Popular Anthills Biking Trails to Be Destroyed in the Name of Flood Mitigation

There was a time, we thought this sort of thing would stop flooding too.
There was a time, we thought this sort of thing would stop flooding too. Photo by brian carlson via CC
For those who have never seen them, some of the most popular mountain biking (and hiking) trails in the city of Houston were in Terry Hersey Park on the west side of town. Known as the "Anthills," a trail of handmade winding trails snaked along Buffalo Bayou for miles inside the sprawling park. With loads more shade than the paved pathways above them, the anthills provided a somewhat less daunting place to walk and bike in the summer. We ranked it as our Best Bike trail in our 2012 Best Of issue and even included it as No. 24 on our revised Houston Bucket List in 2017.

Of course, after Hurricane Harvey, the anthills and much of the park along the bayou were under water, the majority of it the result of releases from the reservoirs after 60 inches of rain pummeled the city. Many of the homes that flooded in this area did so only after the releases from the reservoirs. Despite the devastation, the trails and vegetation were making a comeback.

Unfortunately, the Harris County Flood Control District has been planning to carve out huge stretches along the bayou inside the park for several months now and, according to Swamplot, those plans are about to move forward, virtually destroying the anthills — huge stretches of them anyway — in the process.

As Buffalo Bayou advocate Saving Buffalo Bayou pointed out recently, the plans to add overflow pools along the bayou wouldn't have prevented flooding in Harvey and likely won't stop it in the future.

Officials confirm that the small basins will do nothing to reduce flooding downstream. “No, they’re not going to save people from flooding downstream,” said Matt Lopez, the Harris County Flood Control District’s Precinct 3 coordinator. “They’re not going to save folks from Harvey or any other storm.”

The purpose of destroying forest to dig out detention basins next to Buffalo Bayou in west Houston is to allow the City of Houston to drain more water from city streets into the bayou sometime in the future. This is the so-called “no-rise” requirement enforced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). To protect us from increased flood risk, FEMA requires that the City and everyone else prove that development within designated floodplains does not add to the flow in the bayou.

Perhaps most galling is language used by the Flood Control District in a memo and noted by Swamplot:

Large sections of the popular Anthills Mountain Bike Trail, which the district notes “were built on publicly-owned land without written permission and without compensation to the public” will be cleared, though a portion that sits between the 2 westernmost basins will remain.

For cyclists and people who enjoyed the park, those trails constructed "without written permission" were some of the best examples of quality hiking and biking trails the city has to offer. The very fact that they had to be crafted by park visitors instead of the city makes the very idea that the city should have been compensated for the "construction" particularly idiotic.

Of course, this is a fairly typical knee-jerk response to a problem like flooding. In the '50s, the city turned over watershed management to the Army Corps of Engineers, a group that promised flooding mitigation through straightening and even concreting area waterways. The end result was the exact opposite. Flooding not only got worse, it got exponentially worse.

Experts have pointed out repeatedly that more vegetation and a return to the bayou's natural meandering nature (as opposed to straight, concrete gullies) provides a much greater defense against flooding. But, thanks to shortsighted policies and unchecked development, we only exacerbate the problems and put wonderful, natural treasures like the anthills on the chopping block for no reason.

The further Hurricane Harvey and its flood waters recede into the city's collective memory, the more we seem destined to make the same mistakes all over again.

Rest in peace, anthills. You will be missed.
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.
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