After the rains started coming down on Memorial Day weekend, geologist Bill Heins, an ardent opponent of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, couldn't stop thinking about what was happening as the waterway continued to swell and slop over its usual banks along the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou that exists in Houston.
The flood waters haven't fully receded yet, but both those in favor of the project and those against it have been out on the bayou looking for anything to back up their arguments. Project proponents point to signs of erosion on the soggy banks as evidence that we need this project. Those against it, including Heins, argue that the banks are showing signs of only minor erosion and that the evidence so far shows the natural system of the bayou — even during a record-setting flood — is working perfectly, meaning the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is unnecessary.
When Heins first went out, a few days after the flood, the bayou was over its banks in some places and lapping against cliff edges at others. Over the past few weeks, Heins has come out to Buffalo Bayou almost every day to look at the water levels and to track any flood erosion. On Friday afternoon, Heins tramped through grasses to get to Hogg Bluff, on the edge of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. His dog raced ahead, clambering down the banks to splash through the murky waters while we examined the bluffs. Heins pointed to a clutch of trees and shrubs that had apparently slid down the bank during the flood. They were pinned against the bank on the edge of the water.
“See how the root systems have held them in place? These plants are keeping the bank from further erosion. That tree trunk on the left will eventually be covered with silt, helping the bank to build back up in that spot. If Flood Control doesn't come in and clear it all out, of course. That's probably what will happen. But if they left it alone, this is the natural process. The bayou isn't eroding; it's just shifting and adjusting the way it has for hundreds of years.”
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project has been a contentious issue since it was first proposed in 2011, as we wrote in our cover story published in January 2014. The project seeks to reroute and reshape a section of Buffalo Bayou that runs through Memorial Park and the River Oaks Golf Course. Harris County Flood Control officials 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. Since the beginning, Harris County Flood Control has been running the show at the behest of the other entities involved. Harris County Flood Control has applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit, but it's been a slow process, with plenty of vocal opposition from local environmentalists along the way.
If the project is approved, it will employ a controversial method of "river restoration" pioneered by famed river scientist Dave Rosgen, dubbed natural channel design. Rosgen's method involves peeling back the river banks, clearing them of trees and plants currently growing there, 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 the river has been formed in the west and has a rock-based river bottom or 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.
Harris County Flood Control officials have maintained that they were asked to step in and come up with this project and that they are simply doing what is best for the bayou. Heins says he thinks that maybe the problem is that the engineers in charge of the project don't entirely understand how the bayou works. "It takes away land here and there but it also gives it back. I don't think they see that," he says.
Heins has studied the geology of this area for years. He contends Buffalo Bayou is a waterway formed by layers of sugar-fine sands and red clays. The bayou's banks have been constructed like a layer cake that stretches hundreds of feet below the ground before finally hitting shale and sandstone layers of rock that have cradled the waterway for thousands of years, Heins says. The section of Buffalo Bayou slated for the project is the same section that Terry Hershey, former president George H.W.Bush, Frank Smith and other local environmentalists saved from being paved over by Flood Control a few decades ago. It's the last relatively untouched strip of riparian forest along the bayou, but Flood Control officials argue that the bayou is unstable and needs to be contained.
Heins explained away the evidence of erosion that has been touted by Harris County Flood Control. He says that while the bayou has shifted in some places, it hasn't been destructive or unstable or even significantly moved in the past 100 years, according to old maps. Besides, the Memorial Park Demonstration Project plan is too narrow, he says, and doesn't take into account how difficult it is to control a river. “There are too many variables, even with Buffalo Bayou. If you try and choose one plan, you've already made a crucial mistake," Heins says. "The one thing we can be sure of is there is no one right answer.”
Last week, project managers from Harris County Flood Control took a look at the project area, but were only able to see erosion on the upper banks, since everything else was still covered in water, Flood Control spokeswoman Kim Jackson says. (The Army Corps of Engineers is releasing storm waters from Addicks and Barker reservoirs into Buffalo Bayou.) “They were able to see that the storm's intense rainfall, and resulting high water levels in Buffalo Bayou, had caused erosion along the bayou's upper banks in multiple locations. However, they were not able to see damage caused on the middle and lower banks because the water is higher than normal in the bayou,” Jackson says. “The team will not be able to determine the full extent of the storm's impact on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project area until the bayou levels are lower. Once the water levels drop, they will go out again to conduct a full impact assessment.”
The high water hasn't stopped opponents of the project from checking out the shape of this section of the bayou. When we met with Tom Helm to go down the bayou on Sunday morning, it was clear from the indentations along the sand that we weren't the first pair to scramble down past the brush and over the sandy shore to drop a canoe into Buffalo Bayou. Helm is both a geologist and a part-time canoe guide down Buffalo Bayou. He knows the waterway intimately and has been working against the demonstration project since he learned of it about two years ago. On Sunday morning Helm paddled through the rushing waters, taking us through the proposed demonstration project site.
Helm pointed out cliff banks that were unaltered by the flood. When we got to the banks of the River Oaks Country Club, he stopped paddling, gesturing to the jagged bare banks with his paddle. “They made the mistake of cutting down all of their trees on this bank and look what's happened. They've got erosion, and even the plastic sheeting they put in place to hold the banks together was ripped away by the flood,” he said, pointing to a bank where some vestiges of black tarp dangled like a forlorn flag. Helm maintains there are other bayous in the area that would make better demonstration sites. He doesn't even have a problem with River Oaks Country Club using the Rosgen method on its own banks if that's what those running it want to do, he says. “Where it gets obscene is when you realize they'll be cutting down trees in Memorial Park and attempting to lock Buffalo Bayou in place forever. What if another flood comes before they've finished it? We'll be left with nothing.”
Aside from a few things – the plastic tarp on the bank, an enormous length of chain dangling from a tree, a six-foot-long log lodged in the side of the railroad bridge, a huge metal sink dangling from a thick vine like a chandelier – the real signs of the flood won't show until the flood waters fully recede. When the project managers come back to assess the waterway, it will likely be covered in trash and not looking its best, Helm owns. It's still impossible to tell whether the lower banks will be deeply eroded or not. Heins and Helm both argue that, even if the lower banks have eroded, this is a part of the bayou's process, a process that isn't likely to end with Rosgen's natural channel design. Helm keeps hoping that the project managers will see past the murky water, the garbage and their well-intentioned plans and decide to leave this stretch of the bayou as it is.