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.
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.
Film: Letting the River Heal
Learning to Respect A River’s Natural Process
October 18, 2015
“We have to be patient,” says Steve Nelle, Natural Resources Conservation Service, retired.
“Nature’s going to recover that area at her own timetable in her own way. It’s best to accommodate that natural process.”
Watch this moving and informative 14-minute documentary about a river’s natural process and Best Management Practices for protecting against erosion and preserving a river’s important role in cleansing our water, slowing storm water and runoff, and providing wildlife habitat.
All of this applies to Buffalo Bayou as well as our other bayous, creeks, and streams in Harris County. Even a small riparian buffer of native trees and vegetation a few feet wide is important for our waterways and the cleanliness of the water flowing through our neighborhood streams and into our bays and oceans. But on Buffalo Bayou, especially as it flows past Memorial Park, we are fortunate to have room for the river to move. Letting the river be a river is the most current scientific thinking on river management, even in cities. A dynamic river creates the most beneficial and biologically diverse environment.
This lovely, short film was made about the Blanco River and the impact of the 2015 Memorial Day flood on Wimberly, Texas. We can all learn from it.
New Aerial Photos of Buffalo Bayou!
Float In The Air Down Buffalo Bayou With Houston Photographer Jim Olive
October 17, 2015
Travel down the remarkable historic stretch of our 18,000-year-old bayou proposed for “restoration” by the Harris County Flood Control District and the City of Houston. The $6 million project, violating virtually every Best Management Practice for riparian areas, would pointlessly destroy and rebuild over 1.25 miles of a naturally-functioning bayou as it flows past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the north and the River Oaks Country Club on the south.
Photos taken on October 2, 2015. Thank you, Jim Olive!
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 .
Cutting, Removing Fallen Trees on Bayou Banks is Wrong
Brush Creates New Banks and Needs to Stay
Aug. 28, 2015
We were afraid of this.
Big floods are powerful. Anyone who has lived on or spent any time on a river in the wild knows that a river can rearrange its banks with an awesome, even frightening force. Yet floods in nature are necessary.
Buffalo Bayou is an 18,000-year-old river, our Mother Bayou. We are privileged to have a forested stretch of the bayou passing through the middle of the city in our great public Memorial Park. But during the Memorial Day flood and the record-high water released by the Army Corps of Engineers from the upstream dams during the days that followed, the rushing bayou took down trees and shrubs in Memorial Park, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and elsewhere. The bayou was reordering its banks, replenishing and reseeding the floodplain, adjusting to the changing flow, as it has done for a very long time.
Not all of this was erosion exactly. Our geologists explain that some of it was slumping caused by the overflowing of the banks. The overflowing floodwater saturated the high ground and seeped into the internal layers of clay soil that turned to pudding and slid out, creating the concave look that you see on some of the banks. This particular slippery geologic makeup of Buffalo Bayou is one reason why we believe the Harris County Flood Control District’s costly and misguided $6 million “stabilization” project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, won’t work on the high banks of our untamed Buffalo Bayou, a rare natural asset to have and learn from in the middle of the city.
Our Muddy, Maligned, Mistreated Bayou Knows Better
But trees and brush falling onto the banks (and into the water) is part of a natural process, an important natural rebuilding process. The brush collects sediment from the waters of the bayou, building up new banks that the bayou replants with stabilizing and colonizing native vegetation. Yes, amazingly, our muddy, maligned and mistreated living bayou does that, with its own superior intelligence and life force. The bayou restores itself, replenishing its important ability to filter pollutants, neutralize bad bacteria, cleanse the water, protect against further erosion and provide aquatic habitat, among many other important functions, including trapping our trash and plastic debris before it ends up in the bay and oceans.
The Piles of Concrete Came Down
Country Club Armors High Banks with Chunks of Rubble
August 12, 2015
For months we watched with suspense the towering piles of concrete riprap. They hung heavily over the edge of a high bank on the south side of Buffalo Bayou near the downstream end of one of the loveliest natural stretches of the bayou in the city. It’s a long stretch of the bayou that the Harris County Flood Control District wants to bulldoze and “restore” to a “more natural state,” so we were apprehensive.
A row of small telltale colored flags had first appeared near the waterline here and upstream at the upper limit of the area targeted for flood control’s highly destructive Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
The south bank of the nearly 1.5 mile project area is owned by the River Oaks Country Club, which is a one-third partner in the $6 million public project initiated and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The club, which has nearly completed a renovation of its golf course on the bayou, had long threatened to armor its banks with riprap if the “stabilization” project didn’t go through.
And now the club has carried through on its threat, laying down black plastic sheeting on the steep banks at those two locations downstream and upstream, distributing chunks of concrete on the slopes, and covering the blocks with dirt. Club member Steve Lindley, who is overseeing the riprap work as well as the golf course upgrade for the club, said that the plastic sheeting is porous and biodegradable and that club plans to seed the dirt with grass to keep it from washing away and eventually to plant it with native vegetation such as chili pequin.
Crazy Widespread Disappearance of Wetlands around Houston
Wetlands in Buffalo Bayou Threatened Too
Aug. 3, 2015
The Army Corps of Engineers is not keeping track of whether developers are replacing tens of thousands of acres of wetlands lost to development in the Houston region as required by law.
Wetlands, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “are part of the foundation of our nation’s water resources and are vital to the health of waterways and communities that are downstream. Wetlands feed downstream waters, trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollution, and provide fish and wildlife habitat.”
Under the federal Clean Water Act, the Corps of Engineers is charged with protecting our wetlands.
A study by the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), reported by the Houston Chronicle Friday, July 31, 2015, found that “more than 38,000 acres of wetlands vanished in greater Houston over the past two decades despite a federal policy that ‘no net loss’ can be caused by encroaching development.”