After years of controversy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has finally decided to approve the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, which proposes to reroute and reshape a section of Buffalo Bayou running through Memorial Park and the River Oaks Golf Course.
The Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the permit last Wednesday and Harris County Flood Control officials received approval of the individual permit for the project on Monday.
The Army Corps of Engineers doesn't like to get dragged into controversy, so maybe that's why it issued the permit Harris County Flood Control needed to move forward with the project without fanfare last week. Flood Control officials then followed up with their own quiet approval of the project, marking an abrupt, undramatic end to the fight over whether or not to alter the riparian forest that lines the banks of Buffalo Bayou, one of the last relatively untouched sections in the heart of Houston.
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project has been a contentious issue since it was first proposed in 2011, as we wrote in our January 2014 cover story.
Initially, Harris County Flood Control officials put a $6 million price tag on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, although this price doesn't include maintenance and repairs. The City of Houston, the River Oaks Country Club and Harris County Flood Control each chipped in $2 million. Harris County Flood Control has been running the show at the behest of the other entities involved. Harris County Flood Control 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.
Part of the reason this plan met with resistance is that 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 and placing stacked logs at certain spots to alter how the river flows, locking a new path in place. Or at least that's what it's supposed to do.
While natural channel design 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, opponents have raised concerns about using this method on Buffalo Bayou. The Memorial Park 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, as we've reported.
Harris County Flood Control officials have justified the plans, claiming the bayou banks are unstable and need to be reinforced this way to handle water from the dams north of the city at least a few times a year. However, experts have examined the bayou over the years and concluded that the banks are fine as they are and that if the project isn't timed just right, odds are good that the whole effort could be blown out when the dams north of the city have to release large amounts of water after a storm. The water rushing down could destroy the new "stabilizing" system entirely, one of the main points opponents have been bringing up repeatedly over the years as reason to find a different approach.
These disagreements about how to handle the demonstration project have held things up for years. Originally, workers were supposed to start cutting into the banks of Buffalo Bayou in 2014 to begin reworking the waterway according to natural channel design techniques. But the Army Corps of Engineers called for another public comment period after some changes were submitted to the project in 2015.
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And, after months of silence, the corps signed off on the project and issued the permit to Harris County Flood Control last week. (We've asked Harris County Flood Control about the timeline for the project and the estimated cost of building it, but haven't heard back yet. We'll update when we do.)
Those against the project are not done fighting, though, says Susan Chadwick, the head of Save Buffalo Bayou, an organization created specifically to oppose the demonstration project. She's already pushing the corps to release copies of the environmental assessment, the agreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the permit itself, and has no intention of stopping anytime soon. "We will only fight harder. We will not let them do this," Chadwick says.
Frank Smith, a longtime local environmentalist who worked with Terry Hershey and George H.W. Bush to save this same stretch of Buffalo Bayou from being channeled back in the 1960s, learned the permit had been issued shortly after coming home from a memorial service held for Hershey at Buffalo Bayou on Tuesday morning.
"It's a tragic irony," Smith says, noting that many of those who have been instrumental in protecting this section of the bayou for decades, including Hershey, Don Greene and Frank Salzhandler, have died in recent years. “So many of the people who saved Buffalo Bayou 60 years ago are no longer here. I am, though, and I'm not ready to give up yet. I think there are very sound reasons to oppose it,” Smith says. “I don't think people realize that this project started a long time ago now, and it's no longer necessary or desirable. It will be a waste of money now and I hope Russ Poppe, the new flood control director, realizes that before he goes through with it.”