Floods don’t care about urban boundaries. Neither should our mitigation plans.

A school in the Cypress-Fairbanks School District in Houston surrounded by water on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

There will never be an easy fix for Houston’s flooding issues. Hurricane Harvey came on the heels of “500-year” floods in 2015 and 2016 — and the 2018 hurricane season is predicted to be more active than average. It is clear the region’s flood risks are increasing. It is time to think big and creatively about how to prepare for the changes that are already underway.

A regional approach that uses a diverse portfolio of solutions is the best — perhaps the only — way to make Houston less flood-prone, according to a new report on strategies for flood mitigation by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. Additional dams and channel improvements will not be enough if there is nowhere for the water to go. Addressing Houston’s flood risks will require the thoughtful integration of diverse solutions across all 22 watersheds in the region.

In Houston, a regional approach represents, in many ways, a new way of thinking about floods. It means greater coordination among counties, the regional water utilities, and all levels of government. It means relying less on a project-by-project or city-by-city approach and instead thinking systematically and equitably to foster what the report describes as a culture of resilience. It means public green spaces and natural habitat preservation are given equal consideration alongside retention basins and stormwater improvements. It means thinking about protecting people, not just property.

Preserving public green spaces in the Greater Houston region is a critically important piece of the puzzle. The report calls for protecting undeveloped areas along bayous and creeks to prevent more development in these flood-prone areas. Buyout programs can also be coordinated to determine where open spaces can provide community benefits, such as parks, in addition to flood control.

The consortium’s report found that the current proposal for a third reservoir in the Katy Prairie will not help alleviate flooding issues, and it could actually increase flood risks in the region. Perversely, an additional reservoir in this location would reward risky development, placing more people and more property in harm’s way. The priority should be placed instead on improving the functioning and safety of Addicks and Barker reservoirs. We also need greater public transparency about the true condition of these existing reservoirs and their risk of failure.

Preserving what’s left of the Katy Prairie is a much smarter way to protect nearby and downstream communities. Once this habitat is lost, it is lost forever to the detriment of people and wildlife that benefit from it.

This approach of protecting critical habitat is also consistent with the findings of a new study published in the scientific journal “PLOS One,” which found that protecting natural habitats can be a cost effective and lasting solution for flood control. That study looked at the costs and benefits of various flooding solutions along the Gulf Coast and found that nature-based solutions, such as restoring wetlands or creating oyster reefs, could prevent $50 billion in flood damages over a 20-year period. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, nature-based projects were found to be significantly more effective at mitigating floods than hard infrastructure.

Regional and local leaders need to fully consider the consortium’s report and use its recommendations in their decision-making and as they formulate requests for federal and state funding. A regional systems approach to flood mitigation that uses a diverse portfolio of solutions and is informed by community input and best-available science has the best chance of getting community buy in and making a difference during future storms. Collectively, the solutions outlined in the report represent a win-win-win approach for achieving long-term flood resilience for people, our economy, and our natural ecosystems.

Emily Powell

Coastal Resilience Specialist, National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf of Mexico Restoration Program

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