What's Going on With the Memorial Park Demonstration Project?

The Memorial Park Demonstration project has been a point of contention since the plan was first proposed back in 2013. Since then there have been strident public disagreements and arguments over how the bayou should be handled — or if it should be altered at all — but the ultimate decision on whether to approve the project has been in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And so far, even though it's been more than two years, the Corps has yet to actually choose whether to approve a permit that will give Harris County Flood Control the right to alter one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou running through the city.

At this point, we're starting to wonder if the Corps is ever going to make a decision at all.

"The permit is still under evaluation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District staff is working to finalize a decision in the coming months," Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Galveston District office of the Corps, stated in reply to our inquiries about where things are in the permit process. 

As we wrote in our 2014 cover story, "Fighting For Control", the Memorial Park Demonstration 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.

Proponents of the plan — Harris County Flood Control, the Bayou Preservation Association and company — say that this section of Buffalo Bayou, one of the last relatively untouched stretches of riparian forest running through the city, needs to be reshaped and controlled because the banks of the waterway are unstable. Opponents maintain that this part of Buffalo Bayou doesn't need to be altered and that the techniques espoused in the Memorial Park Demonstration Plan will end up ruining the bayou and irrevocably alter its delicate ecosystem.

At the heart of the matter is a fundamentally different view on what actually makes a “natural” approach to Buffalo Bayou. The whole thing is really complicated and involves a controversy over river science (a.k.a. "fluvial geomorphology") and a method of channelizing the banks of a river called “natural channel design.” Opponents of the plan say "natural channel design," which involves stripping the banks bare and putting in stacked tree trunks to lock the bayou's curves into place, is anything but "natural." 

The project was first pitched back in 2013 and Harris County Flood Control filed an application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and planned on starting construction in late 2014, but that's where everything has stopped. Now everything hinges on whether or not the Corps decides to sign off on Harris County Flood Control's permit application, a process that has dragged on for months now. This is partly because Harris County Flood Control has had to change its permit application a couple of times. When Flood Control officials submitted another set of alterations in 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers called for another public commenting period. The comment period went from May to June and then Harris County Flood Control had to respond. The Army Corps of Engineers has apparently been ruminating on the whole idea since then. 

As of late December, Harris County Flood Control spokeswoman Kim Jackson says the district hasn't heard anything from the Army Corps of Engineers. She also noted that the Corps doesn't have a set schedule on when it has to make a decision on individual permit applications, so Harris County Flood Control really has no idea when the Corps will make a call on the permit either way. Since it's playing the waiting game, Harris County Flood Control hasn't done any construction on the project, although the district has done basic maintenance on the bayou, clearing out debris and blockages from the waterway, according to Jackson.

They may be waiting for quite a while.  Longtime environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn says the Army Corps of Engineers simply doesn't like to make decisions on controversial projects. He says the fact that the agency has taken so much time already indicates that the Memorial Park Demonstration Project might be more complex a proposal than Harris County Flood Control officials have made it out to be. "I think if it was as simple as Flood Control makes it seem to be, the Corps would have made a decision years ago," Blackburn says. 

He contends that Harris County Flood Control wouldn't have encountered so much opposition to the project if officials had been more willing to hear people out and to at least consider adjusting the project a little based on the concerns of local environmentalists. The "natural channel design" approach is really intended for damaged ecosystems like Brays Bayou, Blackburn says, not for this part of Buffalo Bayou that still has much of its ecosystem intact. Blackburn says he and other people in the environmental community have been frustrated by Harris County Flood Control's rigid approach to the project and its determination to use "natural channel design" techniques. "Flood Control won't listen to other ideas. They are all or nothing, and I don't understand that. They may be trying to do the right thing, but they only want to do it their way. Why not try all the options, all of the methods out there if this is just a demonstration project, and see which ones really work?"

Meanwhile, Blackburn says the Army Corps of Engineers can't have missed that the project has become so controversial. It's a development that most likely will make the Corps move even more slowly in reaching a decision on the permit application, since the agency really isn't into wading into the middle of controversies. "Generally, the Corps likes to stay impartial and likes to work through these issues, because they want to issue these permits without having any legal challenges," Blackburn says. "The Corps knows they are being watched very closely on this, so it makes sense that they are taking their time." 

The question at this point is if the Corps really needs more time to evaluate the project, or if it's simply waiting it out. 
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray