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Katy Prairie

Of course we could have done more on flood mitigation before now

From the Chron: Harris County faces challenge, opportunity managing $2.5B flood bond program. I want to focus on this bit.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, estimates the bond program will complete a third of the flood protection measures Harris County needs. He said leadership from the incoming Commissioners Court, which now will be dominated by Democrats and include a new county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, will be essential to getting the county the rest of the way.

“We are in a good position, but it’s not an end position,” Blackburn said. “It’s the beginning for the conversation that needs to occur, which is, ‘where are we headed?’”

[…]

The flood control district has issued bonds several times to pay for improvements, including $425 million in the 1980s, but by the 1990s was spending half its revenue on debt service. The district downsized its workforce and opted to pay for future projects up front, which significantly decreased the county’s investment in flood protection to around $15 million per year.

In 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison flooded 73,000 county homes, Harris County significantly increased the district’s funding to $120 million, split evenly between operations and capital projects. That annual sum has remained the same since then, its purchasing power diminished each year by inflation.

Blackburn said Commissioners Court and local members of Congress during this period focused too narrowly on building transportation infrastructure to keep pace with rapid population growth, at the expense of flood control.

“We were, basically, more interested in building the Grand Parkway than we were in fixing Addicks and Barker,” Blackburn said, referring to the west Houston reservoirs the Army Corps listed in 2009 among the most dangerous in the country.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged in September that the county could have done more on flood protection in the decade before Harvey, but said he doubted the public would have supported a bond to pay for it.

“Sure, you could say the leader is supposed to get out in front,” Emmett said. “But people were not writing me saying we’ve got to raise taxes and do more for flood control.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, the longest-serving member of the court, predicted a flood bond proposal during the dry years of the 2010s would have gone down in “sizzling defeat.” He rejected the idea that commissioners erred by neglecting to increase the district’s budget in the past.

“There are people who believe we’ve underfunded indigent health care, underfunded roads, underfunded basically every single thing,” he said. “You’ll never be able to make everyone happy.”

In the nine years between Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey, Commissioners Court kept the flood control district property tax rate at roughly 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than 5 percent of the overall county tax rate. That figure omits about 2 cents the county carries on its books in the form of debt service on old flood control bonds.

The rate devoted to flood control was two and a half times higher from 1995 through 2000; it took until this year for rising property values to let the district collect more in property taxes — its main revenue source — than it did in 2000.

It was not until Harvey, the wettest storm researchers have ever documented in the United States, that Commissioners Court members saw the urgency in funding the flood control district.

Would it have been difficult to sell a flood control bond ten or fifteen years ago, after Allison but before we started getting walloped on an annual basis? Probably, but you know, Commissioners Court could have tried. They could have engaged with the public about the need to take flood control seriously, and upgrade and improve our infrastructure to do it, and they could have done that even outside the context of a two-month political campaign for a bond. They could have supported other policies that would have boosted flood control efforts. And if they had done these things and encountered resistance, and maybe lost a flood bond referendum and even put their own political careers in jeopardy, well, that’s the nature of public service. As John Culberson can testify, there are downside risks to not taking that kind of action.

Also, too: People, such as Jim Blackburn, have been warning for decades that rampant sprawl into the western and northwestern parts of the county, and the paving over of the Katy Prairie that accommodated it, were bad for flood control. We could have made different choices, including choices that allowed for growth but prioritized growth in a more sustainable fashion. The fact that we’re getting the bill for it now doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taken action then.

Also, too, too: I’ve said this before, but maybe these stories should include reactions and quotes and whatnot from our incoming county executives? You know, the ones who are going to have to take the next steps in this process? Just a thought.

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.

Remember the Katy Prairie

From the four things we could have done differently to maybe mitigate some of the worst effects of Harvey:

Preserve and restore as much prairie land as possible

Much of northwest Houston used to be covered in prairie land, where tall grasses could absorb huge amounts of floodwater. But most of it has been paved over in the past two decades amid rapid development and a massive influx of people. Between 2000 and 2010, this part of Houston grew by nearly 70 percent to a population of 587,142 — equivalent to that of Milwaukee. Restoring or preserving prairie can’t prevent flooding altogether, but it can be a tremendous help in mitigating the damage.

