From the Allens to today, Buffalo Bayou has helped define the city of Houston. Now, after decades of abuse, it may finally be making a comeback as an urban resource. If, that is, we don't blow our chance.
A few years ago, I came to live in a second-floor apartment overlooking Buffalo Bayou. The complex was situated on the bayou's flood plain, and probably shouldn't have been built there at all. But the view of the water was beautiful. Healing from a personal crisis, I would sit on a bench in the parklike setting and watch the slant of morning light on the white sycamores and cascading willows that lined the bank, and be soothed by the brown water flowing gently past.
I had a canoe chained up in a storage area, but I seldom took it into the water. And for good reason: for years, the city's overburdened sewage system had discharged into the bayou, with the River Oaks outflow being one of the worst. The result was that in some places the bayou smelled like an open treatment facility, but with no treatment. The canoe race along the bayou each spring had been given the name "Reeking Regatta," and my impression of the bayou's water quality, like the impression of many Houstonians, was not good. The bayou was picturesque. It was something to look at. But it was not something to enter into. A few months after I moved away, a heavy rainfall caused the bayou to rise and inundate the apartment complex where I'd been living. I was glad to have escaped.
I moved to west Houston, and living there my contact with the bayou was reduced to glimpses as I drove over its bridges: the green crowns of trees, a brown triangle of water and then it would be gone. Like a repressed thought, the city's foremost geological feature lived in a recess. It was powerful, alluring, but out of consciousness.
But recently, I began to wonder if such a distanced connection was still called for. I'd hear that the water was getting better; the Buffalo Bayou Coalition had even dropped the word "reeking" from its annual race, which was begun to call attention to the resource. This spring, the coalition announced that the water quality was the best it has been in many years. I was skeptical, as were friends of mine who, when I mentioned the possibility of actually going to the bayou and seeing it again for myself, wondered why I'd want to immerse myself in something so unpleasant.
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
The reaction was quintessentially Houstonian: Don't concern yourself with what was. Look to the future. Let Buffalo Bayou be. But I couldn't. I decided it was time to quit turning my back on the bayou.
So on a sultry morning not long ago, I slipped out of Houston's noise and bustle to paddle most of the bayou's serene western length. For a couple of weeks before, the bayou's technicians, protectors, historians and lovers had been explaining the waterway's problems to me. They tossed around riverine terms such as natural repose, riparian fringes and fluvial geomorphology. They retold the story of the successful battle to keep flood-control engineers from cutting the trees from Buffalo Bayou's banks, straightening its curves and lining it with concrete.
They all claimed to have good news about Buffalo Bayou. After decades of neglect, they told me, it was gradually coming to be seen as an urban amenity instead of a storm-water and sewage-effluent discharge system. Downtown and in the East End, the shores of the bayou were being turned into urban greenbelts, with wildflowers, tree plantings, hike-and-bike trails and historical markers. Under the pressure of fines from the Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Houston had cleaned up its sewage discharges and the water has been declared safe for "contact recreation" -- a rather bureaucratic designation meaning that it was safe to let the bayou touch you again.
There would be plenty of touching in the open green kayak I had borrowed for my trip. I packed sandwiches and fruit, a jug of drinking water, binoculars with which to watch wildlife and a camera that was supposed to be watertight. I planned to cover a stretch from the Barker reservoir near Highway 6 to the 610 bridge at Memorial Drive, a distance of a dozen miles or so by road, and longer on the meandering course of the bayou.
The experts had told me that everything was going just fine. But Houston has been notorious in the past for putting a good face on things, for trying to make the best of bad situations. I had listened long enough to the experts insisting that Buffalo Bayou was a treasure, not a nuisance. Now it was time, as one of them had said, to listen to the resource.
The early visitors to Houston had no such qualms about Buffalo Bayou. The bayou was the entryway to the new city, and visitors admired the stately magnolias adorned with huge lemon-scented blossoms and the live oaks bearded with moss that lined its banks. Traveling by steamboat from Galveston, the great naturalist and wildlife painter John James Audubon visited Houston shortly after it had been founded and Texas had won its independence, sharing a cup of grog with the new republic's president, Sam Houston. Only a few miles east on the bayou, Houston had defeated a Mexican army. Audubon was likely impressed by that, but he was more impressed by the birds he saw taking advantage of the bayou's water and foliage. Some of the birds that Audubon painted, such as the great blue heron, the wood duck, the anhinga, the green heron and the kingfisher, still live along the bayou's green, secluded banks.
