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.
It’s Not Dead Yet
Flood Control Still Pushing Costly, Destructive “Stabilization” Project on Buffalo Bayou
July 31, 2016
It’s a pointless, wasteful, ill-conceived, and maybe illegal project to rip up and raze trees and plants and wildlife habitat, dig up the banks, plug up tributaries, dredge and reroute the channel along one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. This is a dreamy stretch of the river in the middle of the city, filled with beaver, otter, alligators, fish and flying creatures, and even edible plants. It flows for more than a mile past our great public Memorial Park, a natural detention area and significant geologic site that features very old high bluffs and sandstone formations. All of which would be obliterated.
And after almost three years of adamant public opposition, the Harris County Flood Control District is still promoting the project, which will cost the taxpayers at least $4 million plus, not including future costs of maintenance and repair.
It’s mystifying why they want to do this, why they think it would even work, why they don’t realize that the bayou would wash it away or that it would simply all slump away, as has happened in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, where taxpayers are footing the ever-mounting bill for constantly repairing the banks dug up and stripped of trees and vegetation by Flood Control.
Do They Not Have More Urgent Problems?
Surely, the flood control district has more urgent problems that require our hard-earned tax money. Harris County is one of the most flooded places in the country. And this project, billed as a “stabilization” and “bank restoration” program, will do nothing to address flooding and could even make it worse. The county should focus on the hundreds of miles of channelized bayous and streams unwisely covered in now-aging concrete that should be restored to something more natural and beneficial.
The project, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was first proposed in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association under then board chair, Kevin Shanley, landscape architect and principal with SWA Group, the firm responsible for the ugly, obtrusive bridges, collapsing sidewalks, poorly-functioning dog park and non-functioning faux Hill Country fountain and stream in Buffalo Bayou Park.
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?
It’s for the Birds
Report on Plans for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on Buffalo Bayou
May 11, 2016
First the positives about the presentation Monday evening, May 9, by the Houston Parks Board about plans for the little-known 15.56-acre nature preserve on Buffalo Bayou known as the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.
The sanctuary at the end of Westcott Street south of Memorial Drive is probably better recognized as the mostly impenetrable woods next to the parking lot for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, located across the bayou, accessible by a footbridge. Bayou Bend is the former home of the Hogg Family, who developed River Oaks and in 1924, along with partner Henry Stude, sold at cost to the city the 1,503 acres that became Memorial Park. (The Hogg Brothers also sold to the city at cost 133.5 acres of land intended to be part of Hermann Park. In 1943 the city sold that land for the establishment of the Medical Center, which provoked the continuing ire of their sister, Ima Hogg.) Ima Hogg, a cultural and civic leader and one of the city’s most revered philanthropists, donated the family house and gardens to the museum in 1957 and then donated to the City of Houston the woods on the north side of the bayou as a nature preserve.
Ima Hogg a Defender of Nature and Public Parks
Ima Hogg, who died in 1975, was also an ardent conservationist, early civil rights activist, mental health activist, and defender of park space for the public, in particular Memorial and Hermann parks. In her letters to city officials over the years, available in the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, she described her firm belief that woodland parks should be kept as natural as possible and criticized in a 1964 letter to then Mayor Louie Welch, who famously thought public parks unnecessary, the “alarming situation” of rapidly diminishing park areas in Houston and “throughout America,” including through construction in the parks by “worthy institutions” that really ought to look for building sites elsewhere, she wrote. Miss Ima was still angry that the city had “relinquished so much of the acreage” in Memorial Park for highways and a golf course and in an earlier letter to then city director of public works, Eugene Maier, demanded that the money the city received from the state for the highway land be used to acquire and improve additional park sites. Let’s guess that probably didn’t happen.
Out on the Bayou with the Boy Scouts
Documenting Wildlife Tracks and Weird Nature Stuff
April 6, 2016
We went out with Paul Hung and his band of intrepid Boy Scouts last week to document wildlife tracks on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
We saw a lot of interesting things, including footprints of mysterious creatures behaving in puzzling ways, some strange yellow liquid, and flying seat cushions nesting in the trees.
This was the second outing for Paul and his teen-aged colleagues from Boy Scout Troop 55, Sam Houston Area Council. For his Eagle Scout Service Project, Paul proposed documenting the wildlife on the bayou as it flows along the southern edge of Memorial Park. Save Buffalo Bayou is the beneficiary, and we hope to publish Paul’s results as a pamphlet.
Fortunately the flow was very low, less than 200 cubic feet per second, which is about base flow in the bayou when it hasn’t been raining. The Army Corps of Engineers assured us in advance that the reservoirs in the dams upstream were empty, and barring any unforeseen weather event, the water would be low enough for us to see plenty of activity on the mud and sand of the banks. Which we did.
Paul was well organized. He handed out clipboards, small rulers, and post-it notes, and instructed his fellow scouts to use these with the GPS app on their cell phones to take photos and number and record the size of tracks. The group was divided into pairs in canoes. A few adults went along too, including Richard Hung, father of Paul, and Troop 55 Assistant Scoutmaster Janice Van Dyke Walden.
There were tracks everywhere. Creatures crawling, slithering, hopping and tiptoeing across the sand, burrowing, strolling, turning about and flying away; digging holes, chasing each other, stepping and sliding in and out of the water.
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 the Beaver
We Tried to Find Out
Feb. 13, 2016
Many people were concerned about the mysterious death of the beaver on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou opposite the Arboretum.
The beaver’s corpse was discovered Saturday, Jan. 30, by a group of Boy Scouts documenting wildlife on the bayou as it passes by Memorial Park, an area threatened by a project proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would destroy much of the wildlife habitat along some 1.25 miles of the bayou as it passes by the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering whether to issue a permit for this project, which would otherwise be prohibited under the federal Clean Water Act.
Yes, there are beavers on Buffalo Bayou, and yes, animals do die. We mourn the loss of any creature. But the circumstances of the death of this beaver, which looked otherwise young and healthy, was puzzling, and there was good reason to try to identify the cause. So several days later, we tried.
An anonymous friend generously offered to pay for a necropsy of the beaver. We contacted a veterinarian who was ready to perform it. Where to store the body? Someone volunteered her freezer. Another member of our team went out of his way to climb down the banks and locate the beaver’s corpse using GPS coordinates. By chance a veterinarian happened to be in the vicinity, as the area was near an animal clinic on West Loop 610.
Alas, the corpse was too far gone for a necropsy.
One of our naturalist experts said that while beavers do have accidents (chopping down a tree that falls on top of them, for instance) he agreed that the strange place and position of the beaver was suspicious. He suggested that though there were no obvious signs of trauma when discovered, the beaver might have been shot and tossed. A small caliber bullet hole might not be noticed, he pointed out.
Thus ends the tale of the beaver body on Buffalo Bayou.