Fighting for Control: Can Buffalo Bayou Survive the Latest Plan to Save It?

Plans to reroute Buffalo Bayou will rescue an unstable waterway. Or they will destroy one of the last natural stretches of riparian forest on the bayou. Consensus seems to have taken a hike.

Fighting for Control: Can Buffalo Bayou Survive the Latest Plan to Save It?
Max Burkhalter

December 1935: The water was everywhere. After the rains drenched the banks of Buffalo Bayou, it had nowhere else to go. It slopped over the smooth, tree-lined banks, filling the streets, covering 25 blocks of Houston's downtown business district as it hissed and rushed, moved and reshaped the city trapped beneath it.

This was the flood that changed everything. Houston was just beginning to be a prosperous, modern city, but there were still those hard-hit by the Great Depression. As the flood coursed through town, people fished canned goods, clothing and furniture out of the current and then gathered on bridges to hawk the goods.

After the waters receded, it looked as if a giant hand had smashed Houston to pieces. Seven people were killed. Train tracks were washed away, and the Port of Houston was left a crippled, broken thing. The devastation caused an estimated $3 million in damage (amounting to more than $40 million with inflation). When the Texas Legislature created the Harris County Flood Control District in 1937, authorizing the local taxing entity to work with the federal Army Corps of Engineers to get control of Houston's flooding, it had the 1935 flood in mind.

The Memorial Park Demonstration Project will shift river bends along a 5,800-foot section of Buffalo Bayou, which should slow the water flow and result in curbing erosion and improving water quality. The project has been in the works since 2011.
Image courtesy of Harris County Flood Control District
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project will shift river bends along a 5,800-foot section of Buffalo Bayou, which should slow the water flow and result in curbing erosion and improving water quality. The project has been in the works since 2011.
In December, the Harris County Flood Control District held a meeting in the Lamar High School cafeteria to unveil the first public presentation of the plan. Director Mike Talbott says the Memorial Park Demonstration Project will secure the banks against erosion and improve water quality.
Max Burkhalter
In December, the Harris County Flood Control District held a meeting in the Lamar High School cafeteria to unveil the first public presentation of the plan. Director Mike Talbott says the Memorial Park Demonstration Project will secure the banks against erosion and improve water quality.

For more than 70 years, Harris County Flood Control has been intent on its mission — to control the flooding, to maintain a vise grip on Buffalo Bayou and all the waterways in Houston's complex bayou system so that Houston would be allowed to grow and develop without having to consider all the time flood plains, erosion and the history of a city built on a swamp.

But in its quest to keep the bayou system under control, the flood control district has made some mistakes over the years. Director Mike Talbott is the first to admit that.

Yes, it underestimated how high the waters could rise when it designed the flood control plans in the 1940s.

Yes, it failed to consider how channelizing — gutting, straightening and paving — large swaths of the twisting waterways of the bayou system would increase the speed of the water, hurling it and the flooding problem further downstream and into other people's homes ­instead of solving it.

Yes, it failed to anticipate how Houston would grow and stretch and develop into the fourth-largest city in the United States, meaning there is less soil to soak up runoff, and Buffalo Bayou and all the bayous that drain into it are handling more water at more erratic rates than the waterways naturally evolved to hold.

Despite decades of miscalculation about Buffalo Bayou, Talbott is asking the public to once again trust the Harris County Flood Control District, this time with something called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. This is a proposal to use natural channel design — a method that shifts and locks a stream's curves into shape using stacked tree trunks — on a stretch of the bayou about a mile long.

The project will stop erosion and slow the water down without encasing the banks in unforgiving concrete, Talbott says. In speaking of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, Talbott describes it as a "restoration" of the bayou and assures anyone who will listen that the project is what's best for the bayou. "There are so many good things about what is going on here that portraying it as something sinister just isn't right," he said. "People think we're the same as we used to be, but nobody who worked here in the '50s and '60s is here today."

Everyone knows something about the project. It has been reported in newspapers and covered on TV and radio in glowing details. In this version of the story, Buffalo Bayou is a stressed and abused waterway with unstable riverbanks and in desperate need of rescue. Once the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is complete, Buffalo Bayou will have been restructured without being channelized and paved over, so it's all good.

What many don't know, however, is that there isn't a consensus on the project. While proponents see it as the only answer for this section of the bayou, those against it say that the method of natural channel design will destroy one of the last natural stretches of riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou in a quest to shift and control the river using a controversial method that they say will also destroy the ecosystem and unnecessarily channelize the ­waterway.

There is also a question of profit to be made in the deal. Martin Doyle, a professor of river science and policy at Duke University, said that restoring about a mile of stream costs around $2 million today. Harris County Flood Control has put a $6 million price tag on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The City of Houston, the River Oaks Country Club and Harris County Flood Control each put in $2 million.

The flood control district maintains that the project costs more because of its size, scale and com­plexity as well as the complications resulting from limited right-of-way, difficult access and a goal of creating minimal disturbance for those around the project, according to a statement issued by e-mail in response to questions submitted by the Houston Press.

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9 comments
veggieburger
veggieburger

I have lived on Buffalo Bayou for 34 years....having grown up on Brays Bayou.  I painfully witnessed the clearing, burning and concretizing of Brays...and the sterility which remains today.  My memory is etched with the horror of thousands of creatures desperately fleeing the fires set.  Presumably the Army Corps then worked on the basis of some 'theory'.  60 years hence...we live with the errors of their theories.  Let's not make the same ignorant mistakes with the glorious Buffalo Bayou.

Remek
Remek

Good story - stay on it!

I have always wondered why the River Oaks Country Club was allowed to water its golf course for free by sucking water out of Buffalo Bayou.  Seems that water should have been used to water the Memorial Park during the drought instead of the putting greens of billionaires.  If the city was serious about finding money for its budget, it would demand the country club start paying a water bill.

Ann Ratcliff
Ann Ratcliff

Good reporting, nothing to like about HCFCD's methods--just business as usual in Houston.

TomHelm
TomHelm

Not at all, nothing against rich people, whether they earned their money or were born into it. But the big question is: why is public money being used to fund the project? What do you call it when it's the River Oaks CC expecting the county and city to pay $4 million of public tax dollars to protect private property, while at the same time destroying a very public asset on the north side of the bayou? I guess the better way to put it would be...by all means, rich people, protect your valuable private land from eroding into the bayou...but pay for it yourselves!

bdamages
bdamages

So we should just let our valuable land erode away?  Soak the rich, they deserve it?  What tired, envious, leftist claptrap.

TomHelm
TomHelm

This project is obviously a veiled attempt to protect the River Oaksians from losing any land or any of their golf course to the bayou. This is clear when looking at the map....you can see that all of the outsides of the bends are eroding laterally east-southeast into the fairways. If Harris County Flood Control is sincere that "this is just a test", then they could easily try out the method on any number of the bayous or creeks that are all over Harris County, have plenty of bayou access to work with, and not cut any trees (other than what trees they used to stabilize the banks). For example, how about testing it out first on that mile long straightened (but unconcreted) stretch of White Oak Bayou that runs from I-45 to downtown? Or maybe on one of the unconcreted parts of Sims Bayou? Hello?

atina.willis
atina.willis

Jutting dead tree roots above & below the moving water in the Buffalo Bayou creates a real eye sore: Plastic shopping bags, foam cups & food containers, empty cans etc... Then, there is the ongoing cost of maintenance to clean up the garbage. River Oak Country Club could survive with one less hole. Leave the BAYOU ALONE...

 
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