Revising the Plan for Protecting Galveston Bay
Public Workshop Wednesday, March 1, 2017
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Feb. 20, 2017
The Galveston Bay Estuary Program was established in 1989 to implement a comprehensive conservation plan for Galveston Bay. Established by the federal government and administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the program’s goal is to “preserve Galveston Bay for generations to come.” It is one of two estuary programs in Texas and one of 28 programs nationwide protecting estuaries “of national significance.”
An estuary is “a partially enclosed, coastal water body where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries, and their surrounding lands, are places of transition from land to sea. … Estuarine environments are among the most productive on earth.”
As the Environmental Protection Agency points out, “what happens on the land affects the quality of the water and health of the organisms that live in an estuary. … For example, if a river or stream … passes urbanized and suburbanized areas, it gathers substances such as:
- fertilizers or pet waste that wash off lawns;
- untreated sewage from failing septic tanks;
- wastewater discharges from industrial facilities;
- sediment from construction sites; and
- runoff from impervious surfaces like parking lots.”
Buffalo Bayou is the main river flowing through the center of Houston and emptying into Galveston Bay. Numerous other creeks and tributaries, including Brays, White Oak, and Sims bayous, flow into Buffalo Bayou, which becomes the Houston Ship Channel.
Updating the Galveston Bay Protection Plan
The 22-year-old Galveston Bay management plan is being revised. The Houston Sierra Club is urging the general public to attend a Wednesday afternoon workshop in La Marque to “provide input on how we can have a cleaner and more ecologically intact Galveston Bay.”
Frank Smith, Conservationist
A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down
Update April 7, 2023
Frank Smith has finally escaped this earth. He passed away peacefully at his home in Houston on Thursday, April 6. He was 101.
“Just say ‘Frank Smith croaked,’” he joked to his wife of 42 years, Katherine Bel Fay Sadler Smith.
In 2021 the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club recognized Smith’s lifetime of environmental activism with the Evelyn R. Edens award for river conservation.
October 16, 2016
The year was 1933. Frank Smith was twelve years old and he had just climbed to the 14,255-foot summit of Long’s Peak while at Camp Audubon in Colorado.
It’s an achievement that still makes him proud. But more importantly, being in the snow-capped Colorado mountains changed the perspective of a young boy born and raised in a flat, humid city, albeit in one of the leafiest, most privileged neighborhoods in Houston.
“They made us pay attention to the flowers and the trees, and study and identify the mammals,” he recalls of his summers at Camp Audubon. “It was the first time my attention was directed toward natural things.” He had learned “a lot of other things,” he says. “But I had never been taught anything about the natural world.”
Those fortunate summers in the Rocky Mountain high forest wilderness during the Great Depression set Smith on a remarkable path of conservation and environmentalism. He read the books of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, including The Mountains of California. That path would lead Smith to found and lead numerous organizations, most recently Save Buffalo Bayou, that have helped protect and preserve bayous and streams, including Buffalo and Armand bayous, Galveston Bay and its estuaries, and create public park lands around the state of Texas. He would work with virtually all of the region’s prominent conservationists, all of them becoming close personal friends. Some of them had been friends since childhood.
But first he would have to grow up, join the Navy, establish several engineering businesses, invent some things, and meet Terry Hershey.
Flying Down Buffalo Bayou
The Mother Bayou from Beginning to End
June 24, 2016
“Visualizing Nature, The Art and The Science” was the title of a class at Rice University taught this spring by photographer Geoff Winningham, professor of photography in the Art Department and holder of the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities, and by Adrian Lenardic, professor of geophysics and planetary science in the Department of Earth Science. One theme of the class was the visual and scientific aspects of Buffalo Bayou.
Connor Winn was a student in that class, and he made a lovely fourteen-minute video using a flying drone that follows our Mother Bayou from its quiet beginnings west of Houston. The film allows us to watch the bayou evolve from its source near Cane Island Branch, a creek, one of many feeding into the bayou, that runs through the town of Katy, which in the 1800s was known as Cane Island, named after the creek filled with cane. We see the bayou growing into the mighty ship channel and joining the San Jacinto River at Burnet Bay, part of Galveston Bay, near the San Jacinto Monument just upstream of Baytown.
