Bayou Greenway Not So Green
Parks Board Bulldozing Buffalo Bayou, Cutting Trees, Installing Sheet Pile and Concrete
May 14, 2020
The Houston Parks Board has begun scraping vegetation, cutting native willow and cottonwood trees, and bulldozing the north bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream of Shepherd Drive. The plan, according to an announcement, is to widen the bank to its “pre-Harvey” condition and install concrete riprap and sheet pile walls.
The “slope repair” work is part of a four-phase Parks Board project on the bayou bank from Shepherd to the Memorial Park golf course, according to the City building permit.
The area, though partly landscaped, is one of the few stretches of “living” bank in the highly urbanized bayou, home to families of threatened alligator snapping turtles, beavers, alligators, and more. Hardening the bank with concrete and metal destroys wildlife habitat as well as the bank’s natural ability to cleanse and absorb polluted stormwater and sediment. Bank hardening increases erosion and flooding up and down the stream, displacing flow onto other property.
Because of these negative impacts, the project violates the City’s Floodplain Management Plan (p.6), which requires the protection of the “natural and beneficial function” of our floodway and floodplains, and thus has the potential to reduce the City of Houston’s Community Rating from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (see also here), potentially raising the cost of flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.
Nevertheless, the City’s Floodplain Management Office issued the project a floodplain development permit.
The increasing number of bank hardening projects downstream and upstream (here and here) threatens the life and health of our ancient river, the city’s main waterway, as well as the people who live near it.
Where is the Greenway?
The Parks Board’s April 30 press release stated that while the project “preserves the potential for a future Bayou Greenways 2020 trail,” the Board “at this time” is “not constructing a greenway or hike-and-bike trail.”
Bayou Greenways 2020 is the Parks Board’s signature project: the installation of 150 miles of wide concrete sidewalks along our mostly mowed, treeless, channelized and concreted bayous. The project has provided Houstonians with much needed areas to bike, jog, and walk, connecting bayous, parks, and neighborhoods. We do wish that more native trees and vegetation would be planted on these shadeless, lifeless bayous. The City’s Natural Resources Management Program, a part of the Parks and Recreation Department, does have projects to restore prairies and the riparian areas of some bayous in city parks.
However, destroying the natural greenery of a bayou in order to create a “greenway” seems counter-productive, to put it mildly. Biodiversity loss is a profound issue worldwide, in urban areas in particular, considered a threat to human health and survival, a factor in epidemics.
While the Parks Board’s announcement says that the “stable” bank will be “planted to match the adjacent landscape,” whatever that means, concrete riprap and metal walls destroy the natural, beneficial functions of the bank and stream. These functions include naturally adjusting and stabilizing itself. In the last three years since Harvey, the bank has done that with deep-rooted plants, native trees and a wall of sturdy cane, now being ripped out.
The Board’s plan to extend the bank and harden it is clearly an attempt to support a wide concrete sidewalk on the bayou’s edge, always a foolish idea.
Safe Route Needed for Hikers, Bikers, Joggers. Access to the Bayou is Good.
Beth White, president of the Parks Board, did not immediately respond to questions about the route of the future “trail” that would connect joggers, hikers, and bikers headed to and from Memorial Park from Buffalo Bayou Park below Shepherd. Certainly a safe path is needed. The sidewalk along Memorial Drive west of Shepherd is narrow, broken, and dangerous. However, along the bayou, the land is narrow, wooded, and other than Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, mostly private.
Recently the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private foundation managing the public park, closed public access to the popular but unofficial trails through the bayou woods on the southeastern side of the park, citing vague safety issues.
Streets for the People
White also did not respond to an invitation to consider less costly and destructive solutions to the trail connection problem. These could include a simple crushed granite path along the existing natural bank, perhaps for pedestrian use only, as heavy bike traffic could be destabilizing. And/or perhaps dedicating a portion of the six-lane Memorial Drive to hikers and bikers. Cities all over the world and the US are setting aside streets for hikers and bikers, particularly in response to the increased pressure to be outside—and in nature–resulting from the pandemic.
