Tag Archive for: Conservation

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

Preservation: A Natural, Low-Cost Form of Flood Mitigation

Most people think of Kingwood’s East End Park as a place to commune with nature. But it began as a natural, low-cost form of flood mitigation.

When Friendswood was building Kingwood, it toyed with the idea of building homes where the park now stands. Instead, it bequeathed the land to the Kingwood Service Association (KSA). KSA now maintains the property as a nature park for the benefit of all Kingwood residents. Leaving it natural also helps protect people from flooding.

Sometimes the best way to deal with the side effects of development is simply to preserve nature where flooding occurs most frequently. And it certainly occurs frequently along the East Fork of the San Jacinto River. In areas like these, parks provide a buffer. And that creates positive value while avoiding negative costs.

How Parks Create Positive Value

The main features offered in the 158-acre East End Park are tranquil, yet breathtaking views provided free of charge by Mother Nature. The park includes forests, wetlands, and natural meadows that provide food and habitat for wildlife. People often see families of deer munching on grass at the edge of the forests. Occasionally, visitors sight eagles, alligators, river otters, foxes, coyotes and bobcats.

KSA East End Park Poster. Photos by Bob Rehak.

Birders also find the park an urban wonderland. Forty-plus acres of tall grass meadows draw approximately 140 species of birds during the spring and fall migrations. Many of those are threatened or endangered. The Lake Houston Area Nature Club hosts birding tours here from September to May. They start at 7:30 AM from the parking lot at the east end of Kingwood Drive and usually last till about 10am.

Another major attraction of the park: spectacular sunrises most mornings.

East End Park at Sunrise by Dr. Charles Campbell.

Dr. Charles Campbell hikes several miles in the park each morning. He took the picture above not far from the main entrance at the east end of Kingwood Drive. He also took the one below at Otter Point.

Sunrise over Lake Houston from Kingwood’s East End Park at Otter Point. By Dr. Charles Campbell.

The park draws an estimated 100,000 visitors per year, but it rarely seems crowded because the visitors disperse among dense forests along 5+ miles of trails throughout the day.

East End Park is an exceptional amenity for Kingwood residents, gifted to all by a visionary developer. Was it totally selfless? Of course not. Nationally, research shows that proximity to parks can increase home values up to 20%. In short, people like parks.

Also Consider Cost Avoidance of Preservation

During Harvey, the entire park went underwater. Most of it also went underwater during the Tax Day, Memorial Day, and Imelda storms. Can you imagine what would have happened had Friendswood built homes here?

There would have been tens of millions of dollars in damages, losses to taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance, disaster relief funds, and the overhead of a bureaucracy to administer aid. Buyouts and demolition would have been required. Flood mitigation in the form of channels and detention basins would have cost tens of millions more. And all the positive values would have been lost.

But by just leaving it natural, we collectively saved all those personal and public expenses. We also created a beautiful “people magnet” that sustains home values instead of undermining them. Trail repair costs after Harvey totaled only $60,000.

That’s less than the cost to repair one average home flooded to a depth of a foot or more. And that’s the value of preservation – the natural, low-cost form of flood mitigation.

Sometimes we need to learn to just let nature be.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/18/22 with thanks to Dr. Charles Campbell

1815 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Conservation Flood Planning in Texas

Texas has a dubious distinction that not many people realize. We lead the nation in flood events and their impacts. Not one of Texas’ 254 counties has escaped flooding. Despite our prowess in engineering, engineering alone has not prevented flooding. As a growing number of leaders are now starting to recognize, success will require the marriage of engineering and conservation.

Historical flood impact since 1996, by county. Each of the state’s 254 counties has plenty of experience with flooding, and the state leads the nation in number of recorded flood events. Visualization by FEMA Historical Risk and Costs. Data from NOAA Storm Events Database.

In 2019, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Texas Legislature set the stage for future flood-mitigation efforts. A diverse collection of stakeholders worked with legislators to include language for conservation-based projects in both the flood planning process and project funding framework overseen by the Texas Water Development Board.

Recently, Dr. Matthew Berg published a paper describing the roles that conservation projects are starting to play in flood planning.

Dr. Berg is the CEO & Principal Scientist or Simfero Consultants. He has given ReduceFlooding.com the right to review and reproduce his copyrighted paper which first appeared in the Texas Water Journal.

Wide Spectrum of Conservation Solutions

Berg begins by describing the wide spectrum of conservation projects related to flood mitigation. They include:

  • Preservation and restoration toward one end
  • Smaller-scale features like bioswales, green roofs, and rain gardens somewhere in the middle
  • Revegetating with native plant species after construction of otherwise traditional structural projects on the other end.

Berg sees a role for nature-based approaches as a component of virtually every flood mitigation project.

Programs Aligning to Promote Use of Natural Solutions

Berg also cites research that has found these strategies can return $7 in benefits for every $1 in project costs.

Benefits range from flood reduction and improved water quality to erosion control, heat moderation, wildlife habitat, property value increases, recreation, reduced maintenance costs, topping up groundwater storage and more.

As a result, Berg is able to cite dozens of nature-based solutions from all around Texas. The sheer volume, diversity and practicality of these examples is a real eye opener.

Even the Army Corps of Engineers is embracing the effort with its “Engineering with Nature Program.” The Corps designed it to bring conservationists and engineers together.

In addition, FEMA introduced a program last year called BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities). It emphasizes boosting resilience before a disaster strikes rather than reacting after the damage has already been done. 

The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 ensures a meaningful evaluation of nature-based solutions and clarifies the eligibility of natural infrastructure for cost-sharing. 

President Biden has joined the bandwagon, too. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order requiring federally funded buildings and facilities to be located away from flood corridors.

These are just a tiny sampling of the dozens of conservation efforts reviewed by Berg.

To See Full Study

To see Dr. Berg’s entire publication, click here. It’s a catalog of solutions right under our feet. All we need to do is recognize the opportunities and seize them.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/28/2021 with thanks to Dr. Matthew Berg and the Texas Water Journal

1429 Days after Hurricane Harvey