HOUSTON CHRONICLE ARCHIVES | Section: Outlook – Page 1
Washington’s answers won’t do to save Houston wetlands
By JOHN S. JACOB
WETLANDS are to Houston and the upper Gulf Coast of Texas what the redwoods are to Northern California: a uniquely local and regional resource of national significance.
The problem is that wetlands don’t quite stand out like a Mount McKinley or a redwood forest. It’s easy to miss a wetland driving by at 70-mph! We know so much more about the “standout” wonders of other places.
Our children know more about the South American rainforests than they do about the wetlands in their own back yard. A pity, because our local wetlands are beautiful places; but it is a beauty that is not easily accessible to the casual observer.
Rainforests are important, of course. They need protection because they are the “lungs of the world.” Let’s make sure our children know about them.
Wetlands are equally important. They are the “kidneys of the world”: they act as landscape-scale water filters. But wetlands are being destroyed here as shamefully fast as the rainforests are in South America.
Houston has a great diversity of wetlands because we sit at the convergence of prairie and forest and saltwater and freshwater ecosystems. The ancient rivers that deposited our landscape also carved out a wonderfully complex pattern of wetlands that is our geological legacy.
In order to live on this plain, we have had to drain much of the landscape. Land-leveling due to agriculture and paving from development reduced wetlands coverage by over 80 percent in some places. Rather than the surplus with which we started, good wetlands are now becoming a rare commodity. Fortunately, we have a strong regulatory program to protect our remaining wetlands .
Or do we?
Recently, a group of my students at the University of Houston Clear Lake examined the state of wetlands protection in the Houston metropolitan area. We looked at three areas of recent development (less than 10 years old) in the city to determine whether wetland-destroying development was actually being permitted as required by law, and to what extent important wetlands were being saved. To our surprise, we found that one of the developments had no permit at all, in spite of an abundance of wetlands prior to construction.
This was no third-rate project; on the contrary, it was a well-recognized major residential zone on the south side of the city, which suggests that awareness of the laws protecting wetlands may not be well known. Some would infer that it suggests blatant disregard, not ignorance. Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the agency charged with enforcing the wetlands protection laws) is perennially understaffed, they can only respond to violations that are reported.
If a developer is caught, he or she can always get an “after the fact,” with little, if any, penalty. A developer can’t lose by starting a project without a permit. We discovered that even in those areas where permits where obtained, the wetlands that were recognized and permitted were generally underestimated. This underestimation is important because permits for filling of wetlands are only granted if some mitigation or replacement is offered for the lost wetland acreage.
That replacement is most often in the form of a created or man-made wetland, which can be quite expensive, so that the more wetland acreage that has to be permitted, the more expensive the development will be. It obviously is not in the interest of most developers to overestimate wetland acreage, and in fact, it appears to be common practice to grossly underestimate the number of impacted wetlands . We also encountered gross misidentification of wetlands .
A large wet coastal flatwoods on the southeast side of town was declared to be a non-wetland to make way for a residential development. Records showed that both the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protested this call. All of the wetland scientists with academic affiliations that I know in this area consider these woodlands to be wetlands .
The Corps’ own biologist, brought in from regional headquarters, recommended further study of these flatwoods. The Corps has yet to act on that 10-year-old recommendation, and coastal flatwood wetlands continue to be destroyed today, particularly in the new developments just south of Lake Houston.
These findings alone should be cause for alarm, but it is unlikely that they are isolated exceptions to the state of wetlands protection in our area. Admittedly, ours was a very small sample, but it was completely random, biased only in that we chose areas where we knew wetlands had been impacted by development.
This exercise confirmed what I and many others have sensed for some years: the wetlands protection system is not working in our area, and it needs to be fixed soon. We are losing too many valuable wetlands , too fast. The results of our investigation demand a comprehensive audit of the entire wetlands protection system in our area.
Is stricter regulation the answer? The results of our study show there is some major leakage in the system, and we call upon responsible public officials to see that it is fixed. But such a tightening up would not likely stem the loss of wetlands , only slow it down. Very few permit requests are denied. Obviously, we have to recognize that development is going to take place. Conversely, we need to recognize that some wetlands are irreplaceable, and that we need to preserve wetlands areas in big enough parcels to be ecologically functional.
A local solution is needed. A federal or state-imposed solution can’t work. There is general consensus among most local ecologists and wetland scientists as to which wetland areas are the most valuable. Developers obviously have a pretty good idea as to which areas they want to develop. Can’t we do a little horse trading here?
Wetland preserves could be financed by an impact fee paid for by developers in place of the money they now pay consultants to delineate and permit wetlands , and in place of the expensive constructed wetlands that replace native wetlands that are lost. But won’t that mean we still lose wetlands ? Yes, but it also means we will have a chance to save some of the best of what remains.
Currently, there is no proactive designation of valuable wetlands in our area. Pristine prairie pothole complexes are given the same treatment as degraded wetlands with little ecological value. No-net-loss of wetlands has been the banner of the federal government’s wetlands program. No-net-loss means that counterfeit constructed wetlands can be accepted in the place of native wetlands that are the result of thousands of years of landscape shaping and evolution.
Wetland consultants, the prime benefactors of the wetland construction business, have yet to demonstrate that constructed wetlands can function ecologically or geologically any where near the level of our native wetlands .
No-net-loss is a prime example of a federally-mandated program that forces a one-size-fits-all solution on us. It gives us no chance to prioritize and save our most valuable wetlands . No-net-loss tells us our solution is to maintain the same wetland acreage we have now, no matter if the wetlands we end up with are poor substitutes for the originals.
A local solution might allow us to save the best of what remains, recognizing that we cannot simply replace what nature has given us over the millennia. The regulatory framework for developing a wetland preserve system is already in place. It is the Special Area Management Plan that can operate under a general permit. There is enough flexibility under this permit to develop a plan with broad local acceptance.
Developers could benefit from streamlined permitting and knowing in advance where development would be facilitated. All of Houston would benefit by having functioning wetland ecosystems to pass on to future generations.
These functioning wetland ecosystems practically pay for themselves by providing flood protection, not to mention, habitat for wildlife. And by financing the buyout of the wetland preserves, we avoid perhaps the most difficult problem of wetland regulation: that by declaring a property a jurisdictional wetland, the government in effect “takes” the property.
It is time for us to act to save our heritage. Washington’s program will not do it for us. We have the knowledge and the wherewithal to develop a regional program to save our wetlands . The question is: Do we have the will?