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.

Just before Christmas, Harris County Flood Control held a meeting to present the 80 percent completed plan of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. About 60 people, many wearing royal-blue Harris County Flood Control button-down shirts, gathered in the cafeteria at Lamar High School. Scott Peyton, an engineer with Stantec, the company designing the project, made a slip in his portion of the presentation, saying that the project plans were almost complete at that point and wouldn't change much.

Talbott stood up, a reassuring smile pinned on his face, and interjected. Of course the district would be taking public concerns into account, he said.

After an hour and a half of presentations, Harris County Flood Control was ready to take questions. Employees collected small neon-green slips of paper on which audience members had written questions and their signatures. Some people scribbled question after question and waved them in the air to be collected. Talbott shuffled through the papers, noting that a lot of the questions were repetitive. He chose which questions to answer and who on the panel gathered at the front of the room would answer them.

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.

Seated a few feet from Talbott in the second row, Evelyn Merz filled out sheet after sheet with questions, holding her hand in the air to submit one while she started on the next. Frank Salzhandler leaned back in his chair and sighed.

At the front of the room, Katy Emde, a Texas native-plants specialist who has lived and studied plants on Buffalo Bayou for more than 20 years, got so frustrated she started calling out questions. What about the natural plants they were going to put in after the construction was complete? Why were they putting in Bermuda grass, which is native to Africa, Asia, Australia and southern Europe, when the bayou is lined with native Texas grasses today?

A woman on the panel explained that the district had tried using native grasses in its other projects, but those grasses didn't take. "Bermuda grass is abundant in Memorial Park. It will just grow in eventually anyway," she said. Emde shook her head while Talbott interjected and shuffled through his growing stack of questions.

The question-and-answer period lasted about 20 minutes before Talbott announced that the rest of the questions would be answered online. He smiled at the audience, a nice man who just wanted people to see things the way he did, to understand that the intentions of the Harris County Flood Control District are good.

If the Army Corps of Engineers approves the Memorial Park Demonstration Project permit application, construction workers could move in by the end of this year, using heavy equipment and saws to reshape the bayou according to a pattern that should, if the method is successful, lock the waterway into a form it will hold for generations to come. If the effort fails, the entire project could be blown down the river by one heavy flood, leaving nothing but naked, unprotected soil where the last of an ancient forest once stood.

Some scoff at Talbott's estimate that Buffalo Bayou will be the same in a decade or so. Frank Smith Jr. has lived on Buffalo Bayou most of his life. He knows the bayou in his bones, and everything in him is telling him this project is not right. "The recovery won't happen in our lifetime. It will take 50 to 100 years to come back from this," Smith said. "Why can't they just leave it alone?"

The bayou has been stretching and changing, rising and falling for more than 10,000 years. Now it just has to survive the latest plan to save it.

dianna.wray@houstonpress.com

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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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