Bayou Greenway Not So Green

Parks Board Bulldozing Buffalo Bayou, Cutting Trees, Installing Sheet Pile and Concrete

May 14, 2020

The Houston Parks Board has begun scraping vegetation, cutting native willow and cottonwood trees, and bulldozing the north bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream of Shepherd Drive. The plan, according to an announcement, is to widen the bank to its “pre-Harvey” condition and install concrete riprap and sheet pile walls.

The “slope repair” work is part of a four-phase Parks Board project on the bayou bank from Shepherd to the Memorial Park golf course, according to the City building permit.

The area, though partly landscaped, is one of the few stretches of “living” bank in the highly urbanized bayou, home to families of threatened alligator snapping turtles, beavers, alligators, and more. Hardening the bank with concrete and metal destroys wildlife habitat as well as the bank’s natural ability to cleanse and absorb polluted stormwater and sediment. Bank hardening increases erosion and flooding up and down the stream, displacing flow onto other property.

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Large cottonwood, small willow and cottonwood saplings, canebrake and other vegetation being razed by the Houston Parks Board on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream of Shepherd Bridge. Photo May 9, 2020

Because of these negative impacts, the project violates the City’s Floodplain Management Plan (p.6), which requires the protection of the “natural and beneficial function” of our floodway and floodplains, and thus has the potential to reduce the City of Houston’s Community Rating from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (see also here), potentially raising the cost of flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.

Nevertheless, the City’s Floodplain Management Office issued the project a floodplain development permit.

The increasing number of bank hardening projects downstream and upstream (here and here) threatens the life and health of our ancient river, the city’s main waterway, as well as the people who live near it.

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Looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou over the willows, cane, and other native vegetation growing on the narrow strip of land being razed by the Houston Parks Board. Sheet pile walls surrounding the extensive property on the opposite bank in the distance were installed after Harvey by the property owner, a former member of the Parks Board and the current chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. Photo May 9, 2020.

Where is the Greenway?

The Parks Board’s April 30 press release stated that while the project “preserves the potential for a future Bayou Greenways 2020 trail,” the Board “at this time” is “not constructing a greenway or hike-and-bike trail.”

Bayou Greenways 2020 is the Parks Board’s signature project: the installation of 150 miles of wide concrete sidewalks along our mostly mowed, treeless, channelized and concreted bayous. The project has provided Houstonians with much needed areas to bike, jog, and walk, connecting bayous, parks, and neighborhoods. We do wish that more native trees and vegetation would be planted on these shadeless, lifeless bayous. The City’s Natural Resources Management Program, a part of the Parks and Recreation Department, does have projects to restore prairies and the riparian areas of some bayous in city parks.

However, destroying the natural greenery of a bayou in order to create a “greenway” seems counter-productive, to put it mildly. Biodiversity loss is a profound issue worldwide, in urban areas in particular, considered a threat to human health and survival, a factor in epidemics.

While the Parks Board’s announcement says that the “stable” bank will be “planted to match the adjacent landscape,” whatever that means, concrete riprap and metal walls destroy the natural, beneficial functions of the bank and stream. These functions include naturally adjusting and stabilizing itself. In the last three years since Harvey, the bank has done that with deep-rooted plants, native trees and a wall of sturdy cane, now being ripped out.

The Board’s plan to extend the bank and harden it is clearly an attempt to support a wide concrete sidewalk on the bayou’s edge, always a foolish idea.

Safe Route Needed for Hikers, Bikers, Joggers. Access to the Bayou is Good.

Beth White, president of the Parks Board, did not immediately respond to questions about the route of the future “trail” that would connect joggers, hikers, and bikers headed to and from Memorial Park from Buffalo Bayou Park below Shepherd. Certainly a safe path is needed. The sidewalk along Memorial Drive west of Shepherd is narrow, broken, and dangerous. However, along the bayou, the land is narrow, wooded, and other than Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, mostly private.

Recently the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private foundation managing the public park, closed public access to the popular but unofficial trails through the bayou woods on the southeastern side of the park, citing vague safety issues.

Streets for the People

White also did not respond to an invitation to consider less costly and destructive solutions to the trail connection problem. These could include a simple crushed granite path along the existing natural bank, perhaps for pedestrian use only, as heavy bike traffic could be destabilizing. And/or perhaps dedicating a portion of the six-lane Memorial Drive to hikers and bikers. Cities all over the world and the US are setting aside streets for hikers and bikers, particularly in response to the increased pressure to be outside—and in nature–resulting from the pandemic.

Once an Urban Wonderland

The current project is under construction on land behind the Left Bank apartments at 5353 Memorial Drive. The Parks Board around 2018-2019 apparently purchased some 28,000 square feet of bayou frontage behind the apartment complex now valued at around $1.5 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District. Note that that was after Hurricane Harvey.

Read the rest of this post.

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Looking downstream at the vegetated bank and trees being razed to install riprap and sheet pile, potentially to support a future concrete hike and bike trail. Cottonwood surrounded by orange netting is to be saved, though survival is uncertain without supporting vegetation. Photo May 9, 2020

Watch the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Five Days for Free!

