Urban Riparian Symposium
The Challenges of Healthy Urban Streams
Jan. 14, 2017
There is still time to register for a February symposium in Houston on urban riparian areas — those special zones of trees and plants along stream banks so important for clean water, flood and erosion control, and wildlife.
The Texas Riparian Association has organized a three-day conference Feb. 15-17 largely directed at natural resource professionals but useful to anyone interested in the health of our urban bayous and creeks flowing into Galveston Bay.
Save Buffalo Bayou is a co-sponsor of the event, titled “Balancing the Challenges of Healthy Urban Streams,” to be held at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC), 6500 Main Street. The registration deadline is Feb. 8. To register or find out more info, click here.
Save Buffalo Bayou’s Tom Helm, geologist, naturalist, and river guide, will be presenting Friday morning, Feb. 17, on the topic “Searching for the Original Meanders of Buffalo Bayou.”
Helm and Save Buffalo Bayou will also be offering float trips on Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park and into Buffalo Bayou Park in the middle of Houston to symposium participants. The three-hour trips take place Friday afternoon from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday morning starting at 10 a.m. Cost is $50 per person. For more info or to reserve a place, contact Tom Helm.
Among other topics to be addressed: daylighting buried urban streams, the capacity of Houston’s urban forest to cleanse polluted stormwater, the economics of using natural drainage systems in development, how Austin protects riparian areas, incorporating the value of ecosystem services into regional policy decisions, managing large woody debris in urban streams, and more.
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.
A Siege of Herons and a Skewer of Egrets
Highrise Homes for Young Families, Easy Access to Fish
May 22, 2016
The normally silent, spreading crowns of the live oaks along North and South Boulevards in Houston have been turned into noisy rookeries these past few weeks as yellow-crowned night herons and great egrets moved in to build nests and start families. The same densely-populated housing developments have no doubt been built all over the city in shady trees with relatively close access to nearby bayous and creeks for food. In this case, the parents appear to be bringing home fish and other edibles from Brays Bayou.
The noisy bird activity (squawks and kraks and lots of fluttering) has also drawn out bird watchers and photographers, including Allison Zapata, who’s been posting her photos on her website and on Twitter. She took the following photo of a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron and sent it to us.
Houston is on the Central Flyway for migrating birds. Yellow-crowned night herons and great egrets reside in the Houston area year-round. But Allison, who’s been watching these birds, said they were are on their way to somewhere and would be back again in the fall.
Out on the Bayou with the Boy Scouts
Documenting Wildlife Tracks and Weird Nature Stuff
April 6, 2016
We went out with Paul Hung and his band of intrepid Boy Scouts last week to document wildlife tracks on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
We saw a lot of interesting things, including footprints of mysterious creatures behaving in puzzling ways, some strange yellow liquid, and flying seat cushions nesting in the trees.
This was the second outing for Paul and his teen-aged colleagues from Boy Scout Troop 55, Sam Houston Area Council. For his Eagle Scout Service Project, Paul proposed documenting the wildlife on the bayou as it flows along the southern edge of Memorial Park. Save Buffalo Bayou is the beneficiary, and we hope to publish Paul’s results as a pamphlet.
Fortunately the flow was very low, less than 200 cubic feet per second, which is about base flow in the bayou when it hasn’t been raining. The Army Corps of Engineers assured us in advance that the reservoirs in the dams upstream were empty, and barring any unforeseen weather event, the water would be low enough for us to see plenty of activity on the mud and sand of the banks. Which we did.
Paul was well organized. He handed out clipboards, small rulers, and post-it notes, and instructed his fellow scouts to use these with the GPS app on their cell phones to take photos and number and record the size of tracks. The group was divided into pairs in canoes. A few adults went along too, including Richard Hung, father of Paul, and Troop 55 Assistant Scoutmaster Janice Van Dyke Walden.
There were tracks everywhere. Creatures crawling, slithering, hopping and tiptoeing across the sand, burrowing, strolling, turning about and flying away; digging holes, chasing each other, stepping and sliding in and out of the water.
