Other Voices

Private land conservation’s role in mitigating flood risk

There is little debate among scientists that our climate is changing, and in Texas that has meant ever-larger storm events resulting in catastrophic flooding. This Earth Day, we should take a moment to reflect on some potential solutions that can help our communities to cost-effectively and permanently mitigate flood risk, minimizing the damage to lives and property that so many of us have experienced across the Lone Star State. Storms like Harvey and the epic central Texas floods that have occurred recently demonstrate that these extreme weather events are likely to be an ever-present aspect of our lives.

In late 2017, the Texas House Natural Resource Committee was given an interim charge to “explore natural infrastructure and mitigation strategies that would reduce the impact of future flood events, and strategies to fund those efforts”, and the committee met this week to discuss this important issue. This is a first step for our state toward better understanding of how we can reduce the impacts of these extreme weather events. These problems will only continue to worsen as our state’s population grows, and Texas is expected to double in population by the year 2050. As we grow, we must work to develop our communities in ways that will enhance the integrity of our natural systems, not work against them.

Land trusts have been working in Texas since the 1960s, with a large expansion in the 1990s, growing from a handful of organizations to a robust coalition of more than 30 who now work to conserve our state’s most precious lands and waters. Conservation is an important and essential tool to improving community resilience, particularly when it comes to safeguarding against flood risk.

The permanent conservation of land in floodways, floodplains and flood recharge areas has been shown to be a cost-effective solution for flood damage reduction. And Texas land trusts stand as ready partners to help achieve a more sustainable balance between development and the enhancement of natural, buffer areas that serve to shield our communities from the most damaging aspects of flood events.

The recently released report, Protecting Open Space & Ourselves — led by The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M University — highlights the role that open space can play in reducing flood risk across the entire Gulf of Mexico region. The findings provide guidance on where to target strategic land conservation to both reduce flood risk and conserve biodiversity.

In the wake of Harvey, citizens, organizations and agencies are starting to take action. Right now, our Texas Water Development Board is undergoing its first ever “Flood Assessment” for the State of Texas, to help the state determine what the public benefits of a more comprehensive statewide flood planning effort would be. This new, statewide process seeks to gather information that can inform the legislature in the next session, to help them determine whether they want to put resources into such a planning effort. The assessment will be a key step toward increasing our understanding of the nature of the flooding threats that we will continue to face, and the full scope of strategies necessary to make Texas truly flood-resilient.

This Earth Day, let us each take a step that can place Texas on a path to greater sustainability and economic stability. Participate in the Texas Flood Assessment online survey, engage your local elected officials to voice your support for land conservation along floodplains, or join your local land trust to get involved and educate more people across Texas about the importance of these issues. Preserving and restoring our natural infrastructure- floodplains and coastlines- is the one sure ways that we can enhance our quality of life, now and for future generations.

Lori Olson is the executive director of Texas Land Trust Council.