Above: Harris County Flood Control District map showing showing the span of Buffalo Bayou slated for the district's proposed "demonstration project."
To those unfamiliar with the mysteries of Houston, a visit to Hogg Bird Sanctuary yields surprising results. When you turn at the traffic-choked intersection of Memorial Drive and Westcott, then park in the lot across from Bayou Bend, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston satellite location that was once home to Ima Hogg, you don’t expect that you’re about to enter a wooded wonderland. But once you’ve stepped out of the parking lot and into the sanctuary, carved out of forest and terrain that’s downright hilly by Houston standards, you feel almost completely removed from the roaring city just a few yards away.
With a few more steps you’re at the edge of a steep and unexpectedly tall cliff overlooking an oxbow bend in the bayou below, its graceful arc framed by trees. You’re standing in one of the most dramatic spots, natural or man-made, the city has to offer. Given Houston’s when-in-doubt-pave-it ethos, the thought that you’re on the edge of a highly developed and well-monied neighborhood just minutes from downtown produces a touch of vertigo.
This stretch of Buffalo Bayou might be beautiful, but it is not altogether healthy. Decades of intense development, along with the construction of two rather fragile and frequently flushed upstream dams, have constrained the bayou’s floodplain while increasing the volume it’s expected to carry. As a result, erosion has become a sizeable problem—one that the Harris County Flood Control District is attempting to address with a highly contentious “stream restoration” known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
According to the HCFCD website, “Erosion in the project area has caused bank failures, loss of public and private land, and a reduction in ecological functions, such as water quality and habitat.” The sheer cliff at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary is, in part, a result of this erosion.
The problem became severe enough that the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in the 1960s by environmental activist Terry Hershey, among others, to protect Buffalo Bayou from the brutal concrete channelizations that other Houston-area bayous suffered at the hands of the HCFCD and the Army Corps of Engineers, undertook a study of how to deal with erosion in 2010.
According to the HCFCD website, “experts in the fields of fluvial geomorphology and natural channel design” were brought in to perform studies and make recommendations. Based in part on the Bayou Preservation Association’s study, the HCFCD is seeking a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to implement its recommendations.
In the HCFCD’s demonstration project, 5,800 feet of the bayou winding through the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood will have its vegetation, including its riparian forest, scraped bare. Then the banks will be graded to a gentle slope, among other steps, to “restore Buffalo Bayou to a natural, stable condition.”
Despite its origins in the Bayou Preservation Association, the plan has provoked a thunderous backlash from environmental and community activists, who say it’s far too drastic. Led by environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, activist Frank Salzhandler, writer Olive Hershey and others, opponents claim that the project will destroy the bayou in its attempt to save it. They point out that even if vegetation eventually grows back on the bayou’s razed banks, hundreds of species of birds and animals now living there will be forced from their habitat. The bayou itself, opponents say, will be transformed into “a drainage ditch,” like Houston’s other channelized bayous, albeit without their concrete lining. They argue that erosion can be addressed through less destructive measures, and that in any event the HCFCD proposal is “not real science,” as more than one activist argued at a recent community meeting.
Crying “follow the money,” some attendees at that meeting expressed outrage that their beloved bayou would be reshaped in part to benefit the River Oaks Country Club, whose golf course has suffered erosion at its riverine edges. (River Oaks Country Club has agreed to pay one-third of the $6 million project’s costs, with the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District paying the rest). Carlos Calbillo, a community activist from the heavily Latino Second Ward, suggested that the project could be a stalking horse for further development of a San Antonio Riverwalk-type development to the stretch of the bayou that runs through the eastside ward.
Proponents, on the other hand, say the plan is necessary, if regrettable. “Our board voted to support the project only after much careful deliberation,” says Shellye Arnold, executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy (Buffalo Bayou runs through Memorial Park). She says that if erosion is not addressed, “the bayou is going to fall in on itself.”
Due to the intensity of public response, the Army Corps of Engineers recently extended the comment period regarding the HCFCD proposal until June 30. The Corps can ultimately approve the proposal, or reject it based on a number of criteria, including its potential impact on water quality and its cumulative—as opposed to localized—effect on the waterway. Public comments serve as the equivalent of a public hearing in the Corps’ permitting process, and both sides are urging their supporters to weigh in.