Update on Our Campaign to Save the Last Natural Stretch of Buffalo Bayou in Houston
Oct. 5, 2014
Where are we now and what should you do?
The Harris County Flood Control District has applied for a permit to bulldoze most of the riparian forest and vegetation along both banks of more a mile of the last remaining stretch of natural Buffalo Bayou in the city. This is our bayou as it passes by Memorial Park. Also targeted are the tributary and high bluffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, as well as other ancient cliffs and prehistoric sandstone used in the past as water crossings by buffalo and people. The project would excavate, fill, grade, and artificially rebuild the banks; dredge, deepen, and reroute the bayou channel, damming tributaries. Hundreds of trees will be cut down, many of them riparian species too small or too young to be counted by the district’s inappropriate tree survey. The shading tree canopy will be removed (project proponents claim there is no tree canopy!); the water temperature increased. The soil, packed with protective, binding roots small and large, will be dug up, tossed around, and compacted by heavy equipment. Wetlands and lovely sandy beaches will be obliterated along with the colonizing and stabilizing plants that have taken root there, a crucial stage of the natural process of building the riparian buffer so important to water quality, flood and erosion control.
All of this and more violates best management practices for riparian zones. It will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. And this is a project developed and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association, supported by the Memorial Park Conservancy.
Timelines Are Difficult to Predict — Updated Oct. 30, 2014
The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to the public comments sent to the Army Corps of Engineers during the public comment period, which ended June 30. The district has posted its responses on its website, and you can read them here. (Caution: big pdf.)
Memorial Park, the Master Plan, and Our Wild Buffalo Bayou
Sept. 15, 2014
Proposals for a new master plan for Memorial Park will be presented at a public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin Street. Anyone concerned about the future of our great Memorial Park and Buffalo Bayou as it flows past the park will want to attend this meeting, one of four “update” meetings scheduled about the plan over the next several months.
The prominent national landscape architecture firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz is leading development of the plan. Thomas Woltz, principal of the firm, and his team will share results of their research and analysis, as well as initial design concepts at the Wednesday meeting co-hosted by Houston City Council Members Dwight Boykins and Robert Gallegos.
Do Nothing to Our Wild Bayou is the Best Policy
The last master plan for Memorial Park in 2004 recommended that nothing be done to disturb the natural environment of Buffalo Bayou. After extensive analysis by a team of fluvial geomorphologists and hydraulic engineers, the plan wisely concluded that “the recommended course of action for the Bayou is simply to leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature.”
It is not yet known, to us at least, what recommendations the new master plan will make about our treasured last stretch of wild bayou in Houston. However, contradicting the clear conclusions of the 2004 master plan, the Memorial Park Conservancy officially and actively supports the Bayou Preservation Association‘s bizarre project to bulldoze the bayou’s riparian forest, level and grade the banks and cliffs, dredge, channelize, and reroute the bayou. This would forever destroy a valuable and historic natural resource in our great public park, an amazing oasis of riverine wilderness in the middle of the city.
Reminder: Meeting With City Council Members Representing Buffalo Bayou
July 29, 2014
Public Meeting with Council Members Pennington and Cohen
It’s about Shepherd Drive, but go and ask why they support the project to destroy Buffalo Bayou.
Don’t forget the public meeting tonight (Wednesday, July 30, 2014) with City Council Members Oliver Pennington (District G) and Ellen Cohen (District C), who represent the wild banks of Buffalo Bayou to be bulldozed by the misguided project known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Even the natives and the early settlers (including mill owners) knew better than to cut down the riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou, recognizing its importance for naturally controlling erosion of the banks, slowing storm waters, filtering pollution and bacteria, trapping sediment, and providing wildlife habitat.
Cohen represents Memorial Park, which belongs to all of us. And Pennington, who is running for mayor, represents the south bank of the project, owned by the River Oaks Country Club, stewards of the riparian forest for which it is named since 1923. Pennington also represents that little-known section of Memorial Park just west of 610, now known as the Bayou Woodlands, formerly the Archery Range. There, just off Woodway, a failing “erosion control” project is spewing mud and silt into the bayou. Previously this was a lovely forested ravine with a nature trail. The TIRZ 16, encompassing the Galleria area, now including Memorial Park, and a special kind of improvement district that gets to keep and spend tax money that would have gone into the city treasury, spent $1,147,934 on this particular drainage boondoggle designed by engineering firm AECOM, which also designed the failing “erosion control” project on the banks of the Houston Country Club.
So go and ask these city council members why they support the destruction of some of the last best, healthiest and most beautiful bayou we have in the city. The project would destroy nearly 1.5 miles of the bayou, including most of the forest on both banks, dredging up and rechanneling our lovely, shady stream, obliterating creeks and prehistoric bluffs too old even to contemplate, killing and driving away wildlife, trampling and removing habitat, and so much more that is wrong. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit for the project.
The meeting, held in conjunction with the city Public Works and Engineering Department, is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church (St. Basil’s Hall), 2140 Westheimer Road. The purpose is to review a paving and drainage project, set to begin in a few weeks, on Shepherd Drive from Westheimer to Buffalo Bayou. So it’s not exactly about the bayou project. But there will be a question and answer period.