Then And Now
The View From the Bridge
June 13, 2016
Okay, it was a trick question. We asked our readers to identify the location of Geoff Winningham’s lovely black-and-white photo of Buffalo Bayou taken in 1998. And we asked for a photo of the same view now.
Shoulda been easy. The photo was published in Winningham’s beautiful photographic study of the bayou, Along Forgotten River, which traces our Mother Bayou from its source in the Katy Prairie to its end in Galveston Bay. And the photo was identified, of course.
Except that somehow the identification in the book was wrong, says Winningham. He went out and checked himself last week. The photo was taken looking upstream from the Waugh Bridge, not the Montrose Bridge. Still, the view doesn’t look much the same. The river seems to bend differently now, after the “channel conveyance improvements” by the Harris County Flood Control District starting in 2010. Not so many trees either. Here’s the way it looks now. Still lovely.
And here is the way it looked in 1998.
Anonymous photographer wins a Save Buffalo Bayou bumper sticker, which everyone should have. Get yours by donating to Save Buffalo Bayou, and help us promote responsible flood control that works with nature rather than against it.
From The Sky Above: Barker Dam and Reservoir
June 7, 2016
Houston photographer Jim Olive took this photo of Barker Dam and Reservoir in west Houston on Sunday, June 5, at around 11:30 a.m.
The dam gates had just been opened, and water from recent rains was pouring from the reservoir’s temporary lake into Buffalo Bayou, which flows through Barker Reservoir through the center of Houston and into Galveston Bay. Water impounded from several creeks behind nearby Addicks Dam also flows into Buffalo Bayou below Barker Dam. The dams were built in the 1940s to protect downtown Houston from catastrophic flooding.
Record rains that fell on west Houston and elsewhere on April 18 filled the two flood control reservoirs with unprecedented amounts of water. Rains since then have slowed releases from the normally empty basins, which contain large, forested parks and recreational facilities. The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, closes the dam gates during a rain, and rain adds more water to the reservoirs, which must be emptied as quickly as possible in order to create room to hold back future stormwater. Maximum capacity, the volume beyond which water will begin to spill around the ends of the dams, is 199,643 acre-feet for Addicks and 209,600 acre-feet for Barker. Addicks Reservoir is just to the north of Barker on the northern side of Interstate 10.
The combined peak pool behind the two reservoirs was more than 206,000 acre-feet around April 22, with Addicks reaching some 122,000 acre-feet or a little more than two-thirds of maximum capacity. Despite record high extended releases from the dams for the last seven weeks, the two reservoirs have been drained by less than half, standing at a combined volume of 114,210 acre-feet on Tuesday early afternoon.
Can You Identify This View of Buffalo Bayou?
Take a Photo, Win A Prize
May 29, 2016
Where was this photo taken? And how does the bayou look there now?
Okay, it’s not difficult. It’s in Geoff Winningham’s beautiful book of black-and-white photographs of Buffalo Bayou. Winningham, who teaches photography at Rice University, spent five years from 1997 to 2001 chronicling Buffalo Bayou from its beginning in the Katy Prairie to its end in Galveston Bay. The book, Along Forgotten River, published in 2003, includes accounts of early travelers in Texas from 1767 to 1858. The book can be purchased here.
Send us your shot of this location on Buffalo Bayou as it looks now. We’ll publish the best of what we get and send the winner a Save Buffalo Bayou bumper sticker.
We’re going to make this a regular series so keep looking.
… Often along these shady banks have I rowed my little skiff and wondered if ever some Bard had consecrated its border shades by a correspondent flow of song … — J.C Clopper’s Journal and Book of Memoranda for 1828, Province of Texas, quoted in Along Forgotten River by Geoff Winningham.
Dammed If They Do, Dammed If They Don’t
The Conundrum of the Buffalo Bayou Dams
Why so much water for so long in Buffalo Bayou?