Once an Urban Wonderland
The current project is under construction on land behind the Left Bank apartments at 5353 Memorial Drive. The Parks Board around 2018-2019 apparently purchased some 28,000 square feet of bayou frontage behind the apartment complex now valued at around $1.5 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District. Note that that was after Hurricane Harvey.
Watch the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Five Days for Free!
Sign Up Now to Watch Online May 11-15
May 7, 2020
The Wild and Scenic Film Festival is one of the year’s most exciting film events. We always look forward to it. Living here in the city, we can learn about, explore, and vicariously adventure all over our wild world.
Locally presented by the Bayou Land Conservancy—and sponsored by Save Buffalo Bayou (among others)—this year’s film event has gone online, like so many other events. Living in a virtual world now.
It’s easy to watch. We recommend it. All you have to do is sign up for the Bayou Land Conservancy’s newsletter, which you would want to do anyway, and they’ll send you a link to watch the films.
The Bayou Land Conservancy works to preserve the natural floodplains along rivers, bayous, and streams in our metropolitan area. We need that. They do an excellent job.
Award-Winning Texas Film
The festival was started almost 20 years ago by a group of activists in California who had succeeded in protecting their river from dams. The South Yuba River Citizens League was founded in 1983 by grassroots activists determined to protect the South Yuba River. Ultimately, they won permanent protections for 39 miles of the South Yuba River under California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
And then they created this film festival.
So sign up to watch and enjoy. Be informed about what is being done to protect our regional rivers and streams and the vital lands adjacent to them, and why that is important.
Cures Worse Than Problems
Costly, Puzzling Repairs on Buffalo Bayou: How Will This End?
May 7, 2020
There’s talk these days about cures being worse than problems. We think about that when we watch with alarm what the Harris County Flood Control District has been doing to Buffalo Bayou in our lovely public park between Sabine and Shepherd bridges near downtown Houston.
Gouging the banks with bulldozers. Heavy trucks on the bank. Dumping and pounding huge amounts of concrete riprap and dirt onto the slopes and into the channel. For those of us who value the bayou as a living stream, it’s difficult to watch this costly abuse. The bayou will fight back. “Repairs” will continue, at great expense to taxpayers.
And what about the creatures, the giant alligator snapping turtles, the beavers that live on and in the banks, the bats that live under the Waugh Bridge? The Corps of Engineers dismissed any environmental impact in its 2019 approval of this 4,540-foot long project. (p. 1)
A Long History of Abuse
The Flood Control District has been “fixing” these banks for over a decade now.
The current project, billed as fixing “erosion and bank failure caused by Harvey,” is costing the taxpayers some $10 million, virtually all of it going to the private engineering company Primoris, with an unknown amount having been paid to Jones Carter for the design plans.
The Flood Control District was established in 1937, in large part to assist the Corps of Engineers in stripping, straightening, and concreting our creeks and bayous, then the dominant method of managing flooding, now discredited. (See also here.) But the district’s limited legal tools and authority have hardly changed. Within that narrow framework, its approach has modernized only slightly. With a capital improvement budget of $496 million in Fiscal Year 2019, (p. 2) the district’s main job, seemingly with little oversight, is handing out lucrative contracts to private engineering companies.
Who is to say whether they are doing a good job? Whether this is the most scientific, proven, cost-effective approach? (p. 27)
Once A Wooded Stream
Like the flow in a river, the population of Houston is always changing. There are people in the city who think a bayou is a man-made drainage ditch, who do not realize that all our bayous were once forested streams winding through the prairie. They are shocked if you tell them we have alligators, beavers, otter, giant alligator snapping turtles, and more in Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries. These contributing streams include numerous other bayous as well as many small ravines and gullies that make (or made) our local landscape much more undulating than recognized. Many ravines have been filled in and paved over. But the aforementioned water creatures, who have been here longer than we have, do the same work they have always done, part of a timeless mutually-beneficial system.
