Is Houston Sustainable?: A Flood Postmortem

There are lot of big questions, but no definitive solution.

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A person paddles through a flooded neighborhood, Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Spring, Texas. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area, flooding dozens of neighborhoods.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

It has been one week since Houston’s second historic flood in as many years, and now that a slew of postmortems are in, you can’t help but ponder one rather large question: is Houston, as we know it, sustainable? Opinion article after opinion article has posed this question in one form or another, but there doesn’t seem to be any definitive solution.

Some wonder if America’s most laissez-faire big city can keep on keepin’ on with its unchecked sprawl, its miles of paved roads and strip-mall parking prairies, and gated communities of lot-covering McMansions eight feet apart.

Well, strip mall developer Ed Wulfe seems to think so. Houston just needs a helping hand from Uncle Sam:

“It is obvious that we have not designated our city’s infrastructure to meet those needs. Our elected city, county and national officials need to come together to energize our federal government to address our flooding issues in the same way and with a similar amount of funding as devoted to the Sandy storm on the east coast, Katrina in New Orleans and others.”

Others see developers like Wulfe as a big part of the problem. This time around, far west and far northwest Houston bore the brunt of the rain, with those downstream suffering from run-off many believe to be exacerbated by overdevelopment of the prairies west of town. The Bayou Land Conservancy, in fact, says that filling the wetlands has “directly” resulted in an increase of flooding:

When wetlands are allowed to function, they’re the kidneys of the area’s watershed. Their special soil types are surrounded by particular wetland plants that help hold water in shallow depressions. They clean the water as they allow some of it to filter slowly into the ground, the rest to drain slowly into our bayous. That process is the foundation of our region’s ecology.

The rampant destruction of our forested and prairie wetlands is upsetting this balance, drastically reducing the land’s ability to absorb water. By allowing so many wetlands to be turned into subdivisions, we’re not just kicking them to the curb; we’re turning them into curbs. We need the ecological equivalent of dialysis.

So Houston’s undergoing kidney failure just in time for heavier downpours brought on, some believe, by climate change. And will Houston just wring itself out and hope that another monsoon doesn’t come its way until we’ve forgotten about this one? Shouldn’t we have done more to address this in the flush times of $100 oil just past? Bruce Nichols, a retired journalist who focused on urban trends, seems to have had enough with this cyclical failure:

We have a history of failing to leverage boom-time prosperity to improve land-use regulation and infrastructure planning to solve these problems. Then, when busts come, we say our hands are tied because we need growth at any price.

This is foolish, and I think stems partly from Houston’s historic sense of inferiority, the mindset that we somehow are not good enough to have a better quality of life. Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin have stronger planning and regulation, and they seem to be doing just fine.

And speaking of growth, can Houston absorb the 3.8 million new inhabitants it is forecast to gain over the next 24 years? Nobody thinks building in a floodplain (100-year or 500-year or any-year) is a good idea. But where, if not floodplains, are those projected newcomers supposed to go? On the other hand, given that the city is facing a $5.6 billion, Chicago-sized municipal pension crisis, can Houston afford not to add all those millions of new taxpayers?

Louis Marquez carries his dog Chocolate through floodwaters after rescuing the dog from his flooded apartment Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Houston. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area, flooding dozens of neighborhoods.
Louis Marquez carries his dog Chocolate through floodwaters after rescuing the dog from his flooded apartment Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Houston. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area, flooding dozens of neighborhoods.

These are all tough questions, but maybe not insoluble ones. The Chronicle, and especially the Gray Matters blog, offered a shotgun blast of remedies, some of which I will pose as devil’s advocate against.

Density

David Crossley, founder and senior fellow at think tank Houston Tomorrow believes Houston can, at least in part, densify its way out of this mess. He contends that even large apartment buildings render less terrain impermeable than sprawling suburban developments.

But Houston can’t click its heels together three times and turn into Manhattan. To bring Crossley’s vision to reality, the city will need to greatly enhance its public transit system, better maintain its sidewalks and alter more of its onerous, suburban-style parking ordinances, all of which—in their current state—conspire to make Houston pedestrian-unfriendly, flood-prone, and sprawling.

Architecture

John Jacob thinks that, in addition to building outside of floodplains, pre-World War II-style building designs such as raised, pier-and-beam foundations (as opposed to flat slabs) and raising homes a few extra feet above sea level with dirt dredged from the Ship Channel. But pier-and-beam constructions are far more expensive than slab houses.

