Seeing Buffalo Bayou Before It Is Destroyed

Permit Issued! See Why It Should Be Preserved.

New Aerial Photos!

April 24, 2017

Update: The Harris County Flood Control District last week signed the project permit sent to them by the Corps of Engineers, according to a source who was at a quarterly meeting of the Flood Control District Task Force today. But District Director Russ Poppe told the task force that the project will now cost more than the original $6 million price.

In other parts of the world – India, New Zealand, for example – rivers have been recognized as living entities, accorded the same right to health and life as a person.

In the United States, a corporation has more rights than a river – even more rights than a person.

Rivers nourish life. They are a vital part of our ecosystem — draining, cleansing the water that falls from the sky and runs over and under the land, sending it back to the sea to be used again.

In Houston we are unusually fortunate to have a long stretch of relatively wild and wooded bayou flowing past Memorial Park in the middle of the city. If we float down and around the bends of the bayou here, or walk along the neglected footpaths through the riparian forest, over and around the deep ravines that feed into the bayou, along the soft sandy banks and through boggy marsh, pausing on the high edge, we can observe our natural history, the geology of Houston, the ancient sandstone and tall bluffs, the natural cycle of growth and change, erosion and renewal of the bayou and the wetlands along its banks. We can see the tracks and nests of beaver, turtle, coyote, alligator, and more, hear the sounds of songbirds and skittish rabbits, watch herons and egrets sail gracefully downstream, hawks wheel in the sky, and breaking the surface of the water, the long back of the scaly alligator gar , one of the largest and oldest fish in North America, now extinct except in parts of the South.

This 18,000-year-old meandering bayou flows eastward from the prairie in Katy to Galveston Bay for some 50 miles. Known as the Mother Bayou, most of our numerous bayous, creeks, and streams flow into it as it makes it wandering way to the bay. Some of the bayou has been straightened. Much of it has been thoughtlessly landscaped or reinforced without awareness of its natural process or our responsibility for the living river as a public trust. Most of it is inaccessible by foot to the public, the banks being privately owned. Our state constitution, of course, guarantees access to this publicly owned waterway through public land.

But this last remaining forested stretch flowing freely past the eastern section of Memorial Park is accessible to the public. And it is unique in that both banks are wooded, the south bank being a private golf course, though the River Oaks Country Club unwisely has cut down the tall trees from some of the upper banks of this waterway, leaving little to protect the denuded banks from erosion.

Deaf Ears

This is the 1.25 mile stretch that the Harris County Flood Control District has targeted for razing and rebuilding, reshaping every meander and most of the channel, at a minimum cost of $6 million, not including future maintenance and repairs. This is the stretch that we are fighting to preserve. Our opponents often allude to the fact that this is not pristine forest, or that settlers cut down the trees once, or that flooding has altered the banks, or that tree roots holding the bank in place are bare (as always happens along streams: the bared roots naturally grow bark for protection) and that trees fall in the water (also natural and necessary: fallen trees filter sediment, stabilize banks, and provide wildlife habitat).

None of these arguments is a reason for cutting down the trees and digging up the banks. Nature is always changing and adapting. Without change, there is no life.

Read the rest of this post and watch a stunning slide show of aerial photos of Buffalo Bayou taken by Jim Olive on April 7, 2017, in the proposed destruction zone.

Celebrating the Life of Terry Hershey

A Joyous Celebration of a Force for Nature

April 23, 2017

Terry Hershey, 1923-2017

The public is invited to a celebration of the life of Terry Hershey, who long ago not only helped save the life of Buffalo Bayou but worked for decades for parks and the environment. Hershey died in January in Houston. She will be honored Tuesday, April 25, at 10:30 a.m. with a planting of five bur oak trees in Buffalo Bayou Park on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou between Eleanor Tinsley Park and the Henry Moore Sculpture.

Apparently the ceremony is taking place in Buffalo Bayou Park because the park named after her on Buffalo Bayou in far west Houston remains closed for $1.25 million in “repairs” by the Harris County Flood Control District. Hershey most certainly would have objected to this damaging construction work involving the removal of trees and extensive excavation and armoring of the banks with heavy equipment.