This stretch of the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine streets was also once a meandering wooded stream, the vegetation on its banks naturally filtering the water for free. In the late 50s the Corps of Engineers scraped the trees and vegetation, bulldozed the banks, and straightened much of the channel, eliminating or reducing many of the meanders.
Over time, the trees and vegetation grew back, helping the banks stand firm, replanted by the flowing stream. But the bayou today continues to seek out its original meanders, as rivers will do. Many of the most troublesome areas of bank failure in Buffalo Bayou Park (and elsewhere), requiring repeated repairs, are where the meander bends once were.
Earth Day 2020
April 22, 2020
Some people we know are old enough to remember the first Earth Day in 1970. Some people we know even marched, rallied, and participated in teach-ins, along with millions of others all over the country, on that first Earth Day.
Richard Nixon was president. The unpopular Vietnam War was galvanizing social unrest. But so was concern for the environment, prompted by the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, documenting the harmful effects of chemicals in the environment, specifically DDT. Increasing awareness of dangerous pollution in our air, land, and water, among Republicans and Democrats, young and old, rich and poor, prompted passage of such landmark legislation as the National Environmental Policy Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Fuel Economy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and much more.
Here is a good history and timeline of these events.
Though environmental critics have claimed that some of this legislation has been used to permit the very activities the laws were designed to prohibit, and some have gone so far to say that Earth Day should be abolished, much of the legislation, rules, and regulations are now being weakened. (See here and here and here.)
What irony that in just a few months of a pandemic, the air and skies are cleaner and clearer than they have been in a very long time.
No Rallies Today
In these extraordinary and disturbing times, the streets are almost empty. Today there are no rallies or marches on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. There are digital commemorations. And you might want to spend some stay-home time reading about what the City of Houston is doing, including its Climate Action Plan and Resilient Houston Strategy.
The in-person Earth Day events that would have taken place in Houston have been cancelled. Save Buffalo Bayou, along with numerous other environmental organizations, normally took part in these events.
First-Hand Report on Improvements to the Federal Dams on Buffalo Bayou
Editor’s note: Barker and Addicks dams are for flood-control only. Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the floodgates are closed to hold back stormwater flowing into Buffalo Bayou only when there is a major rain downstream. (See also here.)
By Cynthia Neely of Residents Against Flooding, Houston, Texas, April 17, 2020
A few weeks ago, I organized a meeting and tour with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to see what has been done to improve Barker and Addicks dams since Hurricane Harvey. There were eight of us, representing various HOAs and organizations. We weren’t there to criticize or talk about the past, but rather to learn first-hand about what upgrades have been made.
The tour and interview were recorded on video. [Coming up soon.]
Richard Long, the Army Corps’ Natural Resource Management Specialist, spent a great deal of time showing us maps and information on his office computer. He answered some very tough questions. Many of us had flooded when the flood gates were opened after Hurricane Harvey.
The Solace of Spring: Tending Our Garden
Wild and Edible Landscapes for Us and Our Companion World
Plus Resources and Tips on Dealing with Homeowner Associations
April 13, 2020
In the midst of our current problem, people in Houston and all over the world are finding solace in tending a garden, if they are fortunate enough to have access or space for one. It could be a vegetable garden or a wildflower garden, though it seems that, as happens during crises, our thoughts turn to growing our own food.
This is a logical response. Not only does gardening benefit mental and physical health. It’s also wiser and more practical not to rely on long-distance supply chains that can be disrupted during floods or pandemics. Or wars.
Local nurseries and seed providers, considered essential businesses during our local shut down, have reported a surge in interest.
Lawns Really Bad. Alternatives So Much Better
But the growing movement towards edible landscapes, as well as edible forests on public land (see also “food forest” Dallas and Austin), is not just for human food. It’s about feeding the insects and birds and the entire ecosystem without which we cannot survive. Scientists, concerned about an insect apocalypse, are urging landowners to get rid of their lawns.
The state of Minnesota is actually paying homeowners to replace lawns with wildflowers, clover, and native grasses. It’s called rewilding. Interesting historical fact: clover was the preferred lawn cover in the US up through the 1940s.
During this devastating pandemic, we might also want to consider the importance of urban biodiversity on our health. That means everything from soil microbes to plants and animals.
Also Reducing Flooding, Pollution, and Temperature
It so happens that turning our lawns and vacant lots into planted gardens and prairies also helps protect us against flooding. Anything that helps slow and absorb rainwater from the time it hits the roof and the ground is going to reduce the peak flow in our streams and streets.
Planting vegetable, native plant and wildflower gardens also reduces carbon emissions, helping to protect us against climate change. Maintaining our thirsty American lawn is hugely polluting to our land, air, and water. Lawns are the number one irrigated agricultural “crop” in the US.
More green space, and less concrete, helps cool the city, reducing the heat island effect, which attracts disastrous weather.
Gardens Everywhere: Roofs, Parks, Vacant Lots, and Prairies
The City of Houston is encouraging gardens of all sorts, and even edible forests. (p. 86)
The City’s Resiliency Plan, released in February 2020, promotes community gardens, green roofs (which include rooftop gardens), urban farms, and prairie restoration, as well as denser development—building the city up rather than out, replacing the urban sprawl that is destroying so much of our native prairie, wetlands, woodlands, and the few remaining riparian areas needed to help protect us from flooding. The Resiliency Plan, citing the Gulf-Houston Regional Conservation Plan, also has a goal of preserving as green space 24 percent of the land in the eight-county region by 2040. (p. 153)
In support of this project, the City’s goals are to conserve city parks as nature preserves, “discourage development in sensitive upstream areas” (west Houston, among other places), and restore native prairie, wetlands, and woodlands. (p. 153) This includes, apparently, planting pocket prairies in neighborhoods. (p.128)
Natural Area Permits, Homeowner Associations
The City’s Natural Resources Management Program, a part of the Parks and Recreation Department, already has ongoing projects to restore prairies and riparian areas in city parks along our streams like Sims and White Oak bayous. (Note also that the City in theory has been encouraging urban farming for some time. See also here.)
Perhaps a lesser known fact is that the City also has a Natural Area Ordinance which provides permits to property owners who wish to turn their land into a native prairie or native plant garden, wildlife habitat, vegetable garden, or rain garden. The permit, however, does not override deed restrictions or homeowner association rules.
Which brings us to a common complaint: how to deal with homeowner associations that enforce conformity and environmentally unsound regulations about yards and lawns?
Here are some tips about dealing with homeowner associations when rewilding or recreating your yard:
Making Messy Look Good (Hint: mow the edges)
Golf Courses and Butterflies
As an aside, note that the Audubon Society has a program, Monarchs in the Rough, to encourage golf courses to plant wildflowers to sustain monarch butterflies. So far in the region there are only four golf clubs participating: The Club at Falcon Point in Katy, Lakeside Country Club in west Houston, Kingwood Country Club in Kingwood, and Bay Oaks Country Club in southeast Houston.
And here are some further resources, tips, and guides:
Native Plant and Seed Sources:
Rewilding Your Yard
Roof Gardens and Green Roofs
Supermoon Rising Tonight
April 7, 2020
Updated April 8, 2020, with a photo of the Pink Supermoon
Tonight is the full moon, the first full moon of spring. A supermoon. It’s also the closest the moon will be to the earth for the entire year. So that might be another reason to feel crazed.
But by the time you read this, that precise moment, known as the perigee, already happened from our perspective in Houston. The perigee occurred at 1:08 post meridiem (this afternoon). The moon was 221,771 miles away. But you wouldn’t have been able to see that anyway, because the moon was below the horizon. Duh. Also it was cloudy, and it may still be cloudy tonight when the actual fleeting moment of fullness occurs at 9:35 pm.
Look to the east-southeast (109 degrees on your compass). The moon will still be fairly low on the horizon.
Update April 8: And here’s what Philip Pavlich captured with a cell phone and a spotting scope.
A Pink Supermoon But Not Actually Pink
A supermoon occurs when the moon is full at the same time that it’s closest to the earth.