Sign Up Now to Watch Online May 11-15

May 7, 2020

The Wild and Scenic Film Festival is one of the year’s most exciting film events. We always look forward to it. Living here in the city, we can learn about, explore, and vicariously adventure all over our wild world.

Locally presented by the Bayou Land Conservancy—and sponsored by Save Buffalo Bayou (among others)—this year’s film event has gone online, like so many other events. Living in a virtual world now.

It’s easy to watch. We recommend it. All you have to do is sign up for the Bayou Land Conservancy’s newsletter, which you would want to do anyway, and they’ll send you a link to watch the films.

The Bayou Land Conservancy works to preserve the natural floodplains along rivers, bayous, and streams in our metropolitan area. We need that. They do an excellent job.

Award-Winning Texas Film

The festival was started almost 20 years ago by a group of activists in California who had succeeded in protecting their river from dams. The South Yuba River Citizens League was founded in 1983 by grassroots activists determined to protect the South Yuba River. Ultimately, they won permanent protections for 39 miles of the South Yuba River under California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

And then they created this film festival.

Among this year’s winners is the Texas-produced The River and the Wall, in the category of Most Inspiring Adventure Film.

So sign up to watch and enjoy. Be informed about what is being done to protect our regional rivers and streams and the vital lands adjacent to them, and why that is important.

Cures Worse Than Problems

Costly, Puzzling Repairs on Buffalo Bayou: How Will This End?

May 7, 2020

There’s talk these days about cures being worse than problems. We think about that when we watch with alarm what the Harris County Flood Control District has been doing to Buffalo Bayou in our lovely public park between Sabine and Shepherd bridges near downtown Houston.

Gouging the banks with bulldozers. Heavy trucks on the bank. Dumping and pounding huge amounts of concrete riprap and dirt onto the slopes and into the channel. For those of us who value the bayou as a living stream, it’s difficult to watch this costly abuse. The bayou will fight back. “Repairs” will continue, at great expense to taxpayers.

And what about the creatures, the giant alligator snapping turtles, the beavers that live on and in the banks, the bats that live under the Waugh Bridge? The Corps of Engineers dismissed any environmental impact in its 2019 approval of this 4,540-foot long project. (p. 1)

A Long History of Abuse

The Flood Control District has been “fixing” these banks for over a decade now.

The current project, billed as fixing “erosion and bank failure caused by Harvey,” is costing the taxpayers some $10 million, virtually  all of it going to the private engineering company Primoris, with an unknown amount having been paid to Jones Carter for the design plans.

The Flood Control District was established in 1937, in large part to assist the Corps of Engineers in stripping, straightening, and concreting our creeks and bayous, then the dominant method of managing flooding, now discredited. (See also here.) But the district’s limited legal tools and authority have hardly changed. Within that narrow framework, its approach has modernized only slightly. With a capital improvement budget of $496 million in Fiscal Year 2019, (p. 2) the district’s main job, seemingly with little oversight, is handing out lucrative contracts to private engineering companies.

Who is to say whether they are doing a good job? Whether this is the most scientific, proven, cost-effective approach? (p. 26)

  • Trucks and backhoe importing heavy riprap and dirt to build base for extended south bank of Buffalo Bayou downstream from the Waugh Bridge. Photo April 13, 2020.
  • View from the Waugh Bridge of backhoes spreading dirt on riprap base extended into and pounded into the channel. Work has now progressed to just beneath the bridge. Photo April 21, 2020
  • New bank has now been covered with dirt. Photo looking downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 27, 2020.
  • Strips of turf grass laid into bank. Photo taken April 29, one day after big rain storm that blew out the riprap bench used by heavy equipment to pass in front of large stormwater drain pipe slightly further downstream.
  • View from the opposite bank of newly rebuilt south bank downstream from Waugh Bridge on April 29, 2020.
  • Turf grass has died but seeded grass is beginning to grow. Photo May 5, 2020
  • Reconstruction has begun on the troublesome south bank below and upstream of the Dunlavy. Photo May 5, 2020

Once A Wooded Stream

Like the flow in a river, the population of Houston is always changing. There are people in the city who think a bayou is a man-made drainage ditch, who do not realize that all our bayous were once forested streams winding through the prairie. They are shocked if you tell them we have alligators, beavers, otter, giant alligator snapping turtles, and more in Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries. These contributing streams include numerous other bayous as well as many small ravines and gullies that make (or made) our local landscape much more undulating than recognized. Many ravines have been filled in and paved over. But the aforementioned water creatures, who have been here longer than we have, do the same work they have always done, part of a timeless mutually-beneficial system.

This stretch of the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine streets was also once a meandering wooded stream, the vegetation on its banks naturally filtering the water for free. In the late 50s the Corps of Engineers scraped the trees and vegetation, bulldozed the banks, and straightened much of the channel, eliminating or reducing many of the meanders.

Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway in 1962 after stripping and channel realignment by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Over time, the trees and vegetation grew back, helping the banks stand firm, replanted by the flowing stream. But the bayou today continues to seek out its original meanders, as rivers will do. Many of the most troublesome areas of bank failure in Buffalo Bayou Park (and elsewhere), requiring repeated repairs, are where the meander bends once were.

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