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Return to Bayou City

Several projects, large and small, aim to bring a little nature back to Houston's waterways.

By Bill Dawson

The waterway that flows near my home in Southwest Houston is called Brays Bayou. It doesn’t much resemble the mental image that “bayou” probably conjures up for most people — a slow, twisting stream bordered by woods and wetlands.

That’s what this stretch of Brays Bayou used to be, however — a rich habitat for plants and wildlife that scientists call a riparian corridor. Several years ago, I met an elderly woman who lived across the bayou in a subdivision built around 1950, shortly before mine was developed. Her husband and son would cross over the bayou to go squirrel-hunting in a forest that was cleared to make room for my neighborhood.

There are still trees left — some quite large, like a water oak in my yard — but no one would call this a forest anymore. A few blocks away, Brays Bayou is now a deepened, concrete-lined canal. Its grassy, trapezoidal banks were precisely chiseled to carry Houston’s frequent deluges off to Galveston Bay as fast as possible.

This engineering of Brays was one of the city’s most ambitious projects in a never-ending struggle to coexist with the flooding that’s a recurring fact of city life in Southeast Texas. But it was hardly the only alteration of a natural stream as Houston, the “Bayou City,” grew into a huge metropolis. Officials say some form of work has been done on most of the estimated 800 miles of bayous and smaller natural channels that existed in Harris County before European settlement.

People disagree about how good a job the Brays channelization has done at limiting the impact of those floods. There’s no debate, however, that the heavily transformed part of the bayou has few of the natural characteristics it did until a few decades ago.

And yet, here and there are still hints of what once was.

Scattered along the flattened, largely shadeless banktop, near a popular hike-and-bike trail, are a few old moss-shrouded oaks — remnants of the woods displaced by development.

In the right springtime conditions, if the huge mowers haven’t been dispatched yet by the Harris County Flood Control District, the grassy banks sloping down to the cement channel become a riot of wildflowers, grasshoppers and birds.

Not long ago, driving along the bayou, I spotted a rabbit for the first time — not some runaway pet, mind you, but a genuine Texas swamp rabbit.

I’m sure there are other wild mammals that live near the concrete bayou, too, though I hardly ever see one except when it ventures forth, like the bold (or maybe impaired) opossum I once saw strolling down a street. My border collie knows there’s other wildlife around. On our walks down the bayou trail, she often drags me to one storm drain in particular, crouching and quivering in feral, wolf-like intensity as her nose works overtime, heeding what I can only imagine is the call of the wild.

My favorite neighborhood emblem of the natural world, though, is the great blue heron that my wife and I have been watching for several years as it has grown from juvenile to adult. Almost always, it’s wading in the same small area near a mammoth stormwater outfall that empties into the bayou.

Usually, the heron is a still sentinel, gazing upstream. A few times, though, I’ve seen it with a fish in its beak, silvery and flashing in the sunlight. Once, running the bayou trail after dusk, I saw it take wing and soar away over my head, a black silhouette against the darkening sky. It was a thrilling sight, all the more so because it was so unexpected and incongruous in the urban landscape.

Houston's bayous aren't just conduits for floodwater from the streets and wastewater from the sewer system. They're once and future ribbons of nature.

That image was also a reminder that Houston’s bayous aren’t just conduits for floodwater from the streets and wastewater from the sewer system. They’re once and future ribbons of nature, winding through the city. That’s increasingly being recognized in a growing number of projects, big and small, that seek to preserve, enhance and restore streams and streamside areas around the metropolitan region.

“Even in the most altered landscape, it’s never all or nothing,” says Ted Eubanks, a bird expert and Austin-based nature tourism consultant who grew up in Houston, when I tell him about the wildlife I see along Brays Bayou.

He explained that creatures like the lone heron persist in making their homes in habitat as unlikely — and seemingly forbidding — as a concrete canal.

“Nature finds a way of persevering in even the most drastically disturbed landscapes,” says Eubanks, who was a principal architect of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. The trail features a number of recommended bird-watching spots near Houston’s bayous.

In years ahead, there should be more birding opportunities near Brays, thanks to undertakings like the Willow Waterhole Greenway Project. Named for a small tributary of Brays in Houston’s Westbury area, the project is now being constructed by the flood control district a few miles west of my neighborhood. Willow Waterhole is one of the four large stormwater basins being built as part of the $450 million Project Brays, a mammoth flood-damage reduction effort that includes more channel widening and deepening, along with modifications and replacements of bridges. For years, bayou-protection activists have called for more use of such basins to reduce flood damage, in preference to channelizing bayous themselves.

