Houston Matters

Rethinking Water Detention And Development Regulations In Greater Houston

Water detention and drainage systems in the Houston region should be re-examined based on a more comprehensive analysis of watersheds.

A view of Buffalo Bayou and the Houston skyline.

An influential group of policy analysts and researchers has released dual reports that show how water detention and drainage systems in the Houston region should be re-examined based on a more comprehensive analysis of watersheds, and how unchecked development continues to pose flood risks to the region.

Houston Matters interviewed Christof Spieler, Project Manager for the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, on Tuesday.

Water detention regulations were first developed in Greater Houston in the 1980s, and Spieler said this new report shows how those regulations need to be updated based on new “computer technology that helps actually model and simulate runoff.” 

The water detention report found the old regulations overestimate the runoff from some undeveloped land, “thereby underestimating the detention required to maintain current conditions.”

The regulations also use a one-size-fits-all approach for runoff, without accounting for the variety of soils and ecosystems found across the region. 

The researchers also found that the regulations limit the water runoff rate but not the volume. So as more development takes off in specific areas, the volume of runoff can lead to increased downstream flooding. 

“All of that put together means that new development upstream of existing neighborhoods,” said Spieler, “can still increase flooding in those neighborhoods even when the present regulations are applied.”

One easy change

Spieler said one change that could be applied quickly would be raising the default requirement for detention, but also exercising flexibility so that developers could, in some cases, be able to show proof that so much detention isn’t necessary.

Kyle Shelton, co-author of one of the reports and Director of Strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said regulations should be designed on a regional scale with coordination between cities and counties, to determine what is appropriate land use and development.

“If the starting point is how do we protect residents and how do we make sure people aren’t in harm’s way to the best ability that we can,” said Shelton, “we have to keep in mind that’s not always going to align with everyone’s economic goals and maybe even the overarching goals of the region.”

You can read the report on water detention and drainage regulations here:

You can read the report on development regulations here:

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