Since Houston, Texas was founded nearly two centuries ago, Houstonians have been treating its wetlands as stinky, mosquito-infested blots in need of drainage.
Even after it became a widely accepted scientific fact that wetlands can soak up large amounts of flood water, the city continued to pave over them. The watershed of the White Oak Bayou river, which includes much of northwest Houston, is a case in point. From 1992 to 2010, this area lost more than 70% of its wetlands, according to research (pdf) by Texas A&M University.
In the false-color satellite images below, plants and other vegetation appear green, while urbanized and developed areas appear blue and purple. Drag the slider to see how northwest Houston has changed since 1986.
In recent days, the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey has raised water levels in some parts of the watershed high enough to completely cover a Cadillac. The vanished wetlands wouldn’t have prevented flooding, but they would have made it less painful, experts say.
The Harvey-wrought devastation is just the latest example of the consequences of Houston’s gung-ho approach to development. The city, the largest in the US with no zoning laws, is a case study in limiting government regulations and favoring growth—often at the expense of the environment. As water swamps many of its neighborhoods, it’s now also a cautionary tale of sidelining science and plain common sense. Given the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protections, it’s one that Americans elsewhere should pay attention to.
A distaste for regulation
Wetland loss is one of the many effects of lax rules. The construction of flood-prone buildings in flood plains is another one: The elderly residents of La Vita Bella, a nursing home in Dickinson, east of Houston, were up to their waists in water before they got rescued. The home is within the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) designated flood zone.
Yet another consequence is that too few people have flood insurance. Although federal rules require certain homeowners to carry it, those rules are based on outdated flood data. Only a little over a quarter of the homes in “high risk” areas in Harris County, where Houston sits, have flood insurance. The share is even lower, 15%, in many other areas that will also no doubt suffer water damage from Harvey.
“We’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding Houston exactly like it is now, and then wait for the next one.” And that’s before Trump came into office and started removing layers of regulation. Just 10 days before Harvey struck, the president signed an executive order that rescinded federal flood protection standards put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. FEMA and the US Housing and Urban Development Department, the two federal agencies that will handle most of the huge pile of cash expected for the rebuilding of Houston, would have been forced to require any rebuilding to confirm to new, safer codes. Now, they won’t.
“What’s likely to happen is we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding Houston exactly like it is now, and then wait for the next one,” says Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst on water issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
To take another example: Obama had greatly expanded the number of wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act. This federal law requires developers who destroy wetlands to mitigate the ecological effects, for instance by creating new wetlands elsewhere. In February, the Trump administration said it would repeal (paywall) Obama’s decision, meaning a lot more wetlands would lose that protection. (The repeal process is still unfolding.)
Not that Houston has ever been a stickler for federal rules. To get a permit under the Clean Water Act, developers who build in protected wetland areas must submit paperwork showing they’ve completed mitigation measures. In 2015, Texas A&M and non-profit research group HARC analyzed a sample of permits issued from 1990 to 2012 in the greater Houston area. They found that in fewer than half of the cases had the developers submitted complete paperwork, and in two thirds of the cases, there was no documentation that any type of mitigation had happened. Another study (pdf) by the same two groups looked at a dozen projects that had obtained permits, and found that only two of them had successfully offset wetland destruction, seven were partially successful, and three were complete failures.
And that’s only projects subject to federal regulations. The researchers found that the vast majority of wetland-disrupting activities aren’t subject to those rules. “The inevitable resultant freshwater wetland loss is therefore often uncounted and unmitigated,” they wrote (pdf).
Draining the swamp
Largely unobstructed either by rules or by natural features such as mountains, the Houston area sprawled. Between 1992 and 2010 alone nearly 25,000 acres (about 10,000 hectares) of natural wetland infrastructure was wiped out, the Texas A&M research shows. Most of the losses were in Harris County, where almost 30% of wetlands disappeared.
Altogether, the region lost the ability to handle nearly four billion gallons (15 billion liters) of storm water. That’s equivalent to $600 million worth of flood water detention capacity, according to the university researchers’ calculations.
To be sure, that’s a drop in the bucket of what Harvey will eventually unleash. The estimate was already at nine trillion gallons a couple of days after the storm made landfall. But saving and restoring wetlands is nonetheless an important part of making Houston more storm resistant, says Mary Edwards, a wetlands specialist at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension.
Much of the destroyed wetlands were covered with pavement to accommodate the region’s explosive population growth. So these days, even a run-of-the-mill storm causes water to gush down the streets and can lead to flooding. “We generated a lot of runoff and until now we haven’t been able to keep up,” she said.
It won’t be long before remaining undeveloped places in the Houston area are swallowed up. Take a look at the Brays Bayou watershed, in southwestern Houston. The maps below show how the area lost nearly half of its wetlands, shown in purple, as development (the gray areas) expanded. The area has flooded for the past three years in a row.
It’s not just wetlands that are being destroyed. Prairies, which also act as floodwater sponges, have been decimated too. Below, maps show the change in the Katy Prairie, west of downtown Houston. By 1996, much of it was gone, but another 10% had been lost by 2010, while the developed acreage grew by 40%, data from HARC shows.
These maps don’t show what has happened over the past seven years. Bill Bass, the HARC geospatial technology expert who put them together for Quartz, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which compiles the data he used, hasn’t released its latest installment, for 2015. That’s the result of another example of shortsightedness; NOAA, one of the government agencies best equipped to generate information for tracking and responding to climate change, has been underfunded for a while, and Trump has proposed cutting its budget even more.
More people = more storm refugees
Houston has been stuck in a vicious circle. More people means more subdivisions, and more subdivisions means more runoff. That results in more flooding, which ends up affecting more people.
John Jacob, a wetlands expert who runs Texas A&M’s Coastal Watershed Program, has been warning about the dangerous effects of bulldozing natural flood barriers for years. The mission of his program is to share the science with communities to help them better cope with the fact that many of them live not much above sea level in hurricane country. He says he sees signs that Houstonians are finally coming to terms with the need to change their ways.
“The idea that we just don’t care is radically changing,” says Jacob. “The real-estate people, to them Houston is a one-night stand. The rest of us want this to be a place where our grandkids are happy and safe… This storm just cements that there’s consequences to the way we’ve done stuff.”
Heather Timmons contributed to this article.