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Will More Urbanization Hurt Houston’s Waterways?

Putting up buildings and cutting down trees increases water runoff and flooding, and decreases water quality. That’s the takeaway from a recent study which found that reducing urban development and allowing for more green space prevents damage to the health of rivers and streams. NewsLab’s Wendy Siegle looks at what Houston is doing to prevent these negative environmental effects.



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The Purdue University study uses a land transformation model to determine how urbanization impacts waterways. Researchers used old aerial photographs to help build the model, which predicts the future effects on waterway health. According to the study, development hurts waterways because surfaces like parking lots allow more runoff to reach waterways. And water that reaches creeks and streams contains excessive nutrients, and pollutants like motor oil. Study co-author Bryan Pijanowski says when it comes to urbanization, less is better.

“What we’re saying is, ‘Let’s reduce the amount of our urban footprint over time.’ So let’s slow it up. And if we can do that, and allow some of the land to grow back into forests, our rivers are gonna to be healthier for that.”

But Houston isn’t slowing down. It’s growing rapidly. Jeff Taebel is the Director of Community and Environmental Planning at the Houston Galveston Area Council.

“We’re gonna grow. We’re gonna need to do some green field development, and so if we can figure out which areas are priorities to preserve, what we do build new, trying to build that in the most responsible way.”

H-GAC forecasts 300 square miles of undeveloped land will be urbanized by 2035. That will add an area half the current size of Houston to the region. Caring for waterways is especially critical for an area like Harris County.

“We have 2500 miles of bayous and streams in Harris County. If you put them all end to end it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York City.”

That’s Heather Saucier from Harris County Flood Control District. She says that because of regulations, development in Harris County doesn’t exacerbate flooding.

“There are very strict regulations that govern how new development can occur. And if anyone is going to put concrete over grass, that must be mitigated.”

Harris County’s primary mitigation measure is storm water detention basins. These are essentially large holes in the ground that fill with storm water to prevent flooding. Both Taebel and Saucier agree that wet bottom basins, ones that retain water year round, are an effective means of dealing with both flooding and water pollution. By staying wet they can support wetlands plants.

“The beauty of the wetlands plants is that they absorb a lot of sediment and pollutants found in our storm water.”

As Taebel sees it, Houston has a lot to lose by neglecting its natural environment, so figuring out innovative ways to offset any negative effects of development is crucial.

“We may not have a San Francisco Bay but we we’ve got ecological diversity that probably doesn’t exist in a lot of those more iconic environments.”

From the KUHF NewsLab, I’m Wendy Siegle.