In the Wake of Harvey, Is It Time to Rethink How We Use Buffalo Bayou Park?

Photo by Zach Despart
Buffalo Bayou still underwater more than a week after Hurricane Harvey left Houston.
Houston has an extraordinary ability to bounce back from storms, but it doesn't always happen overnight, and it's looking like it will take a while for Buffalo Bayou Park, in particular, to shake off Hurricane Harvey and get back to normal.

The water from Harvey is still rushing through Buffalo Bayou Park — in parts of the park the sloshing past the trunks of the trees closest to the bayou's natural banks is the only sound you can hear, despite the Houston traffic zooming by on either side. Silt covers the lower banks and many of the trails while trash dangles like the world's ugliest Christmas decorations from countless trees along the way. It will likely be weeks before the bayou recedes entirely.

But it's already clear that the water — more than nine trillion gallons dumped on Houston during the seemingly endless onslaught of rain at the end of August — has done some serious damage to Eleanor Tinsley and other sections of Buffalo Bayou Park.

Buffalo Bayou rose to a record 38.7 feet at the Shepherd Drive bridge during the course of the hurricane, and while the upper portions of the park weathered the storm and the subsequent torrent of water that rushed down the bayou, with little damage to the perennial gardens, upper-level trees and trails on the higher portions of the park, water swallowed the bottom two-thirds of the park. That has made it difficult for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the entity that oversees Eleanor Tinsley and the rest of the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park system below Shepherd Drive, to actually assess the damage that has been done, let alone to start making repairs. Johnny Steele Dog Park, wiped out in every major flood in the past two years, is still underwater post-Harvey and an odor, a mix of brackish water and a heavier stench of manure, permeates much of the area near the bayou banks throughout the park.

A lot of equipment has basically fritzed out thanks to being doused in water, including the Wortham Fountain and the nifty trail lighting system, as well as some of the lighting at Lost Lake and the Water Works. (These two cool features of the park system came through the hurricane without any serious damage.)

Still, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership sought to be as reassuring as possible about the problems caused by the storm.

"Please know that Buffalo Bayou Park was designed to flood, although we did not anticipate three historic flooding events in one and a half years," Buffalo Bayou Partnership stated in a release issued about the time staff began to wade in and start the cleanup process on September 6. "Working with the Harris County Flood Control District, designers from SWA, the park’s consultant firm, created a landscape that helps channel runoff and provides greater flood water conveyance capacity."

And as they pointed out, the design worked on some levels. The stainless steel park signs, the benches set firmly in concrete, trashcans and stair railings all held up to the latest flood.

"At this point in time, it is too early to assess all the damage," Olson said.

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But even design work specifically aimed at withstanding the predicted force of water pounding down the bayou simply could not withstand the sheer amount of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. After all, this was the storm that forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enter uncharted territory and release water from Addicks and Barker reservoirs before the hurricane had even moved out of town, the first time the Corps has done that since the dams were constructed to protect downtown Houston more than 70 years ago. (The water coming from Addicks and Barker is expected to keep the bayou out of its banks for several more weeks to come, as well.)

The water from the release sloshed into Buffalo Bayou, swamping homes along the waterway that had never flooded before, as we've previously reported, and sending the already swollen bayou out of its banks entirely, into Eleanor Tinsley Park, including the dog park and even the cistern that just opened to the public last year after years of careful restoration work and about $58 million of investment.

But now, as the Buffalo Bayou Partnership works yet again to get hundreds of pounds of sand and silt removed from the grounds, and prepares to painstakingly pick trash out of the trees, it seems like a good time to pause and consider the options. Is it time to bow to the inevitable and stop repairing the parts of Eleanor Tinsley and the rest of Buffalo Bayou Park that apparently are just going to keep being destroyed by floods?

The mere suggestion of doing anything other than rebuilding may sound sacrilegious, but keep in mind that the park has already endured three historic floods (the Memorial Day Flood, the Tax Day Flood and now Harvey) in the past two years, at the same time the Buffalo Bayou Partnership has worked steadily in recent years to make the park system into something more than just a pair of worn-down banks that line the bayou.

After each flood, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership has waited for the water to recede, dusted off the silt dumped on the banks and cleared everything out, always working toward that master plan of something along the lines of New York City's Central Park, but Houston-style.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership receives $2 million annually from the Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for operation and maintenance of the park, and has a maintenance reserve fund and a capital expenditure fund it also draws on.

click to enlarge Buffalo Bayou Park is still mired in silt and garbage in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. - PHOTO BY DIANNA WRAY
Buffalo Bayou Park is still mired in silt and garbage in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Photo by Dianna Wray
The way the park is designed right now is lovely, when it hasn't been hit by millions of gallons of water — the stream was flowing so powerfully that everything from trees to the deeply planted, supposedly immovable signage was tugged to the point that it is now lying almost horizontal along the waterway — but maybe it's time to revisit the realities of what the bayou does, functionally.

While it has long been known as the place where bodies and lost cars are often unexpectedly found, the bayou has been the designated pressure release valve on Addicks and Barker since the two dams were constructed decades ago. (Before, Buffalo Bayou simply spilled floodwater directly into downtown Houston as the floods of 1929 and 1935 painfully demonstrated.)

Knowing this, it appears to be time to come up with other ways of handling the park, ways that don't involve spending thousands of dollars to replant trees in areas that we all know are doomed to flood and then die again and again.

However, with the water still out of the bayou banks, the jury is out as far as the Buffalo Bayou Partnership is concerned. "At this point in time, it is too early to assess all the damage," Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, told the Houston Press. "This past week we took a golf cart tour of the park and we were pleasantly surprised that we didn’t find significant damage to the park’s infrastructure. There is so much silt, however, it is impossible to see everything."

Olson also pointed out that the partnership is happy to take any contributions anyone wants to make to restoration efforts. Based on how often the park seems to be flooding, that seems like a pretty smart approach.