Frequently asked questions!
"Why paddle on Buffalo Bayou? Wouldn't you rather go somewhere else?" Buffalo Bayou may have flaws, but it is Houston's hometown stream right here in our backyard. We can be on the water in less than 30 minutes. Contrast that with a minimum three hour drive to the hill country, or literally days to get to some exotic destination elsewhere. You simply can't beat the convenience of what we have right here at home, so let's make the best of it!
"What about snakes and alligators? Will they try to bite me?" We have lots of wildlife in and along Buffalo Bayou, including the aforementioned snakes and alligators, however none of these creatures will act aggressively unless you try to capture them. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. Meanwhile, instead of worrying about snakebites, enjoy the views of great blue herons, white egrets, hawks, turtles, wood ducks, songbirds, beavers, damselflies, etc.
"What about all that trash that we see in the bayou, on the banks, and in the trees?" There is trash in the bayou, and unfortunately quite a bit of it gets snagged in trees during flood events. The vast majority of this trash you see in the bayou got there due to the fact that multiple tributary streams and stormwater tunnels, draining many square miles north and south of the river, empty into Buffalo Bayou. Every time some thoughtless litterbug throws a plastic bottle or bag onto a Houston street, or into the ditch behind an apartment complex, guess where it will most likely end up?
"Why is the bayou so brown and gross looking?" The land in southeast Texas is mostly unconsolidated fine sand, silt, and clay, so flowing water will pick up this loose sediment and transport it downstream. The finer silts and clays can remain in suspension for days or longer, thus giving the bayou its "muddy" appearance. Contrast this to streams in the hill country (like the Guadalupe River), which flow through limestone, and thus APPEAR to be cleaner...BUT... streams like the Guadalupe and San Marcos flow through cattle ranching country, and have cow poop in them! Think about that next time you drive three hours to go tubing!
"What about sewage, isn't the bayou horribly polluted?" There are several sewage treatment plants along Buffalo Bayou downstream of Barker dam. And yes, as recently as the 1970's there did used to be untreated sewage that was dumped into the bayou (thus the inspiration for the "Reeking Regatta" canoe race, now known as the Buffalo Bayou regatta). However untreated sewage dumping was stopped by federal law in the late 70's and 1980's, and so now the treatment plants that do empty into the bayou are producing cleaned water. During extreme flood events, raw sewage can get into the bayou, but the natural flow of the river flushes it out in a matter of days. And, we don't have cattle ranching along the bayou (see above)! In summary, I wouldn't recommend drinking the bayou water, but it's probably safe to get your feet wet.
About Buffalo Bayou
Buffalo Bayou is a natural river that has existed in or near its current location since the end of the last ice age, approximately 12,000 years ago. Prior to that time, the distributary streams of the Brazos River delta have meandered and crisscrossed the Houston region for at least the past 100,000 years. This deltaic depositional history, coupled with multiple cycles of sea level rise and fall tied to Pleistocene glaciation, has left behind thick deposits of mixed fluvial, estuarine, and marine sediments. The evidence can be observed in the sandstones and clays of the Pleistocene Beaumont formation, with frequent outcrops along the bayou's banks.
In the early 20th century, Buffalo Bayou meandered through a landscape of wild prairie and riparian forest dotted with small farms, as can be seen on the 1915 USGS topographic maps. In contrast, only 100 years later, the 21st century version of Buffalo Bayou has been almost completely surrounded by urbanization. Much of its watershed and tributary streams are now covered with impermeable concrete, which increased the volume of stormwater runoff into the bayou and resulted in a higher frequency of destructive flooding events. Overbuilding in the upstream portion of the watershed, which accelerated dramatically in the late 20th century (scroll through Google Earth historical images for the progression), happened due to a complete lack of city planning, and was (and still is) facilitated by a complicit unwillingness by government authorities to control rampant suburban development. Political conflict regarding this issue continues to increase, with long established landowner interests inside of the the 610 loop and Beltway 8 pitted against the West Houston suburban development industry. The destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 generated much discussion about addressing the issue, including proposals to build a new flood control reservoir, government buy-outs of flooded properties, and putting a hard stop to all west side and flood plain development until a true flood control solution can be implemented. However, these solutions will cost, at a minimum, tens of billions of public dollars and significant political strife.
Meanwhile, in the midst of flooding events and political hubris, Buffalo Bayou continues to be a public navigable stream along its entire length upstream of the ship channel turning basin, from Katy, through downtown Houston, and down to Wayside Drive. Several reaches of the bayou were straightened by flood control projects in the 1940's, 50's and 60's, however several significant relatively unaltered reaches remain. The bayou's headwaters are in the rice fields and prairies of Waller and Fort Bend counties, with the three main tributary branches merging to form Buffalo Bayou in the city of Katy. After a few miles of original meanders below downtown Katy, a channelized reach of bayou traverses the Fort Bend county suburbs, but then resumes meandering in the wilderness of the Barker Reservoir downstream of Westheimer Parkway. The next straightened section goes from the Barker Dam spillway at Highway 6 to Beltway 8 and flows through Terry Hershey Park. From BW8 to Shepherd, however, the bayou retains much of its meandering wild natural quality (especially through Memorial Park), although plenty of attempts by landowners to reinforce their bayou frontage against natural river processes are plainly visible. Downstream from Shepherd, the bayou is mostly straightened all the way through downtown, but it still retains a certain appeal, especially when views of Houston's iconic skyline come into view, or when watching the hundreds of thousands of bats emerging at sunset from beneath the Waugh bridge. Downstream from the confluence with White Oak Bayou at Allen's Landing, the bayou becomes wider and slower, and is affected by the tides coming in from Galveston Bay. Below downtown, over the course of the next several miles, the bayou gradually becomes the Houston Ship Channel, and then flows through the next 20 miles of shipping terminals and refineries to the confluence with the San Jacinto and Trinity rivers, and then to the head of Galveston Bay at Morgan's Point.