Corps of Engineers Refuses to Release Environmental Assessment
May 2, 2017
Updated May 3, 2017
Updated May 17, 2017: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment yesterday, May 16. We’ll have a report soon.
The estimated cost of the controversial project to “restore” one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston has doubled to at least $12 million, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
On April 19 the Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers approved a permit allowing the unpopular project to go forward. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the project would raze the trees and vegetation, grade the ancient high banks, dredge and reroute the channel, including altering the curves of the meanders, along more than a mile of the bayou flowing past the public forests and sandy banks of Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The federal permit basically allows an exception to the Clean Water Act.
Opponents of the project question the purpose of it, pointing out the lack of scientific basis and even common sense to flood control district claims that destroying a healthy riparian forest and digging up and rearranging the bayou channel and banks will improve nature and water quality and reduce erosion. In fact, the costly result will be the opposite: the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem and create more erosion and flooding, especially downstream, not to mention cause the wasting of a major, invaluable public asset.
The project, by razing the vegetation and digging up the banks, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do for controlling erosion. And it will fail, requiring expensive repairs and maintenance.
The long-delayed plan was initiated in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association, once an environmental organization and now essentially a lobbying and networking organization for engineering, landscape design, construction and building contractors, commercial and industrial architects, developers and their agents. Two members of the board live in the project area.
The Hershey Foundation, founded by Terry Hershey and her husband Jake, issued a resolution opposing the project in May 2014. Terry Hershey, along with Save Buffalo Bayou’s board president, Frank Smith, were among the original members of the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in the 1960s to oppose a similar though much longer project to channelize the bayou and cover it with concrete from the federal dams upstream all the way to the Shepherd Bridge.
The initial estimate for the current project was $6 million, including $4 million already contributed by city and county taxpayers and $2 million to be paid by members of the River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south half of the project area. The Memorial Park Conservancy is also promoting the project. One-third of the 27 members of the board of the conservancy are also members of the country club, including the board chairman, Steve Jenkins, vice chairman, Wendy Hines, and treasurer, Mindy Hildebrand.
“The original project funding was established in 2010,” the project manager for the flood control district, Jason Krahn, explained in a recent email through a district representative. “The District’s Construction Manager speculates that the project, including contingencies, could cost double the currently funded amount. The Construction Manager expects to have a better idea of the final costs once they are allowed to formally bid the project out to the contracting community and receive actual bids to conduct the work.”
At least four major engineering firms have been involved so far. The Construction Manager is SpawGlass, which is working with Shamrock Environmental Corporation of North Carolina, according to the flood control district. Stantec, one of the world’s largest engineering firms, in 2016 acquired the previous engineering firm KBR, which had provided the design services for the project. Atkins is responsible for the Monitoring Plan. (p. 60)
A Historic Nature Area: A Public Trust
The nature area to be razed and rebuilt as a “demonstration project” is the longest, publicly accessible, forested and never channelized stretch of the bayou in the middle of Houston. It contains ancient high bluffs and sandstone formations and is considered a historic nature area. Filled with wildlife, it is one of the few places in Houston where the public can observe the city’s natural history and geology, as well as the natural process of a living river. It is extremely rare to have a public stretch of forested river running through the center of a large city.
The flood control district, the sponsor of the project, is legally responsible for the “conservation of forests” under its 1937 state charter.
Corps Refusing to Release Assessment of Impact on the Environment
(Update May 17: The Corps sent us the Environmental Assessment on May 16. We’ll have a report on that soon.)