Five Reasons Channelizing Buffalo Bayou is a Bad Idea

Lush vegetaiton, one of the beautiful elements of Buffalo Bayou, could be wiped out.
Lush vegetaiton, one of the beautiful elements of Buffalo Bayou, could be wiped out. Photo by Jeff Balke
As you may have read recently, the Army Corps of Engineers released its study on proposed changes to Buffalo Bayou and its upstream reservoirs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and it was a stark reminder that we must remain hyper vigilant to keep plans like these from manifesting into reality if we want to build on all the positive changes the city has undertaken over the last two decades.

The plan prioritizes channelizing the bayou from well upstream all the way through downtown, effectively making it wider and deeper, while removing nearly all the vegetation from its banks. Basically, the currently lovely Buffalo Bayou, with its winding slough through tree-lined neighborhoods would become yet another drainage ditch and eyesore.

But, fortunately, many Houstonians including plenty of people in power are about as thrilled with the plans as those who have been fighting these kinds of backwards ideas for decades. Here are five good reasons not to follow through with them.

It would destroy a beautiful natural resource.

Houston won't win any beauty contests with other major cities. We're flat and haven't done much to help our cause by allowing sprawl and strip malls to spread across the region. But we are quite green, particularly if you get a view from above, and part of that is due to the lush vegetation born of our climate and our bayous. Buffalo remains the free and wild slough that cuts a path directly through the heart of the city. Over the last 10 years, we have taken direct advantage of it by working with partners to develop Buffalo Bayou Park and continue to preserve Memorial Park and the Houston Arboretum. Head out west to Terry Hershey Park and ride the manmade anthills bike trails or wander along the green belt. Like so many other bayous in Houston, these have deliberately become our urban green spaces and this plan threatens to eradicate them.

It does nothing to address the problems with the reservoirs.

The Corps almost purposefully didn't address some of the biggest problems that led to the study in the first place, namely the flooding not caused by Harvey's rainfall, but by the failing dams that forced the release of water downstream, inundating homes in the upper watershed along Memorial and into the Energy Corridor. These earthen dams remain among the most dangerous in the country and must be repaired, the reservoirs behind them dug out. We cannot simply build another one, ruining large swaths of the protected Katy Prairie in the process. And channelizing the bayou below them won't fix anything. A much wider view must be taken on these massive retention spaces to protect us from future storms while preserving what we have.

It would all but wipe out vulnerable and valuable urban wildlife.

The Corps fully admits in its report that the widening of the bayou would decimate the turtle population, which may never return. It is also likely it would eliminate the Waugh Street Bat Colony, the largest year round population of Mexican freetail bats in the country. That fails to even take into consideration all the birds, fish, smaller mammals and reptiles, never mind the massive, lush vegetation along the bayou greenways. Much of it would be completely obliterated, which is not only awful, but also unnecessary.

There are alternatives that make more sense.

One helpful reader sent us several videos on how Tokyo, a city that sits below sea level, managed to create drainage for much of the city within the span of 20 years through massive tunnels under the city. Their flooding problems were even worse than our own and they found a creative and ingenious method of getting water out of the city without destroying homes. They even preserved their riverscape in the process. This is just one of several options available to the region. The Corps mentioned the tunnel option in passing, but concluded it was too expensive. Honestly, given the flooding issues our region faces, expense shouldn't even be on the table, which brings us to one other key point.

It won't actually prevent flooding.

Channelization has shown ZERO impacts on flooding. Sure, deepening the channel might help contain some of the water, but not nearly enough. That alone has no chance of preventing a future flooding event that would affect thousands of homes the way Hurricane Harvey did. If we do plan on completely altering the landscape of the city in a bid to mitigate flooding, it should at least work. If it doesn't, why are we even discussing it? Let's get on with finding innovative and effective solutions that will protect the city for generations to come, both practically and aesthetically. We've worked hard and spent money to get this far, there is no point in turning back now.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke