(Pensive and reflective orchestral music) [Mark Kramer] Places like this are living museums.
They're places where we have collections of the original, historic diversity of life.
And really, as coastal residents, that's what we have is an abundance of diversity.
We don't really have topographical features like the Grand Canyon here, we don't have iconic species like the Redwood Forest.
But what we have around us right here is a richness of life that is really hard to duplicate anywhere else.
(Kerplunk of water) [Mark] So not unusual for me on a morning paddle to be able to go out and see American alligators, river otters, brown pelicans, and bald eagles.
Increasingly, it's difficult for us to find any place in Harris County where we can look back at what the land looked like before humans so dramatically altered it.
(Cars whipping by) (Music fades out) (Latch snapping into place) [Mark] Welcome to Armand Bayou.
Glad to have you guys on the boat today.
My name's Mark Kramer, I'm the Conservation Director and Chief Naturalist here at Armand Bayou Nature Center.
(Slow guitar music) [Mark] Armand Bayou is the most beautifully preserved bayou left in the Bayou City.
So, by definition, bayous are short coastal streams.
Most of us growing up in the Houston area are only familiar with the way bayous have been altered.
They haven't really been exposed to what the historic nature of what a bayou would have originally looked like.
Once you come here and have a little bit of background understanding that this bayou is the way those bayous looked before they were so dramatically altered, then it begins to make more sense.
[Mark] If we could go back in time and we could visit the Houston area right at the beginnings of the formation of Houston; it would be a stark, dramatic contrast to what we see today.
Houston primarily was composed of the waterways, but also those bayous were surrounded by these forested areas that line the edges of the bayou.
But the great expanse of the area was actually coastal prairie, grassland.
Many hundreds of thousands of prairie wetlands, forested wetlands, would have dotted the landscape and worked very much like a sponge, so when the rain would fall on the landscape, they would hold water and slowly release it back into the bayou.
[Mark] Well, Houston began to grow pretty significantly.
30's, 40's, 50's, business, industry.
Many, many hundreds of thousands of people began to move to the Houston area and as they did, many of those ecosystem services that the prairies and forested wetlands had were removed.
[Mark] Those wetland sponge effects were replaced by rooftops, roadways, parking lots.
Those are impermeable surfaces, so when it rains those rain waters hit the roofs and roads and they're quickly ushered into the bayou.
One of the things that occurred were more frequent flooding events.
So, for a number of decades the primary tool that we used to mitigate those flood events was the process of channelization - the process of straightening, widening, deepening, and, on occasion, even lining the stream bed of the bayou with concrete.
Bayous were treated exclusively as conduits of water, as ditches and that their only real value was to try to keep water out of our homes by moving it out as quickly as possible.
So, when you look at that, you don't see a productive, beautifully diverse ecosystem.
(Bright guitar music) [Susan Chadwick] I grew up on the bayou, and we used to play on the sandy banks, but I never actually paddled down it until I came back in about 2014; was probably my first trip all the way down.
And I just thought, "There's no way I'm gonna let them kill this river."
(Music fades out) (Birds chirping) [Tom Helm] You know right here, you've got examples of human attempts to control the bank and erosion.
You can see this, this sheet pile wall that's tilted over and you've got these concrete, interlocking blocks that are collapsing and breaking apart.
But what you see quite a bit of is just this random sort of dumping of, of chunks of concrete, you see that all over the place.
(Soft splash) (Guitar music) [Susan] We try to educate people about the danger, the folly, of cutting down the trees and removing the vegetation because it just destabilizes the bank and, and removes wildlife habitats and they're just going to have a lot of problems.
So all of this used to be forested.
You talk about the riparian forest that used to exist, this was all forest, it's called River Oaks for a reason.
[Tom] Now it's interesting, this little section right here has been left natural and it's- they're a bunch of cottonwoods and sycamores and willows that are coming up, and I don't really see any issues, any erosion problems.
