Down on the Bayou in Summertime
Documenting the Changes on that Bend in the River
July 5, 2021
The silver threads suspended across our path glistened in the early morning sun. We apologized for smashing through the delicate traps the spiders had worked on during the night, weaving the nearly invisible sticky webs from one side of the narrow trail to the other.
It was just after sunrise on a hot summer morning, though technically we had a couple of days to go before the official start of summer. Our devoted photographer Jim Olive was finally back in town, and we were walking down a dirt path between tall pines and thick stands of cherry laurel, yaupon and young American beautyberry, headed towards that bend in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou we have been documenting since the spring of 2014. (See the entire series here.)
Apparently we were the first large creatures on this unofficial trail through Memorial Park’s bayou woods this morning. These public woods are technically closed by the private Memorial Park Conservancy, with ever increasing wire and wooden fencing and piles of cut branches blocking the entrances from the parking lots off the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive. But the popular, long-established path was obviously well used and even maintained by anonymous volunteers. It’s true, however, that hiking or running along the edge of the high bank is destabilizing. It’s best to keep to the interior of the woods.
We reached our spot on the high bank. Jim set up his tripod and waited for just the right light. The assistant wandered off, as usual.
The cicadas sang in the trees, a rattling rising and falling. Beneath the towering sycamores, oaks, cottonwoods, elm, and pine, the woods were populated with blossoming dewberries, elderberries, mulberry, as well as the aforementioned beautyberry.
We heard excited young female voices. We walked downstream towards the nearby sandy creek and found two fit young women using the rope swing suspended from the trees above the stream to cross from one bank to the other. Usually the water is clear and the flow low enough simply to step and jump across. The creek is one of the main tributaries draining and flowing from the center of Memorial Park into the bayou. (See this 1955 topographic map of Buffalo Bayou flowing between Memorial Park and the River Oaks Country Club.)
Here is another lovely photo Jim took, in addition to the above photo of the bend. This is looking upstream at the River Oaks Country Club golf course, in recent years stripped of trees, graded, and reinforced with sheet pile and concrete in three areas, much to the detriment of the bayou and the public.
Regional Flood Planning Meeting July 8 to Select New Members
Planners Developing Interactive Flood Map to Gather Info from Public
Also: Bayou Bank Destruction/Repair Underway at Bayou Bend
And Public Parks Board Holds Public Meeting. Public Attends.
July 1, 2021
The executive committee of the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group has completed interviews with over a dozen candidates for two new voting positions. At the end of its executive session on June 25, outgoing Chair Russ Poppe announced that the committee had voted to recommend Rachel Powers for the Environmental Interests position and Neil Gaynor for the new Upper Watershed position.
The full committee will vote on the recommendations at its next meeting July 8. See here for the agenda and how to sign up for the meeting and make public comments.
Rachel Powers has been the executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition for eight years. Prior to that she was a senior environmental planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council for five years and before that a community services coordinator for the Harris County Flood Control District. She also worked for the Hermann Park Conservancy and the Mercer Botanic Garden.
If approved she will be taking the seat of Sarah Bernhardt, a landscape architect and urban planner specializing in coastal and environmental planning, recently the chief executive officer of the Bayou Preservation Association, who has resigned to move to Alaska.
Neil Gaynor is a geologist, president of the Montgomery County Utility District 6, board member of the Grogan’s Mill Village Association in The Woodlands, and a member of the community’s One Water Task Force, focused on regional drainage issues.
New Chair and Voting Member Sought
Having resigned as executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District effective July 2, Poppe has also resigned as the chair and flood control district representative to the San Jacinto planning group effective July 2, according to Fatima Berrios, assistant project manager in the Harris County Engineering Department. Until the next chair is selected, Vice Chair Alia Vinson will act as interim chair. The county is sending out a solicitation notice for any interested parties to submit their application for the “Flood District” voting member position.