TPWD awarded a $750,000 grant to the Houston Parks and Recreation Department for recreational and aesthetic amenities at Willow Waterhole, where 280 acres of planned green space — usable as parkland when it isn’t holding rainwater — will include forests, meadows, wetlands and low-water ponds.

Farther upstream to the west, another of the Project Brays detention basins was already serving as a magnet for people and wildlife when I checked it out on a bright, gusty day earlier this year, even though construction wasn’t complete yet. A large excavation in the midst of typical Houston suburban development and roaring traffic, it’s called Arthur Storey Park. When I visited, several ducks took wing, while others joined egrets sheltering in a patch of shallow water against the cool wind.

“There have been roseate spoonbills in there,” says Mike Talbot, the flood control district’s director. “The last time I was there, I saw a dozen pelicans and a couple of hawks that were hunting in the field. It was pretty amazing.”

Another wildlife-friendly venture that’s part of Project Brays is located about 15 miles down the bayou to the east in the city’s Mason Park. It’s the Freshwater Tidal Marsh project, where wetland habitat is being created for native plants, wildlife and fish. TPWD is one of several agencies and companies working as partners with the flood control district on the effort.

Andy Sipocz, a TPWD biologist, proposed the wetland project to flood control district officials when he realized that their preliminary channel-widening plans for the Mason Park area in Project Brays called for building wide streamside shelves that would be barely above sea level.

“The lower four miles of Brays is tidally influenced, so this is a place where tidal wetlands are easiest to create,” Sipocz says.

The new wetlands being created at the inner-city park will help remove pollution that now gets into the bayou in stormwater runoff. They will also provide good habitat for marine fishes, which come upstream from Galveston Bay to use estuaries as a nursery habitat, as well as for other wildlife, Sipocz says.

“People will be able to see herons and egrets, which will be pretty abundant in these wetlands,” he says. “There will also be an outdoor education area, with classes for students.”

High school students have already been pitching in to collect wetland plants for the new marsh.

“One thing that agencies have done a lot of is to restore salt marshes around Galveston Bay,” Sipocz says. “This [project in Mason Park] goes a step beyond that. They’ve been planting species here that haven’t been used before. We need plants here that can withstand an urban environment, which are also aesthetically pleasing and can stand fresh water.”

In addition to these key elements of Project Brays, numerous other conservation-minded efforts are envisioned, planned and underway along the Houston area’s bayous and smaller streams. A few examples:

  • Buffalo Bayou is already the site of established forest preserves such as Memorial Park’s Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, which adjoins traffic-clogged West Loop 610, and Terry Hershey Park, situated on the city’s suburban west side and named for a former TPWD commissioner who is one of Houston’s most influential conservation leaders. Now, focusing on a stretch of the same bayou in and near downtown, work has begun to implement the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s 20-year, $800 million master plan. Its wide variety of projects ranges from construction of new access points and trails to channel construction that will improve sight lines and combat bank erosion.
  • Conservation projects are integral to this master plan. One that’s gotten started is Buffalo Bend Nature Park in Houston’s East End, where a new trail system will link to other parks along Buffalo Bayou. Wetland ponds will be created to collect and filter rainwater before it enters the bayou, and other plans call for prairie restoration and a demonstration garden with native plants. Linda Shead of the Trust for Public Land, one of the private and public organizations involved in the Buffalo Bend effort, says the habitat value of the park land will be greatly enhanced. “Wildlife are looking for habitat and food,” she says, “and where will they go but to the bayou?”
  • The Spring Creek Greenway Project, a 10-mile wilderness park, is being developed by Harris County Precinct 4 on the county’s north side. Goals include connecting the precinct’s existing park land along the creek with other undeveloped land to create a linear park of up to 2,000 acres, with a marked, interpretive water trail for canoeists, kayakers and other visitors.
  • Students at Houston’s Cesar E. Chavez High School, located in an industrialized area southeast of downtown, won a national wetlands conservation award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an on-campus project on a Sims Bayou tributary named Berry Bayou. Chavez students cleared invasive species from a heavily overgrown area, planted aquatic plants in wetland areas, created trails and built benches for outdoor classes, says Gerald McDonald, an agricultural science teacher at the school. The work has drawn wildlife including herons and migratory birds, he says.
  • Through its Eyes On The Bayou project, the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA), one of Houston’s oldest conservation groups, has been working with government agencies to clear trash and other debris from stream channels, as well as helping remove invasive plants that can keep native species from flourishing. Along two old oxbows near White Oak Bayou, for instance, 6,000 pieces of concrete were hauled away, says BPA’s Eric Ruckstuhl. “We’re still working there,” he says. “It’s like urban archeology.”