In case you forgot how this works, we have a full moon every month, sometimes two, which is why we have months. The moon makes a full revolution around the earth every 29.53 days, traveling at a speed of 2,286 miles per hour.
But the moon’s path is elliptical, so once a month it’s farthest away (apogee) and once a month it’s closest (perigee).
The April supermoon is traditionally called the Pink Moon because it comes with the spring blooming of moss phlox or moss pink, a wildflower native to eastern North America, though not to Texas. We do have several other species of phlox in Harris and surrounding counties, says Katy Emde, native plant expert and member of the Save Buffalo Bayou advisory board.
April’s supermoon has also been called the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and the Fish Moon.
We do have sprouting grass, eggs, and fish, so there’s that.
Calendars and Disputes About Elections
It seems that public officials have always had disputes about how to measure days, months, and years. Our current calendar, the Gregorian calendar, was adopted by a decree of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, replacing the old Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, who ordered a new calendar to replace the Roman Calendar, because the priests or pontiffs responsible for adding or subtracting days to make the calendar fit with the seasons were “open to bribery in order to prolong the term of elected officials or hasten elections.”
So maybe there’s nothing new under the sun.
Good News: Boy Scouts Help Nature, Plant Willows on Buffalo Bayou
A Wonder Tree Containing One of the World’s Most Essential Medicines
April 2, 2020
Working with Memorial Park Conservancy Forestry Supervisor Danny Walton, James and his volunteers harvested over 150 willow saplings from another part of the park and pounded them by hand into a sandy embankment. As part of his project, James studied willows, learning willow growth, harvesting techniques, site location and how to place the stakes.
Nature’s Engineering, Vital Services, Vital Medicine
Willows grow naturally on Buffalo Bayou, planted there in good time for good reason (bank stabilization, among other things). This is part of nature’s ancient engineering and landscaping program. Willows, like many plants, contain a growth hormone, Gibberellic acid, which is also produced commercially to stimulate plant root growth. So willows grow well without any help—except perhaps for the beavers who come along to prune the branches, creating denser growth. Yes, we have beaver providing that essential service on Buffalo Bayou.
In addition, willows (salix) contain salicin, which produces salicylic acid, known to us as aspirin, considered one of the world’s essential medicines. Here is more info on the benefits of willows from Foraging Texas.
A Photo Update
James’ Eagle Scout advisor was Save Buffalo Bayou board member Janice Walden, who is also a paddling program leader for Troop 55 and a co-founder of Friends of Don Greene and the Don Greene Nature Park. Recently she went out to check on the progress of the young willows. “All the willows have taken root and are doing well,” she reported.
Spring in the Time of Coronavirus
Pollen, Leaves, Elbows, Violets, and That Bend in Buffalo Bayou
March 28, 2020
Spring came unusually early this year, in case you were too preoccupied with other news to notice. Which brings up the question: how is spring determined?
There’s astronomical spring. And meteorological spring. And actual spring.
And a pandemic. But that’s a different topic. (Keep your fingers out of your face!)
One way we know that actual spring is here in Houston: the mounds of oak pollen and leaves on the ground accompanied by the obnoxious sound and smell of leaf-blowers blowing the pollen and leaves (and dirt) around. (Been very windy too.)
Tree pollen, mostly live oak, is generally highest in March in Houston. And yes, we have had record amounts of oak pollen, which comes from the long dangling male flower of the tree spreading its seed and causing lots of alarming coughing, sneezing, and brain fog. Though it seems that based on a perusal of City of Houston Health Department records, which go back online only to 2013, tree and oak pollen in March 2019 was way worse.
The male live oak flower pollinates the much smaller female flower, but it’s the female flower that turns into acorns. (Yes, we’re talking about tree sex.)
By the way, native live oaks support 425 different species of creatures compared to our beloved but basically useless non-native crepe myrtles, which support only FOUR (4), according to Kelli Ondracek, manager of Natural Resources for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, who spoke about the City’s riparian restoration projects at a recent Houston Sierra Club meeting.
