Update on Puzzling Project to Bulldoze Wild Buffalo Bayou

Damaging, Expensive, Contradictory Plan Still Threatens

Conflicts Still Apparent, Purpose Still Unclear

No Permit Yet

October 8, 2015

The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to largely critical public comments to the Army Corps of Engineers about Flood Control’s misguided project to destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, a most remarkable asset to have in the middle of a city. The Corps is reviewing the Flood Control District’s responses, says Jayson Hudson, who has been the Corps’ Galveston District project manager for the permit application.

Flood Control must apply for a permit from the Corps of Engineers because the Clean Water Act requires the Corps to ensure that projects on federal waters do not damage the health of our waters. Federal waters are defined as navigable streams (Buffalo Bayou) up to the Ordinary High Water Mark, their tributaries and adjacent wetlands, all of which form the great living veins and arteries of our limited water supply. Some studies argue that all riparian areas , the highly biologically diverse natural gardens and forests along stream banks so vital for clean water, should be considered protected wetlands .

This beautiful meander, a natural detention area, would be filled in and graded, the woods and high cliffs destroyed, and the entire floodplain area obliterated by a permanent road. Aerial photo on Oct. 3, 2015, by Jim Olive

This beautiful meander, a natural storm water detention area, would be filled in and graded, the woods and high cliffs destroyed, and the entire floodplain area obliterated by a permanent road. Aerial photo on Oct. 2, 2015, by Jim Olive

Flood Control’s proposed $6 million project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would remove the trees and vegetation along some 80 percent of nearly 1.25 miles of Buffalo Bayou as it meanders past our public Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary in the center of the city, including along a tributary in the sanctuary. The “erosion control” project would dredge and deepen the channel, dig up and level the banks, including magnificent, very old high cliffs, ancient sandstone formations, sandy beaches, wetlands and natural floodplain detention areas. It would dam tributaries, fill in an oxbow, reroute and shorten the channel, speeding up storm water, destroying the bayou’s ecosystem and likely causing greater erosion within the reach and downstream.

The argument is sometimes made that fish and wildlife will return after their habitat and ecosystem are destroyed. Flood Control even claims (see page 41) to have conducted “before and after aquatic biological studies” on several of its Natural Stable Channel Design projects (some of which are failing; see below) and that the results were “positive.”  Independent academic studies, however, have found that “[c]urrent stream restoration science is not adequate to assume high rates of success in recovering ecosystem functional integrity” and that “the assumption ‘if you build it they will come’ lacks support of empirical studies.”

Demonstrating Exactly the Wrong Thing to Do

According to Flood Control, the rational for destroying and engineering this historic natural area filled with wildlife is to “stabilize” and “restore” the banks, “improve” nature, and demonstrate to landowners on the bayou, who have used a variety of methods for stopping erosion of their property, a superior or uniform method of erosion control on the bayou banks.

But landowners on the bayou have problems with erosion of their property when they strip the trees and vegetation from the banks for views of the bayou and landscape the banks, as Flood Control proposes to do.

Flood Control plans to demonstrate to landowners exactly the wrong thing to do to protect their property.

Trees and vegetation growing naturally on stream banks form the riparian forest or buffer, which is vital for erosion control, absorbing and slowing rainfall and runoff, shading, filtering, and cleansing the water of pollutants and bacteria, slowing storm waters, collecting debris and sediment for rebuilding the banks, and providing fish and wildlife habitat. Digging up and running heavy equipment over the banks also destroys the soil structure and microbiome. Virtually every state and federal resource agency opposes the destruction of riparian areas as Flood Control proposes to do.

Watch this moving and highly informative short documentary, titled Letting the River Heal, about the devastating Memorial Day flood and riparian areas on the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas.

River Oaks Country Club Loses Patience, Armors Cliffs on South Bank

The River Oaks Country Club owns the entire south side of the project, a largely forested area of sandy beaches and steep, high banks leading to a plateau that has been mostly stripped and converted to golf course greens, contributing to erosion of the high banks. The club is a one-third partner in the project and is donating $2 million towards the initial cost. City and county taxpayers are paying the remaining $4 million. The project, however, will require ongoing maintenance, monitoring, and repair. Similar projects in the county  and elsewhere have failed and washed out.

In August, however, the club, which has been upgrading its golf course, decided to go ahead and place concrete riprap on its high banks at the upper and lower limits of its property. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, armoring with riprap is one of the most environmentally damaging methods of erosion control.

Bulldozing Project Conceived and Promoted by Non-Profit Bayou Preservation Association While Board Members Profit from Contracts with Flood Control

Flood Control responded to comments received during a second period of public comment from May to June. Including the initial period of public comment in June of 2014, the Corps has received hundreds of comments opposing or critical of the project, including comments from scientists and public agencies as well as a petition of 2,656 signatures, which the Corps counted as one comment. The project, however, remains largely unchanged.

Most of the far fewer comments supporting the project came from members of the River Oaks Country Club or the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), which was founded in the Sixties to oppose similar destructive projects by the Flood Control District and the Corps. Comments supporting the project emphasized an alleged absence of overhanging tree canopy as a rationale for removing trees from the bayou banks.

SC Vista green

Overhanging tree canopy on Buffalo Bayou in the proposed destruction area. Memorial Park on the left. Photo July 2014.

Then, there’s this. (Overhanging black willow tree cut on south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the project area. Photo taken Aug. 30, 2015.)