The Allen brothers had founded Houston because the bayou offered access both to the cotton, timber and produce of inland farmers and planters and, via Galveston Bay, to the sea. Before railways and hardtopped roads dominated transportation, the bayou served personal as well as commercial transportation. When the city's roads were mired in mud deep enough to drown a mule, Houstonians who wanted to shop in nearby Harrisburg went there by boat. In an 1891 bird's-eye map of Houston, an artist drew the bayou as the most prominent geological feature of this flat coastal city. He found the bayou far more complex and interesting than the grid of streets lining its south bank.
Industry and business grew along the shores of the bayou. From its banks near the center of town, 19th-century brick companies mined red clay used to construct Houston's first buildings; timber companies floated logs down it and sawmills used its water power to cut the logs into lumber. The most important street in town was Commerce, which ran closest to the wharves from which planters shipped their cotton to manufacturers in England.
Not all this attention, though, was benign. Some of the businesses polluted the bayou. A slaughterhouse situated just west of town had to be ordered to move east and dump its offal downstream from the city. The sawmills were forbidden to unload sawdust in the stream. Erosion from the cut-down forests and small farms to the west silted the bayou and muddied its waters. But as jobs were created in the eastern end of the city, the western banks of the bayou were abandoned to forests again, and the waters ran clear.
The natural beauty of the bayou was not lost on Will and Ima Hogg, who helped foster Houston's westward expansion. In 1929 "Miss Ima" built the Bayou Bend mansion to house her collection of American antiques, and in 1930 her brother started the River Oaks development and country club on the south bank. Further west, Memorial Drive ran parallel to the curves of the bayou and brought more development and erosion with it. But as the development continued, the city failed to keep pace with the demands on its sewage treatment plants, which backed up during heavy rains. Eager to hold down taxes, politicians failed to add sewage treatment capacity as the city grew. By the 1960s, the western part of Buffalo Bayou stank of sewage from its wealthiest neighborhoods, and the Ship Channel into which it fed consisted of a poisonous soup of petrochemicals from the industries that lined its banks. After being born on the bayou, it looked like Houston had decided on a little patricide. It was killing its own parent.
On the morning that I settled into the bayou's western reaches, the flow of water was particularly good, because the Army Corps of Engineers was releasing water from the Barker dam. The water was greenish brown in color with visibility of less than a foot. But it smelled fine, and it was cool as it lapped into the bottom of the kayak and drenched my shorts. Within seconds, the corporate parking lot from which I had launched dropped from view, and the green canopy of trees embraced the little craft. A dragonfly settled on the bow to hitchhike for a ways. A hundred yards downstream I heard a splashing on the bank and pulled over to investigate. A pair of copulating frogs sat on the mud, the smaller male on top of the bigger female, making an almost seamless, clumsy, unified animal. Then I saw another pair, and another. I had stumbled into a frog rut. I left them in peace.
The western end of Buffalo Bayou runs for about three miles through a greenbelt county park that's lined with footpaths and jogging trails. The park occupies at least part of the floodplain and helps prevent erosion caused by encroaching development. It's named for the mother protector of Buffalo Bayou, Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Terry Hershey.
In 1966, Hershey was headed to a party with some friends, and she was seething with anger. The Harris County Flood Control District was clearing all the trees from a nine-acre tract of land near the bayou at Chimney Rock. This was in preparation for straightening the channel and paving it with concrete. One of Hershey's friends said that he and a few other prominent Houston businessmen had formed an association to fight such plans. They had watched as the Corps already turned Brays and White Oaks bayous into concrete-lined ditches, and they didn't want to stand by passively while the same thing happened to Buffalo Bayou. Well, Hershey, told her friend, it was happening, and wasn't it time for the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association to have another meeting?
The Corps had not decided to channelize the bayous all on its own. After disastrous downtown floods in 1929 and 1935, the city and county leadership had assembled a dramatic pictorial of the flood damage called "Wild River" and petitioned the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress for help. In 1937, the Legislature authorized the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and gave it permission to levy property taxes through the Commissioners Court. The main purpose of the district was to leverage federal money through the Army Corps of Engineers. During World War II, the Corps built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which were designed to impound enough water upstream to prevent flooding downtown.
The reservoirs were merely the first phase of flood prevention. The Corps intended to increase the speed of the flow of flood water by removing meandering bends from Buffalo Bayou, clearing trees on either side, deepening the bayou bed and finally lining it with concrete at the bottom. It was a simple mathematical solution to a complex organic problem. Construction companies liked it because it put people and equipment to work. And since the Corps worked on a long-term schedule that stretched out 15 to 30 years, people were slow to realize the implications of what it was doing.