Engage in Flood Planning
At the July 8 meeting the regional flood planning group will also consider proposals developed for the technical committee by the engineering firm Freese and Nichols to solicit flooding information from the public. The firm has developed an interactive flood map as well as a survey and a webpage to upload data. The information would go towards developing the regional flood plan by January 2023, which will in turn be incorporated into the state’s first flood plan.
The San Jacinto group is one of fifteen regional groups established by the Texas Water Development Board in 2020 to develop a state plan to manage flood risk.
Trees, Vegetation, Bank Removed at Bayou Bend on Buffalo Bayou
The Museum of Fine Arts has begun its long-planned, controversial and costly project to rebuild the high bank of Buffalo Bayou below the historic Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens.
Here is a recent photo and a video taken on June 21 at high flow, over 2,000 cubic feet per second, as the Corps of Engineers was continuing to release stormwater into the bayou from the federal flood control dams in west Houston.
Watch the short video here.
Bigger Bank Project Slated for Historic Woods of Memorial Park
The bank project was designed by Stantec, which is also designing a controversial bank stabilization project in the little-known Old Archery Range of Memorial Park that would cut through meanders and scrape and grade the ancient high banks and nearly half the property. This small wooded section of the park off Woodway west of Loop 610 is the site of a public boat ramp as well as historic remnants of an old brick factory, a farmhouse, and Boy Scout camp. Filled with wildlife, it is the site of at least two ancient sandstone crossings used by indigenous people, settlers, and bison to ford the bayou (Dutchman’s Crossing going west and Indian Crossing going south).
It is also one of the only remaining areas where the public can observe the geologic history of our city as revealed in the banks of the bayou, as well as witness the natural process of a living river, even as it responds dynamically to the changes caused by urban development.
Related: When Making Mistakes Is Profitable
The museum’s bank work downstream is taking place below the former home and garden of philanthropist and conservationist Ima Hogg, accessible to the public through the public parking lot in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary at the end of Westscott Street. Hogg also donated the 15.5 acres for the bird sanctuary. In 1924 her family sold to the city at cost the nearly 1500 acres that is now Memorial Park, and Hogg, with the help of our founding board president Frank C. Smith Jr, Terry Hershey and others, continued to protect it until her death in 1975.
Brief Public Parks Board Meeting, No Questions Answered Yet
We managed to attend the very brief meeting of the public Houston Parks Board, which is different from the private parks board foundation, though they are basically the same people. The meeting took place virtually (it was real but online) on June 22 and lasted about 25 minutes. Unfortunately we were not admitted to the meeting until about 10 minutes after it started.
In any case the meeting was significant because the public parks board has only recently begun posting notices about its meetings, required by the Open Meetings Act, online on the website of the private foundation.
Interestingly, though the next meeting of the public board is scheduled for Sept. 28, according to a spokesperson for the private foundation, this meeting is not now posted on the foundation’s Events calendar, though later events are posted. Possibly because the parks board is required legally only to post a notice a minimum of seventy-two hours before the meeting, as noted in an email to us by City Director of Boards and Commissions Maria Montes. So why give the public more notice?
We do appreciate the work the parks board is doing to create more public access to our bayous. We don’t think the parks board should destroy our bayou in order to do it. And we think the public and private parks boards should be separate, as they are in most major cities, including Texas, with the public board representing a diversity of communities, instead of real estate, developer, and financial interests.
We had some questions for the public parks board at the June 22 meeting. These included:
Where can we find the bylaws for the parks board?
Who are the elected officers?
Where are the minutes?
Will the parks board have regularly scheduled meetings?
What are the plans for a Bayou Greenway on Buffalo Bayou? Has the Parks Board considered alternate routes, like asking for a dedicated lane on Memorial Drive? Using the powerline right of way through the forest?
Equity is an important issue today. What is the parks board’s plan for more equitable representation on the board from diverse neighborhoods and communities around the city?
Barron Wallace, who is the chairman of both the public and private board, asked someone to respond by email to the questions posed by us and others. So far we have not had any response.