Bayou Destruction Project Still Threatens

Private Park Board Leads Promotion of Unpopular Engineering Scheme

Army Corps Lawyers Reviewing Environmental Assessment

March 27, 2017

The private organization running Memorial Park appears to be taking the lead in promoting a questionable and unpopular project to destroy a historic nature area belonging to the public, one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.

The private board of the Memorial Park Conservancy has hired as the park’s conservation manager Carolyn White, a former long-time employee of the Harris County Flood Control District, which is sponsoring the controversial bayou project. Last month White, representing the Conservancy, gave a lengthy presentation promoting the project at a Houston conference on urban streams.

The 1.25-mile project would raze the trees, vegetation, and ancient high bluffs, dredge, fill a lovely meander, and dig a shorter channel for the 18,000-year-old bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. This forested section is the largest stretch of a bayou running through the center of the city that is both accessible to the public and never channelized, a remarkable natural asset for Houston.

The flood control district describes the goals of the project as controlling erosion, stabilizing banks, reducing sediment, and improving water quality. The agency has been seeking a permit for the project from the Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act since 2013. Opponents of the controversial plan argue that the project is scientifically unsound and environmentally damaging, will achieve none of the stated goals, and eliminates a much-needed natural refuge in the midst of the city. They had hoped that the project had been dropped.

The Harris County Flood Control District’s plan for Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The River Oaks Country Club golf course is on the south. Orange is fill and yellow is excavate. Not shown is the destruction of forest for heavy equipment access. The Memorial Park Conservancy is promoting the plan, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Image created by the flood control district.

Environmental Assessment Under Review by Corps Attorneys

But apparently the project is still being pushed forward. A representative of the Corps says the agency has conducted an Environmental Assessment of the plan as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Corps’ Galveston District, says the Office of Counsel is conducting a legal review of the assessment.

An Environmental Assessment would result in either a Finding of No Significant Impact or a requirement that the flood control district conduct a full and costly Environmental Impact Statement. Johnson could not say when or if an announcement would be made about the decision.

Read the rest of this story.

Spring 2017 on Buffalo Bayou

Never the Same River Twice

March 18, 2017

Out on Buffalo Bayou early this morning, Saturday, March 18, 2017, with photographer Jim Olive. We were looking for our Spring 2017 shot of the same bend of the bayou we have been documenting for the last three years throughout the seasons. Flow was low base flow, about 150 cubic feet per second. Birds singing. Frogs burping. Squirrels quarreling. Warmth wafting off the water. Was foggier than Jim had hoped, and he had to be patient, as always, for just the right shot. We’d been waiting for a clear morning for days.

For the entire series see A Bend in the River under Photos and Films. This scene is in the historic nature area targeted for destruction and “restoration” by the Harris County Flood Control District, the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the Bayou Preservation Association.

An update on that costly, misguided project, which sadly still threatens, is coming up next.

Morning on Buffalo Bayou, March 18, 2017, shot by Jim Olive from a high bank in Memorial Park looking downstream with River Oaks Country Club property on the right.

Engineers Caused the Flood That Led to Creation of Flood Control District

A Fact-Based Response to “Engineers’ View” in the Texas Tribune

March 6, 2017

A few weeks ago the Texas Tribune published an editorial comment written by engineers Michael Bloom and Steve Stagner responding to the excellent investigative work on flooding in the Houston region, “Boomtown, Floodtown,” published by the Tribune and ProPublica on Dec. 7, 2016. See our summary of the report here.

In their TribTalk editorial “Boomtown, Floodtown Reconsidered, An Engineer’s View,” Feb. 6, 2017, Bloom and Stagner repeat a couple of erroneous statements commonly used by representatives of the Harris County Flood Control District in support of the district’s shaky position that paving over the prairie, i.e. development, is not contributing to flooding.

According to this point of view, our native tallgrass prairie and its associated wetlands are hardly better than concrete when it comes to slowing and absorbing rainwater. These deep-rooted grassland prairies, with water-absorbing root systems that can reach 12-15 feet into the ground or more, once existed around and upstream of Buffalo Bayou, in Katy, west of Houston, for instance, source of Buffalo Bayou, as well as up and down the coastal plain. Practical people are trying to preserve and restore what remains.

In support of their argument, Bloom and Stagner summon up a point commonly made by members of the local engineering community: that the 1935 flood on Buffalo Bayou that devastated downtown Houston and led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District happened even though the Katy Prairie way upstream was then a big natural tallgrass prairie.