Eco-Friendly

Outgoing Bayou Land Conservancy head Jennifer Lorenz had more eco-friendly suggestions, including planting millions of trees, as each mature tree is capable of lifting 100 gallons of water out of saturated soil and converting it into air. She also advocated that homeowners replace slow-runoff but wildly popular St. Augustine grass with native grasses and plants, enforcing rules against developers who tend to skate from their retention pond requirements via developer-friendly loopholes, foregoing plastic bags and single-use water bottles (as they tend to wind up in and clog storm drains), and to treasure—rather than destroy—our wetlands. She wrote:

Stop thinking of preserving wetlands as a drag on our economy. It’s the opposite. “Green space is green space,” says Harris County Pct. 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, “both ecologically and economically. Economically it provides an attractive draw to businesses who want good places to work and for their employees. It also economically protects those same businesses and their employees’ families when the waters rise.”

But that brings up another big question that affects both flood prevention planning and life as Houston knows it: are Houstonians running out of space, both green and asphalt-gray?

*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated John Jacob’s quotes from another interview. We regret the error. 

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  • E. Cortes

    Here’s what I’d like to see:
    crews specifically dedicated to regrading ditches, clearing drains & clearing out drainage pipes on the same scale & schedule that they fill pot holes.
    Old canals, creeks & water ways need to be regraded & cleared of brush & debris; where they can, they need to be cemented to help the water run faster.
    Greater usage of retention ponds.
    Elimination of the oleanders on the side of the freeways & instead have those areas trenched & grated to help w/ the run off.
    And every area where the water puddles up on the freeway where it could be helped: 45 @ North Main, 610 @ 45, I-10 @ Washington, etc. needs to be studied to figure why those drains keep clogging up or why that water is not running off fast enough.
    This can be done, people just need to do their jobs!

    • Mitchell Brown

      Will you keep doing this as populations spread ever farther and farther out from the center? How much will this cost the taxpayers? Every action you propose will need to be maintained over time. How much will that cost the taxpayers? Is this the best use of limited resources? For every dollar you spend on your project, you can’t spend it on something else.

      Your idea might be the best. It might also be the worst – or somewhere in-between.

      • E. Cortes

        OH, I agree, it should go hand in hand w/ a check on growth. There are acres & acres of land inside the Beltway that remain undeveloped while new subdivisions are being built around the Grand Parkway which is partially shut down now due to flooding!

    • Esef Brewer

      All the trenching and re-grading would just move and/or spread the floods to other neighborhoods. Nature created the topographical drainages that should never have been built in. But the crooked bureaucrats allowed development in these floodplains. Greed and corruption created this mess that was predicted in the 1970’s.

  • ex sea org member

    So Texans – the greatest climate change deniers in America wish us to believe that 7 billion people aren’t changing the climate, but somehow a few million taking up wetlands in their town, is.

    Oh that makes sense. Please drown or leave the USA.

    • Seymour Butts

      Close, you might want to re-read the article and try again.

    • Shannon Pendergrass

      No one is denying climate change here what we are denying is the arrogance of humanity that we are solely responsible but thanks for proving your arrogance which is rather insane.

    • marilyn12

      Climate change panders might be more believable if they weren’t raking in government grants to sustain their view point AND slandering/shutting down any scientists who get in their way. Government makes up most of employment in the USA now. These agencies are not so little kingdoms with their own police/enforcement and taxing powers. Whole towns have gone bankrupt trying to meet EPA etc. sewer and water regulations. Look what they did to California’s main growing centers over a dozen (maybe) snail fish while they kill thousands of birds daily with their windmills and solar farms.

      • wessexmom

        California’s “main growing areas” have also been sucking water out of aquifers at an alarming rate due to a LACK of regulations! They may get a brief reprieve from extreme drought this year due to the El Nino pattern but it won’t restore any of the groundwater that’s been depleted over the past few years.

        This is a complex issue with far-reaching consequences, many of which may be unforeseen, but the over-arching truth remains that climate change caused by global warming is a verifiable fact. I doubt you’ll take my word for it, but I hope you will read this extremely thoughtful and well-researched article in the current issue of Texas Monthly:

        http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/katharine-hayhoe-lubbock-climate-change-evangelist/

        • marilyn12

          The SUN heats the atmosphere which heats the oceans which controls the winds which controls the rains. Cherry picked statistics just can’t prove anything. BUT I happen to agree that building, especially concrete slab houses, in harms way is stupid. So is emptying aquifers. So is killing birds with solar and wind farms. So is unlimited immigration. So is selling baby body parts for campaign cash. ETC. We need ETHICS and they are is short supply because the country has tossed out GOD for TV, video games etc.

          • tx91′

            You’re correct, the sun does heat the atmosphere, and these days less and less heat escapes back out into space because of the greenhouse effect from greenhouses gases. The data is straight forward and in no way cheery picked. Time to buck up and face the truth. Btw, a bird flying into a wind turbine in no way negates the need for clean carbon free energy. Besides, people hit animals with their cars daily, and you people only now bring up birds hitting wind turbines? Give me a break, talk about cherry picking and splitting hairs. My god.

