Friday, July 28, 2006

What New York can learn from Houston

For most of last year, I lived in Houston, Texas, a city famous for instructive examples of what not to do in the realms of urban planning and conservation.

But Houston, which has endured a comeuppance of regular floods for decades, is finally doing something innovative to improve the water quality of its bayous, reduce the risk of flooding, and provide new parks and trails for its residents - all in one project.

Project Brays is a venture of the Harris County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers. Brays Bayou traverses the southern edge of central Houston, from the Third Ward to Tom Delay's hometown of Sugar Land. For much of its length, the bayou is paved under concrete, (a la the Los Angeles River), because the Corps of Engineers once believed that the best way to deal with floodwaters was to carry them as quickly as possible to the ocean.

Unfortunately, paved surfaces are more a part of the problem than a part of the solution. Before Houston overwhelmed them, the prairies and riparian forests that once thrived in the bayou's watershed absorbed and slowly released stormwaters into the waterway. But paved surfaces sent rainwater straight to the bayou, which overflowed more and more frequently as the city grew. When the bayou itself was paved, the watershed lost its last vestiges of natural vegetation and absorption capacity. Needless to say, the Corps has been forced to acknowledge and correct its mistakes.

Now, Harris County and the Corps are taking a more holistic view of flood control. Project Brays is acquiring the most flood-prone private property and linking together a string of new green spaces along the bayou that will double as cachement basins during storms. A vegetation management program will re-introduce riparian plants and trees to intercept and absorb stormwater, mitigate Houston's intense heat island, and provide new wildlife habitat. And the new retention basins will double as parks with recreational facilities for surrounding neighborhoods.

These projects will also improve water quality in the region's waterways, since the stormwaters will have more chances to filter through the ground before they drain into the bayou and Galveston Bay.

New York's watersheds and stormwater systems (see my previous post) are very different from Houston's. But there are plenty of similarities, too, and the elegant solution of Project Brays is certainly worth admiring.

New York's regimented bureaucracy seems often to obstruct interdisciplinary problem-solving like this, but maybe the shame of being showed up by Houston (and Dallas, and Los Angeles, and others) will spur this city to action.

Other watershed restoration and flood control projects:

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