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.
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou: Banners, Signs Erected During Big Regatta Saturday, March 7
March 8, 2015
Defenders of Buffalo Bayou traipsed through clumps of wild chives and violets on the banks of the bayou Saturday, March 7, in order to hang colorful banners from bridges and trees and set out signs informing more than a thousand participants in the annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta about the grave threat to our wild bayou.
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou was a huge success as competitors paddling down the bayou waved and shouted “No bulldozers!” and “Leave it natural!” to members of the Buffalo Bayou defense team sitting on the banks in the project area.
Bayou defenders also handed out informational flyers at the end of the race in Sesquicentennial Park adjacent to the Wortham Center downtown and engaged participants and officials in conversation.
The regatta was organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a non-profit organization in charge of developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway downstream of the project area. The partnership officially supports the $6 million plan to bulldoze one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston.
Sand on the Sidewalks
BBP President Anne Olson wrote a letter of support for the destruction project to the Army Corps of Engineers in June 2014 saying that the plan would “significantly prevent” the bayou from “depositing silt on Buffalo Bayou’s downtown parks and trails.” She also claimed that the project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would demonstrate “a prototype that can be employed by bayou property owners who currently remedy their property erosion by all different types of inappropriate stabilization methods.”
In fact the amount of silt and sediment contributed by the historic nature area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District is minimal. But the project itself would likely greatly increase the sediment flowing downstream as a result of dredging the bayou, removing trees and plants, and breaking up the soil structure of the banks.
Update on the Plan to Bulldoze the Riparian Zone, Dredge, and Channelize Wild Buffalo Bayou
Feb. 8, 2015
The Army Corps of Engineers reports that it is continuing to supply the Harris County Flood Control District with their comments on the Flood Control District’s responses to the public comments on the district’s application for a federal permit.
Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Galveston District office of the Corps, wrote in an email to Save Buffalo Bayou on Jan. 20, 2015, that the Corps expects to have a response and a possible new Public Notice about the permit application within thirty to sixty days. The new Public Notice would request new public comments only on the changes to the project plans made since the original Public Notice last April, said Johnson.
A federal Clean Water Act permit is required for the project because it will dredge and fill navigable waters of the United States. The Corps is responsible for that. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must certify that the Corps’ permit meets Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. The Environmental Protection Agency also has the authority under the Clean Water Act to overrule a federal permit, although the EPA has rarely done that.
In addition, the Houston City Council, as the governing body for Memorial Park, must give public notice, hold a hearing, and vote on whether the project is a proper use or taking of public parkland under Ch. 26 of the state Parks and Wildlife Code.
Memorial Park has some protection from the deeds establishing the park. The Hogg Family, which sold the parkland to the city at cost in the early 1920s, set up the multiple deeds so that ownership of the park reverts to their heirs if the land is used for other than park purposes. These reversionary rights have been left to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
Plus, the City of Houston Floodplain Management Office must issue a development permit for the project because it involves construction activity within a city floodplain.
A Poem for Buffalo Bayou from Larry D. Thomas, 2008 Texas Poet Laureate
Jan. 6, 2015
Great trees grow
along its banks,
meshing their branches
high above it,
the bright intrusion
of sun, moon, and star.
Great blue herons
ripple its shallows,
spearing frogs and minnows.
Within its murky
depths, the big gars flourish,
unscathed by toxins
and the bloated corpses
of poisoned fish,
working their gills,
fins, and tails,
snaking their passage,
oblivious of time
and its irksome,
Larry D. Thomas lived in Houston from 1967 until 2011, when he and his wife moved to Alpine, Texas. An award-winning poet and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, he has published twenty-five collections of poetry. A major new collection, As If Light Actually Matters: New & Selected Poems, will be published in Spring 2015 by Texas Review Press, a member of the Texas A&M University Press Consortium. It is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.
“Buffalo Bayou” was first published in Literary Houston in 2010, a collection of historical and contemporary writing about Houston edited by David Theis and published by Texas Christian University Press, Fort Worth, Texas.