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.

Harris County Flood Control has officially been moving forward toward the Memorial Park Demonstration Project with general support, but Merz said that is only because the people running things are not open to hearing from anyone who doesn't agree with them.

Talbott said he would be open to ideas and alterations when the district presented the 80 percent complete plans at a public meeting hastily scheduled in December. Merz laughed at that. "They won't listen to us by then. With 80 percent of their plans, the thing is almost done. Nothing is changing after that," she said, shaking her head.

Smith said Talbott has been careful in his presentations, choosing words that can be interpreted in different ways. All the people speaking in favor of the project keep their language diplomatic, talking of "restoration" and reassuring everyone that the toe wood (the logs that will be placed in the banks with the root systems poking into the water) will be good for habitat. When in doubt, they mention Rosgen, and they talk about him in the same way some people talk about Jesus Christ.

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.

Fluvial geomorphology is a relatively new field. It came up in the late 1970s, when engineers realized they didn't have to channelize and cement streams to control them but could restore them instead. A few of those early river scientists rose to the top of their field, but Rosgen, a cowboy from Colorado and one of the first people in the stream-restoration movement, became the most famous.

But again, the approach may not work everywhere.

According to Duke's Martin Doyle, "They started to run into problems when they tried to apply these methods to the outer coastal plain, these super-flat plains with a lot of sand and silt. When you get into those landscapes, they don't work the same way; the processes that form those landscapes [are] a lot more subtle," Doyle said.

That isn't something those championing natural channel design want to hear, Doyle said. The method is relatively straightforward and simple, and it has been embraced by some government agencies. A study on the impact of the Rosgen method, Fields and Streams by Rebecca Lave,  pointed out that Rosgen's methods have become so popular that university-trained river scientists can't get hired if they haven't attended his workshops and gotten certified.

The problem with the Rosgen method, Doyle said, is that the people practicing it don't seem to look beyond the basic steps of the project. "They know that when you meander a stream, you slow it down, but 98 percent of those in stream restoration don't know what happens next," he said. "If you push them, that's when the smoke screens come up. And the thing is, when you're dealing with people that know what the next step actually is, that's the really fun part. They know the ecosystem. They can talk in specifics, and that's when the work gets really interesting."

Government entities like the Rosgen method because it is relatively simple, it can be done with a turnkey approach and it uses concepts they understand. Stream restoration in general has become an increasingly profitable ­endeavor.

There's even the potential for a profit on the flip side, Doyle noted. The Army Corps of Engineers counts stream restoration as mitigation and favors those who use Rosgen's method. If the Harris County Flood Control District chooses, it can apply for mitigation certification for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The Corps would then award mitigation banking credits for the project. The credits can be sold to developers and used to offset environmental damage incurred in development, resulting in a nice profit on the back end of the deal.

The flood control district has denied any intention of using the Buffalo Bayou project for mitigation banking. "This is a stand-alone project that will not be used to mitigate other projects from an environmental or flood damage reduction perspective," said Russ Poppe, director of operations with Harris County Flood Control.

Rosgen isn't directly overseeing this project, no matter how many times his name is thrown around in connection with it. He did come down and speak over the summer, Merz said, but he spoke only briefly about the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, talking about how the root systems are excellent for fish habitats and showing a picture of a trout. "He didn't seem to know that we don't have that type of trout here," Merz said.

What Merz, Greene and so many of those with reservations about the project really want is for Harris County Flood Control to bring in another approach for work on the bayou. Consultant Robbin Sotir has been shoring up unstable sections of Buffalo Bayou for the past 23 years. She completed three projects along the 5,800-foot-long section slated for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, employing soil bioengineering techniques that involve using plant root systems to hold the banks in place. While many attempts by private property owners have failed, all of Sotir's projects on that section of Buffalo Bayou have suceeded.

Sotir herself has tried to stay out of the fight over the project, but she pointed out that what Harris County Flood Control deems erosion is actually geotechnical failure that causes large sections of the bank to crumble away. "This is a bayou system that is heavily controlled, has already been heavily altered. They are taking out a lot of nature with this project, 80 to 90 percent; do that and you have a tremendous feat in front of you to restore it," she said. "They talk about restoration, but what they seem to be really after is control."
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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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