Memorial Park Demonstration Opponents Say Buffalo Bayou is Doing Just Fine

The Memorial Park Demonstration Project plan, as a map.
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project plan, as a map.
Courtesy of Harris County Flood Control

Buffalo Bayou is doing just fine in the wake of the Memorial Day floods, according to the opponents of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. 

The Memorial Park Demonstration project seeks to reroute and reshape a section of Buffalo Bayou that runs through Memorial Park and the River Oaks Golf Course. Harris County Flood Control officials put a $6 million price tag on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The City of Houston, the River Oaks Country Club and Harris County Flood Control have each chipped in $2 million.

The last heavy release finished running down Buffalo Bayou last week and Tom Helm, a geologist and part-time river guide who has examined the waterway frequently since the floods, says the bayou held up admirably while more water than ever before –- a rate of 3,000 cubic feet per second – was released from the reservoir and allowed to slam through the bayou system. The Harris County Commissioner’s Court signed off on the move shortly after the Memorial Day Floods.

Trees were down and there were places where the bayou was already reshaping its banks, but overall it looked good, Helm says. (Keep in mind that looking bad could indicate that the bayou needs to be changed in some way, a view that is distasteful to those working to keep the Memorial Park stretch of Buffalo Bayou natural.)

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The bayou heals itself, Helm says. “The bayou stretches out – all of that water moving through it is hard on the waterway but it’ll heal itself because it’s sand and dirt,” Helm says. “There were more trees down along the bayou tan I’ve ever seen before at one time. Releasing water at 3,000 cubic-feet-per-second was not a good idea from that perspective, but now we’re back down to regular levels and what trees have fallen fell parallel to the banks. From there the sand and dirt will pile up behind those trees and it will all become a part of the edge of the bayou. That’s how the system works.”

Helm says that the “natural channel design” approach is attempting to recreate that natural process but the Harris County Flood Control approach is really about controlling the waterway instead of letting the waterway shift and change as it would naturally. “From my understanding they want to dig out the existing channels and reshape the entire channel the way they want to be and make the banks gently sloping at a 30 degree angle, put a bunch of tree trunks along the bank – basically duplicate what naturally happens. They say they're going to bring in natural materials but who knows what they're going to actually bring in.”

Meanwhile, there's no word on when the United States Army Corps of Engineers will actually issue its decision on whether or not to grant the project permit. The process has been dragging out for months now. Originally, workers were supposed to start cutting into the banks of Buffalo Bayou to start reworking the bayou according to natural channel design techniques last fall. But the Army Corps of Engineers called for another public commenting period after some changes were submitted to the project earlier this year. The public comment period went from May 5 to June 5 and now Harris County Flood Control officials are working up their responses, Harris County Flood Control spokeswoman Kim Jackson says. At this point the timeline of the project is based on whenever the Corps makes a decision on the permit, she says.

But the opposition is still hard at work to try and stop the permit from being issued. At the heart of the matter is a fundamentally different view on what actually makes a “natural” approach to Buffalo Bayou. The whole thing is really complicated and it involves controversy over fluvial geomorphology – river science – and a method of channelizing the banks of a river called “natural channel design.” Basically, once you've boiled out all of that stuff, the crux of the matter is lots of people want to use “natural” methods to preserve Buffalo Bayou. The thing is, the folks at Harris County Flood Control and the other supporters of the natural channel design plan for Buffalo Bayou believe that stripping the banks bare and putting in stacked tree trunks to lock the bayou's curves into place is a natural approach.

On the flipside, opponents of the project just want everyone to let this stretch of Buffalo Bayou stay as it is. “Bayous move and change naturally, but this bayou hasn't even moved that much,” Susan Chadwick, the organizer behind Save Our Buffalo Bayou, says. ”It's better to work with nature than against it.” 

And when it comes down to it, opponents of the project insist it's unnecessary. Tom Heyes, executive director of the Environmental Coalition Alliance, an Austin-based nonprofit that works on river restoration across Texas, says that the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is unnecessary and pointless after he examined the bayou and found it to be in good shape and in no need of restoration. “It’s a shame what’s happening on Buffalo Bayou with this demonstration project. The plan is to channelize what is still a natural section of the bayou, and it’s very sad.” While there are some rivers that need to be restructured and controlled, Heyes says the Memorial Park section of the bayou is not on that list.

In fact, due to the drought and development and the amount of water Texas has been pulling from its rivers in recent years, the riparian forests across Texas have been in serious decline, Heyes says. Now, Harris County Flood Control will be destroying another riparian forest just to impose “natural channel design” methods on this stretch of the river. “It’s a pretty significant issue. People think that rivers feed the fish but the nutrients fish need actually come from the forests around the rivers. The rivers are just the highways but the forests support the coastal food chains and its kind of scary to see the forests disappearing across our state.”

Heyes says he’s stumped about why exactly the project is being pursued. “They should not be channelizing the last natural riparian forest along Memorial Park. They've already done it both above and below Memorial Park. Why do it in the park? It's supposed to be a park. We've already lost so much in the last century already. We don’t need to lose this too.”

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