River Science Expert Says Buffalo Bayou is in Good Shape

River Science Expert Says Buffalo Bayou is in Good Shape
Photo by Max Burkhalter

G. Mathias Kondolf climbed up the muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou with a small smile on his face. Kondolf, one of the leading fluvial geomorphologists in the world (he's a river scientist) and one of the most vocal opponents to a method of river restructuring called natural channel design, was brought on by local environmentalists who are still hoping to stop the Memorial Demonstration Project from happening. Kondolf was brought to give his opinion on the state of Buffalo Bayou. Knocking the mud and river muck off his boots after a tour of the waterway on Friday morning, Kondolf's smile widened.

As both a leading river science expert and as one of the leading voices speaking out against the so-called natural channel design approach to rivers, Kondolf, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley College, is always getting invitations to come check out various projects across the country. He took the people with Save Buffalo Bayou, a nonprofit organization that is in opposition to the project, up on their offer to assess Buffalo Bayou because the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue their ruling on whether or not to permit the Memorial Demonstration Project. So there is still a chance to have an impact on what is happening, he says.

The Memorial Demonstration Project has been a contentious issue since it was first proposed a few years ago. Harris County Flood Control has 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.

G. Mathias Kondolf
G. Mathias Kondolf
Photo by Max Burkhalter

The project is currently under permit review by the Army Corps of Engineers, with a decision expected from the federal officials by the end of the year. If the project is approved it will employ a controversial method of "river restoration" pioneered by another famous river scientist, Dave Rosgen, dubbed natural channel design.

Rosgen's method involves peeling back the river banks and placing stacked logs at certain spots to alter how the river flows, locking a new path in place. While this approach has proved effective in some cases where there has already been significant ecological damage, the proposed Memorial Demonstration Project would essentially rip back the banks along one of the last relatively untouched sections of Buffalo Bayou, destroying the riparian forest that lines the waterway.

Proponents of the plan say that the project includes plans to replant trees and grass that will restore the riparian forest. They also claim that the plan is necessary because of erosion along the waterway.

Opponents of the plan insist that all this will do is destroy the last vestige of an ancient forest, and have also pointed out that in many of the natural channel design projects attempts to control the river and force its path have failed. Kondolf notes that all but one of the many projects completed in California were blown out entirely after they were finished. "Any time you try to control a river, the river might have something else in mind, and the whole thing could fall apart. It's much better to stand back and give the river some room," he says.

Kondolf has known Rosgen, the creator of natural channel design, since the early 1980s. They met in 1982 when Kondolf was a graduate student. But it wasn't until the met in the 1990s, when Rosgen's method was beginning to really become popular, that Kondolf and Rosgen really started talking about their differences of opinion. "He's a professional colleague I've known for years. We've been having an ongoing discussion about this since 1990," Kondolf says. Meanwhile, Rosgen's natural channel design has only increased in popularity. Part of this has to do with Rosgen himself, who wears western clothes and gives off the impression of a man who spends his time outdoors as far from the rigors of science as possible, Kondolf contends.

Rosgen's method is also appealing to people because anyone can go be trained and certified in the Rosgen method, versus having to go through years of education to become a fluvial geomorphologist, Kondolf says. "It doesn't take someone with a long scientific background to do these types of projects. They can send anyone up to get trained and certified in natural channel design." The natural channel design approach feels very accessible, and Rosgen's proponents are numerous. "Sometimes it feels like the followers of a cult," Kondolf says.

Kondolf toured Buffalo Bayou on Friday, despite the steady mist of rain coming down. He examined the section carefully as he and a group of opponents to the Memorial Demonstration Project paddled slowly down the stretch of the bayou that will be the focus of the project if it is approved.

The officials with Harris County Flood Control have said that the bayou is shifting and eroding dangerously, and they have touted this as one of the main reasons to complete the project. However, Kondolf says he didn't see anything like the erosion described. "I didn't see a lot of problems. I looked at the maps they brought out at presentations saying that the bayou has moved, but it hasn't moved a drastic amount. It's not a dire situation by any means, It actually looked pretty good," he says. "Even that one bend that has shifted hasn't. Dave Rosgen went down the river a while ago and he said on video the same thing: Everything looks fine."


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