May 1

It’s officially Spring, and in  Austin that means thunderstorms, rain, and with it the occasional flooding. With all that extra water comes an increased risk of damage to local infrastructure, and homes if not properly accounted for. Luckily, more and more cities and individuals are finding creative ways to mitigate and manage these risks with a ‘landscape first” approach that increases our resiliency to natural disasters while keeping sustainability at the forefront.

If there is one important thing to remember about flood mitigation it’s that floods occur and there’s nothing we can do to prevent that. Our natural systems are actually very good at accepting rainfall on their own, if we allow them to do so; however, most cities are packed with impervious cover that resists the absorption of water and causes disasters like what we saw with Hurricane Harvey. Mother nature can truly be a powerful force, but we shouldn’t blame her for the downfalls of industrialization and our lack of foresight.

More and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of developing in flood plains, but it’s not enough to stop there. By preserving and strengthening local ecosystems we increase the natural channels and buffers that help keep an area safe. Instead of developing a floodplain for residential use, parks and open spaces allow water to absorb slowly and can filter the water into new areas to be stored. When we do need to develop an area residentially we can approach it from a green infrastructure point of view, which combines the engineered with the natural and mimics the ways in which the natural world manages storm water. Rather than increase funding for levees, damns, and water treatments plants, this approach encourages the use of rain water catchment, green roofs, permeable pavements, and rain gardens among many other techniques.

Flooding can occur almost anywhere for a variety of reasons, rises in ground water or sea water, excessive rain events, coastal floods, inland floods, or some combination of all of the above. In that respect management for flooding needs to be highly localized and directed at what kind of flooding an areas is susceptible to. Engineers, ecologists, city planners, and landscape architects all need to come together to create multi-use systems that can both serve the communities they are in while also creating solutions to floods.

I know this can all start to sound a bit theoretical, but there are many places around the world implementing these techniques today, including right here in Austin, Texas. A plan developed in 2015 for the flood prone Onion Creek area proposes setting aside 700 acres of land to be converted into public parkland. Unfortunately, this includes buyouts for people’s homes, which had been previously built in this area. Righting these wrongs isn’t always easy. Austin’s Waller Creek is also getting some major upgrades that is anticipated to take nearly 10 years to complete and finish in 2019. Some of the development includes a massive storm pipe to redirect water into Lady Bird Lake. Along the way the creek will be “re-vitalized” to create a riparian habitat with limestone cliff’s and vegetation to create a habitat for local wildlife. Ultimately, the project aims to create a “managed” relationship with nature, that doesn’t seek to end natural processes, but manage them to create a result that is better suited for both. Whether the pipe aspect of the development goes according to plan is yet to be seen, however, where design flaws in the pipe’s construction have caused set-backs and cost increases. Another example perhaps of how a decrease in massive infrastructure for an increase in our natural systems is the most efficient and cost effective solution. Or, have a spoke too soon?

Check out more on the Waller Creek Project here. 

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