Another Failed Erosion Control Project on Buffalo Bayou
July 15, 2014
Kayaked down Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park the other day with geophysicist Richard Hyde, a longtime supporter of Buffalo Bayou, an early member of the Bayou Preservation Association, and an opponent of the BPA’s very bad plan to destroy the natural beauty of Buffalo Bayou in order to … well, no one can quite figure out the purpose of this bizarre and heart-breaking project that would raze over a mile of perfectly fine riparian forest along both banks in and around our great Memorial Park. The proposal, created and promoted by the BPA and officially a project of the Harris County Flood Control District, would also dig up and fill in the bayou, its banks and high bluffs, dam up or bulldoze tributaries, causing enormous loss of land and forest to the River Oaks Country Club, which is paying $2 million for the privilege. It is a mystery why anyone thinks this is a good idea; a mystery how a project with no public benefit and so much public harm ever got funded ($4 million from county and city taxpayers); and a mystery why the BPA, an organization founded to “preserve the natural beauty” of the bayou, would be so hell-bent on eradicating it.
The water was very low — known as base flow, the bayou’s natural flow during fair weather, which is very slow and shallow. Except it wasn’t really base flow because a thunderstorm had just passed over, so even as we were slip-sliding in under the Woodway bridge the water was rising and the current picking up from runoff.
Our first shocking encounter was the new Woodway drainage outfall, recently constructed at a cost of $1,147,934 to Houston taxpayers (i.e. taxes that went to the Galleria area TIRZ 16 rather than into the city treasury). Laughably, this project, no longer under construction but still closed to the public, is described as an “erosion control” project in the TIRZ 16-Uptown 2013-2017 Capital Improvement Plan. “This drainage outflow project is to mitigate erosion in banks of Buffalo Bayou at Woodway,” says the budget description.
Please note the horrific erosion from the dissolving banks of this new massive outfall, the sand and mud clogging the channel, the concrete sidewalk and steps. There were trees here once, and a nature trail. Update 8.4.2014: In 1848, the rock-bottomed ford here was known as “Dutchman’s Crossing.”
The budget shows no funds allocated for operating and maintenance.
The big, new drainage pipe was also supposed to be set at an angle that allowed the often powerful flow of water to be released in the direction of the flow of the bayou, instead of shooting directly at the opposite bank. But apparently someone forgot to tell that to AECOM, the engineers who designed the project (as well as the tragically unsuccessful “erosion control” project at the Houston Country Club, which razed much of the riparian forest buffer on the banks of Buffalo Bayou along its golf course). AECOM designed the Woodway outfall so that the water blasts directly at the opposite bank, which is already being eaten away by the force.
Mr. Hyde just shook his head.
This “erosion control” project is in City Council Member Oliver Pennington’s district and Mr. Pennington is running for mayor, as he tells everyone he meets, so be sure to let him know what you think about Mr. Pennington’s “erosion control.” He’s holding a public meeting on Wednesday, July 30, 2014, from 6:00 to 7:30 pm at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, St. Basil’s Hall, 2140 Westheimer (at the corner of Shepherd). The meeting is to discuss “storm drainage improvements” on Shepherd from Westheimer to Buffalo Bayou. The project is scheduled to begin in a few weeks and will last over a year, so it’s very kind of Mr. Pennington to offer a public meeting about it.
Mr. Pennington supports the “erosion control” project that requires razing the wild banks and destroying our natural bayou in and around Memorial Park. So let him know what you think about that too. Might be time to bring out the pitchforks pickets and banners.
To be continued.
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.
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.
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.
BPA Claims Not True. Project Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong: Director of Cockrell Butterfly Center
June 25, 2014
On Sunday (June 22) I canoed down Buffalo Bayou with a friend, from Voss to the junction with White Oak Bayou. Seeing this transect of the bayou (which included the section slated for “restoration”) has convinced me that this project is wrong, wrong, wrong on a number of levels: aesthetically, environmentally, and financially. I have heard from proponents of the plan that the erosion in this area is “significant” and that the vegetation is “largely invasive species.” Neither of these claims are true, as far as I could see. Yes, there are areas where some erosion is taking place – but this is natural on a waterway. Property owners all along the bayou have used a variety of different means (immensely less drastic and costly than what is proposed) to shore up their banks and reduce or eliminate erosion. Certainly there were a few non-native species along the banks, but the prevailing vegetation was native vines, sycamores, box elders, and other trees and shrubs native to the area. The cliffs, which would be eliminated in the proposed reconfiguration, are important habitat for nesting kingfishers (which we saw only in this stretch of the bayou). Furthermore, the stretch that borders Memorial Park is the only part of the bayou where natural habitat (and all the animals it contains) borders the watercourse.
It was an awful shock to come out to the areas that have already been modified and “improved” = where no trees overhang the bayou, where graded, grassy slopes come down to the water’s edge, and where there is no semblance of “natural” anywhere. In these areas (from Montrose and farther east) it was hot, exposed, and little wildlife was evident. These “improved” areas were stark and ugly – a human-manipulated landscape with no shade and no wildlife.
I can only imagine the expense of carrying out the proposed “improvements” – and at what environmental cost? Seems to me the River Oaks Country Club could use some of the methods already put in place by homeowners along the bayou’s banks to shore up the areas of concern – leaving the rest alone. Taxpayers should not have to pay for this drastic plan that would have catastrophic and permanent effects on the aesthetics and environmental integrity of Buffalo Bayou along this stretch.
I thoroughly oppose the proposal and hope that you, Mayor Parker and city council members, will stand up to those trying to sell this as an improvement. It is not. Please say no to this proposed “restoration” of Buffalo Bayou.
Nancy Greig, PhD
Director Cockrell Butterfly Center
[Editor’s Note: the BPA is the Bayou Preservation Association, which is promoting this project to destroy the natural beauty of this healthy, functioning stretch of Buffalo Bayou in and around our public Memorial Park.]