The current proliferation of activities to protect and enhance Houston bayous mirrors waterway conservation and restoration efforts now underway in other cities around the country, but it’s no overnight phenomenon. Rather, the cluster of Houston-area projects marks the recent flowering of a movement that’s been many decades in the making.

The idea that the bayous shouldn’t just be seen as places for waste and floodwater goes back a long way in the city. In a 1913 report to Houston’s park commission, urban planner Arthur Comey urged the creation of broad, floodplain parks along the city’s streams — foreshadowing, in a way, today’s plans for floodwater-detention areas near bayous that can be used as parks when they aren’t submerged.

The “backbone of a park system for Houston will be its bayou and creek valleys, which readily lend themselves to (parks) and cannot so advantageously be used for any other purpose,” Comey wrote.

Developers and local leaders had other ideas in mind for those “valleys,” however, and with some notable exceptions where parks were established, residences, businesses and other structures were built there. Flood-control work on bayou channels helped facilitate such development, but increasingly generated controversies from the 1960s onward.

In a seminal success for the city’s bayou-protection movement in the late ’60s, Hershey enlisted the help of George H.W. Bush, then a congressman from a West Houston district, to help defeat a plan to channelize and concrete-line Buffalo Bayou. (She also founded the Bayou Preservation Association and later served on the TPW Commission in the 1990s.)

Other clashes over flood-control projects followed the battle to keep Buffalo Bayou as natural as possible.

In the 1990s, for instance, citizen groups succeeded in securing environmentally friendlier channelization plans for Sims Bayou near Hobby Airport, which excluded a concrete lining and featured banks with natural-looking terracing.

“We didn’t want to be another Brays Bayou, the evil flood-improvement project,” says Evelyn Merz, a local environmentalist who helped lead that effort.

Houston-area bayou advocates in groups such as BPA still take issue with certain actions of the flood control district, such as its decision to excavate the earthen banks in the channel-enlargement portion of the current Project Brays instead of taking out the concrete and enlarging that part of the channel.

“We looked high and low to see if we could remove it,” the district’s Talbot says, but officials eventually decided they needed to retain the flood-carrying capacity afforded by the concrete liner.

Despite such continuing disagreements, however, there is now also much collaboration between conservationists and the flood control district, which is one of the clearest indications that there’s been a significant evolution in Houston’s overall approach to its signature waterways.

“Certainly, progress has been made within the agencies responsible for flood reduction,” says Mary Ellen Whitworth, BPA’s executive director, who was former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier’s environmental policy adviser in the 1990s.

“We are seeing stormwater detention areas used for storage, recreation and habitat,” she adds. “The Sims Bayou project is using interlocking concrete that supports grass and gives a more natural look.”

The flood control district “now employs tree experts to manage riparian habitat in a sustainable way, removing invasive species and encouraging native species,” Whitworth says.

“Wildflowers are also seen on bayou banks. It will take many years to undo the damage from the last century, but I see many miles of linear parks along our bayous in the future.”

Talbot says the flood control district has incorporated a growing list of conservation-conscious practices into the way it carries out its activities, both on natural streams and parts of the hundreds of miles of man-made drainage channels that augment that network.

At Arthur Storey Park, for instance, the construction under way this year will run an artificial tributary of Brays through a winding wetland-and-lake system, which will help purify runoff from nearby roads.

In other examples of new policies that Talbot cited, detention basins are now being constructed to function as “sustainable ecosystems,” not just so they can be easily drained and mowed; there’s more “selective clearing” along streams that have remained in a largely natural state; and in a “drastically changed approach,” flood control officials have responded to public concerns and greatly reduced the use of herbicides along bayous.

“This is a city,” he says. “People live here and rely on what we do. We’ve learned better how to work with nature rather than against it. There is tremendous public support for it. People want flooding reduced, but in an environmentally sustainable way.”

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