Maybe we shouldn’t pave over our best rain-absorbing wetlands

Just a thought. Even just paving over less of them might be wise.

At the far west end of Houston along the Katy Freeway, where the concrete city gives way to bigger sky and taller grass, signs advertising new master-planned communities greet you before anything else, pointing left and right to new neighborhoods going up where prairie used to be.

While Harris County officials say the new development is not happening in the floodplain — since it is built atop mounds of fill — and will not increase flood risk downstream because of drainage requirements, such as detention ponds, the fact remains that development covers the prairie sponge with concrete.

Prairies serve as natural flood mitigation, absorbing more water than other types of land, retaining water in their natural depressions and slowing down the flow with their tall grasses.

The Houston region used to be covered in that type of vegetation, back when the state’s coastal prairie was 9 million acres of grass and wetlands. Less than 1 percent of coastal prairie remains in Texas, much of it in the Katy prairie — an area difficult to define these days since it continues to shrink, but in the 1990s was roughly bounded by the Brazos River, U.S. 290, Highway 6 and Interstate 10.

After Hurricane Harvey, then-Harris County Judge Ed Emmett took a strong position on the prairie in an opinion piece published in the Houston Chronicle.

“Officials at all levels should commit to preserving the Katy Prairie as a national or state park or nature preserve,” Emmett wrote. “That single act might do more to protect our community than any other. It will not only reduce future flooding, it will send a clear signal that we have a new attitude — that we recognize the value of maximizing natural green space and we understand the importance of allowing waterways to function without interference.”

That has not happened.

In the five years since Harvey, thousands of new homes have been built on the prairie and former rice farms above the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.

The reservoirs operated as intended in Harvey, but homes upstream and downstream of Addicks flooded anyway, prompting lawsuits that still are being litigated. The flooded homes were not a surprise to those who predicted development within the reservoir and upstream of it — combined with extreme rainfall — would lead to disaster.

Today’s new development continues a trend that has been underway for decades.

Between 2010 and 2020, nearly 100,000 people moved into the Harris County portion of the Addicks Reservoir watershed — a 138-square-mile area that drains into the reservoir — increasing the population there from 295,694 to 390,402, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.

In the Katy prairie area, from 2001 to 2019, 60,404 acres changed from having no pavement to some amount of development.

You can read the rest, there are lots of pictures from Harvey and earlier times to help you visualize it all. Harris County took some small steps towards discouraging development in flood plains, but as long as the county is growing and builders are looking for new tracts of land on which to build, this is what we’re gonna get.

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6 Responses to Maybe we shouldn’t pave over our best rain-absorbing wetlands

  1. D.R. says:

    It appears people would rather build over prairie and risk flooding than send their children to HISD schools.

  2. Ross says:

    There are no easy solutions on this. State law limits what counties can do, and a county that even tried to stop a large MPC would quickly find itself in court.

    There is some truth to what D.R. says about people not wanting to live in HISD, but they also want a larger home with a yard and MPOC amenities, which aren’t available in the inner city. It’s not all about cost, either, since the property tax rates in HISD are lower than anywhere else in Harris County, with some areas being more than a dollar higher.

    The biggest thing the County can do is require massive amounts of water retention, perhaps require that every development be able to retain Harvey levels of water for slow release.

  3. C.L. says:

    Trying to remember what ‘Astrodome Ed’ Emmett did to prevent that from taking place during the 12 years he was HC Judge….

  4. Joel says:

    DR: That almost sounds less racist than simply saying “white flight.” Almost.

  5. Mainstream says:

    Joel: There is no doubt a racial element to my neighbors leaving the Heights when their children get old enough to enter school, or they enroll them in private schools, but it is more complex than that. A substantial number of Hispanics and blacks are moving to Cy-Fair and Klein and Katy for the same reasons, and even within HISD I see cases of a parent using the address of a relative to enroll a black or Hispanic child in a school perceived as being better than the one in their true neighborhood. As a product of public schools, it distresses me to see the increasing and negative perceptions of anything public: public schools, public health, public transit, public free roads, etc.

  6. Joel says:

    Indeed. I teach in those schools. While there is certainly anecdotal evidence that white people aren’t the only ones leaving public schools, it is a statistical fact that people of color are disproportionately the ones left.
    Which … is also the perception that leads certain folks to think negatively about public things.
    It is also simply true that public things do suck these days, ironically due to chronic underfunding by these same racists. So, they’ve won, basically. The only defensible response, IMHO, is stick it out nonetheless.

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