Bayous are the region’s most visible and defining geographical feature, so much so that nicknames for Houston have included “Baghdad on the Bayou” and “The Bayou City.” Harris County has more than 800 miles of natural streams and 3,000 miles of human-made channels within Harris County. We share many of these waterways with adjacent counties.
Houston suffered major floods in the early 1930s, and the Harris County Flood Control District was formed in 1937. Bayous used to be winding, tree-lined waterways with clear water flowing through them; however, the district’s method of flood control included “channelizing” many bayous. This meant lining them with concrete and straightening them out. During the 1950s and ’60s, many bayous became nothing more than storm sewers. Some citizens resisted. The CEC was formed by a group of women who banded together under the name Citizens Who Care to fight channelizing Buffalo Bayou.
Flooding continued through the 1970s and ’80s, and it became apparent that other methods of flood control were needed. After substantial advocacy by environmental and bayou preservation groups, some bayous were allowed to retain their natural state.
Harris County adopted flood plain maps in the mid-’80s, and building was no longer allowed within the clearly defined areas of the 100-year flood plains. Since areas along bayous were off-limits to construction, the land was free for such recreational uses as parks and bikeways.
After the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the Harris County Flood Control district began to build many more detention areas and collaborate with other governmental bodies and nonprofit groups to build parks and other recreational facilities.
Two serious remaining threats to area waterways are development and non-point source pollution.
Development is a threat to waterways because it can increase deposits of sediment in the river or bayou. Pine Gully, which runs through Seabrook, has filled with sand, which neighbors blame on construction at Bayport, although Bayport disagrees. The San Jacinto River has been named a “Most Endangered River” because upstream sand mining has increased sedimentation in the river. The San Bernard River near Freeport has stopped flowing because of sand.
Non-point source pollution is any pollution for which no one can figure out the source. In the case of bayous, non-point source pollution is anything that washes into the water from lawns, parking lots, and streets. Many people do not realize that material that goes into storm drains ends up in bayous without any intermediate treatment, so that leaking motor oil, lawn treatments, litter, and a variety of other contaminants flow directly into bayous and then into Galveston Bay.
Several groups are working to increase public awareness of this issue. The Harris County Flood Control District, city of Houston, Harris County and Texas Department of Transportation have a joint task force called CleanWater Clear Choice that conducts a public awareness program that includes billboards and stickers to be put on storm drains. Bayou Preservation Association has worked with fast food vendors to cut down littering of fast food packaging.
The year 2005 was productive for bayou preservation and restoration.
The Bayou Preservation Association began a comprehensive clean up of bayous, beginning at their sources. It helped clean up a stretch of White Oak Bayou at Watonga Park – more than 200,000 pounds of trash and obstructions were removed.
The Buffalo Bayou Partnership has completed restoration of the Tapley tributary along Buffalo Bayou. Restoration work on Japhet Creek is underway. Pedestrian walkways along the bayou, a project envisaged when Kathy Whitmire was mayor, are now complete.
All across the region, bayous are being converted from barren, sterile, ditches into inviting places for recreation and nature habitats. The Bayou Preservation Association’s website rates area watersheds on several factors, including suitability for canoeing.