And there were implications, as Hershey discovered when she began investigating the Corps' plans. The "rectification" they were planning had the potential to do a number of bad things. One might be called a problem pass-along: instead of holding water upstream and stopping a flood, such systems are designed to rush water downstream, which can result in simply moving a flood from one spot to another.
"The sediment is rushed into the receiving stream," Hershey says, "which narrows its capacity, and then it goes downstream into the Ship Channel. Back then the Corps was charging us $2 million a year to dredge the Ship Channel. I would have thought that our preeminent engineers that started out to change the whole riverine system of our county would have known something about fluvial geomorphology or riverine hydrology, however you want to say it. Because what they were doing was absolutely wrong."
Hershey wasn't content to keep this to herself; she took her concerns to her congressman, a promising young Republican from Tanglewood named George Bush.
"His reaction," Hershey recalled, "was, 'That's a terrible thing to do to a river.' He just looked at it and instinctively knew it was stupid."
When the male leaders of the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association all proved too busy to testify before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in Washington, Hershey volunteered to go. Bush took Hershey's request to his congressional colleagues, who were astonished to hear someone from Texas ask the government not to spend money in his district. But that's exactly what he was doing, and Congress shrugged and agreed. The result even decades later is that there's no more talk of lining the bayou with concrete. The Corps is learning that rivers are powerful natural systems that can't be tinkered with lightly. The preferred solution today is to build detention ponds to hold back runoff, giving the bayou time to empty.
A couple of years after it stalled the Corps' plans, the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association dropped the Buffalo from its name and began to focus on preserving green corridors around all of the city's bayous. Today it emphasizes conservation easements, which allow property owners to permanently relinquish their right to develop property next to a bayou to a land trust. This lowers a property's book value, and the owner can write the difference off as a charitable contribution. In addition, the easement reduces the land's tax liability. The property owner still retains the title and can pass the land to heirs, but it is preserved forever as a green space. A complete system of such easements along the bayou system is one of the things that bayou advocates say would help solve any future problems. The easements would prevent further development of bayou banks, and help reduce erosion.
Floating under a sylvan canopy, I was almost glad that so few people use the bayou. If it were completely cleaned up, it might be full of yahoos in inner tubes drinking beer and playing radios, and who knows what would happen to the wildlife? A sparrow perches on the bank with a moth quivering in its beak. A turtle with a shell as big as a hubcap scrambles down the bank and belly flops into the water. A great blue heron, big as a small human being, lifts languidly on six-foot-long wings, and glides around the bend. It is hard to believe that I am surrounded by suburban homes on either side, and that everywhere people are rushing to work and school.
Once the bayou clears the Beltway 8 bridge, expensive homes spring up on either side of it, and so do visible attempts to stop the erosion of back yards. Having already paid a premium for their land, homeowners then spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to resist the force of the water that drew them there. All manner of erosion controls have been fixed to the bayou's banks: steel bulkheads, stacked sacks of concrete, interlocking bricks, rocks the size of computer monitors, concrete rubble. Almost invariably, they fail. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds, and when thousands of gallons of it are moving at a high rate of speed, something has got to give. That includes the Corps' vaunted concrete linings, which began to break up in some places only a few years after they were installed.
I received my instruction on the bayou's liquid forces from the city's premier paddler of rivers, Don Greene. A shaggy, humorous man who left corporate marketing 25 years ago, Greene has led rafting and canoeing expeditions all over the world. He has trained as a gondolier in Venice and is the guide of choice when politicians want to raft the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. Greene keeps a trailer full of rental canoes at the headquarters of Whitewater Experience in southwest Houston, and he has a special love of Buffalo Bayou. Excepting Bob Lanier, Greene has taken every Houston mayor since Fred Hofheinz on a trip down the bayou. And on occasions when the water rises, Greene and one of his guides go out on the bayou to videotape the bayou's condition, recording the hydrology for future study.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, 19 people turned out for a trip on the bayou from the 610 bridge through Memorial Park to the Shepherd Drive bridge. Greene stopped the canoes carrying the group before a wilting steel bulkhead to give a brief lesson in geomorphology.
Rivers have an occupation, he said, and that is to move turbidity, or suspended particles. On the outside of a bend, the river erodes the bank. On the inside of the curve, it deposits sand, often creating a system of natural terraces that engineers, Greene noted, would do well to imitate. Engineers who don't take the subtle nature of these forces into account can find their retaining walls buckling.
Greene led the group downstream and pointed to a steep yard covered with a burlap matting, through which small black willows had been planted. Willows bend flat with a flood, and hold the soil with their roots. Unlike conventional erosional controls that deteriorate with time, as the willows age, their root systems grow stronger and deeper. This is an erosion control method that gets better with time.
