There’s a lingering image of the American Frontier where a calm breeze blows through endless prairies of tall grass, and “the skies are not cloudy all day.”
As the prairies become more populated, they get paved over to make way for roads and westward expansion.
The tall grass that once ran 14 feet deep is replaced with impermeable asphalt, and the calm quiet is replaced with bustling cities.
On days where the blue skies are replaced with rain, the water has nowhere to go but over the impenetrable surfaces, and towards the ocean—no matter what it takes to get there.
In regular rain events, this progress doesn’t seem so bad. But during events like Tropical Storm Harvey, and Hurricane Irma, the results of unregulated development are much more dire.
The case with Harvey in Houston
Houston’s Katy Prairie, reached by the Katy Freeway, is now 25 percent of the 600,000 acres of greenery it once was, estimates the Katy Prairie Conservancy. On either side of the freeway are the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs built after World War II to prevent floods in the quickly developing Harris County.
Today, houses have been built right up to the edge of the reservoirs. Some existing in the reservoirs’ 500-year floodplain.
The problem with this is that there have now been three major storms in the past three years, pushing waters into the 500-year floodplain and into the homes of Houston’s residents: the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016, and now Tropical Storm Harvey in 2017.
In order to prevent Houston’s dam from breaching, which would cause an estimated $60 billion in damage to more than 1 million residences, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has to make some tough decisions when it comes to whether to release water from the reservoirs during major rain events.
After Harvey, the Corps had to release water into a neighboring development to the Addick’s reservoir.
The Corps doesn’t have control over where housing developments are built. In 2001 only 28 percent of the land in Addicks reservoir was developed. In 2010 this number had jumped to 41 percent. According to this report, since 1990, the reservoirs have had nine out of 10 of the largest storms fill them completely in their entire existence. Six of these have taken place after 2000.
Richard Long from USACE stated in this report that this is directly correlated to new growth and development, exacerbated by new drainage systems sending more water to the reservoirs.
Not only is growth a problem, but the American Society of Civil Engineers has been releasing report cards for years about how America’s infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life, this year giving the country a D+ grade overall. The failing infrastructure not only needs updating, but it has to keep up with growing communities country-wide.
Preparation for Hurricane Irma
In preparation of Hurricane Irma, engineers near Fort Myers, Fla. released water from Lake Okeechobee to keep the dike safe and towns from flooding. But despite this, Florida has been deferring maintenance on their infrastructure as South Florida’s population has increased, meaning a storm surge could easily overwhelm the system, as exemplified by extensive flooding post-Irma.
Why you should regulate development
We’ve spoken before about how green infrastructure can help your grey infrastructure in absorbing stormwater and runoff, and this example is no different. Houston isn’t exclusive in building residential and commercial developments on floodplains.
Some cities are starting to move residential homes away from floodplains in order to avoid catastrophe.
What these natural disasters are really shedding light on, however, is how unregulated development without proper upkeep of stormwater infrastructure can affect our municipalities for years to come. Proper planning and regulation will not only help avoid costly property damage, but also helps keep people safe during big storms.
If you’re in a position to do so, advocate with your local politicians to invest in infrastructure and to properly implement a balance of green infrastructure along with grey infrastructure developments. You can do this by writing to your area’s elected officials to remind them how important stormwater infrastructure is to changing and growing municipalities.