Wasting Money the Old-Fashioned Way

Costly Bayou Repairs Do More Harm Than Good, Won’t Last

Nov. 21, 2016

Updated April 23, 2017 — The Harris County Flood Control District reports that repair costs through March 2017 are $1.25 million. Terry Hershey Park remains closed until construction work is complete.

See also “Commissioner Radack Responds.”

From a distance you could hear the monstrous roar of the heavy equipment in the woods. Following deep, wide tracks smashed into the bare dirt along the bank of Buffalo Bayou, passing large cottonwoods apparently cut to make way for the big equipment, we came across a scene of troubling destruction.

A gigantic articulated 30-ton dump truck with six massive wheels was slowly rolling towards us with a large load of fresh dirt and dripping mud dug up from the bayou bank. Further along a 60-ton excavator on tracks sat on the very edge of the bank, expertly swiveling back and forth, scraping up the dirt bank and dumping it into the truck, scooping up loads of white limestone rock and dropping it in a layer where the excavated bank once was.

We’d seen the eroded bank before the “repairs” began. This damage was far worse.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Read the rest of this story.

Dump truck and excavator at work on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park on Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive

Dump truck and excavator at work on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park on Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Jim Olive


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.

Read the rest of this story.

The same high bank three months later on August 4, 2016.

The south-facing high bank of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary collapsed during the Memorial Day flood in 2015. Now self-restored. Photo on August 4, 2016.

How Old Is Buffalo Bayou? Where Does It Come From?

Geology Lessons on the Bayou

March 27, 2016

Want to learn about the geology and natural history of Buffalo Bayou?

Save Buffalo Bayou is partnering with professional geologist Tom Helm, who also happens to be an outstanding naturalist and river guide, to offer floating classes on the geology of our 18,000-year-old mother bayou.

Paddle with Tom on a two-hour canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou and see some of our Pleistocene natural history right here in the middle of Houston. Learn all about the formation of the bluffs and sandstone rocks during the last ice age. See examples of depositional environments and fluvial processes. Find out why the banks are sandy and how sand moves downstream, why the river looks the way it does, and much more.

Geologist Tom Helm explaining 500,000-year-old sandstone on Buffalo Bayou.

Geologist Tom Helm explaining 500,000-year-old sandstone on Buffalo Bayou. Photo taken March 18, 2016

Where, When, Cost

The classes start at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park and float past the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, through the historic natural area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District. Multiple stops will be made along the way to examine features of interest.

The schedule depends on class size. One to four persons can be scheduled any day of the week, usually with no more than 48 hours’ notice. Groups larger than four persons (up to 30 persons maximum) are accepted only on weekends. These larger weekend groups need to schedule at least one month in advance.

Cost is $50 per person, which includes canoe and equipment, and light refreshments at the end. Discounts are available for academic faculty and students.

Note that the classes will be not take place if the flow of Buffalo Bayou is greater than 300 cubic feet per second (as measured by the Piney Point USGS gauge). At water levels above this, the sandstones are mostly obscured. If a trip is cancelled due to high water, students have the option of rescheduling or receiving a full refund.

For more information, contact Tom Helm.

Some Things We Learned Already: Why Mud Stinks

We floated with Tom recently for a preview of the geology class. Among the things we learned is why some of the mud stinks. The mud and the sand are filled with layers of organic matter, leaves mostly, and as the organic matter decomposes, it smells like … decomposing stuff. But it also builds soil for future vegetation. This process produces the mysterious oily sheen that you see floating on top of the mud sometimes.

We also learned to tell mud from sand from silt. (Hint: it’s a matter of the size of the grains.) Tom showed us how geologists rub the mud between their thumb and fingers to feel the size of the grains.

We studied the patterns in the sand, watched the grains of sand moving in the water, and learned about eddies and sediment deposition and transport. We saw a lot of animal tracks.

We learned to put the constantly changing bayou in the context of its natural process.

In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
Rachel Carson

Immutable Plan. Invisible Rocks.

“Revised” plan to destroy Buffalo Bayou not really “revised” at all.

Project manager says no significant changes to much criticized original plan.

No sandstone in project area, says flood control, contradicting itself.

June 3, 2015

Invisible ancient sandstone in project area at 29°45'35.8"N 95°25'58.6"W 29.759953, -95.432954. Photo by Bill Heins.

Invisible ancient sandstone in project area at 29°45’35.8″N 95°25’58.6″W. Photo by Bill Heins.

