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.

This is the same section of Buffalo Bayou, running from Interstate 610 to Shepherd Drive and wedged between Memorial Park, the River Oaks Country Club, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and multimillion-dollar bayou-front homes, that activists fought to save decades ago. Terry Hershey, a Houston woman with social connections and the money to make herself heard, formed a group in the mid-1960s that eventually became the Bayou Preservation Association, aimed at protecting one of the last swaths of relatively untouched bayou in Houston.

Frank Smith Jr., a longtime activist on behalf of Buffalo Bayou, was part of the initial group formed by Hershey to save the bayou and helped win the fight to protect it in the early 1970s. Smith remained on the board of the Bayou Preservation Association. In 2011, when the idea of using natural channel design on the bayou was introduced, he initially supported it. Then he learned more about the technique and what it would do to the tree-lined water­way. "I thought the name meant it was a natural process, but now I've come to learn about it, I don't think there's anything natural about it at all," he said.

Smith tried to persuade the other board members to oppose the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, but he was outvoted. The Bayou Preservation Association is firmly in support, and Talbott even credits the organization with the idea of using natural channel design to do the project. Natural channel design is a method of stream restoration — a practice popularized in recent decades that attempts to remove pollution and fix damaged water­ways — pioneered by Dave Rosgen, a river scientist acclaimed by some and reviled by others.

Frank Salzhandler examined the 80 percent complete plans presented by the Harris County Flood Control District for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project at a public meeting held in December. The final plans are expected to be completed this fall, with construction expected to start at the end of 2014.
Max Burkhalter
Frank Salzhandler examined the 80 percent complete plans presented by the Harris County Flood Control District for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project at a public meeting held in December. The final plans are expected to be completed this fall, with construction expected to start at the end of 2014.
Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club, agrees that there are some problem areas on this section of Buffalo Bayou but says she does not feel the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is the best approach. Merz is pushing for a less invasive method that would leave more of the surrounding riparian forest intact.
Max Burkhalter
Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club, agrees that there are some problem areas on this section of Buffalo Bayou but says she does not feel the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is the best approach. Merz is pushing for a less invasive method that would leave more of the surrounding riparian forest intact.

Talbott believes the method of scraping the banks clean and installing dead tree trunks will stabilize the banks. Once the work is done, the flood control district will plant native trees and cover the dirt with a carpet of Bermuda grass. The dead tree trunks will be submerged below water, where they will be preserved from rot, with their roots jutting into the stream, holding the designed shape.

Doyle questions whether Rosgen's methods will even work in Houston. Rosgen used his technique of natural channel design on western rivers in the early 1980s. But as his approach caught on and moved east, applying his practices to waterways formed on flat, sandy coastal plains proved to be a problem, Doyle said.

Some argue that the sandy soil that makes up much of Buffalo Bayou isn't suited to this type of restructuring, but Talbott dismisses those concerns. Rosgen, the pioneer of natural channel design, came to town, examined the bayou for a day and declared that his methods would work. Natural channel design will stop erosion and improve water quality in one fell swoop. Once Harris County Flood Control has replanted the banks of the bayou, Talbott said, everything will be the way it was before. "Give it ten years and you won't even know we were here," he said.
_____________________

On a dark, rainy night in October, about 50 people crammed into a little theater on a corner of the Rice University campus to watch a documentary on Buffalo Bayou. Frank Salzhandler shot the film, a gritty, low-tech endeavor, with Salzhandler doing the narration as he and two friends made their way down the bayou.

He captured the green waterway moving smoothly along the sandy contours of the bayou banks. Sycamores and oak trees dipped and swayed, the bows shaking gently, a sound like the rustle of silk. "We've neglected this river, forgotten it, but it's not too late to become aware of its charm," Salzhandler narrated.

Salzhandler, head of the Endangered Species Media Project for more than 20 years, has made preserving the bayou a sort of sub-project of the group. When invited to show the film at Rice, he accepted and asked environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn to come and speak on their concerns for the bayou and the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

The Harris County Flood Control District was invited to send a representative but declined. The Bayou Preservation Association showed up instead, demanding equal time, and filled a section of seats to the right of the stage with people who clapped loudly after Kevin Shanley, a past chairman of the board, presented the group's take on the concerns about the bayou.

Salzhandler, his long, faded blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, sat at the front of the room after the film was shown and started answering questions, quoting research and river scientists who disagree with many of Rosgen's methods. A short, red-faced man, Ty Kelly, a former president of the Bayou Preservation Association, shot out of his chair. "That's all lies! This is nothing but hearsay!"

Salzhandler stared at him for a beat. He knew Kelly. He smiled and shook his head, pointing out that they weren't in court and he had a right to quote expert scientists and their findings. "Think the Nile Delta. We've come to think of flood plains as bad, but they're good and a part of rivers," he said. "Rivers are always changing, always moving, and when one thing changes, everything changes."

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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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