"It's an ancient form that dates back to the biblical times," said Greene. "It's less expensive, stronger and more effective."
Such bioengineering techniques will be more widely known thanks to a long-needed erosion control study commissioned by the Harris County Flood Control District. Recently completed by Brown and Root engineers who toured the bayou with Greene, the new study offers homeowners workable solutions to the vexing problem of keeping their property from sliding into the bayou. The solutions will have to be multiple, because the bayou is a dynamic environment with different soils and contours that require different solutions.
But development adjacent to the bayou is only part of the problem. The bayou water is dark because it carries the erosion, silt and discharges from hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses and construction sites well out in west Houston. According to one estimate, more than 40 percent of the bayou's turbidity comes from soil runoff from construction sites, runoff that could be controlled with a few simple measures.
At noon on my solo trip down the bayou, I stopped for a sandwich on a pink clay bank. A raccoon had left its distinct hand-like prints in the clay where it had washed its food the night before. Through my binoculars I watched a diamond-back water snake wend upstream on the opposite shore.
As I sat there, thoughts of A.V. "Army" Emmott, the grandfather of Houston's conservation movement, kept coming to mind. Army's mother was the person who wrote the letter that led to the creation of Memorial Park. With his late wife Sarah, Army worked in the '50s and '60s for the Texas Open Beaches Act, and fought the rapacious dredging of oyster shell from Galveston Bay.
Eighty years ago, after a few minutes of instruction in the dog paddle, Army's older brother threw him into a crystal-clear Buffalo Bayou millpond near the Shepherd Drive bridge. Army came up swimming, and he has been a lover and an advocate of the bayou ever since. When he was 14, he built a small canoe from wooden barrel hoops and canvas. He would throw a few cans of pork and beans and a blanket into the makeshift boat and paddle upstream from town for a weekend camping trip.
"We didn't have to worry about drinking water," he recalls, "because as you went along you could scoop out a place in the sand and wait a few minutes and fresh spring water would bubble up."
It's easy to see why Army Emmott became such a supporter of the bayou. Like the city itself, he was practically conceived in it. But while Army Emmott's concern with the bayou may be in part nostalgic, a look backward to his halcyon boyhood days, that's not all there is to it. Even for those whom the bayou stirs no memories, there may be substantial reasons for caring about the resource, reasons beyond simple flood control. Caring for the bayou may be more than a simple act of nostalgia. It may be a necessity.
In recent years, a growing number of scientists have argued that the human species, genetically shaped by tens of millions of years of hunting and gathering, is innately sensitive to all other forms of life, including plants. The Harvard naturalist and writer Edward O. Wilson calls this instinct "biophilia," or, literally, love of life. We can see this instinct at work in the way we teach our children through stories about animals and take them to zoos. Advocates of urban parks point out that the 1992 Los Angeles rioters destroyed businesses but left communal gardens and parks untouched. And when community leaders asked urban gangs what was needed to heal their neighborhoods, their response was unequivocal: more parks and more green space.
So there are plenty of reasons to treat the bayou kindly. Lined with trees, Buffalo Bayou acts as the city's lungs and circulatory system. It is a wildlife corridor, harboring birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. There are even beavers in it. It is a vibrant, living place through which flows Houston's past and much of its future possibilities. Buffalo Bayou, it could be argued, embodies the soul of the city. And how we care for our collective soul will affect the health of the city.
Since the late '70s, one of Buffalo Bayou's most important caretakers has been a landscape architect named Charles Tapley. Tapley planted Victory Gardens as a child, and as an adult taught a course on the bayou at the Rice School of Architecture. During the last 15 years he helped create a master plan for Buffalo Bayou. While the details are constantly shifting, a few general goals have emerged.
Perhaps the most important one is to develop Buffalo Bayou as a "linear park" from Shepherd Drive to the Ship Channel turning basin. It's an old concept; in the early part of this century some civic leaders called on the city to buy land on both sides of the bayou for parks and thoroughfares. Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway, though, were the only segments to be developed. A linear park of the sort Tapley envisions would be dotted with amenities and attractions to draw visitors to the bayou. And in some places that's coming true. Construction is already progressing downtown on the second phase of the $18 million Sesquicentennial Park near the Franklin Street Bridge. Funded by a combination of private and public money, Sesquicentennial Park will extend a series of walkways, waterfalls and benches from Wortham Center along both sides of the bayou. An open-air amphitheater will be built to host musical and theatrical performances.