          • tx91′

            Also, this is the information age, video games and tv aren’t inherently bad. In fact both video games is exercise for the brain, they build synapse connections in the brain. Whats your beef with TV? Being ethical requires being honest, and bashing technology isn’t an honest assessment of the current state of ethics in the United States. Truth: nobody is selling baby parts for campaign contributions.Truth: there are many people receiving campaign contributions from fossil fuel lobbyists and weapons manufacturers. THATS the truth.

    • Steve Spacek

      Unlike Houston, the Cities of Dallas and Austin still are the lone, acceptable Texas representatives for modern-day, big-city America media and culture that’s “respectable and appropriate” to the likings of those living in/around NYC, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston–they, and not Houstonians or the rest of “fly over country,” are the ones still calling the “shots” in the USA.

  • Ron

    Remarkable how short sighted it is to think of everything in terms of money. Nature doesn’t negotiate.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Houston (and every other city that’s built like it) is sustainable – if you have the money to sustain it.

    The questions are: are there better ways to organize physical human settlements? How much would you like to spend? When you make a choice as to what your city/town/village physically looks like, what does that entail?

    If your city isn’t walkable, that means you’re going to need roads to move goods and people. That costs money. Lots of money.

    Every highway and road that the federal government and/or state government pays for, the municipality must maintain. Maintenance costs money. Lots and lots and lots of money. Don’t forget, for every square foot you pave, you move water in ways difficult to foresee.

  • John Jacob

    Mr Lomax
    I dont know where you got the quotes you attribute to me–but they didnt come from me! Dave Fehling from Houston NPR interviewed me and we parenthetically talked about the advantages of pier and beam houses. But I absolutely do not advocate dredging up oyster shells for roads. We dont do that anymore in Houston–and whoever makes a suggestion like that is totally messed up.

    My main assertion has been that yes, we are going to flood. We always have, and we always will. Its flat, soils are soil draining, and it rains a whole lot. But floods are only a problem when people are in the way. So the second point is that the whole area does not flood uniformly. There are floodways and floodplains. And everywhere that you saw people walking though water, there was a development improperly sited in a floodway or floodplain. It is NOT random. This is absolutely the No 1 issue. We know where it floods–stay the hell out of those areas? What is so hard to understand about this? The problem of course is that no everyone knows, and some folks have very likely acted unscrupulously in putting development where it has no business.

    The third point is that we have paved over prairies and forests without regard to downstream areas. More runoff means more floods. So those floodplains that people should be staying out of are even deeper than they otherwise would be. Developers are required to provide stormwater detention when they pave stuff over–but there is some question as to whether enough is required. Ft Bend County for example requires twice as much as Harris County.

    These are the main facts Mr Lomax. Please dont make up nonsense. What you have me saying is largely nonsense!
    John Jacob

    • John Jacob

      OK–so you fixed it a little. Elevation is indeed worthwhile, but I did not make a blanket assertion that pre-world war II style had anything to do with it. This was the hook that Dave Fehling used to make the story interesting. ANd just FYI–slab foundations in the Houston area arent necessarily more expensive. If you are building on expansive soils such as we have in Houston (and you have plenty in Dallas as well!), then in the long run pier and beam may be way less costly. Cracked foundations are not cheap to fix, But thats a whole nother story!
      And–I did not advocate raising land levels with ship channel dredge material. That just happened to be the case in the neighborhood I happen to live in. It is amazing the twists and turns you have come up with. Thanks for fixing–maybe fix the rest. Read my editorial and relisten to the NPR piece, please.
      http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/Disaster-by-design-Houston-can-t-keep-developing-7275723.php?
      http://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/2016/04/22/147631/a-century-ago-how-houston-home-developers-reduced-flood-risk/

      • Veronique Mosquita

        John Nova Lomax apparently doesn’t have time to get things right.

        Because, Journalism! LoL

        Texas Monthly turning over the Houston beat to the Village Voice Houston branch is a step in the wrong direction.

  • Veronique Mosquita

    ** There are lot of big questions, but no definitive solution **

    Apparently there are not lot of copy editing at Texas Monthly, however (which is similar to Village Voice Houston).

  • Steve Spacek

    Wrongheaded, superconservative Houston–the hometown I came from–with abysmal records towards planning and human rights, keeps doing everything it can to keep Cities of Dallas, Austin Texas’s representatives of American-style media and culture to those with power in NYC, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago and L.A.

  • Busysaru

    Need to start building more canals, lakes, ponds and wetlands so the water has a place to go.
    A developer could use soil taken for the lake, and use it to build up the land so buildings wouldn’t flood.
    Houston would be better off with an elevated light rail/bike system.