Remodeling Nature’s Landscape

What’s Happening to the Banks in Buffalo Bayou Park

Will It Last? Removing Invasives is a Good Thing

April 20, 2023

It looked terrible. Dead stalks sticking out of the ground, banks denuded and sprayed with blue-green herbicide.

People have been wondering what’s been happening in Houston’s beloved Buffalo Bayou Park between Sabine and Shepherd streets.

It’s the work of the Harris County Flood Control District and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the public nonprofit which manages the 160-acre city-owned park along with Flood Control. The good news is that a large part of what they have been doing is removing invasive species, like Johnson grass and other noxious, domineering stuff that floats down the river from yards and fields. They’ve been “stabilizing” the bank with biodegradable coir logs and in the last few weeks spraying native seed mix on the bare banks.

South bank of Buffalo Bayou downstream of the Dunlavy in Buffalo Bayou Park, April 10, 2023.

It’s all part of a $960,000 Harris County plan, in the works since 2019, called the “Buffalo Bayou Park Revegetation and Biostabilization Project.” The goal is to revegetate the banks of Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street and provide enhanced natural infrastructure to Buffalo Bayou Park, particularly in those areas scraped and bulldozed by Flood Control in 2019-20.

For that $10 million federally-funded “repair” project, Flood Control removed native vegetation and lined sections of the banks with concrete rubble, known as riprap, even though the design engineer, Jones Carter (now known as Quiddity), apparently rejected riprap, (p. 4). Even Flood Control in the past has rejected riprap, (p. 6) as well as the US Army Corps of Engineers (p. 4), and numerous other federal agencies. For more explanation of why riprap damages the stream, the environment, can even contribute to bank failure and increase flooding, see page 7.

Of course, the river has its own ancient and purposeful landscaping plan: first colonizing and stabilizing plants, working in succession, turning sand into soil, preparing the way for drifting willows and other native trees. But humans have other landscaping ideas. We’ll see how long those human plans last.

The Planting Project

We visited the project with Gabriela Sosa, since 2021 the conservation manager for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Dr. Sosa grew up in Brownsville, on the Texas coast, where she was inspired to pursue a career in ecology by the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. “I didn’t know ecology could be a career,” she said.

Her vision for the park is a “wildlife corridor” for birds and other creatures, including humans. A “greenspace in the middle of downtown.”

“Most people don’t get to see nature,” she said, as we toured the project in a golfcart, getting out to inspect elderberry bushes, Maximilian sunflowers, lantana, sorrel, late boneset, and more.

Dr. Gabriela Sosa loving elderberry in Buffalo Bayou Park. March 16, 2023

She was enthusiastic about keeping the elderberry, as we inspected the bush along the Greentree Nature Area on the north bank. “Previously we would have mowed the elderberry. But it’s great habitat for birds. We’re keeping it.”

In addition to killing off or removing invasive species like Johnson grass, elephant ear, castor bean, and Chinaberry trees, the project has removed swathes of native plants like ragweed, goldenrod, other types of sunflowers and more. Her objection was that those plants take over and dominate, shading out other plants. The goal is more diversity. And more deep-rooted plants, she said, pointing to the roots of an uprooted sunflower. Workers have been carefully picking out ragweed and sunflowers on the lush banks of the bayou. In other areas, however, the banks have been sprayed with an “aquatic-label” herbicide, meaning it’s been approved for use near streams. Technically, according to Flood Control, it’s Roundup Custom for Aquatic and Terrestrial Use, which is glyphosate, a controversial herbicide banned in some countries, cities and states.

Read the rest of this post.

A Great Man is Gone

April 7, 2023

(Updated with link to the obituary in the Houston Chronicle.)

Frank Chesley Smith Jr. has croaked.

Well, he joked that if there had to be an obituary, that’s what it should say.

In fact, Frank died peacefully at his Houston home Thursday, April 6, after a long life of service dedicated to nature and public access to it, to architecture and engineering, to flying, sailing, and driving with the top down. He was 101. And here’s the lovely obituary that was published in the Houston Chronicle.

Known to family and friends as Paco, Frank was the founding board president of Save Buffalo Bayou and our guiding light. He remained alert and engaged until the very last.

Read this 2016 profile of the remarkable and irreplaceable Frank Smith:

Frank Smith, Conservationist: A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down

Frank Smith, photographed on Buffalo Bayou by Jim Olive, May 5, 2016