Buffalo Bayou near San Felipe and Memorial Drive in west Houston
|Mouth||Houston Ship Channel / Galveston Bay|
|Basin countries||United States|
|Basin area||Buffalo Bayou Watershed|
Buffalo Bayou is a main waterway flowing through Houston, in Harris County, Texas. It begins in Katy, Fort Bend County, Texas, and flows approximately 53 miles (85 km) east to the Houston Ship Channel and then into Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way the bayou receives several significant tributary bayous, such as White Oak Bayou, Greens Bayou, and Brays Bayou and passes by several major parks and numerous smaller neighborhood parks.
Buffalo Bayou is impounded in the upper watershed by the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs which regulate the bayou's flood flows. In addition to controlling high water, the discharge from the dams can be used to keep the bayou at a controlled level during water-based festivals, such as the Buffalo Bayou Regatta. From the dams, the bayou flows east under State Highway 6. Also starting at Barker Dam is Terry Hershey Park which consists of the land on both sides of the bayou from Highway 6 to Beltway 8 (also known as the Sam Houston Tollway). Jogging, biking, kayaking and fishing are popular in this area, although most people consider the bayou unfit for swimming.
Between Beltway 8 and Loop 610, there is little public access to the bayou since the land along the bayou is privately owned. This stretch of the bayou passes through what are known as the Memorial Villages and passes by the Houston Country Club, and the Houstonian Hotel, Club, and Spa.
On the east side of Loop 610, Buffalo Bayou passes along the south side of Memorial Park and is once again accessible to the public. Here it passes on the north side of the River Oaks Country Club and then through the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and the Ima Hogg estate Bayou Bend. A short distance thereafter is Buffalo Bayou Park which is bordered on the north by Memorial Drive and the south by Allen Parkway. From here the bayou flows through downtown Houston, past Allen's Landing, and then through the East End to the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel.
Along with Galveston Island and Galveston Bay itself, Buffalo Bayou was one of the focal points for early Anglo-American settlement in early Texas, first part of the Spanish Empire and then part of Mexico. Early communities began to appear at the beginning of the 19th century, including Lynchburg, Harrisburg, and New Washington (modern Morgan's Point) in the 1820s. The bayou became important in Texas history when the final battle for Texas Independence was fought along its banks where it merges with the San Jacinto River.
In the 1830s new communities such as Houston were established along the shoreline. A local entrepreneur named Samuel Allen (unrelated to the founders of Houston) established a large ranch, later known as the Allen Ranch, between Harrisburg and Galveston Bay. Docks at Harrisburg, Houston, and the Allen Ranch gradually became the foundations of what would become the modern Port of Houston. Harrisburg was initially the major shipping power on the bayou but the destruction wrought by the Texas Revolution and the American Civil War eroded its influence allowing Houston to become the river's dominant commercial center.
Houston's original docks were established at the foot of Main Street at the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou in an area of downtown Houston today known as "Allen's Landing" (in honor of the founders). At that time this was the most westerly location a small trading schooner could turn around. This site is now a public park and is adjacent to the University of Houston–Downtown (UHD). Numerous historical sites, as well as ruins of old docks and facilities, can be seen along the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
Buffalo Bayou and Galveston Bay were dredged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to accommodate larger ships. By the mid-1900s the Port of Houston had established itself as the leading port in Texas eclipsing the natural harbors at Galveston and Texas City. The Turning Basin terminal in Harrisburg (now part of Houston) became the port's largest shipping point. The Texas Oil Boom of the early 20th century sparked industrial development along Buffalo Bayou east of Houston and along Galveston Bay. Shipping points became established throughout this industrial complex. In 1977 the Barbours Cut Terminal was opened at Morgan's Point shifting much of the shipping traffic away from Turning Basin downstream toward the bay. Also in 1977, Joe Campos Torres was murdered there by Houston Police Dept. who threw his body into the bayou. Commerce on the bayou remains heavy and vital to the economy of Greater Houston.
Today, despite the urban environment, Buffalo Bayou and its parks remain the centerpiece for many festivals and gatherings in Houston throughout the year. It is also still very popular with canoe and kayak enthusiasts.
Postcard Illustration of Allen's Landing (1910)
Role of the watershed
The 103-square-mile (270 km2) Buffalo Bayou watershed is central to the drainage of Houston and Harris County. Lying over relatively impervious soils and very flat topography, the bayou has extensive natural floodplains, as do most Gulf coastal rivers and streams. The gradual urbanization of the watershed, starting with the founding of the city in 1836 and accelerating in the latter half of the twentieth century, placed thousands of people in the natural floodplains. At the same time, changes to the watershed due to urbanization increased the level and intensity of flood events.
Responding to disastrous flood damages due to floods in the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in association with the Harris County Flood Control District, began numerous projects to reduce Houston’s flooding risks through an extensive program of reservoir construction, removal of stream-bank vegetation, straightening, and deepening channels and lining them with concrete.
In the 1960s, Terry Hershey, working with local congressman George Herbert Walker Bush, prevented the federal government from the channelization of Buffalo Bayou inside of Beltway 8. In 1966, Hershey and a number of other homeowners in Houston’s Memorial Villages area formed the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association, which later widened its mission and became the Bayou Preservation Association. While the quality of water has remained an issue, the bayou was one of the few in the Harris County flood district to retain its natural riparian ecosystem.
Restoring the Buffalo Bayou
Spurred by the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, the State of Texas sued Houston in 1976 over pollution levels, toxic run-off, and untreated sewage that was being discharged into the bayous. This led to a $3 billion sewer upgrade in the metropolitan area which has significantly improved water quality in the region, although much effort still needs to be expended to reduce non-point source pollution from the urban watersheds.