May 26, 2016
The water in the normally empty reservoir had dropped only a few feet by the time we stood on the earthen dam looking down at the dark, opaque blue-gray surface. After almost a month, the rippling water below was still some twenty-three feet deep, and extended as far as we could see along the thirteen-mile long dam and far into the thousands of acres of flooded woods.
It had taken only a little more than twenty-four hours for the rains that began on April 18 to fill the vast flood control reservoirs in west Houston with a record amount of water: a total of more than 206,000 acre feet, a massive amount of water. Imagine 206,000 acres covered in a foot of water. Enough to cover more than eight times the acreage of both reservoirs to a depth of one foot. That much water would take an estimated four weeks to drain, according to reports at the time.
But that was only if there was no more rain. There was more rain, and it was taking much longer. The reservoirs, vast wooded parks with recreational facilities and nature paths, are still draining. As of May 24, the combined total of the two reservoirs was still about 90,000 acre-feet, down to a little less than half.
And Buffalo Bayou was still flowing high and fast, higher and faster for longer than ever before. Property owners upstream had flooded and property owners downstream who had hoped for more moderate flows were instead seeing long-standing trees falling into the fast-flowing stream, banks eroding, sediment collecting, debris causing water to back up onto their property.
Why was this happening and is there a way out of it?
Flooding on Buffalo Bayou
The View from Above with Photographer Jim Olive
April 19, 2016
Photographer Jim Olive took these shots from the air over Buffalo Bayou yesterday (Monday, April 18, 2016) following the extraordinary amount of rainfall that fell mainly on the far west side of town.
These photos show Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park and the River Oaks Country Club as well as the confluence of White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou downtown.
Buffalo Bayou flows from the Katy Prairie in west Houston through the center of the city through the Houston Ship Channel into Galveston Bay.
Protecting Galveston, Houston, and the Texas Coast
Public Comment Needed By May 9
April 11, 2016
You may have heard about proposals to protect development along Galveston Bay, the Houston Ship Channel, and Houston itself from a giant storm surge. Dubbed the Ike Dike after Hurricane Ike in 2008, one leading plan is to build a 17-foot high levee for 50 miles along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, with a massive floodgate across the Houston Ship Channel.
Buffalo Bayou Runs Through It
But the Ike Dike is only one of several ideas being considered for the Houston-Galveston region by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Texas. And in fact, in light of sea level rise (and due to subsidence, sea level is rising more rapidly on the upper Texas coast) and the potential flood damage from future storms, the Corps has been studying the entire Texas coast and gathering information for the past several years. In August 2014, the Corps issued a report called the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Project and held a series of four public workshops. And in May 2015 the Corps issued a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Study Final Reconnaissance 905 (b) Report.
A Notice of Intent to prepare a Draft Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement for a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, dated March 23, 2016, was published on the Corps’ Galveston District website. And on March 31 the Corps published a notice in the Federal Register calling for public comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study. The public has only until May 9 to comment.
Environmental Photography That Works
Coastal Essence in Fotofest 2016
March 29, 2016
How do environmental and conservation organizations get their message across?
By showing the public photographs of what they are trying to protect.
That’s what Houston-based, internationally-known photographer Jim Olive has been doing for Save Buffalo Bayou and many other conservation organizations. Without Jim’s stunning photos of the historic natural stretch of the bayou flowing past Memorial Park, far fewer people would have any idea of the rare and valuable treasure we have running right through the middle of Houston.
A Fotofest 2016 exhibition titled Coastal Essence features Jim Olive’s photographs that have been used by local environmental organizations to illustrate their cause in print and social media. The exhibition, which includes a photograph of Buffalo Bayou at dawn used by Save Buffalo Bayou on its Facebook page, is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land, Texas. The show runs through May 8 at the museum at 13016 University Blvd.
Fotofest is one of the world’s leading photography festivals, and this year the theme is Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet. The festival, which continues through April 24, takes place every two years in galleries and exhibition spaces across the Houston metropolitan area, and draws photographers, curators, collectors, and other photography experts from all over the world.
Jim Olive, a native Houstonian, has been a professional photographer for fifty years and has traveled around the world on assignments. A longtime conservationist, he is the founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation.