Late Winter on the Bayou

Plus Houston Stronger Survey, Scenic Houston Panel Discussion About Buffalo Bayou, Flood Planning Vacancies, Resiliency, and More

March 7, 2021

Our famous photographer Jim Olive was back in town, so a few days ago we went out into the woods in the drizzle just after dawn to photograph that bend in the bayou in late winter for our years-long series documenting the same bend through the seasons. The backup photographer, fearing that winter would soon be over despite the record freeze, had taken a sunny interim photo, which received some criticism from the master. (“Too flat,” he said.)

But now we were standing in a parking lot off the Picnic Lane/Loop in Memorial Park in the middle of Houston staring at sawed-up pieces of a big, old oak tree, new wooden fencing reinforced with moss-covered oak limbs, and a pile of sawdust.

New wooden fencing in front of wire fencing blocking popular footpath through the bayou woods in Memorial Park. Photo March 2, 2021 by SC

Apparently it is a priority of the Memorial Park Conservancy to keep people off these lovely trails. In addition to a new wooden fence, there was extensive wire fencing winding along the edge of the tangled woods.

We found a way in, noting the tiny buds of green in the trees. Jim set up his borrowed tripod, and we waited for just the right light in the fog.

Jim Olive’s photo of that bend in the bayou in late winter. March 2, 2021

Conservancy Plans to Bulldoze, Smother the Bank

We couldn’t help but notice a couple of the conservancy’s Keep Out signs someone had tossed down the bank. The photographer’s helper wandered downstream a bit, contemplating the slumped, eroded bank, the colors of the revealed earth, the powerful forces that shaped the irregular mounds and valleys of the downward sloping bank. This was an area damaged by the Harris County Flood Control District when it removed the stabilizing woody debris, scraped and mucked around in the channel with an excavator and barge during its “maintenance” operations after Harvey.

Studying the slump brought back poignant memories of playing on the wild sandy bank of the bayou as a child in Houston, of being in awe of the force of nature, that early sense of the bayou as a living thing. It was a rare learning experience to have, and a privilege.

These memories were prompted by the sad news that the conservancy is planning to bulldoze and “restore,” smothering and landscaping the public banks of the bayou in the Old Archery Range, a small section of the park west of the 610 Loop off Woodway Drive.

We’ll have more on that soon. But as a historical note, an earlier, far more enlightened and ecologically sensitive master plan for Memorial Park in 2004 (the current plan dates from 2014-15) said that “the recommended course of action for the Bayou is simply to leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature. Possible solutions such as concrete surfacing and decreasing the bank slope would only destroy the habitat value and visual amenity of the bayou and conflict with the ability to observe natural process.” (p. 11)

Houston Stronger Survey due Tuesday, March 9

Houston Stronger is a coalition of civic groups and business associations in the Houston region that came together after Harvey in 2017 to advocate for flood and storm resiliency.  A major flood problem during Harvey was too much stormwater flowing too fast into Barker and Addicks reservoirs in west Houston. The normally dry reservoirs drain into Buffalo Bayou.

In response, last October the US Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates those flood control dams, announced a tentative proposal to build a new dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek and the Katy Prairie and deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou for some 22 miles from the dams all the way to downtown.

The Corps’ Interim Plan was widely unpopular, and while continuing to gather public input, they are working on the next draft due out in late spring or early summer. In the meantime Houston Stronger has come up with an alternative to the Corps’ proposals. It includes elements of a plan proposed by the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which is part of the Houston Stronger group. Both plans include digging a 23-mile long tunnel, perhaps 40-feet wide, to take stormwater from Addicks and/or Barker dams to the Houston Ship Channel.

Save Buffalo Bayou is opposed to a $4 billion flood tunnel, which has no ancillary public benefit, among other problems, and favors a stronger focus on slowing the flow of stormwater from commercial and residential property into streams that feed into the reservoirs. SBB supports other elements of the Houston Stronger/Katy Prairie plans, including expanding, protecting, and restoring the Katy Prairie.

Houston Stronger is asking for public feedback on its plan, called the Buffalo Bayou Community Plan. So take a look at the plan and answer the eight questions in their brief survey by Tuesday, March 9, if possible.

Here is a link to the Houston Stronger Plan. Here is a link to the survey.

Resilient Houston One-Year Update

The City of Houston has released a one-year update on the progress of its Resilient Houston Plan. The plan, released in February 2020, addressed climate, housing, health, flooding, neighborhoods, parks, and more.

According to a press release from Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office, “56 of 62 prioritized actions (90%) are in progress, five actions (8%) are paused or haven’t started, and one action (2%) is complete.”

Open Positions on Regional Flood Planning Group, Meeting March 11

The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group is looking for two new members.

In April 2020 the Texas Water Development Board set up 15 regional groups to help formulate regional and state flood plans.

The San Jacinto Region 6 includes Harris, Montgomery, Galveston, and parts of Brazoria, Fort Bend, Waller, Grimes, Walker, San Jacinto, Liberty, and Chambers counties.

The two new positions are in the Coastal Communities and Public categories. Nominations are due by March 26.

Here are the current members of San Jacinto Region 6 Flood Planning Group. See also here.

The next meeting of the group is March 11 at 9 a.m.

Scenic Houston Panel with Developers, Environmental Attorney Jim Blackburn, and SBB, March 23

Scenic Houston is sponsoring a panel discussion about Buffalo Bayou titled “Don’t Mess with Buffalo Bayou.” The free event takes place online March 23 from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m.

The panelists are environmental attorney and Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, also founder of the Bayou City Initiative; Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, Guy Hagstette, senior vice-president of parks and civic projects for the Kinder Foundation, and David Ott, Texas development director for the Hanover Company.

Marlene Gafrick, chair of Scenic Houston and director of planning for MetroNational, an investment, development, and management firm, will moderate the discussion, which will focus on the history and design of the bayou, responsible development and threats to it.

Here is how to register. Please join the discussion!


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