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Whose Bayou?
by Published on

Buffalo Bayou illustration by Mike Krone

Several months ago on a warm winter day, I took a trip on Buffalo Bayou, the waterway that runs through downtown Houston and connects the city to the Gulf of Mexico. With me were Roy Edwards and Don Greene, two veteran river watchers. As we boarded a canoe, Edwards held an iron skillet and a rope. I grasped the paddle, awaiting instruction, while Greene stood on the bank to call out directions. We were at the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou, a critical juncture that tells an important story about flood control in Houston. In a major storm, water from miles around will find its way into these two tributaries as the increasingly impermeable city attempts to flush itself clear of the rains. With a makeshift sounding device—the cooking skillet—Edwards and Greene were about to give me a lesson in alluvial dynamics.

On one side of us was the Harris County Jail. Across the river was the University of Houston’s downtown campus. Where the base of the jail meets the river we saw evidence of subsidence—the ground being eaten away by altered stream currents. Not far behind us was the concrete pier at Allen’s Landing, outfitted with ironworks befitting the major working dock it once was. The rebuilt pier may be one factor that has changed the flow of the river. We were about to discover others.

Edwards lowered the cooking skillet close to the rehabbed pier where Greene said there used to be a drop of more than 60 feet. This time, at low tide, the skillet dropped a mere 18 feet. Along the sides of the river, up and down the confluence of the bayous, we found depths ranging between 12 feet and almost 30 feet. Then we turned around to come up the middle of the channel. We hit six- and seven-foot pockets before being greeted by the audible clang of the skillet on rock; we were hitting solid rock at less than three feet. It was no natural outcropping—the region’s geology doesn’t allow for such things. This was rubble.

Greene pointed out how the rubble had changed the flow of the water, creating an eddy at the base of Allen’s Landing and erosion near the base of the jail. It was near here that Edwards, a former Harris County jailer, says that in the late 1990s he witnessed the dumping of several tractor-trailer loads of rock into the middle of the waterway. He described seeing the pile tamped down by an iron crane claw to keep the evidence out of sight. Allen’s Landing had just been rehabbed—”stabilized” to use the technical term—a process that involved pumping tons of concrete behind the pier and the placing of even more tonnage of concrete rubble, or riprap, along the riverbank.

The veteran river watchers told me that those seven tractor-trailer loads were enough to change the flow pattern of the two tributaries, turning White Oak into the dominant stream. Moreover, they said, that might help explain the severe flooding of area homes and thoroughfares during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, when the bayou backed up.

For people like Greene, who has worked as a river guide for almost 30 years, the fate of Buffalo Bayou is almost spiritual, which by definition puts him at odds with the world of commerce. “I am so interested in that waterway reaching its potential, I can’t stand it,” he said after another day of loading and unloading canoes. When he says “potential,” he means the potential of the river to be a river. Powerful developers in Houston see something more than that. Since the formation of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership in 1986 and especially since the public-private partnership came out with its master plan in 2002, developers have imagined this murky waterway being transformed into something like San Antonio’s River Walk [see "Buffaloed on the Bayou," TO, Dec. 6, 2002]. The Allen’s Landing stabilization process is an extension of that vision.

Over the last five years, Greene has raised environmental concerns with the partnership, addressed officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, and approached the City of Houston and county flood control district numerous times. As Greene’s friend Sherri Blifford puts it, “The reaction until very recently has been, ‘Oh, Don. You’re such a worrywart. Go away.’” He hasn’t gone away, but he’s not a natural rabble-rouser, either. Over the course of several in-depth conversations, he often reiterated that he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. “Bless those people,” he said, referring to the folks at Harris County Flood Control District. “I’m not trying to shoot people down. They’re great with slide rules, but alluvial dynamics has nothing to do with a slide rule.”

Not long after our canoe trip, a breakthrough of sorts occurred at a March meeting between Greene and Flood Control. Within 10 days of that meeting county boats were on the water, marking and removing dangerous branches and trees, known as “strainers” in the canoeing world. “At this time, we have no reason to believe that current conditions on Buffalo Bayou pose any harm or threat to those living near the bayou or to those who canoe on its waters,” said Flood Control spokeswoman Heather Saucier. But plans are in the works to scan Allen’s Landing with sonar to determine the span of the rubble pile, she said.

So where did the rubble come from? Mike Garver, a prominent businessman and current chairman of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, sputtered when I mentioned what Edwards had told me about those tractor-trailer loads. (“Idiotic” was the first word that sprung from his mouth.) “No. That isn’t correct. It would be impossible to dump concrete into the middle of the bayou unless you dumped it off the bridge,” he said, before admitting that a small crane arm could, theoretically, do the job. After describing the Allen’s Landing stabilization project that had been completed in 2001, Garver eased into a softer string of denials. He’d never heard there was rock in the middle of the waterway. It wasn’t his company doing the work at Allen’s Landing. He wasn’t chairman of the partnership board at the time, so he only checked in on construction progress from “time to time.” Finally, he said, the dumping could have happened without his knowledge. Early on there had been some problems. Poorly placed riprap had torn into the hull of a 55-foot fiberglass Cabin Cruiser, he said, but the partnership had removed “as much excess as they could” under an Army Corps of Engineers permit issued in 2003.

