Longform

Fighting for Control: Can Buffalo Bayou Survive the Latest Plan to Save It?

December 1935: The water was everywhere. After the rains drenched the banks of Buffalo Bayou, it had nowhere else to go. It slopped over the smooth, tree-lined banks, filling the streets, covering 25 blocks of Houston's downtown business district as it hissed and rushed, moved and reshaped the city trapped beneath it.

This was the flood that changed everything. Houston was just beginning to be a prosperous, modern city, but there were still those hard-hit by the Great Depression. As the flood coursed through town, people fished canned goods, clothing and furniture out of the current and then gathered on bridges to hawk the goods.

After the waters receded, it looked as if a giant hand had smashed Houston to pieces. Seven people were killed. Train tracks were washed away, and the Port of Houston was left a crippled, broken thing. The devastation caused an estimated $3 million in damage (amounting to more than $40 million with inflation). When the Texas Legislature created the Harris County Flood Control District in 1937, authorizing the local taxing entity to work with the federal Army Corps of Engineers to get control of Houston's flooding, it had the 1935 flood in mind.

For more than 70 years, Harris County Flood Control has been intent on its mission — to control the flooding, to maintain a vise grip on Buffalo Bayou and all the waterways in Houston's complex bayou system so that Houston would be allowed to grow and develop without having to consider all the time flood plains, erosion and the history of a city built on a swamp.

But in its quest to keep the bayou system under control, the flood control district has made some mistakes over the years. Director Mike Talbott is the first to admit that.

Yes, it underestimated how high the waters could rise when it designed the flood control plans in the 1940s.

Yes, it failed to consider how channelizing — gutting, straightening and paving — large swaths of the twisting waterways of the bayou system would increase the speed of the water, hurling it and the flooding problem further downstream and into other people's homes ­instead of solving it.

Yes, it failed to anticipate how Houston would grow and stretch and develop into the fourth-largest city in the United States, meaning there is less soil to soak up runoff, and Buffalo Bayou and all the bayous that drain into it are handling more water at more erratic rates than the waterways naturally evolved to hold.

Despite decades of miscalculation about Buffalo Bayou, Talbott is asking the public to once again trust the Harris County Flood Control District, this time with something called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. This is a proposal to use natural channel design — a method that shifts and locks a stream's curves into shape using stacked tree trunks — on a stretch of the bayou about a mile long.

The project will stop erosion and slow the water down without encasing the banks in unforgiving concrete, Talbott says. In speaking of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, Talbott describes it as a "restoration" of the bayou and assures anyone who will listen that the project is what's best for the bayou. "There are so many good things about what is going on here that portraying it as something sinister just isn't right," he said. "People think we're the same as we used to be, but nobody who worked here in the '50s and '60s is here today."

Everyone knows something about the project. It has been reported in newspapers and covered on TV and radio in glowing details. In this version of the story, Buffalo Bayou is a stressed and abused waterway with unstable riverbanks and in desperate need of rescue. Once the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is complete, Buffalo Bayou will have been restructured without being channelized and paved over, so it's all good.

What many don't know, however, is that there isn't a consensus on the project. While proponents see it as the only answer for this section of the bayou, those against it say that the method of natural channel design will destroy one of the last natural stretches of riparian forest on Buffalo Bayou in a quest to shift and control the river using a controversial method that they say will also destroy the ecosystem and unnecessarily channelize the ­waterway.

There is also a question of profit to be made in the deal. Martin Doyle, a professor of river science and policy at Duke University, said that restoring about a mile of stream costs around $2 million today. 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 each put in $2 million.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray