black willow saplings that are growing up on the sandy bench in this area, creating a new riparian forest so necessary for controlling erosion, stabilizing the banks, cleansing the water, and providing wildlife habitat. Who would do that and why?
Answer: It’s beavers.
Here’s the evidence.