Some local officials flat-out disagree with this conclusion; they believe you can erect public works projects to catch and manage runoff — essentially fighting water with concrete — and don’t need more green space.

But the vast majority of scientists believe the region needs to impose stricter regulations on those who want to develop prairie land.

Just a reminder, because I see some variation of this – some more egregious than others – in every story like this one: The vast majority of this development and growth is outside the city of Houston. It affects the city of Houston, but there’s literally nothing the city could have done about it because it’s outside the city’s borders and ETJ. In the case of this story, I would note that while “the region” may need to impose stricter regulations on development, there is no “regional” authority to do that.

Now, let’s be honest enough to admit that even if we had all the green space we had thirty years ago, there’s only so much to be done about nine trillion gallons of water being dumped on you. A storm this size was always going to be a catastrophe, it just might have been a slightly smaller one if we had been smarter and perhaps a bit luckier. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can be more specific about just what paved over these former wetlands.

Torrential rains that flooded hundreds of northwest Harris County homes last week reinforced long-standing worries that development on the Katy Prairie could make future floods more frequent or more severe.

Development encouraged by a planned segment of the Grand Parkway connecting Interstate 10 to U.S. 290 threatens to diminish the environmentally sensitive prairie’s capacity to absorb floodwaters, said Jim Blackburn, an attorney representing the Sierra Club in two related lawsuits.

“The Katy Prairie, for decades, has been our sponge,” Blackburn said, noting that the prairie also provides valuable wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Tension between development interests and environmental and neighborhood groups surfaced in the Sierra Club’s 2007 lawsuit challenging flood plain maps for the Cypress Creek watershed, which encompasses the area where last week’s floods were most severe. The organization has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the parkway.

The developers of the Bridgeland master-planned community intervened in the case last year, seeking to prevent an expansion of flood plain boundaries that would require the company to take expensive steps to offset increased runoff downstream.

An executive of Bridgeland GP, the company developing the 11,400-acre community, said in a Jan. 9, 2008, affidavit that the revisions sought by the Sierra Club would cost the company $28 million in flood mitigation measures that would “adversely affect” the development.

Despite the company’s efforts, the maps are being redrawn under U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s supervision. Rosenthal has stayed the lawsuit until October to allow time to complete the maps, but officials said they aren’t certain when the task will be finished.

Preliminary revised maps shown to the Houston Chronicle by Blackburn and the Harris County Flood Control District show a significant expansion of the flood plain in an undeveloped western segment of Bridgeland’s property and a reduction of the flood plain in other areas.

That story is from 2009. Here’s one from 2011:

Over the decades, this 1,000 square mile sanctuary has largely survived the encroachment of farmers and relentless development pressure from neighboring Houston, thanks in no small part to its dedicated supporters.

But the Katy Prairie has never faced a opponent like the Grand Parkway before. Piece by piece, the Houston area has been building a third — yes, third — bypass for the region. And much to the horror of local environmentalists, the next segment is planned to directly bisect this extraordinary habitat.

Development of this pristine land isn’t just collateral damage — it’s the point of the project. Project sponsors make no bones about it: The 15.2-mile Grand Parkway segment through Katy Prairie is a $462 million development project as much as it is a transportation project. Known as “Segment E,” it would be the third phase in a 180-mile “scenic bypass” for Houston. Each of the 11 segments is considered a separate and “independently justifiable project.”

Billy Burge of the Grand Parkway Association says right now there isn’t much need for Segment E, in terms of traffic. Burge and his colleagues don’t shy away from the fact that the project will generate more car trips and sprawl. In fact, they have what you might call a “build it and they will come” philosophy about road-building and traffic.

“There’s real demand in 15 to 17 years to have this,” said Burge, who chairs the association overseeing the project for the state and the region. “Once that link is completed, you’ll have a steady stream of traffic.”

To hear Burge and his colleagues at TexDOT and Harris County tell it, they are simply trying to get out ahead of what they see as inevitable: sprawl, on top of sprawl, on top of sprawl. But not in a bad way, they say.

“It will increase sprawl but that’s really the reason people come to Houston: to have a big house and a big yard,” said Burge. “You can call it sprawl, or you can call it quality of life.”