In 1986, a mayor-appointed task force published the first Buffalo Bayou Master Plan, which outlined a vision for the bayou that took it from being an urban sewer to being a valuable natural resource and valuable park space and rich with urban waterfront opportunities. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership was created from this original task force in 1986 and in 2002 they published the Buffalo Bayou and Beyond Master Plan, an updated and comprehensive regional bayou restoration and economic development program expected to cost $5.6 billion and take 20 years to implement. The project goals include the creation of hundreds of acres of greenways and new parks by reclaiming industrial space along the bayou waterway, habitat restoration program, recreational opportunities for canoeing and kayaking, trails for hiking and biking, outdoor cultural events, watershed and flood control management, and mixed-use urban development.
The Buffalo Bayou Partnership has raised more than $45 million from private donors and foundations to implement specific projects along the bayou, including efforts to develop continuous trails along the bayou. The most recent segment of the Buffalo Bayou trail system to be completed is the $15 million Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which extends from the historic Sabine Street bridge just west of the Central Business District to Bagby Street in the heart of the Arts and Entertainment District. This new 23-acre (93,000 m2) recreation area, complete with 1.4 miles (2.3 km) of hiking and biking trails, was opened in 2006 and was designed by the international landscape architecture firm, The SWA Group.
The Buffalo Bayou Promenade has become a popular location for live performances of music and video, for outdoor sculpture exhibits (The Buffalo Bayou Art Park), for canoeing and kayaking and for walking and jogging. The promenade has won local and national acclaim for the role it has played in helping to change how Houstonians think about their waterways in general and Buffalo Bayou in particular.
The Buffalo Bayou Promenade transformed what was an almost forgotten and neglected stretch of the bayou where it passed beneath and threaded between numerous freeway and street bridges and overpasses into an inviting, safe and attractive public space. The project included the placement of stone filled gabions along the water’s edge to provide an ecologically friendly way to control bank erosion, the removal of thousands of cubic yards of old rubble and fill, the construction of new and improved trails. One of the most important aspects of the project was the construction of highly visible staircases and ramps connecting almost all the adjacent streets to the bayou trails to give park users the comfort of knowing they are never disconnected from the city around them and to give city residents easy access to the trails below along the bayou.
The SWA Group-led design team is also credited with designing an innovative lighting plan for Buffalo Bayou, first unveiled at the Sabine-to-Bagby Promenade. This lighting system illuminates the bridge, trails, and waterfront in cobalt and white lights that shift from one color to another in coordination with the changing phases of the moon. Stephen Korns, an Amherst, Massachusetts-based artist, working with the New York lighting firm L’Observatoire, conceived of the color phase shifting which will ultimately include the entire Buffalo Bayou greenway. The plan incorporates three levels, or orders, of lighting, providing first, general trail lighting for public comfort and safety, second, environmental lighting to illuminate just the dark corners and hiding places amidst the undersides of all the infrastructure, and third, artistic lighting for public art and local events.
The project includes a 189-foot (58 m) steel and concrete pedestrian bridge that links acres of new landscaping with the downtown Houston Theater District and enables pedestrians and bikers to make a complete loop around the bayou without crossing up and over busy city streets.
New pathways in the Sabine-to-Bagby Promenade now link Houston’s popular Allen Parkway/Memorial Drive trails to Sesquicentennial Park in downtown Houston. Each of 12 public entrances to the new park are celebrated using a combination of public artwork (John Runnels), artistic lighting, and perennial gardens to create inviting and accessible entry points to the greenway.
A significant design challenge, specific to bayous, is to accommodate the ever present threat of flood. Water on Buffalo Bayou can rise rapidly from sea level to 35 feet (11 m) deep, often within several hours. SWA met that challenge by designing all landscape plantings, trail markers, signage, benches, lights to withstand periodic submersion by muddy, debris filled flood waters. In the event of high water, small hydrants, spaced conveniently, wash off any deposited silt, returning it to the bayou before it dries.
In 2006 Kevin Shanley, president of SWA Group and leader of the design team, and Anne Olson, executive director of Houston's Buffalo Bayou Partnership, won The Waterfront Center’s Excellence on the Waterfront Award, Park and Recreation Category. The Waterfront Center, formed in 1981, has chronicled and supported the national movement to reclaim and restore abandoned, unused, and polluted urban waterfronts. The project also won a design award from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 2006 and an award of distinction from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in 2007.
- Lynchburg, Texas from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved 4 Feb 2010.
- Harrisburg, Texas from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved 4 Feb 2010.
- Morgan's Point, Texas from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved 4 Feb 2010.
- Kemp, L.W., & Kilman, E. (1947). "The Battle of San Jacinto (and the San Jacinto Campaign)". Sons of DeWitt Colony Texas (McKeehan, W.L., 1997-2006.
- Houston, Texas from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved 4 Feb 2010.
- Allen Ranch from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved 4 Feb 2010.
- Kleiner, D. J.: Buffalo Bayou from the Handbook of Texas Online (February 3, 2005)
- 2006 Excellence on the Waterfront Awards
- Buffalo Bayou from the Handbook of Texas Online
- Buffalo Bayou Watershed (Harris County Flood Control)
- Briar Forest Super Neighborhood (On the Bayou)
- Buffalo Bayou Partnership
- SWA Group
- Waterfront Center
- The University of Houston Digital Library has a collection of historical photographs about Houston, nearby communities, and more. View these collections at