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.
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.
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
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.
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 .
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
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!
A Bold Stand on Buffalo Bayou from A Long-Time Conservationist
It’s time again to stop the bulldozers on the bayou
Flood-control plans are a ‘tragic, misguided, destructive experiment’
October 24, 2014 | Updated: October 24, 2014 5:22pm
I feel responsible.
In 1966 Terry Hershey asked me to join with her, George Mitchell, and then Congressman George Bush in their campaign to stop the Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District from bulldozing the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou near our homes on the west side of Houston.
At the time none of us knew what we know now: that the trees and vegetation that grow on the bayou’s banks are so important to the quality of our water, to erosion and flood control. We just knew that we preferred and respected nature. My house backed up to the bayou, and I let the enchanting forest back there grow wild. I was one of the only homeowners in our small neighborhood on the river who never had problems with erosion. Others who cut down the wild trees and plants saw their backyard gardens and lawns wash away.
We stopped the bulldozers on the bayou back then, and at other times too over the years. The organization that we formed became the Bayou Preservation Association, and eventually I became the president of it. I am still on the executive committee of the BPA, as it is called, though the organization no longer serves the cause of preservation. The BPA has lost its way.
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.
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
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.
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.