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On a rainy Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, 19 people turned out for a trip on the bayou from the 610 bridge through Memorial Park to the Shepherd Drive bridge. Greene stopped the canoes carrying the group before a wilting steel bulkhead to give a brief lesson in geomorphology.
Rivers have an occupation, he said, and that is to move turbidity, or suspended particles. On the outside of a bend, the river erodes the bank. On the inside of the curve, it deposits sand, often creating a system of natural terraces that engineers, Greene noted, would do well to imitate. Engineers who don't take the subtle nature of these forces into account can find their retaining walls buckling.
Greene led the group downstream and pointed to a steep yard covered with a burlap matting, through which small black willows had been planted. Willows bend flat with a flood, and hold the soil with their roots. Unlike conventional erosional controls that deteriorate with time, as the willows age, their root systems grow stronger and deeper. This is an erosion control method that gets better with time.
"It's an ancient form that dates back to the biblical times," said Greene. "It's less expensive, stronger and more effective."
Such bioengineering techniques will be more widely known thanks to a long-needed erosion control study commissioned by the Harris County Flood Control District. Recently completed by Brown and Root engineers who toured the bayou with Greene, the new study offers homeowners workable solutions to the vexing problem of keeping their property from sliding into the bayou. The solutions will have to be multiple, because the bayou is a dynamic environment with different soils and contours that require different solutions.
But development adjacent to the bayou is only part of the problem. The bayou water is dark because it carries the erosion, silt and discharges from hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses and construction sites well out in west Houston. According to one estimate, more than 40 percent of the bayou's turbidity comes from soil runoff from construction sites, runoff that could be controlled with a few simple measures.
At noon on my solo trip down the bayou, I stopped for a sandwich on a pink clay bank. A raccoon had left its distinct hand-like prints in the clay where it had washed its food the night before. Through my binoculars I watched a diamond-back water snake wend upstream on the opposite shore.
As I sat there, thoughts of A.V. "Army" Emmott, the grandfather of Houston's conservation movement, kept coming to mind. Army's mother was the person who wrote the letter that led to the creation of Memorial Park. With his late wife Sarah, Army worked in the '50s and '60s for the Texas Open Beaches Act, and fought the rapacious dredging of oyster shell from Galveston Bay.
Eighty years ago, after a few minutes of instruction in the dog paddle, Army's older brother threw him into a crystal-clear Buffalo Bayou millpond near the Shepherd Drive bridge. Army came up swimming, and he has been a lover and an advocate of the bayou ever since. When he was 14, he built a small canoe from wooden barrel hoops and canvas. He would throw a few cans of pork and beans and a blanket into the makeshift boat and paddle upstream from town for a weekend camping trip.
"We didn't have to worry about drinking water," he recalls, "because as you went along you could scoop out a place in the sand and wait a few minutes and fresh spring water would bubble up."
It's easy to see why Army Emmott became such a supporter of the bayou. Like the city itself, he was practically conceived in it. But while Army Emmott's concern with the bayou may be in part nostalgic, a look backward to his halcyon boyhood days, that's not all there is to it. Even for those whom the bayou stirs no memories, there may be substantial reasons for caring about the resource, reasons beyond simple flood control. Caring for the bayou may be more than a simple act of nostalgia. It may be a necessity.
In recent years, a growing number of scientists have argued that the human species, genetically shaped by tens of millions of years of hunting and gathering, is innately sensitive to all other forms of life, including plants. The Harvard naturalist and writer Edward O. Wilson calls this instinct "biophilia," or, literally, love of life. We can see this instinct at work in the way we teach our children through stories about animals and take them to zoos. Advocates of urban parks point out that the 1992 Los Angeles rioters destroyed businesses but left communal gardens and parks untouched. And when community leaders asked urban gangs what was needed to heal their neighborhoods, their response was unequivocal: more parks and more green space.
So there are plenty of reasons to treat the bayou kindly. Lined with trees, Buffalo Bayou acts as the city's lungs and circulatory system. It is a wildlife corridor, harboring birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. There are even beavers in it. It is a vibrant, living place through which flows Houston's past and much of its future possibilities. Buffalo Bayou, it could be argued, embodies the soul of the city. And how we care for our collective soul will affect the health of the city.