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.
The flood control district maintains that the project costs more because of its size, scale and complexity as well as the complications resulting from limited right-of-way, difficult access and a goal of creating minimal disturbance for those around the project, according to a statement issued by e-mail in response to questions submitted by the Houston Press.
This is the same section of Buffalo Bayou, running from Interstate 610 to Shepherd Drive and wedged between Memorial Park, the River Oaks Country Club, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and multimillion-dollar bayou-front homes, that activists fought to save decades ago. Terry Hershey, a Houston woman with social connections and the money to make herself heard, formed a group in the mid-1960s that eventually became the Bayou Preservation Association, aimed at protecting one of the last swaths of relatively untouched bayou in Houston.
Frank Smith Jr., a longtime activist on behalf of Buffalo Bayou, was part of the initial group formed by Hershey to save the bayou and helped win the fight to protect it in the early 1970s. Smith remained on the board of the Bayou Preservation Association. In 2011, when the idea of using natural channel design on the bayou was introduced, he initially supported it. Then he learned more about the technique and what it would do to the tree-lined waterway. "I thought the name meant it was a natural process, but now I've come to learn about it, I don't think there's anything natural about it at all," he said.
Smith tried to persuade the other board members to oppose the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, but he was outvoted. The Bayou Preservation Association is firmly in support, and Talbott even credits the organization with the idea of using natural channel design to do the project. Natural channel design is a method of stream restoration — a practice popularized in recent decades that attempts to remove pollution and fix damaged waterways — pioneered by Dave Rosgen, a river scientist acclaimed by some and reviled by others.
Talbott believes the method of scraping the banks clean and installing dead tree trunks will stabilize the banks. Once the work is done, the flood control district will plant native trees and cover the dirt with a carpet of Bermuda grass. The dead tree trunks will be submerged below water, where they will be preserved from rot, with their roots jutting into the stream, holding the designed shape.
Doyle questions whether Rosgen's methods will even work in Houston. Rosgen used his technique of natural channel design on western rivers in the early 1980s. But as his approach caught on and moved east, applying his practices to waterways formed on flat, sandy coastal plains proved to be a problem, Doyle said.
Some argue that the sandy soil that makes up much of Buffalo Bayou isn't suited to this type of restructuring, but Talbott dismisses those concerns. Rosgen, the pioneer of natural channel design, came to town, examined the bayou for a day and declared that his methods would work. Natural channel design will stop erosion and improve water quality in one fell swoop. Once Harris County Flood Control has replanted the banks of the bayou, Talbott said, everything will be the way it was before. "Give it ten years and you won't even know we were here," he said.
On a dark, rainy night in October, about 50 people crammed into a little theater on a corner of the Rice University campus to watch a documentary on Buffalo Bayou. Frank Salzhandler shot the film, a gritty, low-tech endeavor, with Salzhandler doing the narration as he and two friends made their way down the bayou.
He captured the green waterway moving smoothly along the sandy contours of the bayou banks. Sycamores and oak trees dipped and swayed, the bows shaking gently, a sound like the rustle of silk. "We've neglected this river, forgotten it, but it's not too late to become aware of its charm," Salzhandler narrated.
Salzhandler, head of the Endangered Species Media Project for more than 20 years, has made preserving the bayou a sort of sub-project of the group. When invited to show the film at Rice, he accepted and asked environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn to come and speak on their concerns for the bayou and the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
The Harris County Flood Control District was invited to send a representative but declined. The Bayou Preservation Association showed up instead, demanding equal time, and filled a section of seats to the right of the stage with people who clapped loudly after Kevin Shanley, a past chairman of the board, presented the group's take on the concerns about the bayou.
Salzhandler, his long, faded blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, sat at the front of the room after the film was shown and started answering questions, quoting research and river scientists who disagree with many of Rosgen's methods. A short, red-faced man, Ty Kelly, a former president of the Bayou Preservation Association, shot out of his chair. "That's all lies! This is nothing but hearsay!"
Salzhandler stared at him for a beat. He knew Kelly. He smiled and shook his head, pointing out that they weren't in court and he had a right to quote expert scientists and their findings. "Think the Nile Delta. We've come to think of flood plains as bad, but they're good and a part of rivers," he said. "Rivers are always changing, always moving, and when one thing changes, everything changes."
Buffalo Bayou has been vital to the people of Houston since the city was founded, but it is also the beauty of the waterway that draws people like Salzhandler to it.
"If the town of Houston in January 1837 had any of the beauty mentioned in the Allen Brothers' glowing advertisements, it was the beauty of nature. Oak, pine magnolia, cypress, sweetgum, wild peach and cedar grew in a dim forest that stood along the banks of Buffalo Bayou," according to Houston: A Complete History, a book from the Texas Writers' Project published in 1942.
By the time the book came out, Houston had grown far beyond the muddy little hamlet it was in the 1830s. Development happened so quickly in the 20th century that it caught many by surprise. Buffalo Bayou was a key to that development, allowing goods to be easily shipped up and down the river, but it was also part of a bayou system that was prone to flooding.