This argument is wrong on two points. Read why in this fact-based response by Save Buffalo Bayou to an “Engineers’ View” published as a comment in the Tribune’s TribTalk.

Or continue reading to find out the answers. With links!

Prairie switchgrass with root system. Photo by Sky Lewey

Revising the Plan for Protecting Galveston Bay

Public Workshop Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Or Send Comments

Feb. 20, 2017

The Galveston Bay Estuary Program was established in 1989 to implement a comprehensive conservation plan for Galveston Bay. Established by the federal government and administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the program’s goal is to “preserve Galveston Bay for generations to come.” It is one of two estuary programs in Texas and one of 28 programs nationwide protecting estuaries “of national significance.”

An estuary is “a partially enclosed, coastal water body where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries, and their surrounding lands, are places of transition from land to sea. … Estuarine environments are among the most productive on earth.”

As the Environmental Protection Agency points out, “what happens on the land affects the quality of the water and health of the organisms that live in an estuary. … For example, if a river or stream … passes urbanized and suburbanized areas, it gathers substances such as:

  • fertilizers or pet waste that wash off lawns;
  • untreated sewage from failing septic tanks;
  • wastewater discharges from industrial facilities;
  • sediment from construction sites; and
  • runoff from impervious surfaces like parking lots.”

Houston Ship Channel, Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

Buffalo Bayou is the main river flowing through the center of Houston and emptying into Galveston Bay. Numerous other creeks and tributaries, including Brays, White Oak, and Sims bayous, flow into Buffalo Bayou, which becomes the Houston Ship Channel.

Updating the Galveston Bay Protection Plan

The 22-year-old Galveston Bay management plan is being revised. The Houston Sierra Club is urging the general public to attend a Wednesday afternoon workshop in La Marque to “provide input on how we can have a cleaner and more ecologically intact Galveston Bay.”

Read the rest of this post.

Money Down the Drain

Widening and Deepening Our Waterways Is Not the Answer to Flooding

Chadwick: Practices to reduce flooding risk are out of line with our region’s needs

“We just can’t keep developing the way we’ve been developing”

By Susan Chadwick, Houston Chronicle Outlook, Jan. 23, 2017

Houstonians last week once again found themselves facing flooded homes and cars, closed schools, roads and transport. No doubt they were asking, “Why does this keep happening?”

Maybe it’s because our political leaders are prioritizing the wrong solutions and are treating the symptoms instead of the problem. Widening and deepening bayous, a top priority for city and county officials, is an ineffective, environmentally damaging and unnecessarily costly approach to reducing flooding.

Yet widening and deepening bayous is the stated policy and practice of the Harris County Flood Control District and a recommendation of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s 2016 Transition Report on ReBuild Houston, a report largely written by engineers. The practice also is embraced by conventional wisdom. Widening bayou channels was one of a number of responses to the region’s flooding problems listed in a recent Chronicle article, “How to Fix the Houston Floods,” by Dylan Baddour (HoustonChronicle.com, Dec. 31), as well as in a commentary by former mayoral candidate Bill King (“Homeowners puzzled by increase in floods” Page A13, Jan. 13).

Here’s why widening and deepening our bayous and streams is the wrong approach:

Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.

Carlos Gutierrez is calf-deep in water from heavy overnight rains at his house near the 2600 block of Creston on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Photo for the Houston Chronicle by Brett Coomer.

Carlos Gutierrez is calf-deep in water from heavy overnight rains at his house near the 2600 block of Creston on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Photo for the Houston Chronicle by Brett Coomer.

 

Terry Hershey, 1923-2017

A Force of Nature: The Force Continues

Jan. 20, 2017

Without Terry Hershey, there likely would be no Buffalo Bayou to save today.

One of Houston’s most influential conservationists, in the mid-1960s Terry Hershey rallied garden club members and Junior Leaguers, business and political leaders, including Save Buffalo Bayou founding president Frank C. Smith Jr., George Mitchell, George H.W. Bush, and others. Together they stopped the Harris County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers from stripping and straightening Buffalo Bayou and covering it in concrete all the way from Addicks and Barker dams through Memorial Park to the Shepherd Bridge.

