Bayou battle

Another one of our local disputes that has been picked up by national interests.

A Harris County Flood Control District proposal, submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers in April, would reconfigure and stabilize about a third of the semi-natural bayou left inside Loop 610. And it would do so using an approach called Natural Channel Design that, though in wide use across the country, is denounced in many scientific circles.

One of the method’s foremost critics, G. Mathias Kondolf, a professor of environmental planning at the University of California at Berkeley, was with the group on the bayou.

“This is such a remarkable place right in the heart of the city,” he said, standing on the bank. “Here you could let the river be a river. And so why not just leave it alone?”

Natural Channel Design, which the Harris County Flood Control District has used since 2006, was created and popularized by Colorado-based hydrology consultant Dave Rosgen. Rosgen has little in the way of formal scientific training, but he recognized a demand for stream-restoration methods long before academics moved to meet it. Rosgen’s method, taught in short courses rather than Ph.D. programs, uses tree trunks and other natural materials to stop streams from eroding or changing course.

“Rosgen claims that channels designed using his approach are both stable and natural, a deeply appealing combination,” Rebecca Lave, an Indiana University associate professor of geography, writes in her 2012 book “Fields and Streams.” “His NCD approach has been adopted and implemented by local, state and federal agencies throughout the United States despite opposition so strenuous and long-lasting that the controversy has come to be known as the Rosgen Wars.”


The bayou’s surrounding urban environment, however, has sometimes made the channel’s dynamism difficult to accommodate.

As flood-control district director Mike Talbott tells it, Buffalo Bayou is “coming unraveled.” The bayou has eroded and shifted course as Houston has boomed and development increased, and the proposed project would demonstrate a way to stabilize it.

Notably, the last semi-natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou inside Loop 610 runs between Memorial Park and some of the city’s most visible and most expensive real estate, creating a dividing line between public land and private property.

The flood control district and conservationists agree that this marriage of public and private space has not been a happy one.

Some of the landowners whose properties border the bayou have responded to the bayou’s natural erosion with ecologically and hydrologically problematic solutions – things like removing vegetation and replacing it with vast concrete walls. The flood-control district can’t control what those landowners do.

But by addressing an area slightly downstream from these expansive backyards and their bad solutions, the district intends to showcase a better way, Talbott said, one that would stabilize the bayou and reduce erosion without being so ecologically destructive.

“The people aren’t going to let it do what it wants to do,” Talbott said of the property owners along Buffalo Bayou. “That’s why the idea of intervention sounds like the right thing.”

The Memorial Park Demonstration Project, which would cost an estimated $6 million, has both money and broad institutional support, with funding lined up from the flood-control district, the city of Houston and the River Oaks Country Club. The Memorial Park Conservancy and the Bayou Preservation Association are also backing it.

But the project is not a done deal. Even if the Army Corps of Engineers approves the flood-control district’s proposal – there is no specific deadline for them to do so – it will have to go through another public hearing process, as required by the Texas Parks and Wildlife code.

See here for the background, and here for the case against the Rosgen approach, as articulated by Save Buffalo Bayou. Prof. Kondolf was here in November to inspect this part of the bayou and give a report on it; you can read a brief summary of that here and see a video of his presentation here. Save Buffalo Bayou is a good resource if you want to know more about this part of the bayou that most of us never get to see. It seems likely to me that the Memorial Park Demonstration Project will go forward as planned, given the support for it, but we should at least understand what the alternative is.

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