As the city grew, the flooding problem became impossible to ignore. After Harris County Flood Control was set up, the organization started working with the Army Corps of Engineers, focusing on bringing Buffalo Bayou under control. The Addicks and Barker reservoirs were built to get a handle on the waters coming down the bayou, and the groups started channelizing sections of the bayou system and buying up right-of-way along Buffalo Bayou.
The goal was to channelize the stretch of Buffalo Bayou that ran through Houston, but the project shuddered to a halt with the start of World War II. When the Corps returned to the project, its engineers focused on the more immediate problems presented by White Oak and Brays bayous. By the time they started looking at Buffalo Bayou again, Hershey had formed a group that urged the Corps to stay away from the last untouched section of Buffalo Bayou.
Hershey even went to Washington, D.C., in 1967 along with then-Congressman George H.W. Bush and asked the federal government to take back the funding for the project. That project ended there, but Harris County Flood Control still owned a significant amount of right-of-way. That factored into planning when the agency started putting together the Memorial Park Demonstration Project three years ago, Talbott said.
Talbott said the Army Corps of Engineers had encouraged Harris County Flood Control to apply for a Nationwide 27 permit, which is reserved for projects that aren't controversial and don't require public hearings or input. Sierra Club conservation chair Evelyn Merz and other members of her organization found out about the application and started a letter-writing campaign targeting the Corps. The campaign worked, and the permit was denied based on evidence that the project would disturb the vestiges of World War I-era Camp Logan, the site that was turned into Memorial Park shortly after the end of the Great War.
The flood control district has also been slow to reveal the actual plans for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have to release the plans to the public while the permit application is pending, though it released the findings after the Nationwide 27 permit was denied in October.
It took Merz months to get a copy of the 60 percent completed plan for the project submitted by Harris County Flood Control showing how the natural channel design method called for shifting the bend of the river here and there, along tracts of land where the district already had the right of way. Merz studied the map, looking at the areas that would be cut — cleared of trees and brush — and those that would be filled to force the waterway to bend according to the design dictated by Rosgen's methods.
While Talbott claims only a minimum number of trees will be cut down, Merz and others have concluded after studying the plans that 80 to 90 percent of the riparian foliage along the stretch of Buffalo Bayou in question will be cleared. The trees and plants and the ecosystem created for the animals that still live in that section of the bayou will be gone, so that Harris County Flood Control can move the bayou over only a few feet in some places.
Paddling the bayou, Don Greene eyed the steep drop-off on the edge of the River Oaks Country Club golf course. He saw one section that was about to be lost to erosion, the reason the country club got involved in the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
While some people, like Smith, believe the bayou should be left untouched, allowed to ebb and flow as nature dictates, Greene is pragmatic. Something should be done to shore up crumbling banks, he said, but he doesn't want Harris County Flood Control to use natural channel design on the entire bayou. "Buffalo Bayou is a natural wonder in the middle of all this. We need this here. It's therapeutic to get out here on the water and paddle away from everything," Greene said. "There's no place else left in Houston where you can do this. I don't want them to destroy all of this."
Harris County Flood Control has officially been moving forward toward the Memorial Park Demonstration Project with general support, but Merz said that is only because the people running things are not open to hearing from anyone who doesn't agree with them.
Talbott said he would be open to ideas and alterations when the district presented the 80 percent complete plans at a public meeting hastily scheduled in December. Merz laughed at that. "They won't listen to us by then. With 80 percent of their plans, the thing is almost done. Nothing is changing after that," she said, shaking her head.
Smith said Talbott has been careful in his presentations, choosing words that can be interpreted in different ways. All the people speaking in favor of the project keep their language diplomatic, talking of "restoration" and reassuring everyone that the toe wood (the logs that will be placed in the banks with the root systems poking into the water) will be good for habitat. When in doubt, they mention Rosgen, and they talk about him in the same way some people talk about Jesus Christ.
Fluvial geomorphology is a relatively new field. It came up in the late 1970s, when engineers realized they didn't have to channelize and cement streams to control them but could restore them instead. A few of those early river scientists rose to the top of their field, but Rosgen, a cowboy from Colorado and one of the first people in the stream-restoration movement, became the most famous.
But again, the approach may not work everywhere.
According to Duke's Martin Doyle, "They started to run into problems when they tried to apply these methods to the outer coastal plain, these super-flat plains with a lot of sand and silt. When you get into those landscapes, they don't work the same way; the processes that form those landscapes [are] a lot more subtle," Doyle said.
That isn't something those championing natural channel design want to hear, Doyle said. The method is relatively straightforward and simple, and it has been embraced by some government agencies. A study on the impact of the Rosgen method, Fields and Streams by Rebecca Lave, pointed out that Rosgen's methods have become so popular that university-trained river scientists can't get hired if they haven't attended his workshops and gotten certified.