“He probably put too much riprap in there,” Garver said of the contractor. Though he said he was unaware of any rubble in the center of the channel, he did say the partnership had been warned by Greene for “over a year” about continuing problems with a “sandbar” at that location. I tried to talk to partnership president Anne Olson, but she failed to return several phone calls requesting comment.

The activists who have been drawn into the battles for the bayous over the years see more than erosion and flood control at stake. For them, those issues are part of the bigger picture about the nature of conservation and cities. In the 1980s Greene was part of the Buffalo Bayou Taskforce, which then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire had charged with producing a preservation and development plan for the bayou. Also sitting on that task force was Clark Martinson, now general manager of the Energy Corridor District. The biggest failure of the Bayou Taskforce, Martinson told me, was in not being able to assemble the required right-of-ways downtown to create one linear parkway system following the contours of the bayou. “That was a huge failure,” he said. Now Houstonians are left with a neutered waterway, with excessively manicured banks and even more concrete displacing the greenery. “Getting all hung up with very expensive canals and expensive stabilized banks just drains the potential of serving the largest number of people,” he said.

Charles Tapley, one of Houston’s premier architects offers an additional historical perspective. Tapley has long been concerned about the ideological divide that keeps conservation off the menu for the downtown stretch of the bayou. In the 1970s, he designed Tranquility Park, the downtown park named after the Sea of Tranquility, in honor of the first lunar landing. He recalls almost being thrown out of the Galveston office of the Army Corps of Engineers because he had expressed “French” ideas (as ecofriendly hydrology was referred to in Texas in the late 1970s).

Tapley advocated natural, wide banks where the trees weren’t clearcut, as was the practice at the time. Wider green banks would allow more water to drain down the channel, albeit at a slower pace, he argued. He wanted more nature in nature, not a concrete slip-and-slide draining into the Houston Ship Channel. With an independent grant, he was finally allowed to experiment. The native cypress trees planted over a quarter-century ago near the Sabine Bridge west of downtown still stretch skyward.

As one of the most historically polluted waterways in the state, Buffalo Bayou has dutifully flushed human and industrial waste into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a hundred years. There was a time in the recent past when the city opposed green areas along its banks even being labeled “park” for fear of Clean Water Act regulations and the threat of federal scrutiny. In the 1960s the Corps “channelized” the banks of White Oak Bayou and planned to do the same with Buffalo Bayou—to turn its banks into steep concrete stretches void of life. Avid conservationists like Houston’s Terry Hershey, assisted by then-Congressman George H. W. Bush, managed to defeat the plan.

Today, Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn is considering a legal challenge against the Federal Emergency Management Agency for overlooking the area of the alleged dumping of rubble in the Buffalo Bayou in its recently revised flood plain map. That “black hole” of data worries Blackburn. He sees the riprap or rubble dumping event as emblematic. “I’m not telling you it’s going to be the end of Houston from a flooding standpoint, but it’s just an example of the fact that nobody’s on first base here, or no one’s watching who’s on first,” he says. “We tend to not look at the system as a whole. It’s the systemwide issue I am most concerned about.”

Looking at the larger system means looking upstream, where increased real estate pressures have begun to strain the bayou’s flow regulators—the Addicks and Barker dams in East Harris County. That pressure is the result of suburban growth. New roadways, apartment complexes, and strip malls in eastern Harris and Fort Bend counties are spilling more water more quickly into the watershed feeding the dams and, ultimately, the bayou.

“The message is that more and more pressure is being put on the reservoirs,” said Richard Long, the Corps of Engineers’ park manager in the Houston Project Office. “As a result, we’re having to look harder and harder at our operation plan to see that these reservoirs continue to operate as they were intended, without sacrificing the integrity of the dams.”

And the pace of development continues. Two or three more bulkheads like Allen’s Landing are to be built on the bayou in the near future.

Meanwhile, there are those like Clark Martinson, who can still remember the other world that existed downtown, below street-grade, on Buffalo Bayou more than 20 years ago. “When I first moved to Houston in 1984, we could canoe down the bayou and see birds at every corner,” he says. “Today, the birds have moved out. They’re not there anymore. They’re just gone.”

Greg Harman, a freelance writer in Houston, edits the environmental Web site EarthHouston.net.

San Antonio’s Greg Harman has been writing about natural Texas since the late 1990s.