On the Eve of a Storm: An Update on Sims Bayou

Houstonians have all heard of Sims Bayou, but have you ever wondered where its name comes from and why it’s a significant part of our urban landscape?

Sims Bayou flows east to northeast for 28 miles from the Fort Bend County line at Beltway 8 in Missouri City past Hobby Airport and meets Buffalo Bayou in the Houston Ship Channel.

Sims Bayou. Photo courtesy SWA Group
Sims Bayou. Photo courtesy SWA Group

The bayou is named after Bartlett Sims, a surveyor under Stephen F. Austin, who worked to establish a colony in Texas for Mexico. Sims ultimately became a member of the Old 300 – one of the first pioneers in Texas – and legend has it he was also one of the founding members of the Texas Rangers.

Bartlett owned the title to property in what is now Wharton County and Bastrop County, but chances are he never expected one of Houston’s most important watersheds would be named after him.

During Harris County’s earliest development, the local bayou system was used to send rafts and small boats of timber and other supplies throughout the county, as railroads had not yet been laid in Houston. The boats would have to be carefully maneuvered into the smaller bayous, creeks and tributaries, including what came to be called Sims Bayou. Settlers relied on the area’s bayous for water, irrigation and hunting, as well as transportation.

Today Sims Bayou remains an important ecosystem for Texas native wildlife (including several varieties of owls and hawks), but it’s an especially important tool for flood control. Over the years, the federal government, Harris County Flood District and Army Corps of Engineers have all added elements to Sims Bayou, including two different types of ponds that allow wildlife to find refuge during heavy rain and flooding.

Sims Bayou plan. Photo courtesy of SWA Group
Sims Bayou plan. Photo courtesy of SWA Group

Heavy and rapid water flowing down the Sims caused by man-made drainage systems can scrape along the sides of the bayou, destroying natural habitats like native grasses and nests, taking wildlife with it to the ship channel. Engineering projects after the Civil War included dredging and widening the bayou at certain points in order to better control drainage and flow.

Today, several thousand homes flank the north and south sides of the Sims Bayou along its course. The bayou has also had “shelves” installed in some points to decrease the chance of flooding the surrounding neighborhoods. Unfortunately, as Houstonians well know, the bayous can’t always save residents from several inches of torrential rain. While man-made retention ponds help keep the water from cresting and flowing into neighborhoods, flooding still continues to plague many parts of Houston, including some neighborhoods that border Sims Bayou.

More than a century ago, Houston urban planner Arthur Comey, a key designer in building Houston as it stands today, developed the first comprehensive plan for parks throughout Houston with a focus on our bayous. His proposed plan of 1912 is the foundation today for Houston’s bayou-improvement project called Greenways 2020.

The Greenways 2020 project is funded by public and private organizations and individuals. When complete, Greenways 2020 will have improved more than 3,000 acres of waterfront area on and around the 150 miles of flowing bayous in Houston.

During the ongoing installation of trails of the Greenways 2020 project, you might have noticed that volunteers and workers are digging up many trees and shrubs – specifically Chinese tallow and Chinese privet. That’s part of the plan. These invasive non-native species are detrimental to the health of native wildlife living in Sims Bayou. The plants carry a lot of copper within their roots, which the insects of the area don’t like too much. When the bugs leave, the birds follow.

Chinese tallow is such an aggressive tree that a tallow forest could, conceivably, take over Texas wetlands and native flora species in less than 10 years. Thanks to Trees for Houston, 1,400 native trees are being donated to the Greenways 2020 project. Houstonians can expect to see 14 trees planted per acre during the construction of Greenways 2020. In specific areas where trees cannot be grown (for engineering purposes, for example), you’ll see native grasses being planted instead.

The Sims Bayou watershed flows along six Houston public parks, and the beautification and improvement of pedestrian and cycling pathways will enhance the mental and physical quality of life for nearby residents in the years to come. The cherry on the sundae: The new Houston Botanic Garden, currently being developed, is set right on the banks of Sims Bayou near I-45.

Want to volunteer or raise funds for Greenways 2020? Join the Houston Parks Board.

To learn about the ribbon cutting following the completion of the first part of Sims Bayou’s Greenway 2020 project, click here.