Our beautiful 18,000-year-old Mother Bayou would have been a dead, shadeless river like Brays and White Oak. A brutal concrete ditch.

Hershey died Thursday, Jan. 19, her birthday, at her home near the bayou.

“Terry was just an enthusiastic, charismatic person who persuaded all of us we needed to save the world,” said Frank Smith recently.

But Buffalo Bayou is never safe from the bulldozers, as we found out when the flood control district once again began making plans around 2010 to strip, dredge, and reroute one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it passes by Memorial Park. Even now our political leaders are calling for bulldozing, widening and deepening our bayous and waterways in a misguided response to flooding.

We must always remain vigilant, warned Hershey more than thirty years ago.

Watch this documentary film of Hershey and others talking about Buffalo Bayou. Called Last Stand of the Buffalo, it was made in 1984 by KUHT.

In honor of Terry Hershey, listen to the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra playing Brad Sayles’ Buffalo Bayou Suite.

And here is an interview with Terry Hershey conducted by environmentalist Ann Hamilton in 2008. From the Houston Public Library’s Oral History Project.

Avon Smith Duson, Terry Hershey, and Frank Smith, August 2016.

Avon Smith Duson, Terry Hershey, and Save Buffalo Bayou Board President Frank Smith, August 2016.

 

 

Petition to End Avoidable Flooding

Citizens Call for Regional Oversight Based on Science, Transparency, and Enforcement

Jan. 17, 2017

A Houston group called Citizens Solutions to Flooding is circulating a petition calling for the creation of a long-overdue Houston-Galveston regional body to ensure that new construction and development does not increase flooding.

The petition focuses on the inadequacy and lack of enforcement of current regulations regarding stormwater drainage and detention. It calls for transparency in the permitting process and financial incentives for property owners to retrofit properties to conform to more effective standards for controlling stormwater running off impervious surface.

Houston’s natural tendency to flood has been greatly worsened by uncontrolled development and the proliferation of hard surface like parking lots, building rooftops, and roadways that rapidly collect and concentrate rainwater rather than slowing, absorbing, and dispersing it.

In calling for regional oversight, the petition notes that “watersheds know no county boundaries.” And development in one watershed can worsen flooding in another watershed.

Notably, the petition does not call for widening and deepening our bayous and streams, an outmoded, costly, ineffective, and environmentally damaging solution preferred by city and county engineers. More green space, not less, is the consensus of leading experts, including Phil Bedient, director of the SSPEED storm center at Rice University.

Sign the petition here.

Angry alligator snapping turtle, a threatened species living in Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Ashley Tubbs.

Angry alligator snapping turtle, a threatened species living on Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Ashley Tubbs.

 

 

 

Urban Riparian Symposium

The Challenges of Healthy Urban Streams

Jan. 14, 2017

There is still time to register for a February symposium in Houston on urban riparian areas — those special zones of trees and plants along stream banks so important for clean water, flood and erosion control, and wildlife.

The Texas Riparian Association has organized a three-day conference Feb. 15-17 largely directed at natural resource professionals but useful to anyone interested in the health of our urban bayous and creeks flowing into Galveston Bay.

Yellow-crowned night heron by Frank X. Tolbert 2.

Yellow-crowned night heron by Frank X. Tolbert 2.

Save Buffalo Bayou is a co-sponsor of the event, titled “Balancing the Challenges of Healthy Urban Streams,” to be held at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC), 6500 Main Street. The registration deadline is Feb. 8. To register or find out more info, click here.

Save Buffalo Bayou’s Tom Helm, geologist, naturalist, and river guide, will be presenting Friday morning, Feb. 17, on the topic “Searching for the Original Meanders of Buffalo Bayou.”

Helm and Save Buffalo Bayou will also be offering float trips on Buffalo Bayou past Memorial Park and into Buffalo Bayou Park in the middle of Houston to symposium participants. The three-hour trips take place Friday afternoon from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday morning starting at 10 a.m. Cost is $50 per person. For more info or to reserve a place, contact Tom Helm.

Among other topics to be addressed: daylighting buried urban streams, the capacity of Houston’s urban forest to cleanse polluted stormwater, the economics of using natural drainage systems in development, how Austin protects riparian areas, incorporating the value of ecosystem services into regional policy decisions, managing large woody debris in urban streams, and more.

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