Brays Bayou/Mason Park Project Earns National Acclaim

Tom Harvey, 512-389-4453,

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HOUSTON — A created freshwater/tidal marsh beside Brays Bayou at Mason Park on Houston's east side has claimed several regional environmental awards and is also featured in Building Better II, a Sierra Club report profiling 10 outstanding examples of innovative and environmentally sensitive ways to manage stormwater.

The 3.5-acre Brays Bayou Wetland Partnership at Houston’s Mason Park recently received a Gulf Guardian Award from the Gulf of Mexico Program, a non-regulatory, inclusive partnership formed by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a broad geographic focus on the major environmental issues in the Gulf.

The project began in 2001 when the Harris County Flood Control District was planning to widen Brays Bayou at Mason Park and met with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff to discuss environmental impacts. The flood control district welcomed the TPWD idea to create wetlands in conjunction with the project.

The department then sought and received an EPA grant to develop the biological design and collect and grow marsh plants for the project. Department employees also designed and placed educational signage for park visitors viewing the storm water treatment and wildlife habitat marsh. Employees worked with a variety of partner groups to bring the multi-year project to fruition.

Many partners were brought in, including the Texas A&M University system. Their Texas Coastal Watershed Program had already received a grant from the Galveston Bay Estuary Program to develop a wetlands for stormwater clean-up demonstration project and they ended up not only developing the hydrologic design of the wetlands, but also leading the effort to bring in community volunteers to collect, propagate and install plants for the marsh. More than a dozen agencies and organizations ended up participating in the project.

“Some of the value of the project has also been in bringing all these different parties together,” said John Jacob of the Coastal Watershed Program. “The path has been laid for future collaborative work.”

The Mason Park project features both a stormwater treatment and a tidal wetland. Stormwater runoff is a major cause of water pollution because it picks up toxic chemicals from streets and other paved areas and carries them into waterways. Also, sewer overflows associated with poor stormwater management can carry untreated sewage into streams and bayous. The tidal wetlands were designed to not only clean water flowing in Brays Bayou, but also provide habitat to herons, egrets, ospreys, and many types of marine animals such as white shrimp and blue crabs.

TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division had sampled near the site and found that a surprisingly high number of shrimp has moved up into Houston’s bayous in recent years and wanted to provide some additional habitat at the site for marine organisms.

A variety of plants were introduced to help remove pollutants from stormwater that flows into the marsh from a nearby neighborhood. Marissa Sipocz, a coastal restoration specialist with the Texas Coastal Watershed Program in the Houston area, said that the plants were chosen to tolerate some salinity, to be able to recover from destruction by nutria and carp, and for their attractiveness.

"I chose some plants with showy flowers or seeds, like irises, swamp and spider lilies, and bull rushes,” Sipocz said. “Something is interesting in every season." Sipocz said the plants were gathered from wetlands within 50 miles of the site. “It is important to use field collected plants to maintain genetic integrity,” Sipocz said.

High school students from Chavez and Austin High Schools were major participants in the project. Working with Texas Master Naturalists and the Park People, the students helped collect wetland plants, took care of them until the area was ready, and then, sometimes working in waist-deep water, helped plant them.

Sipocz said that the area was planted in stages from October of 2005 through this past September. As expected, many of the first plants were eaten by animals, but, "like we planned, the plants came back from stubs," she said.

"We have already measured improvements in water quality," Sipocz said. She estimated the value of donated services for the project at at least $2 million.

The wetland was officially dedicated on October 27, 2006. It includes interpretive signage to educate visitors about the project’s environmental benefits.

Eric Olson, the Sierra Club staffer who selected the projects featured in Building Better II, said that the Houston project was noteworthy for several reasons.

"We liked it because it returned nature to an urban area, because it involved so many community groups, and because it is a model that can be replicated elsewhere," Olson said.

The Sierra Club report also mentions other projects from the flood control district that begin to reverse years of environmental damage to area waterways.

Earlier this year, Harris County Flood Control District, Texas Cooperative Extension/Texas Sea Grant, and the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department also won The Park People's Partnership Award for their efforts on the project.

The project also recently received a Gold Medal award from The Texas Council of Engineering Companies for “Exploring New Horizons in Storm Water Management.”