Energy & Environment

Conservationists Disagree What To Do As Bayou’s Banks Wash Away

Engineer a change to Buffalo Bayou, or let nature take its course?

Steve Hupp
Steve Hupp, Bayou Preservation Association, on Buffalo Bayou cliff

riparian forest
The riparian forest along Buffalo Bayou near downtown Houston

Texas has thousands of miles of rivers and bayous. The banks of some of those waterways — including Buffalo Bayou in Houston — are crumbling and eroding. Which has led to a debate among conservationists: Should people try to engineer a change or let nature take its course?

Understanding what this debate is about involves what are called riparian forests.

“A riparian area is that green vegetation zone that’s right immediately adjacent to a stream, creek, river, bayou,” said Nikki Dictson, an extension specialist at Texas A&M’s Water Resources Institute.

“I think in just the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve really realized the importance of these riparian areas,” Dictson said.

Dictson recently organized a riparian education workshop at a ranch in Chambers County just east of Houston. It featured instructor Steve Nelle who stood along Double Bayou with a dozen workshop participants.

“What happens to the flow of water when you mow the vegetation,” Nelle asked the group.

Steve Nelle
Steve Nelle lectures participants at riparian forest workshop held on a ranch in Chambers County

“Speeds it up,” someone answered.

Nelle then explained how the banks of bayous erode when people make changes that speed up the flow of water: things like clearing away natural vegetation, or building dams that release water at a higher-than-natural speed.

The riparian forests that hug the banks of creeks and bayous provide stability, keeping the banks from washing away. On ranches when erosion threatens to change the direction of a stream, ranchers can use natural remedies to manage the land, like foregoing mowing and leaving native vegetation.

But when erosion happens in urban areas, conservationists can disagree over whether more drastic measures are needed. And that’s what’s happening west of downtown Houston along the banks of Buffalo Bayou.

On the far bank is the golf course of the River Oaks Country Club. On the other, upscale homes. And bit further upstream, Memorial Park.

Steve Hupp is standing on an eroded cliff with a 20 foot drop to the water below. Hupp is the water quality director for Bayou Preservation Association. The association suggested to the Harris County Flood Control District that this mile long stretch of Buffalo Bayou could benefit from some serious restoration. A proposed $6 million dollar project will attempt to create what Mother Nature would take centuries to do.

“The banks are laying back, eroding wider, a foot a year,” Hupp said. “Basically the bayou’s trying to correct itself. It’ll be bangin’ out the sides. It’ll get there in two or three hundred years. What we’re trying to do is fast forward. “

To speed things up, bulldozers will level out the cliffs, creating a less dramatic stair-step bank.

banks of Buffalo Bayou
The banks of Buffalo Bayou are eroding wider by an estimated one foot a year

It’ll then be re-planted with native trees and vegetation.

“It’ll come up with a much higher quality riparian habitat when it’s done (and do it) much quicker than if it was left to its own forces, “ Hupp said.

That seems to make sense. But there are skeptics.

“Does it actually do what they’re saying it’s going to do,” asked Debbie Reagan. She was attending the A&M workshop. She’s working on a master’s degree and has researched the proposed Buffalo Bayou project.

“Having physically looked at the site I’m not as convinced it’s as distressed as everybody says it is,” Reagan said. “It doesn’t quite fit my proof test that this is a problem that needs fixing.”

She’s not alone. A chorus of organized opposition has erupted among conservationists. Some have suggested the real motivation might be to help the country club whose golf course is threatened by erosion. The club is actually helping pay for the project.

Opponents also have questioned how the Bayou Preservation Association has board members who work for companies involved in the proposal.

Hupp, with the association, responded: “About the board: they all sign releases that say, no, they will not vote on anything that they have a conflict of interest.”

The decision as to whether the project can move forward will fall to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers which is expected to rule in coming months. The ruling could decide whether a bayou and its riparian forest need help or should just be left alone.

 

Double Bayou
Double Bayou on ranch in Chambers County

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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