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Citizens’ Environmental Coalition

Houston’s hottest neighborhoods

That’s temperature hot, not realtor hot.

This summer, Houston joins 13 other cities in a massive, community-driven, heat mapping project. More than 80 volunteers like Powers and her son, dubbed “street scientists” by the organizing groups, covered roughly 300 square miles in 32 different polygon-shaped areas.

The project, which is taking place when Houston and Harris County are usually at their hottest, will give scientists, public health officials and community leaders the data necessary to try to cool Houston down. Local leaders hope the heat maps will help direct policy and planning within neighborhoods for things like cooling center locations, greenspace, green rooftops and tree planting. Continuously rising temperatures within cities like Houston can usher in a host of health and environmental problems, and may disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods that tend to have less green infrastructure.

As the third largest county in the nation, Harris County’s efforts represent one of the biggest single-day community-led heat mapping events ever held. Scientists say Houston heat mapping has been done before, but this appears to be the first that will provide readily available, comprehensive data.

“This is something that, frankly, is a little bit overdue,” said Jaime González, Houston Healthy Cities program director at The Nature Conservancy in Texas, one of organizations participating in the project.

Indeed, last August was Houston’s second hottest on record, and experts predict it will continue to get hotter this year. By 2065, the number of days above a heat index — which is how hot it feels outside with added humidity — of 105 degrees is predicted to septuple. Houston is already at least 13 degrees hotter than nearby rural areas, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, and increasing temperatures put undue pressure on power grids.

Houston is undeniably hot, but some areas may be hotter than others. Infrastructure — treeless tracts, packed concrete apartment blocks, busy streets — can create conditions that could result in pockets with higher temperatures. Studies show that temperature discrepancies within a city can differ by 15 to 20 degrees, with more extreme heat often occurring in lower-income neighborhoods.

These heat maps will show quantitative data about urban neighborhoods, and specifically, which ones are more directly impacted by extreme heat.

This is a serious matter of public health, and it’s something that can be addressed by public policy if there’s sufficient data to inform that policy. The simple act of planting trees where they are most needed helps. Let me tell you, as someone who is responsible for walking a dog every day, I am very grateful to live in a neighborhood with a real tree canopy, because it’s the only thing that keeps me from turning into a pile of soot and ash on these brutally hot July and August days. Everyone should have such an amenity available to them. This is also a reality of climate change, in that our failure to address the causes of global warming means we have to take action to try to mitigate its effects, so we can live with them. I hope this effort is a great success.

(I should note that the “Powers” mentioned in the first paragraph of the excerpt is my friend and neighbor Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. Nicely done!)

Ballot order drawn

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Here is the official ballot order for City of Houston candidates this November, via Chron reporter Mike Morris on Twitter. You’re all familiar with my rant about ballot order by now – we have electronic voting machines, they should simply randomize the ballot order for each voter – so I’ll just skip it and move on. Whether anyone’s ballot position ultimately makes a difference or not – I sure hope it doesn’t, but I wouldn’t bet on it – we’ll have to wait and see. All I know is that in any field with more than four candidates, I’d rather be first or last than anywhere in between.

This would be a short entry if this were all I had to say, so in the interest of filling out a proper length, here are two announcements about candidate forums. On Monday, Mental Health America of Greater Houston is hosting a Mayoral forum on behavioral health, a topic I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard much about in this election. The Houston Police Department has one of the only Mental Health Divisions in the entire country, so this is an issue that needs some public discussion. MHA of Greater Houston, NAMI of Greater Houston, the Council on Recovery, and the Houston Recovery Initiative are partnered for this event. That’s this Monday, August 31, at 6:30 PM at the University of St. Thomas, Jones Hall, 3910 Yoakum – see here for details.

Want a forum for candidates other than Mayoral candidates? On Thursday, September 3, you can attend a forum on environmental issues for At Large Council candidates, brought to you by the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, League of Women Voters of Houston, and over 20 cosponsors representing environmental organizations in the Houston region, including Hermann Park Conservancy. The event is at 6 PM at the Cherie Flores Pavilion in Hermann Park, and it will be moderated by yours truly. It’s free and open to the public – see here for details. Don’t leave me hanging, come on out and hear what the candidates have to say.

Fix those leaks

We lost a lot of water this year, which seems like an especially undesirable thing during a record drought.

At the peak of this year’s record drought, the city of Houston lost more than 18 billion gallons of water through a system that was leaking like a sieve, amounting to tens of millions of dollars wasted in potential revenue.

The largest losses occurred in September and October, when more than 9 billion gallons — about one-fourth of all the water produced during those two months — leaked from a system riddled by countless pipe breaks, according to recently released city records.

“Water is a valuable resource, and we’re blowing it right and left,” said Katie Molina, general manager of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in Houston. “We have to ask why we have so many leaks. Is it all drought-related, or did we let our infrastructure fall into such a state of disrepair that it is now coming back to haunt us?”

There’s some dispute in the story over how much this represented in lost revenue to the city, but I’m less interested in that as I am in how much it represented in lost capacity. The city is looking at tapping into new sources of water to help meet future demand driven by population growth. I’d like to know what the growth curve looks like if we lost a minimal amount of water to leakage, instead of the 18% we apparently lost over the course of the year. Granted, this was surely a worse year than usual for water main breaks, but the point is that we plan our capacity based on peak needs, and higher loss levels factor into that. How much capacity will we really need to add if we take steps to ensure we actually get all that we pump? That’s a question for which I’d like to see a more definitive answer.