If you want to see what will likely replace the switchgrass and wildflowers of Katy, look to the Bridgeland development. This massive, 12,000-acre “new urbanism” development, where homes sell from $160,000 to north of $1 million, stalled in the real estate crisis. Since then, developers have stepped up pressure on local authorities to bring forward highway infrastructure needed to jump start sales.

Anything that we can do to protect and restore the Katy Prairie going forward, we must do. I hope that the scarring experience of Harvey will put enough political pressure on the people who can do something about this to take action. But one thing we can’t do is decide not to build the Grand Parkway. It’s too late for that.

Have we reached a tipping point on flood mitigation?

That’s a question that is alluded to but not directly addressed in this story.

“This is how the land is supposed to act,” said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust. “It’s supposed to absorb water and filter out pollutants. It’s not supposed to send it roaring into the rivers and bayous and homes.”

In the greater Houston area, though, the staggering increase of impervious surfaces — roads, sidewalks, parking lots, anything covered with asphalt and concrete — has exacerbated the effects of flooding as development in the region has exploded. When land is covered by these surfaces, it loses ability to act like a sponge and soak up water. Things are further complicated in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, where much of the soil is heavily compacted and acts like pavement anyway, sending sheets of storm water to the nearest low-lying area.

A recent analysis of federal satellite data by the Houston Advanced Research Council for the Houston Chronicle shows that 337,000 acres of 1.1 million acres in Harris County were covered by impervious surfaces in 2011, the most recent year of data. That dwarfs surrounding counties, but the analysis shows many are catching up as the onslaught of development continues pushing from the city farther into the suburbs.

Between 2001 and 2011, Fort Bend County, for example, had a 53 percent increase in impervious surfaces, more than twice the percentage increase in Harris County during the same period. Waller County, home to much of the Katy Prairie, saw a 17 percent increase.

That kind of development comes with a price, namely the loss of the region’s natural landscape, including wetlands, prairies, coastal marshlands and forests, and thereby a greater risk of flooding. Even with federal regulations in place to preserve wetlands, the 14-county Houston region lost more than 54,000 acres of wetlands between 1996 and 2010, according to HARC’s analysis.

“Pitiful,” said John Jacob, a Texas A&M University professor and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.

As large tracts of undeveloped land have been transformed by new roads, homes and businesses, city and county planners have relied almost exclusively on detention basins — often referred to as detention ponds — to solve the water runoff problem created by the region’s vast asphalt and concrete surfaces.

Detention basins are man-made structures designed to capture storm-water runoff and temporarily store it. Harris County first began requiring them of developers in the early 1980s, and neighboring counties quickly followed. Today, each county in the region has hundreds of the ponds, both dry and wet.

However, these detention requirements have fallen short in attempting to tackle the source of the flooding problem because they do not require developers to eliminate runoff from their projects.

Many Houston-area homeowners blame inadequate storm-water mitigation rules for their flooding woes. City and county officials disagree, but concede it’s difficult to untangle the effects of new development, flood control projects and climate change when trying to determine the culprit for the region’s worsening flood problem. The issue came to a head recently for a group of west Houston residents who sued the city a couple of months ago claiming it is allowing developers to circumvent storm-water safeguards.

“I can show you on any individual project how runoff has been properly mitigated,” Montgomery County Engineer Mark Mooney said. “Having said that, when you see the increase in impervious surfaces that we have, it’s clear the way water moves through our county has changed. “It’s all part of a massive puzzle everyone is trying to sort out.”

This story is part five of a series, for which earlier and related stories are here. It notes that Fort Bend appears to be doing better than Harris County in terms of mitigation, as they had our example to learn from and mandated more stringent rules for its detention ponds. Fort Bend has also seen an awful lot of its permeable land become impervious in recent years, so who knows how well that will hold up as development continues. The scary thing to me is the shrinking of the Katy Prairie, which does so much of the heavy lifting for the region. It’s not like we can make more of that, and it’s getting harder to find space for the often-inadequate detention ponds that we build here in Harris County. It would help if we had fewer 23-inches-in-14-hours type rainstorms, but the feeling I get is that we’re in a new normal, and we need to figure out how to cope with that.

