The Piles of Concrete Came Down

Country Club Armors High Banks with Chunks of Rubble

August 12, 2015

For months we watched with suspense the towering piles of concrete riprap. They hung heavily over the edge of a high bank on the south side of Buffalo Bayou near the downstream end of one of the loveliest natural stretches of the bayou in the city. It’s a long stretch of the bayou that the Harris County Flood Control District wants to bulldoze and “restore” to a “more natural state,” so we were apprehensive.

A row of small telltale colored flags had first appeared near the waterline here and upstream at the upper limit of the area targeted for flood control’s highly destructive Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

The south bank of the nearly 1.5 mile project area is owned by the River Oaks Country Club, which is a one-third partner in the $6 million public project initiated and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The club, which has nearly completed a renovation of its golf course on the bayou, had long threatened to armor its banks with riprap if the “stabilization” project didn’t go through.

And now the club has carried through on its threat, laying down black plastic sheeting on the steep banks at those two locations downstream and upstream, distributing chunks of concrete on the slopes, and covering the blocks with dirt. Club member Steve Lindley, who is overseeing the riprap work as well as the golf course upgrade for the club, said that the plastic sheeting is porous and biodegradable and that club plans to seed the dirt with grass to keep it from washing away and eventually to plant it with native vegetation such as chili pequin.

Concrete riprap and straw boom on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou at water's edge. Photo taken Aug. 9, 2015.

Concrete riprap, dirt, plastic, and straw boom on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou at water’s edge. Photo taken Aug. 9, 2015.

Most of the north bank of the project is public park, including the natural banks of Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, which would be largely destroyed by the project along with the bayou’s ecosystem. The district’s plan is to scrape some 80 percent of the riparian forest, grade and level the banks including high, very old cliffs and ancient sandstone ledges, and replant them with grass and other things still in the planning. The district would dredge, re-route and deepen the bayou (a section never before channelized), fill in a beautiful meander and cut a new channel through the forest, shortening the bayou.

Still Planning to Participate in the Bulldozing Project

Lindley said the club is still planning to participate in the flood control project, should the project ever receive a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The riprap armoring of the banks, which is one of the most environmentally damaging methods of erosion control  in addition to being really ugly and unnatural, is only temporary, said Lindley. If necessary, the concrete chunks can be reused in the demonstration project, Lindley said.

In its revised permit application to the Corps, the flood control district says that “… isolated bank armoring installed to deflect the erosive shear stress at the point of failure, in most cases, is scoured at one or both of its terminal ends, resulting in eventual failure. This type of armoring redirects stream energy to a new location downstream, creating a new point of stress.” (See page 3.)

The Negatives of Concrete Riprap

Here are some of the other negatives of riprap:

  • May increase potential for flooding and washout downstream because riprap may speed up flow, rather than absorbing water’s energy and slowing it down.
  • Can cause problems for other landowners by deflecting the current against opposite or downstream banks and initiating new erosion.
  • Destroys natural vegetation and habitat on the bank.
  • Cannot absorb pollutants entering stream from runoff.
  • Vegetation is difficult to establish among rocks.
  • Riprapped banks absorb heat and cause water temperatures to rise, particularly on smaller streams, adversely affecting stream habitat.
  • Unnatural appearance.
  • Placement by machine can cause significant disturbance to the sediments and bank soils.

The Corps of Engineers is considering whether to grant a permit application for the project. In order to protect the health of our waters, under the federal Clean Water Act the Corps is responsible for projects that would dredge or fill navigable waters below the Ordinary High Water Mark, their tributaries, and adjacent wetlands.

Some of the club’s riprap and dirt appears to have fallen to the water’s edge, if not into the water, at very low flow, which would appear to be below the Ordinary High Water Mark. There are also wetlands near the foot of the banks being armored.

However, Lindley said the club was careful to keep the armoring above the Ordinary High Water Mark.

Jayson Hudson, regulatory project manager for the Galveston District office of the Corps, said he had referred Save Buffalo Bayou’s concerns to Kenny Jaynes, chief of the compliance branch for the Galveston District. Jaynes has not yet responded.

The club is one of some two dozen private country clubs in Harris County that receive millions of dollars in annual property tax breaks under the state’s Greenbelt Act. (See page 241.)

The Loss of the River Oaks

The high banks on the south side of the bayou were heavily forested until several decades ago when the country club began clear-cutting the mature trees and expanding the golf course up to the edge of the banks, mowing and watering the grass, and building a concrete path close to the edge for motorized vehicles. In the last year, in preparing for the renovation of the golf course, the club killed off most of the grass, including some remaining vegetation on the high banks now being armored, and began running heavy equipment over the grounds, including the high banks.

Unfortunately all of these activities violate Best Management Practices for riparian zones and likely helped to destabilize the high banks.

Watch a slide show of the evolution of the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the proposed project area over the years.

  • Buffalo Bayou in December, 1944. Memorial Park on the north, River Oaks Country Club on the south.
  • Upstream limit of golf course and project area, July 14, 2014. Note trees and vegetation growing on bench below high bank.
  • Buffalo Bayou on Dec. 31, 1977. Forest has been cleared close to the south banks near the upstream and downstream ends of the golf course where erosion problems developed.
  • Same upstream location covered with concrete riprap on August 9, 2015.
  • The same area on March 10, 2011.
  • Looking downstream towards golf course on Aug. 5, 2014. Photo by Jim Olive.
  • Project area on Feb. 11, 2015, during renovation of golf course on south bank.
  • Same area during armoring of bank with concrete riprap on August 9, 2015.
  • Downstream riprap project on south bank on Aug. 9, 2015.
  • Upper bank in same upstream area on Sept. 27, 2014, after killing of vegetation for renovation of golf course.

5 thoughts on “The Piles of Concrete Came Down”

  1. Any one in their right mind can plainly see the club does not care about the bayou. It is an eye sore. I pray mote people would see. And petition The corps of Engineers to stop this unnatural madness.

  2. Howard Rubin says:

    I live on the other side of Buffalo Bayou near Memorial Park. I have concern about this project and possible flooding in our neighborhood with such changes.

    1. Howard,

      Be sure to document and send your concerns to the Harris County Flood Control District, to the Galveston District of the Army Corps of Engineers (look under Violations/Compliance), and to your city and county representatives.

  3. Lisa Johnson says:

    Since the permit has not been issued yet, is this a violation of Section 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lisa. The story about the installation of the riprap was published on Aug. 12, 2015. We apologize for not properly dating our articles in the past.

      The Army Corps of Engineers issued a Clean Water Act Section 404 permit for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project in April 2017. Construction of the demonstration project has not yet begun. But the riprap installed by the River Oaks Country Club was done without a permit from the Corps. We believe that much of it was placed below the Ordinary High Water Mark and should at least have required a permit. The Galveston District of the Corps of Engineers did not respond to our complaints about the placement of the riprap, which was carefully researched and documented by geologist Bill Heins. In addition, the country club apparently did not seek a permit for the riprap from the City of Houston Floodplain Management Office, as no permit is listed on the city website:

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