Let’s utilize nature to reduce the flood risk
By Mary Anne Piacentini
Preventing development on open land is among the most cost-effective ways to prevent flooding.
Having lived through devastating floods over the last four years, Houstonians have rallied to rebuild and recover. That includes looking for new ways to reduce flood risk.
One of the most promising involves using nature to fight flooding. Those measures include creating more parks and open spaces; making ample room for water in our bayous; conserving natural areas; restoring grasslands and forests; and smaller-scale projects such as permeable parking lots, green roofs and new lawn grasses with longer, water-absorbing roots.
No, nature-based solutions alone will not eliminate flooding. But combined with more traditional engineering projects — levees, constructed detention ponds and drainage-improvement structures — they can do a great deal to manage and diffuse the effects of flooding while also providing major side benefits: scenic and recreational amenities, improved water quality, boosts to tourism and locally grown food from community farms.
Not to mention that nature-based solutions also are highly cost-efficient, often several times more so than traditional flood-control public works. A National Wildlife Federation study indicated that every $1 spent in preventive measures saves $4 in disaster recovery costs. The study also noted that protecting open space and existing natural habitats are among the most cost-effective ways to reduce risks to communities.
Recently, the Galveston District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presented an update on its Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study. Study documents noted the Corps’ willingness to consider nature-based solutions, but the detailed proposals didn’t appear to include nature-based solutions at all. Though some measures didn’t include structures, those mostly involved public education, signage or buyouts.
This is not enough.
The Corps should pursue nature-based solutions aggressively and creatively, not as window dressing, but as part of a balanced strategy that will give us more impact, and lasting environmental benefits, for our flood-control dollars.
It’s not as though the Corps has never worked with nature. In 1968, when Boston experienced a devastating storm, the Corps realized that wetlands, crucial in absorbing rainwaters upstream, were threatened by rapid development and proceeded to preserve 8,500 acres of wetlands in the middle and upper reaches of the Charles River. The cost proved to be one-tenth the estimated cost of the initially proposed dams and levees. And the wetland storage area, once preserved, did not require significant operational and maintenance costs.
That approach could work for Houston, too. The Corps’ resiliency study included all the land that drains into Cypress Creek, Addicks, Barker and Buffalo Bayou. Though these watersheds are becoming increasingly urbanized, there is still time to protect key natural areas — to keep the lands as wide-open spaces that soak up floodwater.
Undeveloped land along waterways — in our floodways and flood plains — should be protected today, before homes or businesses are built on them. Such land would provide wildlife habitat; improve water quality by filtering pollutants; collect, store and slowly release floodwaters; and facilitate groundwater recharge.
Conservation and parks organizations, including the Katy Prairie Conservancy, have identified these and other ways to use the region’s natural assets to reduce the risk of flooding — and state lawmakers have listened. Just this year, natural infrastructure was designated as an eligible project type within the new Texas Flood Infrastructure Resiliency Fund, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Now it’s up to us to seize this opportunity.
Piacentini is president and CEO of the Katy Prairie Conservancy.