In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey, the city of Houston is finding new ways to use its golf courses and save whole communities. And as is so often, it comes with some "small" sacrifices.
Most of Houston's golf courses were inundated with flooding during the storm, which isn't a surprise since most courses are fairly flat and aren't built to accommodate historic rainstorms.
But as the Clear Lake City Water Authority in Houston's southeast side discovered, they can be designed to hold in water. In fact, with a little ingenuity, they're great as mini-reservoirs that deter flooding in other parts of the surrounding community.
The project is the result of a combined effort of the CLCWA and the Exploration Green Conservancy to protect the city's homes from accumulating rainwater. When the owner of the defunct Clear Lake Golf Course announced plans to pave over the course for commercial development, the city interceded, worried that it would create more flooding. The CLCWA says it already had indications that the golf course was the catchment area for standing water during storms and was working on ways to prevent more widespread flooding.
But efforts to convince the owner to sell the property to the CLCWA failed. After several attempts to come to a compromise, the community eventually filed to condemn the property and bought it for $6.1 million.
In 2015, the CLCWA went to work on a multi-stage plan to develop a capture reservoir that would have five separate ponds. The engineers had almost completed Stage 1 when Tropical Storm Harvey barreled into Houston last summer.
The experiment worked. The first pond was only partially complete; still, it managed to keep 100 million gallons of water from flooding homes and streets. Harvey was just the test scenario that the engineers needed to determine whether their new catchments would hold back flooding.
But turning golf courses into giant holes isn't really what the project is about. It's about using nature to improve a community's resiliency. The project includes redeveloping the 200-square-acre plot to include walking trails, trees and other features that will be available to the community year-round.
“We don’t want it to just be a hole in the ground, we want it to be something nice. Unless there’s a hard rain, the public can use it every day for something other than flood control” CLCWA President John Branch told the Texas Tribune in an interview last month.
And that kind of thinking -- the idea that communities need green spaces that can help combat environmental risks is growing.
In February the Houston city council approved a plan to redevelop the defunct Inwood golf course into a multi-use green space that would house basins for about 370 million gallons of stormwater. The detention ponds would help reduce flooding from the White Oak Bayou, an area that sustained widespread flooding during the Harvey rains this summer.
Both golf courses pose unique advantages to nearby communities: They are positioned right next to, or within the growing communities, so the catchment ponds are able to act as runoff areas for water that would otherwise inundate storm drains and streets. And, as in the case of the Exploration Green site, planners are able to selectively introduce plants that help with retention and absorb city carbon emissions.
As to golfing in Houston: There are still plenty of golf courses to go around. Houston has an estimated 150 courses spread about its flat landscape, and are still a major attraction for the city's tourism and residential home industries.
Still, if there's any positive takeaway from the city's increasing vulnerability to flooding, it's the realization that there's environmentally positive ways to use open spaces that both benefit the community and protect land values. Cities in environmentally at-risk areas are also looking at the prospect of buying flooded homes and developing those properties into retention ponds. Cost and at times, neighborhood push-back are the two biggest obstacles that cities face when trying to stave off that next 100- or 500-year-flood.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.