While this capital-intensive project is being built, other lower cost projects downtown manage as well to reveal the bayou's enchantments. One of the most charming and little known is Championship Park, which Tapley designed for the Harris County Flood Control District. The park is situated just to the right on the north side of the Main Street Bridge, across from the University of Houston Downtown. Instead of using a standard sloping concrete retaining wall, Tapley designed a series of concrete terraces that emulate the natural deposition process of the bayou, and provide access for visitors to the edge of the water.
But the most remarkable part of the park has been its plantings. The flood control district has planted a steep slope with a profusion of wildflowers: Mexican firewheel, galardia, phlox, delphinium. Working with a group of adult probationers, Tapley has overseen the planting of dozens of native trees, among them Southern magnolias, red maples and cypress. Many of the probationers, Tapley says, have told him that the planting and care of these trees has been the most meaningful experience they've had in their encounters with the criminal justice system.
Tapley says the park is called Championship to remind people not only of the city's champions, but of the champion in every person. It is a beautiful and mostly undiscovered spot. But the best part of Championship Park is the plan to connect it further east toward the turning basin, in what has come to be called Heritage Corridor. [See sidebar, page 14.]
After showing off his park to a visitor, Tapley walks through some high weeds and debris and points east. He has the gleam of the master gardener in his eye: where others see only an eyesore, he sees tree-lined walks and a public enjoying nature.
Yes, he admits, there will be difficulties. There is money to raise. The public still needs further education about how individual actions pollute the bayou. They need to know that every time someone throws a Styrofoam cup in the street, or dumps oil or house paint or potting soil or leaves in the gutter, it's as good as throwing it in the bayou, since that's where the majority of Houston's storm sewers eventually empty.
Getting the public to the water should help raise that awareness. And it will remind us how, for a long time, the city understood that the bayou was its greatest natural amenity.
Tapley connects a hose to a portable tank and opens the valve to water his fragile young trees. It will take a couple of years of care and nurture, and then they'll be able to make it on their own.
Tapley opens his arms and smiles before the large arch of the Main Street Bridge. A mullet jumps out of the water. The bayou, Tapley notes, reminds us both of where we have come from and what role we must play in taking care of it.
Somewhere, somehow, we lost track of that vision. But in my time on the bayou's waters I discovered that what I had been told was in fact true: the bayou is coming back. I had a tough time completing the final leg of my paddle. Trees had fallen across the water, and I had to pick my way around the edges and hump the kayak over low clearances. I grew careless, and a snag caught my shirt and ripped a hole in it. Then I broadsided a tree and tumbled out into the bayou's flow. When I emerged, my watertight camera no longer worked and my binoculars were clouded and useless. When I finished the trip I was wet and tired, and wished I had taken it a little easier. As I hauled my boat out of the water on the north side of Woodway, a woman pulled into traffic a little slowly, and a blond woman in a red convertible Mercedes came roaring up behind her, her horn blaring.
"Welcome back to the city," I thought. Waiting for my ride, I thought back to the bayou, where I had drifted with a pair of wood ducks, the male easily identifiable by his shaggy head. When I floated past a dead tree, I spotted a downy woodpecker at the top. His bill was half open as though he had something in it. Then I heard a high pitched scree, scree, scree, the sound of its young calling for food.
I wished Army Emmott could have been there with me. I wished life were simpler and the water in the bayou was as clear as it had been in his day. But that, I assumed, would never be. I couldn't imagine scooping a hollow out in the bayou's sand banks and drinking spring water. I couldn't imagine seeing bass in schools at the bottom of deep pools in Buffalo Bayou.
But following my trip I had a long talk with Janet Wagner, a landscape architect who's researched the history of the bayou for the flood control district's new erosion study. Wagner knows where the bayou was mined for clay, and knows the names of the brick companies that mined it and in which buildings you can still see the bayou-bred brick. She knows where the fords used by the Indians were situated on rocky bottoms and can show you how the early Anglo settlers damaged them by cutting deep ramps in the banks for their wagons.
When I wondered aloud to her if the bayou's water could ever be as clear again as it was in Army Emmott's day, she surprised me. Oh yes, she said. Buffalo Bayou is still fed by clear springs. And if we could control Houston's urban and suburban erosion and discharges, the bayou would carry the sediment that now discolors it out to the bay, and the water would again run crystal clear over its hard, blue-clay bottom.
We could have it back. We could have it all back if each of us took care of our own piece of the problem. If we kept our grass clippings and our soap suds and automobile oil out of the gutter. If we cleaned up our construction sites and our gas stations. It would take an effort, but I'd already seen how far we'd already come. And I knew now it wasn't impossible. If we took care of the moment -- the only time in which any of us ever had a chance to really make a difference -- Houston could have its bayou back.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.