For further irony, this project was conceived and initiated by the BPA, mainly by its influential former president, Kevin Shanley, president and principal of SWA Group, the Houston-based firm that created the landscape design for the recently opened $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park downstream between the Shepherd and Sabine bridges. That two-mile stretch between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway  had long ago been deforested and channelized, although the self-healing bayou had nourished and replanted the banks over the years and continues to do so. The Flood Control District spent $5 million to remove much of this riparian vegetation and trees, dredge the channel and dig up and grade the banks, weakening the banks and causing erosion problems and the continuing loss of healthy, mature trees as well as newly planted trees.

SWA Group has been on contract for landscape and graphics services with the Flood Control District since 2004. According to documents received through a Public Information request, Flood Control has paid SWA over $140,000 through February 2015, including a payment of $6,102.50 (of which $350 went to Kevin Shanley) for graphics work on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project in November 2014. Invoices were sent to Carolyn White of the Flood Control District, who is on the advisory board of the BPA, as is Mike Talbott, director of Flood Control. Shanley also remains on the advisory board.

The BPA, now heavy with developers, contractors, and engineers, is still the main promoter for destroying the healthy riparian forest in Memorial Park, one of the loveliest and last natural stretches of the bayou remaining in the city. The project would dig up, fill in, and grade the banks, raze and landscape them with grass and new, young trees. The president of BPA, Robert Rayburn, is development director for the Energy Corridor District, which promotes real estate development in West Houston, a leading cause of increased surface runoff, flooding, and drainage into Buffalo Bayou. Until recently, the manager of the Memorial Park project for KBR, the consulting engineer hired by Flood Control, was on the board of the BPA, as are representatives of other companies that do business on drainage, highway and other projects with Flood Control, the City and the County. Two board members are property owners whose property on the bayou will be “restored” at taxpayer expense by the controversial project initiated by the BPA.

It was only this year that the non-profit BPA adopted a Conflict of Interest policy, although the policy deals only with direct financial conflicts resulting from contracts with the BPA itself, not with the organization’s actions or positions that benefit board members.

The Best Solution: Let Us Have Both Experiences

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has made some very strong criticisms in 2014 and 2015 of Flood Control’s proposed plan for this lovely, forested stretch of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial park, must certify that the project meets state surface water quality standards.

The Army Corps of Engineers rarely denies a permit. But bad projects can fade away. Otherwise, a permit approval will have to be challenged in court.

The best solution would be to leave it be.  Allow both bayou experiences. Let this messy, awe-inspiring, low-maintenance natural stretch of our 18,000-year-old bayou, so critical to a healthy environment and filled with winding narrow bike and foot paths through dense, mysterious woods, stand as a contrast to the landscaped, clean and orderly, overly lighted stretch of the bayou with its grassy open spaces, rose gardens, Space Age bridges, event spaces, artificial ponds and imitation Hill Country streams, and concrete and asphalt pathways.

6 thoughts on “Update on Puzzling Project to Bulldoze Wild Buffalo Bayou”

  1. Gary L. Greene says:

    Leave it alone. Don’t let River Oaks money sway this decision.

  2. Rebecca Allen says:

    Thanks for the update! The last paragraph might be the way to convince people this is an ill advised project, despite the stronger environmental impact argument, this stretch of the bayou is Low Maintenance. Contrast that with the area east of Shepherd with projected maintenance costs of 200,000 per year. I pray this project fades away.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. Low maintenance is definitely a strong point, especially considering the costs of proposed scientific monitoring and inevitable repair after destruction of the ecosystem and construction of the “new nature” on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.

      Please note that while the cleanup of Buffalo Bayou Park after the Memorial Day flood may have cost $200,000, according to the Houston Chronicle (Glentzer, 9.30.15), the overall maintenance budget for that landscaped park (and flood control project) east of Shepherd is $2 million per year. That’s $12,500 per acre per year. All paid by city taxpayers.

  3. R McCarty says:

    They should take a look at what WA state is doing. Years ago they spent millions to straighten and dredge several rivers including the Sammamish River to supposedly prevent flooding and built plain, boring grassy parks with non native “decorative” trees. Then over the years they spent millions more to keep the rivers in their unnatural courses. All while the bird, fish and wildlife populations plummeted.

    Finally they realized that fish need gravel beds in shallow water to spawn in, the gravel and shallow water protects the eggs and keeps them at the right temperature needed for the eggs to hatch. The hatchling fish then need secluded pools of slightly deeper water and deadfall trees to congregate under, this is where they will be safe from the predators in the main flow of the river while they grow. The birds also need trees with snags, or hollows in them or dead tops, to perch on and to build nests in/on, the pretty little decorative park trees just don’t fit the bill and they don’t soak up all the water during heavy rains. So now they’re spending millions of dollars to add back the bends in the river, the gravel areas, the deadfall trunks and brush, and the right type of native trees, all to help the fish, bird, and wildlife population and to prevent flooding of certain areas where the too straight river gets too much water volume all at once because the water goes so fast down the man-made straight channel and overflows it’s banks.

    1. Important information. Thanks!

  4. Renee Smith says:

    I absolutely LOVE Buffalo Bayou and Terry Hershey and Terry Hershey Park! ….keep the park…the trees…and wildlife…do not cut anymore trees or anything detrimental to the bayou and it’s surroundings. Please save this absolute “gem” (jewel) of Houston!!!!

    Terry Hershey ROCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I think this woman is fabulous! ! ! ! She is G-R-E-A-T for Houston ! ! ! !

    Thank God for Terry Hershey ! ! ! ! ! ! !

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