Updated at 3:20 p.m.: Jason Krahn, project manager for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, got back to us on behalf of Harris County Flood Control and said the new public comment period is a strictly routine part of the permit application process. “We're just an applicant to the Corps for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project and we're simply following their guidelines on the project,” he says. The updates and clarifications don't hold any significant changes to the original project plan, or the footprint or jurisdictional impact to Corps waters, he says. The Army of Corps of Engineers did post the monitoring plan, a document of more than 300 pages that lays out what the district has done before construction and what the district will do after construction to monitor various environmental aspects of the project like habitat and vegetation, Krahn says.
If you have something to say about the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, you'd best speak up during the new public comment period opened up on May 5 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Changes have been made to the proposed project.
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 of the whole thing, Harris County Flood Control has been running the show at the behest of the other entities involved. Harris County Flood Control has been trying to get the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a permit for the project for years now, but so far it seems as if the project keeps getting hung up on permit-type snags in the process, partly because it's a complicated thing to get the Army Corps of Engineers to permit just about anything, and partly because the project has drawn some rather vocal opposition from local environmentalists.
If the project is approved, it will employ a controversial method of "river restoration" pioneered by famous river scientist Dave Rosgen dubbed natural channel design. Rosgen's method involves peeling back the river banks and placing stacked logs at certain spots to alter how the river flows, locking a new path in place. Proponents of the plan say this will help save the riparian forest along this last relatively untouched stretch of the bayou. "Give it ten years and you won't even know we were here," Harris County Flood Control Director Mike Talbott told us back in 2014.
Opponents say that while the Rosgen approach has proved effective in some cases 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.
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Rosgen has a lot of fans, but he also has a number of critics. G. Mathias Kondolf, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley, came to Houston to survey Buffalo Bayou himself back in November, invited by local environmentalists to provide another river scientist's take on the state of the bayou. Kondolf is one of Rosgen's most vocal opponents. "Any time you try to control a river, the river might have something else in mind, and the whole thing could fall apart. It's much better to stand back and give the river some room," he said. He took a trip down the river and said the bayou looked good. "I didn't see a lot of problems. I looked at the maps they brought out at presentations saying that the bayou has moved, but it hasn't moved a drastic amount. It's not a dire situation by any means; It actually looked pretty good," he told us then. "Even that one bend that has shifted hasn't. Dave Rosgen went down the river awhile ago and he said on video the same thing: Everything looks fine."
The Army Corps of Engineers has been reviewing the project permit submitted by Harris County Flood Control for months now. A decision was expected by the end of 2014, but the public comments and contention over the issue caused Harris County Flood Control to revise the project proposal and submit proposed changes to the Corps of Engineers for another review. Harris County Flood Control's clarifications and revisions were submitted to the Corps in March, triggering a 30-day public comment period "during which the Corps is soliciting comments from the public, governmental agencies and officials, and other interested parties, on the clarifications and updates made by the Flood Control District to the Memorial Park Demonstration Project plans, monitoring plan and planting plan, as well as responses to Corps’ comments," according to Harris County Flood Control. The comment period started May 5 and goes through June 5.
Susan Chadwick, the founder of Save Buffalo Bayou, says she and other opponents of the project knew another public comment period was coming as a part of the process. "Flood control was supposed to amend their plans in response to the criticisms from public agencies, including the corps, and private individuals," she says, though it's unclear based on the clarifications and revisions issued by Harris County Flood Control how much the project was actually altered.
We have asked for comments from Harris County Flood Control officials and we'll update when and if we hear back.