Despite the hundreds of comments criticizing the purpose, methods, impact, cost, benefit, and harm of Harris County Flood Control District’s proposed “erosion control” project on Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park, the district has made no significant changes to the plans recently re-submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Jason Krahn, project manager for the controversial Memorial Park Demonstration Project, told Dianna Wray of the Houston Press that the district was “simply following the guidelines” and that there were “no significant changes” to the original project plan.

Indeed, many of the “revised” plan sheets posted by the Army Corps of Engineers on its website appear to have been simply relabeled with new dates, though there are some with new details.

The public has until June 5 to send comments to the Corps about the district’s “revised” permit application and the district’s responses to previous comments. There is no limit on the number of comments one can make. So if you’ve already made a comment, make another!

Read the rest of this story.

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.

Blue heron tracks in the mud on Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

Blue heron tracks in the mud on Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

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.

Map 1: The dotted red lines show the 14.35 acres of riparian forest to be scraped and bulldozed. According to the HCFCD, 80 percent of the vegetation in the targeted area will be removed. Note the areas to be cleared of trees extends into the interior of Memorial Park towards the maintenance facility. This is for access by heavy equipment to the bayou. Also note the land and forest to be lost by the River Oaks Country Club on the south, and the destruction of a scenic tributary and a magnificent high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north.

Map 1: The dotted red lines show the 14.35 acres of riparian forest to be scraped and bulldozed. According to the HCFCD, 80 percent of the vegetation in the targeted area will be removed. Note the areas to be cleared of trees extends into the interior of Memorial Park towards the maintenance facility. This is for access by heavy equipment to the bayou. Also note the land and forest to be lost by the River Oaks Country Club on the south, and the destruction of a scenic tributary and a magnificent high bluff in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north.

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.

Map 2: Areas of the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou to be excavated and filled. Yellow is excavate. Orange is fill.

Map 2: Areas of the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou to be excavated and filled. Yellow is excavate. Orange is fill.

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.

Gloves Coming Off: The BPA Has Lost Its Way on Buffalo Bayou

June 25, 2014

Our response in the Memorial Examiner to Robert Rayburn, president of the Bayou Preservation Association

Critter den and tracks in a sandy bank of Buffalo Bayou to be bulldozed by Harris County.

Over time, the mission and purpose of citizens’ organizations can erode and change course. Tragically, this is the case with the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in 1966 “to protect the natural beauty” of Buffalo Bayou against the bulldozers of the Harris County Flood Control District.

In a 1984 KUHT documentary, BPA founding member Terry Hershey warned that we must always be vigilant because the HCFCD would always try to find a way to strip and channelize our southern, slow-moving bayou and turn it into a drainage ditch. How shocking that the BPA itself is now promoting a Harris County project to bulldoze nearly 1.5 miles of our last remaining wild bayou in the middle of Houston in order to do just that.

Read the editorial in the Examiner.

Yes, We have Rocks in Houston. And No, That’s Not a Problem: That’s a Beautiful Pleistocene Cliff.

May 31, 2014

Floating down Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park with only clear ground springs trickling through the fine sand and bright red clay banks. We put in last Friday morning under the Woodway Bridge, as they were spraying turf grass on the ugly drainage project that replaced the nature trail that used to exist downstream of the bridge. Led by a small white egret, with mockingbirds and cardinals calling in the trees and graceful herons crisscrossing in front of us, we floated with Memorial Park on our left all the way to the Shepherd Bridge.

This is a short video of the riparian forest the Harris County Flood Control District plans to destroy so that they can “restore” it.

What you can see when they are not flushing the 18,000-year-old mother bayou with sediment-laden water from the failing Addicks and Barker dams is: rocks. Yes, we do have rocks in Houston. Beautiful gray stone tables and ledges, huge slabs of ancient flat sandstone, mostly broken, alas, in a purposeful, barbaric act of destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District. Some years ago they drove a huge-wheeled crushing machine down the banks. Why? Who knows? Maybe they thought breaking up gajillion-years-old stone slabs would slow the water. Maybe they just don’t respect the bayou or our natural history.

But enjoy while you can the intricate, woven roots of boxelders, towering sycamores, and willows holding the historic banks together; the sparkling, natural springs surrounded by tiny green liverwort, seeping out of the layered red clay.

And regard the high Pleistocene cliffs we have here on the prairie. And no, that hard-packed cliff is not about to collapse or fall in the water. That’s what nature looks like, ladies and gents. According to the people who know this bayou well, that old cliff has been there like that for more than forty-five years, or maybe thousands.

See for yourself. This video is just under eight minutes long. If you want to watch a longer, fifteen-minute movie with informative dialog and text, you can find it here. Watch both!

Red clay bank and riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou by Memorial Park.

Red clay bank and riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou. Memorial Park on the left.