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.
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.
Update on the Beaver
We Tried to Find Out
Feb. 13, 2016
Many people were concerned about the mysterious death of the beaver on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou opposite the Arboretum.
The beaver’s corpse was discovered Saturday, Jan. 30, by a group of Boy Scouts documenting wildlife on the bayou as it passes by Memorial Park, an area threatened by a project proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would destroy much of the wildlife habitat along some 1.25 miles of the bayou as it passes by the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering whether to issue a permit for this project, which would otherwise be prohibited under the federal Clean Water Act.
Yes, there are beavers on Buffalo Bayou, and yes, animals do die. We mourn the loss of any creature. But the circumstances of the death of this beaver, which looked otherwise young and healthy, was puzzling, and there was good reason to try to identify the cause. So several days later, we tried.
An anonymous friend generously offered to pay for a necropsy of the beaver. We contacted a veterinarian who was ready to perform it. Where to store the body? Someone volunteered her freezer. Another member of our team went out of his way to climb down the banks and locate the beaver’s corpse using GPS coordinates. By chance a veterinarian happened to be in the vicinity, as the area was near an animal clinic on West Loop 610.
Alas, the corpse was too far gone for a necropsy.
One of our naturalist experts said that while beavers do have accidents (chopping down a tree that falls on top of them, for instance) he agreed that the strange place and position of the beaver was suspicious. He suggested that though there were no obvious signs of trauma when discovered, the beaver might have been shot and tossed. A small caliber bullet hole might not be noticed, he pointed out.
Thus ends the tale of the beaver body on Buffalo Bayou.
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.
Fighting For Our Public Forests on Buffalo Bayou
On the Radio
Forests Work for Us
Oct. 28, 2015
Listen to Susan Chadwick of Save Buffalo Bayou and Landrum Wise of Save Our Forest talk about community campaigns to protect public forest along some twelve miles of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
They spoke with Pat Greer and H.C. Clark on Eco-Ology on KPFT 90.1 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, about efforts to keep the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District from destroying woodlands on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park in the center of Houston and in Terry Hershey Park in far west Houston.
In addition to their great social value and benefit to our health, well-being, and quality of life, the trees and vegetation that grow naturally along the bayou perform vital ecological services and are a key part of the bayou’s living system. Known as riparian zones or buffers, these specially adapted trees and plants cleanse and filter pollutants from the water. They protect the banks from erosion, absorb and slow storm water runoff and provide natural flood detention. They shade us and cool the stream, and provide wildlife habitat.
Legally Required to Conserve Harris County Forests
The Harris County Flood Control District, according to its 1937 charter, is charged by state law with conserving forests in the county. (See page six.) But for decades the district has been razing forests to build storm water detention basins on our bayous, creeks, tributaries, and elsewhere, and to re-engineer channels and banks. Detention basins are used to hold or slow temporarily surface runoff or high flows in a stream during storms.
The flood control district’s project on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would raze some 80 percent of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the bayou and its tributaries in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers, which enforces the federal Clean Water Act, is currently considering whether to issue a permit for the controversial $6 million project, which is described by flood control as an “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project. The project violates Best Management Practices for riparian areas. Virtually every federal and state resource agency has policies and regulations protecting riparian zones, which perform essentially the same function as federally-protected wetlands.
Recent Success for Save Our Forest
The City of Houston recently withdrew a project to cut down the majority of trees and understory on some 42 acres of public forest and excavate up to six large detention basins on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Wilcrest Drive. The Capital Improvement Project was to have cost the taxpayers between $3.5 and $8.5 million.
However, the flood control district appears to be continuing with its widely-opposed “Charting Buffalo” study that proposes as many as 24 storm water detention basins along some 10.7 miles of both banks of Buffalo Bayou in the forests of Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Highway 6 at Barker and Addicks dams. On Nov. 12, 2013, despite public opposition, Harris County Commissioners Court approved flood control’s request for $250,000 for a vegetation and topography survey in the park.
The headwaters of Buffalo Bayou are on the Katy Prairie west of Houston, and the 18,000-year-old “mother bayou,” fed by numerous tributaries, flows for some 53 miles east through the city and the ship channel into Galveston Bay. Buffalo Bayou, unlike major bayous like White Oak and Brays, which join Buffalo Bayou just west and east of downtown, has never been covered with concrete, though parts of it have been channelized.
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 .
While We Wait
The Flood Control District’s Failing “Natural Channel Design” Projects
July 11, 2015
Well, the comments are in to the Army Corps of Engineers. The comment period that ended June 5 was not extended. So now we wait to find out what the Corps will do next about a permit for the Harris County Flood Control District’s controversial $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The flood control district wants to destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of the city so that engineers can “build it better,” thus demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control and bank stabilization on the bayou.
It’s the wrong thing to do because the specially adapted trees and plants on the bayou (known as the riparian zone) protect the land from erosion, slow storm water and runoff, filter pollution and bacteria (and trash) from the water, provide shade and habitat, among many other vital functions. Razing the riparian buffer, as this project would do, digging up and running heavy equipment over the banks and bayou bottom are all contrary to Best Management Practices and the policies of virtually every federal and state agency charged with protecting the health of our waters, our wildlife habitat, and our soil.
What Are the Options?
So what are the Corps’ options?
What Flood Control Is Not Telling Us
“Maintenance” Road Planned Along Bulldozed Bank
June 4, 2015
Updated June 8, 2015. See below.
Updated June 7, 2015. See below.
The Harris County Flood Control District is planning to create a 12-foot wide pathway for maintenance vehicles along the graded bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.
The maintenance road parallel to the bayou is not included in the plans to “restore” the wild banks of the bayou submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers by the flood control district.
The district revealed the plan for what it is calling a “Monitoring Access Zone” at an invitation-only meeting Tuesday, June 2, 2015. The meeting was one of a series to develop a planting plan for the $6 million “erosion control,” “bank restoration,” “water quality improvement,” “flood conveyance” project known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Apparently the planting plan is not progressing well, as at the meeting the district proposed planting tall fescue, an invasive exotic almost impossible to control. Tall fescue has been the scourge of Texas prairies for several decades at least.
“Tall fescue forms a near-monoculture and is responsible for the loss of otherwise undisturbed prairie remnants throughout Texas and the Midwest,” reports one of our landscape ecologists.
Well, so much for the district’s native plant expertise and commitment to a native-only riparian forest.
No trees, no “better than ever” riparian forest
Little is known about the previously undisclosed but long-suspected “Monitoring Access Zone.” According to a source who was at the meeting, the 12-foot wide pathway will be planted with some sort of seed mix for several years until the district is certain the “restored” banks will hold. They won’t hold, of course, so this grassy, flat “access zone” is likely to be permanent.
Which means no trees, no “better than ever” riparian forest and wildlife habitat, banks bulldozed and leveled even through the so-called “no-work zones.”
What is Federal Jurisdiction
The district explained at the meeting that it was not required to reveal the “monitoring” road to the Army Corps of Engineers because it does not impact federal waters, presumably because the road will be above the Ordinary High Mark, which is the lateral limit of federal jurisdiction.
But it will not be above the OHWM, which in a significant section of the park extends deep into the forest as part of the flood plain, a natural detention area, including swales and wetlands, all of which are under federal jurisdiction. The road and the “bankfull bench” upon which it will sit will also fill and block at least two tributaries, which also are under federal jurisdiction, although on its plans the district labels both tributaries “gullies,” thereby attempting to remove the tributaries from federal jurisdiction. (See sheets 16 and 18.) Gullies are classified as an “erosional feature” by federal law. An actual gully leading from the South Picnic Loop parking lot is oddly labeled a “tributary.” (See sheet 16.)
So far we don’t know the length of “Monitoring Access Zone,” whether it extends along the entire north bank of the project area, including private property, or whether a “Monitoring Access Zone” will also be built on the south bank of the project, land which belongs to the River Oaks Country Club.
Guess we’ll have to ask the flood control district. And object to the Corps.
What else is the flood control district not telling us?
Update June 7, 2015
There is no “road” planned for maintenance vehicles on the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou targeted for “restoration” by the Harris County Flood Control District.
Jason Krahn, manager for the district’s controversial $6 million project to “improve” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou, wrote in an email to Save Buffalo Bayou on June 5 that “there is no road proposed for the post construction monitoring activities associated with MPDP [Memorial Park Demonstration Project].”
Participants in the district’s Vegetation Advisory Workgroup for the dredging and channelizing project had been told that for several years after “restoration” there would be a grassy 12-foot wide “Monitoring Access Zone” for maintenance vehicles to access the bulldozed and reconstructed banks of what is now a perfectly healthy historic natural area in need of no monitoring or maintenance whatsoever–other than picking up the trash and mitigating runoff from trails and parking lots.
