By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The reservoirs were merely the first phase of flood prevention. The Corps intended to increase the speed of the flow of flood water by removing meandering bends from Buffalo Bayou, clearing trees on either side, deepening the bayou bed and finally lining it with concrete at the bottom. It was a simple mathematical solution to a complex organic problem. Construction companies liked it because it put people and equipment to work. And since the Corps worked on a long-term schedule that stretched out 15 to 30 years, people were slow to realize the implications of what it was doing.
And there were implications, as Hershey discovered when she began investigating the Corps' plans. The "rectification" they were planning had the potential to do a number of bad things. One might be called a problem pass-along: instead of holding water upstream and stopping a flood, such systems are designed to rush water downstream, which can result in simply moving a flood from one spot to another.
"The sediment is rushed into the receiving stream," Hershey says, "which narrows its capacity, and then it goes downstream into the Ship Channel. Back then the Corps was charging us $2 million a year to dredge the Ship Channel. I would have thought that our preeminent engineers that started out to change the whole riverine system of our county would have known something about fluvial geomorphology or riverine hydrology, however you want to say it. Because what they were doing was absolutely wrong."
Hershey wasn't content to keep this to herself; she took her concerns to her congressman, a promising young Republican from Tanglewood named George Bush.
"His reaction," Hershey recalled, "was, 'That's a terrible thing to do to a river.' He just looked at it and instinctively knew it was stupid."
When the male leaders of the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association all proved too busy to testify before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in Washington, Hershey volunteered to go. Bush took Hershey's request to his congressional colleagues, who were astonished to hear someone from Texas ask the government not to spend money in his district. But that's exactly what he was doing, and Congress shrugged and agreed. The result even decades later is that there's no more talk of lining the bayou with concrete. The Corps is learning that rivers are powerful natural systems that can't be tinkered with lightly. The preferred solution today is to build detention ponds to hold back runoff, giving the bayou time to empty.
A couple of years after it stalled the Corps' plans, the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association dropped the Buffalo from its name and began to focus on preserving green corridors around all of the city's bayous. Today it emphasizes conservation easements, which allow property owners to permanently relinquish their right to develop property next to a bayou to a land trust. This lowers a property's book value, and the owner can write the difference off as a charitable contribution. In addition, the easement reduces the land's tax liability. The property owner still retains the title and can pass the land to heirs, but it is preserved forever as a green space. A complete system of such easements along the bayou system is one of the things that bayou advocates say would help solve any future problems. The easements would prevent further development of bayou banks, and help reduce erosion.
Floating under a sylvan canopy, I was almost glad that so few people use the bayou. If it were completely cleaned up, it might be full of yahoos in inner tubes drinking beer and playing radios, and who knows what would happen to the wildlife? A sparrow perches on the bank with a moth quivering in its beak. A turtle with a shell as big as a hubcap scrambles down the bank and belly flops into the water. A great blue heron, big as a small human being, lifts languidly on six-foot-long wings, and glides around the bend. It is hard to believe that I am surrounded by suburban homes on either side, and that everywhere people are rushing to work and school.
Once the bayou clears the Beltway 8 bridge, expensive homes spring up on either side of it, and so do visible attempts to stop the erosion of back yards. Having already paid a premium for their land, homeowners then spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to resist the force of the water that drew them there. All manner of erosion controls have been fixed to the bayou's banks: steel bulkheads, stacked sacks of concrete, interlocking bricks, rocks the size of computer monitors, concrete rubble. Almost invariably, they fail. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds, and when thousands of gallons of it are moving at a high rate of speed, something has got to give. That includes the Corps' vaunted concrete linings, which began to break up in some places only a few years after they were installed.
I received my instruction on the bayou's liquid forces from the city's premier paddler of rivers, Don Greene. A shaggy, humorous man who left corporate marketing 25 years ago, Greene has led rafting and canoeing expeditions all over the world. He has trained as a gondolier in Venice and is the guide of choice when politicians want to raft the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. Greene keeps a trailer full of rental canoes at the headquarters of Whitewater Experience in southwest Houston, and he has a special love of Buffalo Bayou. Excepting Bob Lanier, Greene has taken every Houston mayor since Fred Hofheinz on a trip down the bayou. And on occasions when the water rises, Greene and one of his guides go out on the bayou to videotape the bayou's condition, recording the hydrology for future study.