Not to Panic
Watching leaves fall in the spring (and pollen raining down) may be confusing to people who aren’t familiar with live oaks. As if we don’t have enough to panic about. (Use your elbows!) But live oaks naturally lose their leaves in the spring when new, green leaves push out the old ones. (Hmm, sounds like some politician’s COVID-19 plan.)
Which brings us to meteorological spring, which meteorologists established some time ago based on temperature patterns. Meteorological spring began on March 1 in the Northern Hemisphere and runs through the end of May. Since we’ve been having record warm weather, with an abnormally warm spring predicted, they may have to change that date. Maybe eliminate winter altogether. Just go right to summer.
Astronomical spring came early too, the earliest in 124 years. This arrival of spring is determined by the vernal equinox, which happens when the sun is directly over the earth’s equator, creating a day that is the same length as the night. Astronomical spring arrived Thursday, March 19, at 10:50 p.m. CST.
Spring on the Bayou
So it was spring and time for the Spring 2020 photograph in our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons.
Except that due to the new and different coronavirus COVID-19, our world-renowned photographer, Jim Olive, was on general lockdown with his beloved in the state of California. So we set out to the woods on our own.
“Remember to turn your iPhone horizontal,” Jim texted helpfully from Palm Springs.
How the Coronavirus is Like a Flood
Flattening the Curve, Slowing the Flow
March 19, 2020
By now most of us have heard of “flattening the curve.” This is the effort to reduce the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases that happen all at once, exceeding the capacity of our healthcare system.
Interestingly, the graph of flattening the curve of peak cases is very similar to the graph of flattening the curve of peak flow in a flooding stream.
Slow the Flow
The goal in both cases is to slow the flow. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s to slow, reduce, and spread out the number of cases in order to save lives and not overwhelm or flood our healthcare system, specifically the number of hospital beds available to take care of people (as well as the number of masks, ventilators, tests, nurses, doctors, and other necessary equipment).
In the case of a stream during a storm, the goal is to increase the length of time it takes for rainfall to hit the ground and enter a waterway. The longer it takes, the lower the peak water level in the stream, making it less likely that the stream will flood. Slow it down, spread it out, soak it in.
Here is a graph showing the impact of flattening the curve of coronavirus cases on our ability to care for them:
And here is a graph of what’s called “lag time” showing how slowing (and reducing) rain runoff with, say, plants and trees, lengthens the time it takes for the stormwater to enter the stream and lowers the peak flow:
Do We Have the Hospital Capacity? It Seems We Don’t
Could our Houston area hospitals be overwhelmed by a flood of cases? Yes, they could, according to a recent report by ProPublica. Which is why public officials here and elsewhere have taken such extreme steps to “slow down” our social circulation by shutting down schools and the rodeo, closing restaurants and bars; why conferences and parties are being cancelled, etc.
ProPublica analyzed the impact of cases on local hospitals under different scenarios: more cases faster, fewer cases over a longer period of time, and so on. “It is estimated that about 8% of the adult population would require hospital care,” according to the report. “In a moderate scenario where 40% of the population is infected over a 12-month period, hospitals in Houston, TX would receive an estimated 430,000 coronavirus patients. The influx of patients would require 14,300 beds over 12 months, which is 2.8 times the available beds in that time period. The Harvard researchers’ scenarios assume that each coronavirus patient will require 12 days of hospital care on average, based on data from China.
“In the Houston, TX region, intensive care units would be especially overwhelmed and require additional capacity. Without coronavirus patients, there are only 650 available beds on average in intensive care units, which is 4.6 times less than what is needed to care for all severe cases.”
Slowing Down, Spreading Out, Letting It All Sink In
So think of social distancing as spreading out the flow, slowing it down as it trickles through tall grasses and pebbles, soaking into gardens, swales, and green spaces filled with trees so that it doesn’t overwhelm our system.
Instead of rushing to gather in one place as many people as possible, we pause, stand apart, wait, get out in the sun if we can, and reflect on what more we can do to help.