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Houston Regional Group - News
What's Really Happening To Buffalo Bayou?
Brandt Mannchen

It makes you wonder sometimes how people can call something green, when really the color is not so vibrant. Recently, the Sierra Club submitted comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a Clean Water Act permit for Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) which would allow dredging and filling in and along two miles of Buffalo Bayou, between Shepherd and Sabine Streets.

The reasons for the permit include channel conveyance restoration; creation of channel conveyance capacity; removal of sediment along the channel banks; modification of the majority of the bank side slopes; relocation of portions of the channel centerline (that is called realigning the bayou); creation of sediment deposition benches within the channel; removal of vegetation along two miles (both sides) of channel banks; creation of equipment access, movement, and staging of materials areas in numerous locations; confinement of activities generally to a 150-foot wide corridor; and excavation and fill, both above and below, the mean high higher water line.

Got that! Seems kind of like a lot to do to our poor old "Mother Bayou," which we have abused for the past 70 years. The Sierra Club visited the site of the proposal and walked about half of it (Waugh Dr. to Sabine Street on the south side of buffalo Bayou and then back on the north side). There is no doubt Buffalo Bayou needs some help. Many of the plants we found were non-native and had taken over the banks including Golden Raintree, White Mulberry, Arizona Ash, Chinese Tallow, Crepe Myrtle, Catalpa, and Elephant Ear.

On the plus side, there are many native bottomland and streamside plants (riparian) found holding onto bank soil including Box Elder, American Elm, Pecan, Black Willow, Eastern Cottonwood, Trumpet Vine, American Elderberry, American Sycamore, Green Ash, Hackberry, Bald Cypress, Water Oak, Inland Sea Oats, Rough-leaf Dogwood, and Frog Fruit. We saw Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, Green Heron, Blue Jay, Mocking Bird, Mourning Dove, Cottontail Rabbit, Great-tailed Grackle, Red-eared Slider, fish, and squirrel.

The proposal promises to strip away almost all the vegetation, even the native trees and plants, along two miles of Buffalo Bayou. The wildlife apparently will have to survive without their current homes.

The proposal does not address sources of silt that have caused filling of the channel. Sources of silt come from high flows from Addicks and Barker Dams which bring dirt down with flood waters. These flood flows also generate more eroded soil by scouring the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Unless these sources of dirt are prevented in an environmentally careful manner the work proposed will not stop additional silting of the bayou..

Of further concern is that HFCFCD proposed no mitigation for the project because it believes that overall impacts to the aquatic environment "would be minimal" and that "No wetlands were identified in or adjacent to Buffalo Bayou within the project reach." No documentation was provided in the public notice that the proposal will do what HCFCD states it will do. The riparian vegetation that will be destroyed consists of many wetland species of plants.

The Sierra Club questioned whether the proposal was for flood control purposes or whether it also served an aesthetic purpose that had not been stated in the public notice. A demonstration project has resulted in the destruction of many riparian or bottomland trees and their habitat has been planted to Bermuda grass, a non-native invasive plant species, instead of native grass, wildflowers, and trees. The trees that have been planted in the demonstration area are spaced in a straight, homogenized, fashion and clumps of natural trees have been cut down. The replication of natural riparian habitat has not been duplicated or even attempted in the demonstration project area and will not occur for the proposal. This is a loss for wildlife and wetland habitats.

To muddy the waters further, literally, HCFCD proposed removal of Black Willow and Green Ash trees, which HCFCD calls invasive, and which are important for stabilizing the bayou's banks and holding onto its' dirt. There is no acknowledgement that these trees are important because they provide shelter and food for wildlife. No mention is made in the public notice of the Waugh Street Bridge bat colony and the need to protect it from construction disturbance.

Some of the Sierra Club's recommendations to reduce (mitigate) environmental damage due to the proposal are:

  1. Prepare a mitigation plan and provide for a 30-day public comment period for that plan
  2. Protect and mark for retention existing bottomland hardwood or riparian trees (like American Sycamore, Black Willow, Eastern Cottonwood, Box Elder, Pecan, Hackberry, and Green Ash) that are 3 inches or greater in diameter
  3. Plant native species of grasses and wildflowers
  4. Save as many groups of native trees as possible
  5. Plant native tree species in groups preferentially to single trees
  6. Remove most non-native tree species
  7. Implement a turtle rescue program from sediments removed from the bayou
  8. Keep construction 200 feet away from the Waugh Drive Bridge to protect the bat colony
  9. Conduct a walking inspection with the Sierra Club and others to determine which native trees will be saved at which locations and mark those trees so they are saved.

It remains to be seen what will happen to our "Mother Bayou." Without constant vigilance Houstonians could see a manicured but wild-less Buffalo Bayou. That would be a shame and a loss for us all.

October 2011

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Last updated:  09/10/2011.   Content 1999-2011 by the Sierra Club.