West Fork at River Grove Park

Nature’s Confusing Balance Sheet

A headline in the New York Times last year said it all. “Our Love of Living Near Water Persists Despite the Dangers.”

How much value do you place on beauty? Serenity? Clean water where eagles fish? The experience of walking through the woods with your children and sitting on a quiet riverbank together? For many people, that means more than the risk of flooding. Until they flood.

Looking east along the San Jacinto West Fork toward Lake Houston from River Grove Park

In case you’re a pragmatist who scoffs at the value of visual poetry, a recent Canadian study found that people who lived within 250 meters of water had 12-17% lower mortality rates (excluding accidental causes) compared to those who lived farther away. The protective effects of living near water were found to be highest against deaths from stroke and respiratory-related causes.

Another study of 50 other studies systematically quantified the value of pathways between blue spaces and health benefits.

From “Mechanisms of Impact of Blue Spaces on Human Health: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis” by Michail Georgiou, Gordon Morison, Niamh Smith, Zoë Tieges and Sebastien Chastin, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 2021, reproduced in Environmental Health Perspectives under a Creative Commons license.

It’s no secret that people like to live near water. It’s soothing. And it has both physical- and mental-health benefits. Until nature unleashes its fury. That’s when nature’s balance sheet gets confusing.

The Minus Side of the Ledger

Living near water comes with high risks…especially along the Gulf coast. Just watch the news these days. Witness the destruction and loss of life that Hurricane Ian brought to Florida last week.

Remember the 30,000 homes on the Bolivar Peninsula destroyed by 22-foot storm surge during Hurricane Ike?

Harken back to Hurricane Harvey. The storm flooded 16,000 homes and damaged 3,300 businesses in the Lake Houston Area. It also killed 13 people in Kingwood alone!

At the peak, we got 6.8″ of rainfall in ONE HOUR! The water on the West Fork reached more than 20 feet above flood stage!

Mitigation has been as expensive as the damage. We’re spending hundreds of millions on dredging, spending $5 billion on more than 180 flood-bond projects, considering another $1.2 billion bond, trying to fund more than $3 billion in upstream detention projects, taking hundreds of millions out of transportation funds to address drainage issues, applying for $750 million in HUD mitigation funds, and looking at $30 billion worth of flood tunnels. Not to mention a $26 billion Ike Dike.

Recognizing Rewards but Not Risks

Why do we spend so much on repairs and mitigation? Because people build homes near water in places that aren’t safe.

Why? Because people want to live near water. And no one understands what the true risk is.

Why? Because:

  • We can’t predict future rainfall accurately.
  • Upstream development constantly heightens flood peaks which aren’t updated regularly.
  • Risky land is cheap, so demand is high.
  • Political lobbying makes Swiss cheese out of development and engineering standards to sustain profits and sales.
  • Buyers assume government regs protect them.

As a species, humans are notoriously poor predictors of risk. Just ask any casino owner.

But we have flood insurance, right? Wrong. Across Harris County during Harvey, 154,170 homes flooded, but only 36% of those had active flood insurance policies.

64% did not have flood insurance.

Harris County Flood Control District Final Harvey Report

The Most Sensible Solution

As a society, we seem to have settled on a solution to such problems. Whether we realize it or not, we:

  • Let people build what they want where they want most of the time.
  • Expect buyers to understand the risks and live with a level of risk they can afford.
  • Ask government to make things right after things go wrong.

But there’s a much simpler, more humane and cost-effective solution. It’s called conservation. And it’s based on an ancient wisdom – “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Preserving that risky land near water keeps people out of harm’s way. It also reduces both damage and mitigation costs.

Turning that land into parks, nature preserves and recreational space lets everyone continue to enjoy it. And if we do need to build mitigation projects in the future, we will have the land. We won’t have to buy out whole neighborhoods and displace people to build a detention pond or expand a channel. And we’ll have a much healthier, happier society.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/2/22

1860 Days since Hurricane Harvey