Vegetation absorbs so much more water and stabilizes the soil so much better than any engineered solution.
(Music fades out) (Reflective and pensive orchestral music) [Suzanne Simpson] Houston is the Bayou City.
Bayous are a huge reason as to why Houston was founded in the first place.
We are not able to separate ourselves from bayous.
We have to stop viewing bayous as our adversary and start embracing them as our ally.
(music swells) [Suzanne] The main way that Bayou Land Conservancy protects habitat is through conservation easements and conservation easements are a voluntary agreement that says this land is going to remain natural forever.
And by conserving the floodplains of Houston, we are making sure that these habitats that need to be flooded are flooding and not someone's home.
(Traffic noise) [Suzanne] The wetland loss of Houston has been described as "death by a thousand cuts" because it's these little projects that have, over time, taken away our wetland ecosystems.
Preserving places like this and restoring places along our bayou systems, we can turn "death by a thousand cuts" into "life by a thousand pieces".
(Music fades up) (Birds chirping) [Kelli Ondracek] Clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, erosion control, urban heat island effect, preventing flooding.
An ecosystem service is a service that nature provides.
You know, all the benefits that are not given a value that people take for granted because, you know, they're not told about them but they're benefiting from them and when you lose them then that's when you notice that they're gone.
The development of Houston is spreading and so I think it's important that we focus on these areas that we can create habitat.
Parks is a really good, easy first start.
We did the restoration at Milby Park, which we put in over 2,000 trees along the bayou.
We've just decided to create our Riparian Restoration Initiative where we're targeting every park that's adjacent to a bayou to create a riparian buffer.
[Kelli] There's unlimited possibilities for restoration in some of these parks.
And one thing that I've noticed is that some of even these smaller areas, like Milby Park, are very concentrated with wildlife.
Where you go to some of these larger ah, refuges and have to, you know, actively look for wildlife, you go to a city park and it's right there.
(Owl hoots) (Fluttering of bat wings) (Reflective music) [Diana Foss] There are hundreds of species that live along the bayou systems, and one of the most interesting ones, in my opinion, are the Mexican free-tailed bats.
(Chirping of bats) So probably the most famous bat colony in the Houston area is the one that lives in Waugh Drive Bridge, and we have close to 300,000 Mexican free-tailed bats living in the bridge, they live in the crevices.
(Bats chirping) [Diana] They provide a whole food web that goes around that colony.
So you have bats that are providing food for a lot of different species, such as hawks, owls, peregrine falcons, snakes, herons.
And then you also have turtles, fish, things like that, that live in the water of the bayou down below, and they're eating bats and bat guano and things like that.
And then you have the bats that leave the bridge every night and they go out and eat the insects.
They're helping humans by being insect pest control at night.
[Diana] They're also a nature tourism opportunity for people.
So people can come down, spend the evening watching the bats, enjoying being down by the bayou, watching all the different wildlife species interact.
So, it's an economic moneymaker for Houston.
The challenge in urban planning is to consider the needs of both humans and wildlife and the fact that we have to share the space.
[Mark] As a native Houstonian, I believe that bayous really don't get the respect they deserve.
But I think our identity is changing, as the decades go on.
We now identify ourselves as being the Bayou City.
We now are beginning to improve and enhance bayous both ecologically and recreationally.
[Kelli] And I just think that there is a need to create this nature-based infrastructure which has not been focused on before.
[Tom] Look at what we've got here, we've got this wild, natural spot right in the middle town and it's our local waterway that's our connection to the natural world.
It's worth caring about.
[Suzanne] We are just scratching the surface of what urban and wildland interfaces are able to provide.
And it really is eye-opening to see what can coexist with us in a cityscape.
[Diana] And I think in the long run, we have a choice to make.
Do we work with nature to make things better?
Or do we still travel down the same path we've been doing?
We have an opportunity to find a better balance that benefits both people and wildlife.
(Soft flutter of bats) ♪♪