Buffalo Bayou as it passes by Houston's Memorial Park, May 2014.
|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. In this area, one of the most beautiful and one of the last remaining stretches of wild bayou left in the city of Houston, this distinctively southern river is threatened by a plan to bulldoze the banks, strip most of the riparian forest and natural vegetation, and grade, channelize and reroute the waterway. (See below.) 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.
Current Threats to Buffalo Bayou
The Army Corps of Engineers is now considering whether to issue a permit that would allow the Harris County Flood Control District to bulldoze more than a mile of the wilderness banks of Buffalo Bayou as it runs through Memorial Park, one of the largest urban parks in the United States. This threatened riparian forest is at the western edge of the area developed by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.
The public comment period on this controversial plan closed on June 30, 2014. Called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the project would bulldoze hundreds of shade trees, vines, and undergrowth in wide swathes up to 100 feet from the water's edge on both banks of the bayou, ecologically important riparian habitat that cannot be replaced, according to environmental experts. State and federal policy is to protect riparian buffer because it naturally controls erosion, slows storm waters, filters sediment and pollution, protects the banks, and provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.
The plan identifies some two dozen wetlands critical to storm water detention and water quality that would be damaged or filled in. Wetlands are protected by the federal Clean Water Act, according to Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn.
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project affects 6,600 feet along both banks and nearly 14 acres of the bayou, as well as a significant portion of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The area targeted for destruction, an official Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife paddling trail, is a State Antiquities Landmark and includes ancient sandstone formations, artifacts, and the remains of Camp Logan, one of the few sites remaining in the country of a World War I military training camp.
The $6 million project, billed as an "erosion control" project, is being funded by the City of Houston, Harris County, and the River Oaks Country Club, which has been led to believe the project will stop erosion of its golf course.
Critics, including Martin Doyle, a professor of river science and policy at Duke University, point out that the cost of the project, which uses controversial methods promoted by Dave Rosgen, is nearly three times the cost of more effective and less destructive stream restoration techniques.
Robbin Sotir, founder of Robbin Sotir and Associates (1982) and an early pioneer in stream restoration and bioengineering, says the approach is not appropriate for this part of Buffalo Bayou, much of it closed-canopy riparian forest.
Projects using the controversial "Natural Channel Design" method developed by Rosgen have failed and catastrophically washed out in numerous states, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and needlessly destroying natural habitat, says Mathias Kondolf, fluvial geomorphologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Kondolf describes Rosgen's costly methods as "pseudo-science" and says they are popular with government agencies across the country because they are simplistic and easy to apply.
- 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)
- 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
- Save Buffalo Bayou
- SWA Group
- US Army Corps of Engineers Public Notice on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project
- Waterfront Center
- The University of Houston Digital Library has a collection of historical photographs about Houston, nearby communities, and more. View these collections at