Will ‘Gray’ or ‘Green’ Flood Infrastructure Protect Houston?

Sourced from CityLab

With the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season under way as of June 1, Texas has taken a major step toward improving its flood defenses by passing a bill to tap into the state’s savings—the aptly nicknamed Rainy Day Fund—for a sum of $1.7 billion. The move comes almost two years after Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas in August 2017, killing 68 people and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage statewide.

Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 7 in late May, and it now awaits the signature of the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott. For municipal governments around the state, small and large, the bill’s passage means an influx of money through grants and loans that will unlock cost-sharing federal dollars for as-yet-unspecified resilience schemes.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo wrote to Abbott and other senior state politicians in January urging them to free up some of the reserves. A spokesman for Turner said last week that the mayor advocated for the Rainy Day funds “because of massive return on its investment for flood projects.” For FEMA Public Assistance projects, such as repairing buildings and parks and replacing equipment, local governments will get $9 for every $1 spent. For FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant projects, the state will get $7.50 in federal aid for every $2.50 it spends.

A chance to push for green infrastructure

With its loyal support for the oil and gas industry, it’s not often that the Texas legislature gives conservationists anything to cheer. But the text of Bill 7 cites “construction and implementation of nonstructural projects, including projects that use nature-based features to protect, mitigate or reduce flood risk.” Environmental advocates see a chance to push for green designs in a state better known for exploiting natural resources than preserving them.

Lawmakers still envision a significant role for traditional “gray” engineered solutions, such as pipes, levees, drainage channels, and retention basins. But Laura Huffman, state director for The Nature Conservancy, thinks politicians are “recognizing that green infrastructure can scale just like gray infrastructure,” she said.

“So we could do things as small as pocket prairies in a neighborhood—which could be restoring a vacant lot, a parking lot, a front yard—and that actually can do a lot for helping to manage the ‘flashy’ parts of flash floods,” said Huffman. “And you can scale that strategy out to a city and a regional level.”

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