The problem with the Rosgen method, Doyle said, is that the people practicing it don't seem to look beyond the basic steps of the project. "They know that when you meander a stream, you slow it down, but 98 percent of those in stream restoration don't know what happens next," he said. "If you push them, that's when the smoke screens come up. And the thing is, when you're dealing with people that know what the next step actually is, that's the really fun part. They know the ecosystem. They can talk in specifics, and that's when the work gets really interesting."
Government entities like the Rosgen method because it is relatively simple, it can be done with a turnkey approach and it uses concepts they understand. Stream restoration in general has become an increasingly profitable endeavor.
There's even the potential for a profit on the flip side, Doyle noted. The Army Corps of Engineers counts stream restoration as mitigation and favors those who use Rosgen's method. If the Harris County Flood Control District chooses, it can apply for mitigation certification for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The Corps would then award mitigation banking credits for the project. The credits can be sold to developers and used to offset environmental damage incurred in development, resulting in a nice profit on the back end of the deal.
The flood control district has denied any intention of using the Buffalo Bayou project for mitigation banking. "This is a stand-alone project that will not be used to mitigate other projects from an environmental or flood damage reduction perspective," said Russ Poppe, director of operations with Harris County Flood Control.
Rosgen isn't directly overseeing this project, no matter how many times his name is thrown around in connection with it. He did come down and speak over the summer, Merz said, but he spoke only briefly about the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, talking about how the root systems are excellent for fish habitats and showing a picture of a trout. "He didn't seem to know that we don't have that type of trout here," Merz said.
What Merz, Greene and so many of those with reservations about the project really want is for Harris County Flood Control to bring in another approach for work on the bayou. Consultant Robbin Sotir has been shoring up unstable sections of Buffalo Bayou for the past 23 years. She completed three projects along the 5,800-foot-long section slated for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, employing soil bioengineering techniques that involve using plant root systems to hold the banks in place. While many attempts by private property owners have failed, all of Sotir's projects on that section of Buffalo Bayou have suceeded.
Sotir herself has tried to stay out of the fight over the project, but she pointed out that what Harris County Flood Control deems erosion is actually geotechnical failure that causes large sections of the bank to crumble away. "This is a bayou system that is heavily controlled, has already been heavily altered. They are taking out a lot of nature with this project, 80 to 90 percent; do that and you have a tremendous feat in front of you to restore it," she said. "They talk about restoration, but what they seem to be really after is control."
Just before Christmas, Harris County Flood Control held a meeting to present the 80 percent completed plan of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. About 60 people, many wearing royal-blue Harris County Flood Control button-down shirts, gathered in the cafeteria at Lamar High School. Scott Peyton, an engineer with Stantec, the company designing the project, made a slip in his portion of the presentation, saying that the project plans were almost complete at that point and wouldn't change much.
Talbott stood up, a reassuring smile pinned on his face, and interjected. Of course the district would be taking public concerns into account, he said.
After an hour and a half of presentations, Harris County Flood Control was ready to take questions. Employees collected small neon-green slips of paper on which audience members had written questions and their signatures. Some people scribbled question after question and waved them in the air to be collected. Talbott shuffled through the papers, noting that a lot of the questions were repetitive. He chose which questions to answer and who on the panel gathered at the front of the room would answer them.
Seated a few feet from Talbott in the second row, Evelyn Merz filled out sheet after sheet with questions, holding her hand in the air to submit one while she started on the next. Frank Salzhandler leaned back in his chair and sighed.
At the front of the room, Katy Emde, a Texas native-plants specialist who has lived and studied plants on Buffalo Bayou for more than 20 years, got so frustrated she started calling out questions. What about the natural plants they were going to put in after the construction was complete? Why were they putting in Bermuda grass, which is native to Africa, Asia, Australia and southern Europe, when the bayou is lined with native Texas grasses today?
A woman on the panel explained that the district had tried using native grasses in its other projects, but those grasses didn't take. "Bermuda grass is abundant in Memorial Park. It will just grow in eventually anyway," she said. Emde shook her head while Talbott interjected and shuffled through his growing stack of questions.
The question-and-answer period lasted about 20 minutes before Talbott announced that the rest of the questions would be answered online. He smiled at the audience, a nice man who just wanted people to see things the way he did, to understand that the intentions of the Harris County Flood Control District are good.
If the Army Corps of Engineers approves the Memorial Park Demonstration Project permit application, construction workers could move in by the end of this year, using heavy equipment and saws to reshape the bayou according to a pattern that should, if the method is successful, lock the waterway into a form it will hold for generations to come. If the effort fails, the entire project could be blown down the river by one heavy flood, leaving nothing but naked, unprotected soil where the last of an ancient forest once stood.
Some scoff at Talbott's estimate that Buffalo Bayou will be the same in a decade or so. Frank Smith Jr. has lived on Buffalo Bayou most of his life. He knows the bayou in his bones, and everything in him is telling him this project is not right. "The recovery won't happen in our lifetime. It will take 50 to 100 years to come back from this," Smith said. "Why can't they just leave it alone?"
The bayou has been stretching and changing, rising and falling for more than 10,000 years. Now it just has to survive the latest plan to save it.
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