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.

Buffalo Bayou has been vital to the people of Houston since the city was founded, but it is also the beauty of the waterway that draws people like Salz­handler to it.

"If the town of Houston in January 1837 had any of the beauty mentioned in the Allen Brothers' glowing advertisements, it was the beauty of nature. Oak, pine magnolia, cypress, sweetgum, wild peach and cedar grew in a dim forest that stood along the banks of Buffalo Bayou," according to Houston: A Complete History, a book from the Texas Writers' Project published in 1942.

By the time the book came out, Houston had grown far beyond the muddy little hamlet it was in the 1830s. Development happened so quickly in the 20th century that it caught many by surprise. Buffalo Bayou was a key to that development, allowing goods to be easily shipped up and down the river, but it was also part of a bayou system that was prone to flooding.

Don Greene has been canoeing on Buffalo Bayou since the 1960s and was one of the original members of the Bayou Preservation Association, founded to protect Houston's bayou system.
Photos by Max Burkhalter
Don Greene has been canoeing on Buffalo Bayou since the 1960s and was one of the original members of the Bayou Preservation Association, founded to protect Houston's bayou system.
Greene says he is concerned the method of natural channel design will destroy the section of Buffalo Bayou he and others worked for so long to preserve.
Photos by Max Burkhalter
Greene says he is concerned the method of natural channel design will destroy the section of Buffalo Bayou he and others worked for so long to preserve.

As the city grew, the flooding problem became impossible to ignore. After Harris County Flood Control was set up, the organization started working with the Army Corps of Engineers, focusing on bringing Buffalo Bayou under control. The Addicks and Barker reservoirs were built to get a handle on the waters coming down the bayou, and the groups started channelizing sections of the bayou system and buying up right-of-way along Buffalo Bayou.

The goal was to channelize the stretch of Buffalo Bayou that ran through Houston, but the project shuddered to a halt with the start of World War II. When the Corps returned to the project, its engineers focused on the more immediate problems presented by White Oak and Brays bayous. By the time they started looking at Buffalo Bayou again, Hershey had formed a group that urged the Corps to stay away from the last untouched section of Buffalo Bayou.

Hershey even went to Washington, D.C., in 1967 along with then-Congressman George H.W. Bush and asked the federal government to take back the funding for the project. That project ended there, but Harris County Flood Control still owned a significant amount of right-of-way. That factored into planning when the agency started putting together the Memorial Park Demonstration Project three years ago, Talbott said.

Talbott said the Army Corps of Engineers had encouraged Harris County Flood Control to apply for a Nationwide 27 permit, which is reserved for projects that aren't controversial and don't require public hearings or input. Sierra Club conservation chair Evelyn Merz and other members of her organization found out about the application and started a letter-writing campaign targeting the Corps. The campaign worked, and the permit was denied based on evidence that the project would disturb the vestiges of World War I-era Camp Logan, the site that was turned into Memorial Park shortly after the end of the Great War.

The flood control district has also been slow to reveal the actual plans for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have to release the plans to the public while the permit application is pending, though it released the findings after the Nationwide 27 permit was denied in October.

It took Merz months to get a copy of the 60 percent completed plan for the project submitted by Harris County Flood Control showing how the natural channel design method called for shifting the bend of the river here and there, along tracts of land where the district already had the right of way. Merz studied the map, looking at the areas that would be cut — cleared of trees and brush — and those that would be filled to force the waterway to bend according to the design dictated by Rosgen's methods.

While Talbott claims only a minimum number of trees will be cut down, Merz and others have concluded after studying the plans that 80 to 90 percent of the riparian foliage along the stretch of Buffalo Bayou in question will be cleared. The trees and plants and the ecosystem created for the animals that still live in that section of the bayou will be gone, so that Harris County Flood Control can move the bayou over only a few feet in some places.

Paddling the bayou, Don Greene eyed the steep drop-off on the edge of the River Oaks Country Club golf course. He saw one section that was about to be lost to erosion, the reason the country club got involved in the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

While some people, like Smith, believe the bayou should be left untouched, allowed to ebb and flow as nature dictates, Greene is pragmatic. Something should be done to shore up crumbling banks, he said, but he doesn't want Harris County Flood Control to use natural channel design on the entire bayou. "Buffalo Bayou is a natural wonder in the middle of all this. We need this here. It's therapeutic to get out here on the water and paddle away from everything," Greene said. "There's no place else left in Houston where you can do this. I don't want them to destroy all of this."
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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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