Who needs wetlands?

Development is all that matters, right?

More than 38,000 acres of wetlands vanished in greater Houston over the past two decades despite a federal policy that “no net loss” can be caused by encroaching development.

That’s an area about the size of The Woodlands and Sugar Land combined turned into neighborhoods, office buildings, strip malls, parking lots and roads.

To remedy the damage, federal permits require developers to create man-made wetlands or preserve them elsewhere, often by a ratio of at least 2 acres for every one destroyed. But the Army Corps of Engineers, by statute the nation’s primary steward of wetlands, doesn’t track whether most developers satisfy the requirements of their permits, a recent study found.

More than half of the permit records reviewed by researchers revealed little or no evidence of compliance in an eight-county region. The lack of documentation suggests wetlands probably are not being protected as the federal Clean Water Act requires, said John Jacob, director of Texas A&M University’s coastal watershed program, which worked on the study with the Houston Advanced Research Center.

“The disappearance of wetlands is widespread and pervasive,” Jacob said. “These are the wetlands that improve water quality and reduce flooding, but there is no mitigation.”

Upstream development worsens downstream flooding, said Jim Lester, president of HARC, based in The Woodlands. “It’s crazy to me that we cover up wetlands, and then we spend a lot of money to build retention ponds.”

[…]

The study comes amid political anger over new Obama administration rules that aim to clarify which wetlands, streams and tributaries should be protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act. Texas and 15 other states have filed suit to block the rules, which were proposed last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers.

Farmers, developers and landowners say the rules are an overreach by the government.

But the researchers say the new rules could help protect wetlands that are hydrologically isolated from bays, rivers, streams or other “waters of the United States.” Since 2001, the Corps’ office for the Houston region has claimed jurisdiction only over wetlands within the 100-year floodplain or with distinct channels.

“We’re not arguing for no development, but we can be smarter about it,” [Lisa Gonzalez, one of the study’s authors and vice president of HARC] said. HARC was started by the late oilman and developer George Mitchell, who used the natural drainage of The Woodlands to structure its development.

The isolated wetlands found in the Katy Prairie and wooded Montgomery County, for example, are prime targets for builders as the region continues to grow. With a projected wave of some 4 million new residents over the next four decades, it’s possible to lose another 100,000 acres of wetlands to development.

“This is the time in the next 20 to 30 years that we really need to save stuff,” she said. “It’s going ever so quick, and we need that mitigation hammer.”

I can’t find a copy of the study on the HARC website; this link is the best I can do. None of this should be a surprise – there’s vastly more incentive to not comply than to comply, and there’s basically no enforcement mechanism. Just keep in mind that when you read or hear about all that booming growth out in the far-flung suburbs, a lot of it is making the flooding problems we see here in the older parts of Houston worse. There’s only so much that ReBuild Houston and all the Mayoral promises you’re going to hear over the next few months can do about that.

On the environmental challenges to the Houston region

I turn the mic over to Jim Blackburn, in a reprint of an article he wrote for Offcite in 2014.

The future of the City of Houston might be more affected by extreme weather events than by any other factor. The impacts of these extremes are well known but not well addressed. Our ability to compete and survive in the harsh natural environment and competitive economic climate of the 21st century will rest on how we address these challenges.

As we learned in 2011, drought is a serious worry. Though we should plan for and anticipate constricted water supply and availability, we are not as vulnerable as many other areas of Texas. Our Achilles heel is flooding.

Flooding in our part of the world comes from two major sources: major rainstorms associated with tropical storms or cold fronts, and the surge tide associated with hurricanes. These two sources of water—one coming from the sky and the other from the Gulf—are major threats to our well-being.

Houston will be severely and perhaps permanently affected if we don’t address our known problems. All of the issues discussed below have solutions, but these solutions require that action be taken—that things be done differently. Some of the incentive for these changes will have to come through litigation simply because responsible officials will not otherwise step up and do what needs to be done.

It’s a long and detailed article, and well worth your time to read. Some of the topics it covers are the inadequacy of the 100 year flood map, the Centennial Gate, the value of undeveloped land like the Katy Prairie, and more. Check it out, then ask the nearest Mayoral candidate what he thinks about it.