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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.

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  1. Robert Nagle says:

    In retrospect, Parker’s laser focus on paying for better drainage seemed justified. Houston has been blessed with the fact that their last 3 mayors have been outstanding on policies and strategic direction.

  2. Ross says:

    Both sides are at fault here, and being unrealistic. The Grand Parkway was, and is, necessary to provide a means to get from the Katy area to the North without going all the way into BW8, or fighting through surface streets. I recall when BW8 was built on land that was already owned for that purpose, there were cries of outrage at the destruction of the trees and such on the right of way. However, it did relieve a huge amount of congestion for those folks who needed to get from the SW Freeway to I-10 on that side of town.

    If the Sierra Club was concerned about development, they could have raised money and bought land for conservation dedication, but they hate doing that, and would rather try to use the courts to get their way. They often fail at that.

    Developers want to make money, and will try to get rid of any regulation that stops them from maximizing profit. Which is natural, especially when the developers and their employees aren’t going to be living there and subject to the whims of nature. I am not anti-development – people want to live somewhere, and you aren’t going to force them to live in dense high-rise buildings inside the Loop. I’ve seen Kuff comment that there is lots of open space inside the Beltway that could be developed. That’s not really true, as there are some small parcels, but nothing on the order of what developers really need to make money, which is large areas, like Bridgeland’s 11,000+ acres, where an entire planned community can go. From looking at Google Earth, even a 1,000 acre parcel would be difficult inside BW8.

    I do think developers have been given too free a reign. At Canyon Gate for instance(East of Mason road, North of Westheimer), the developer should have been forced to give each buyer a piece of paper with a bold black outline saying “This property is inside a flood control area, and is lower than the potential top of the high water. In a large rain event, this property will almost certainly flood” in 20 point type, along with “This property is not eligible for flood insurance, because it is in a really stupid place to build houses”(not really true, but should be for new development). That development is inside the Barker Dam, so some blame should also go to the government for not buying up more land for the Barker Reservoir. I have little sympathy for anyone who bought there without understanding that the top of the Barker dam is about 113 feet, while the subdivision is at about 100 feet

  3. voter_worker says:

    Is there anyone in this blog’s readership who knows the history of the developments around the perimeter of the reservoirs? My mind really can’t process the counterintuitiveness of building homes and infrastructure within a reservoir pool. I’d want to start with “why was any portion of the reservoir pool NOT under government ownership?”

  4. Ross says:

    I saw an article the other say that said Congress never allocated funds for additional land acquisition. The original purchases were tied up in court for years as the landowners fought the eminent domain actions.

  5. Ross, the Sierra Club took the approach you advocate when the Katy Mills Mall was being developed:

    As for the Grand Parkway, there were things that could have been done to mitigate its effects. Too late for that now, unfortunately.

  6. C.L. says:

    Two words: permeable concrete. Stop laying [public roads, driveways, etc.] concrete that sheds water, start laying concrete that allows water to pass through.

  7. Jason Hochman says:

    The city will never regulate development, and the out of town developers are pocketing a fortune. The dams were built after the 1935 flood, but Houston was never meant to be a large city. Irresponsible leadership, greed and unrealistic optimism haven’t helped. Neighborhoods need to have retention ponds, houses need to be on stilts, impermeable ground needs to be limited, and people need to stop being willing to pay $450,000 for a box that will have knee high water in it next year. Maybe it’s time to move.

  8. Joel says:

    “If the Sierra Club was concerned about development, they could have raised money and bought land for conservation dedication, but they hate doing that, and would rather try to use the courts to get their way. They often fail at that.”

    imagine that, Ross. a non-profit failing to compete with for-profits to acquire vast amounts of land. (i’m sure the banks would line up to loan the sierra club money to buy land that won’t generate any money to repay the loan …)

    what could they be thinking?