Standing on the edge of a crumbling bank of Buffalo Bayou near Memorial Park, Susan Chadwick surveys the damage with a certain grim satisfaction. Having long insisted that the natural bayou could weather any storm, she now has her proof. Harvey damaged the banks, yes, but didn’t destroy them.
“We were right,” she says. “It’s taken a beating, but it’s already coming back.” Half a year after the storm, wild violets and soft clover have sprung up near the water, and, Chadwick adds, she’s spotted wildlife—everything from turtles to cranes and even a family of otters—taking up residence once again.
As the executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, a nonprofit focused on preventing the Harris County Flood Control District from deforesting and channelizing one of the last relatively untouched stretches of the ancient waterway, Chadwick has spent the last four years trying to get people to understand the bayou and to leave it alone, arguing, essentially, that messing with it would lead to needless destruction and only make flooding worse.
Chadwick grew up on Buffalo Bayou. Her parents had a home in Riverbend that backed up to the water, which she loved to traipse along as a kid. “It was a huge part of my childhood,” she remembers. “We played down there all the time. That was how I first grew to know it and love it, by spending so much time on those banks.”
Her path to becoming its protector, though, was a winding one. Chadwick studied philosophy at Barnard College—despite the pleas of her shipping-executive father, who wanted her to study something more useful, like economics—before becoming a journalist and, eventually, landing back home as the art critic for the Houston Post, a job she held until the paper abruptly shut down in 1995.
Then, having made some money in the stock market, she decided to take off for Paris to write her novel. “If the book had been good enough to be published and sell millions of copies,” she says wryly, “I wouldn’t be here now.”
She returned to Houston in 2014, after more than a decade away, and ran into an old neighbor she’d known growing up in Riverbend, Frank Smith. Smith was one of a crew of Houston environmentalists including local legend Terry Hershey who, during the 1960s, fought the flood control district’s plans to pave over the banks of Buffalo Bayou alongside Memorial Park, and won.
More than half a century later, Smith was back at it, fighting over proposed changes to that same stretch. Scientists had learned some things since the ’60s—in particular, that concreting over portions of Houston’s bayous had been a mistake, as it caused water to move more quickly and forcefully, creating problems downstream.
Now, however, HCFCD officials had another plan. Having concluded that the sandy natural banks of the bayou were unstable, they wanted to use a controversial method of river restoration called “natural channel design” to fix them, in a $6 million project backed by the City of Houston and the River Oaks Country Club. The proposed Memorial Park Demonstration Project would peel back the banks of the city’s last remaining un-channelized portions of the bayou and lay in stacks of logs, locking the embankments into place.
Flood control engineers maintained that the rebuilt banks would better handle water rushing down from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs during a major flood. But opponents including Smith insisted that the bayou banks were fine as they were, that in fact, if a big rain event followed too closely on the project’s heels, water released from the dams west of the city would blow out the entire structure, leaving the banks naked, crumbling, and in need of paving over.
Smith and a group of other environmentalists had decided to found a nonprofit to protect the bayou, and he asked Chadwick to run it. “I just wanted to save the river,” Chadwick says, explaining why she got involved. “I felt like I couldn’t let them kill it. We have this beautiful, thoroughly living river, and it’s a magnificent thing.”
Chadwick reacquainted herself with the waterway on foot and by boat, reading everything she could get her hands on and calling up experts across the country with her questions. She began to write regular posts at SaveBuffaloBayou.org, delving into everything from the bayou’s history and ecology, to the latest on the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
The approach worked, for a while. Then, in April 2017, three years after the application was submitted, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers quietly granted the required permits. Chadwick had lost. She churned out more posts warning of the fallout that would result when the bulldozers started to cut away trees and plants that had held the bayou together for countless years.
But before things got started, Harvey swept in, sending millions of gallons of rain thundering down Buffalo Bayou and causing water to bubble up and over its banks, including, of course, the ones alongside Memorial Park that had been declared unstable. Yet these fared better than other portions: While messy, with downed trees and embankments that had tumbled into the water and downstream, the unaltered banks soon began to mend themselves.
“It’s a part of the process,” Chadwick explains. “It’s been going through this for thousands of years. Trees fall in, and the banks alter, and that’s what happens. If they’d been able to put in the logs and tear everything down the way they wanted, nothing would be here now. But it’s still here.”
Currently, the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is on the back shelf. The price already had doubled to more than $12 million before Harvey, and now, the banks have changed enough that the county would have to conduct its engineering tests all over again. Chadwick believes the thing is effectively dead.
Not that her work is over. “The threat is almost greater than before, because now people are talking about trying to channelize the whole bayou,” she says. “The Memorial Park Demonstration Project was one very dangerous project, but now we’re focusing on how they manage all of our bayous and streams. It’s all connected.”