This “Monitoring Access Zone,” workgroup participants were told, would remain in place until there was no longer any need for monitoring, replanting, watering, removal of noxious invasive vegetation, or repairs to failing “stabilized” banks, etc. Presumably removal of noxious invasive vegetation would not include the tall fescue, a noxious invasive plant, described above, that the district earlier this month was contemplating planting. Responding to objections, the district reportedly has changed its mind about the tall fescue.
Krahn said that monitoring activities would take place on both the north and south banks of the bayou in the project area, which includes Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the River Oaks Country Club on the south.
He also wrote that “no work zones” on the bayou were in fact “no work zones,” despite the fact that heavy equipment would be driven over the banks, according to the district’s plans. However, above the Ordinary High Water Mark these “no work zones” would not be graded into bankfull benches, wrote Krahn, because “these are portions of the project area that already have the necessary geomorphic characteristics for a sustainable, stable channel.” A bankfull bench is a flat or sloping area above the bank of a stream that slows overflowing floodwater.
Asked to clarify the “Monitoring Access Zone,” Krahn has not yet replied.
But it’s not a “road,” Krahn insisted. So we won’t call it a “road.”
How about sendero?
Updated June 8, 2015
Project Manager Jason Krahn has clarified the “monitoring access zone.” In an email to Save Buffalo Bayou Monday morning, Krahn wrote:
“To provide for the monitoring access as outlined in the Atkins report [the post-construction monitoring plan included in the revised permit application], the District is working to define the appropriate spacing for vegetation within a portion of the flood plain planting zone. A spacing of 12-foot in width is currently being considered to allow for this access, or ‘monitoring access zone’ as you’ve referenced it in your previous email correspondence.”
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
What’s the right way to protect Buffalo Bayou?
March 18, 2015 Updated: March 18, 2015 11:20am
Is the traditional vision of local and urban flood control agencies in conflict with federal and state agencies charged with protecting the health of our waterways?
Let me explain how I came to ask myself this question about mission conflict.
I grew up on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, and since early last spring I have been involved with a campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy and then attempt to rebuild a healthy and relatively untouched riparian forest corridor running through the center of our city. It’s pretty rare to have a stretch of fairly wild river running through the middle of such a large city. The late great conservationist Army Emmott described our Buffalo Bayou as a ribbon of life running through the concrete. And that’s what it is: a living thing, a diverse and dynamic ecosystem that shows us the wondrous process of nature.
We are even more fortunate that in the words of the great river scientist Mathias Kondolf of Berkeley, this enchanting river has “room to move.” Here, in the middle of the city, we have space to “let the river be a river” — to let its banks change and its forest garden grow, as they would naturally. Dr. Kondolf traveled through this reach of the bayou in November, a reach that has never been channelized. The nearly 1.5-mile stretch targeted for destruction flows between the riparian forest and great cliffs of a public park (Memorial Park) and the forested terraces and high banks of a private golf course.
Note: This opinion piece is adapted from a presentation delivered February 12, 2015, at Texas’ first Urban Riparian Symposium, sponsored by the Texas Water Resources Institute, the Texas Riparian Association, and the City of Austin.
Room for the River: What the River Scientist Had to Say
Nov. 25, 2014
Updated Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, with a link to the video of the lecture by Mathias Kondolf.
More than 100 people gathered last Friday evening to hear Mathias Kondolf speak about rivers, river restoration, and the state of Buffalo Bayou at the Assembly Hall of St. Theresa Memorial Park Catholic Church.
Kondolf is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a world-renowned river scientist, and a leading critic of the destructive and often-failing methods proposed for a $6 million “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project on Buffalo Bayou. He spoke for nearly two hours to a crowd that included people on all sides of a controversial project to bulldoze the riparian forest and dredge and channelize nearly 1.5 miles of one of the last natural stretches of the bayou in the city.
The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was conceived by the Bayou Preservation Association, which actively promotes the plan. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit to the Harris County Flood Control District for the project.
Riparian forest or buffer, also called a riparian zone, consists of specially adapted trees and plants along the edge of a waterway. Among the many important functions of riparian zones are protecting the land from erosion, filtering pollution, cleansing the water, slowing flood water, and providing wildlife and human habitat.
Kondolf had spent hours inspecting the bayou in the rain earlier in the day. The project area is bounded entirely on the south by the River Oaks Country Club golf course, which is currently being renovated. The north bank of the project is our public Memorial Park, along with the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and some private property. Taxpayers are contributing $4 million to this project.