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Will The Katy Prairie Save Houston Homes From Flooding?

A group wants to keep floodwaters retained in the Katy Prairie, potentially shielding Addicks and Barker from overflow. But will the proposed berm project do enough?


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Prairie wetlands in the Katy Prairie retain water after Hurricane Harvey.

Since 2015, the Katy Prairie Conservancy has been trying to build a berm that would protect homes in northwest Houston from flooding. The earthen wall would reach six feet high in some places, holding water inside the Katy Prairie, an area still wild with the native grasslands and wetlands much of Houston was built on. The prairie is naturally absorbent, retaining massive amounts of water in its root systems which often reach further into the ground than the plant stands high.

If built, the berm – also known as Plan 5 of the Cypress Creek Overflow Project – would hopefully protect the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs from overflowing as they did during Harvey. The Katy Prairie is upstream of several tributaries to Addicks and Barker, and could keep water flow to a manageable level during major rain events. With Addicks and Barker coming close to overflow levels during Harvey, Plan 5 is gaining traction as a preventative measure.

“They’re very similar to the engineered detention ponds that are built,” says Mary Anne Piacentini, Executive Director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy. Piacentini says that, unlike artificial detention ponds, grasslands offer wildlife habitats, recreational land, and water filtration. “When people say we can build these big detention ponds, the truth of the matter is we would be a lot better off saving the natural depressional wetlands,” she said. “They’re nature’s kidneys.”

Mary Anne Piacentini, Executive Director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy
Mary Anne Piacentini, Executive Director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, holds a four-inch-thick printed proposal for the Cypress Creek Overflow Project. The report estimates that Plan 5 will cost nearly 400 million dollars to complete.

But while the Katy Prairie is poised to do some amount of good for the area, conservationists are worried they may be running out of time. Piacentini says development west of Houston is accelerating, and she’s worried the Conservancy may not be able to buy the land needed for the berm before developers. But some doubt the prairie can do more than artificial methods of flood control.

“When we’re talking about catastrophic events,” says Phillip Magness, a professor of economics who studies public policy, “it’s the teacup trying to bail out the ocean.” When looking back through history, he says, “it’s a long standing problem of geography and topography,” not development. Magness sees the berm project as simply too costly for what it could accomplish, though he isn’t totally against it.

The Katy Prairie Conservancy has taken some of that into account. Piacentini says the project's planning committee was made up of both conservationists and developers. "The committee tried to work very hard to make sure that what this project was going to do was — yes it was going to save more land, but it was also going to protect lands south of Cypress Creek and that overflow region to be able to build," she said.

The group pushes back on the claim that prairie lands don’t retain enough water to be worth it. “It’s open ground, and open ground is obviously going to hold more water than paved ground,” said Wesley Newman, the group’s Conservation Director. The Conservancy knows Plan 5 is not the single, ultimate solution to Houston’s flooding problem, but they maintain that the project should be a part of it. “We just need to look at natural solutions as well as engineered solutions and a combination of the two, and it will help,” Newman said.

For now, the Conservancy is hoping that renewed interested after Harvey will kickstart plans — and funding — for the berm. They hope that money from a federal aid package will help pay for the $400 million dollar project. Once funded, the berm could be completed within two years.

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