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 distinctly southern type of shady, slow-moving river and a main waterway, known as the "Mother Bayou," flowing through Houston in Harris County, Texas. Formed some 18,000 years ago, it has its source in the rapidly developing prairie of Katy, Fort Bend County, Texas, and flows approximately 53 miles (85 km) east through the Houston Ship Channel and into Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to drainage water impounded and released by Addicks and Barker Dams, the bayou is fed by natural springs, sewage treatment plants, surface runoff from streets, parking lots, and highways, and several significant tributary bayous, such as White Oak Bayou, Greens Bayou, and Brays Bayou.
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. However, the bayou is accessible to paddlers at Briar Bend Park near Voss and Woodway and at the Woodway Bridge just west of 610.
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, now a decorative arts museum, Bayou Bend, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. 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 bulldozing and channelizing 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.
Controversy on 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 remove more than a mile of the existing natural banks of Buffalo Bayou, dredge and rechannel this last section of relatively untouched bayou as it runs past Memorial Park, one of the largest urban parks in the United States. This riparian forest is at the western edge of the area developed by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. According to the permit application submitted to the corps by the flood control district, this riparian forest was rated with an average 4.5 out of 5, i.e. high suboptimal condition. (See page 450.)
Riparian buffer zones are critical because they naturally control erosion, slow storm waters, filter sediment and pollution, protect the banks, and provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. State and federal policy is to preserve and protect riparian zones for the health of waterways as well as wildlife. Riparian zones are increasingly recognized as a type of wetland deserving of legal protection under the federal Clean Water Act.
The public comment period on this plan, described as a "restoration" project by the flood control district, closed on June 30, 2014. Called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the project would allegedly create a stable stream bed in a stream already described as stable by the Memorial Park Conservation Master Plan (See page 16). That 2004 master plan recommended that "(b)ased on hydrologic and hydraulic analysis of Buffalo Bayou, and the Park Vision, the recommended course of action for the Bayou is simply to leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature." (See pp. 56-57.)
The Memorial Park Demonstration Project affects approximately 4,800 feet along both banks and nearly 8 acres of the bayou, as well as approximately 560 feet along a portion of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The area targeted is an official Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife paddling trail, a State Antiquities Landmark, and includes prehistoric geological formations, including 750,000-year-old sandstone and tall Pleistocene bluffs thousands of years old that serve as "bumpers," holding in place and controlling the course of the bayou and other meandering west-east streams in the Houston region. The area, including the south bank belonging to the River Oaks Country Club, was the site of Camp Logan, and is one of the few sites remaining in the country of a World War I military training camp. It is some of the last remaining riverine wilderness in the city of Houston and one of the last remnants of a natural, distinctively southern bayou in the "Bayou City."
The $6 million restoration project is funded by the City of Houston, Harris County, and the River Oaks Country Club. It proposes to use methods invented by Dave Rosgen, who in a 2009 video described this stretch of Buffalo Bayou as a "living, functional river system right here in the middle of Houston." Rosgen described this section of the bayou as "natural," "stable," and a C-5 stream.
Projects using Rosgen's "Natural Channel Design" method have catastrophically failed and washed out across the country. Mathias Kondolf, fluvial geomorphologist at the University of California, Berkeley, describes Rosgen's methods as "pseudo-science" and says they are popular with government agencies across the country because they are simplistic and easy to apply. Rosgen's much-criticized method of "stream restoration" often requires the destruction of healthy riparian buffer.
- 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)
- Van Siclen DWC, 1991, Surficial geology of the Houston area: an offlapping series of Pleistocene (&Pliocene?) histes-sealevel fluviodeltaic sequences: Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions, v. 41, p. 651-666.
- 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