Runoff on our streets, pollution in our waters

Credit: Kushal Bose/Shutterstock

Natural water features like Galveston Bay, Lady Bird Lake and Woodlawn Lake are the pride of Texas. Whether you like to swim, fish or sail in these waterways — or just admire their beauty — they’re invaluable scenic and recreational treasures. But Texas’ waterways are being polluted by something that a lot of us don’t think about: rain runoff.

Because we’ve paved over so much of our cities, a lot of rain can’t soak into the soil anymore. Instead, it flows over roofs and roads, picking up oils, chemicals, litter and animal waste before it runs off into our great waters with these pollutants.

That’s why swimming is prohibited in Lady Bird Lake and ten creeks in Austin. And that’s why it’s too dangerous to swim or fish in 80% of all major waterways in the Houston area.

Credit: Ilona Koeleman/Shutterstock

As Texas grows, so does runoff pollution

We’re making the problem worse by covering Texas’ land with even more hard surfaces. The state’s population has doubled in recent decades, which is why we’ve built lots of new homes, offices and stores, and paved lots of new streets, highways and parking lots.

But when we cover more land with hard surfaces, we create more runoff. When rain falls on a natural site, up to 90% of it either soaks into the soil, evaporates into the air, or gets used by trees and grasses. When rain falls on land that’s been developed, more than half of it can turn into runoff.

And the runoff problem is being exacerbated by climate change, since Texas storms are getting more severe and more frequent. Heavy rains have increased by 167% in Houston since 1950, and by 67% in Austin.

Credit: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Managing our rainwater

There’s a way to cut runoff pollution, and that’s by preventing runoff in the first place. Texas cities can do this by encouraging and requiring the use of Green Stormwater Infrastructure in buildings and landscapes that captures and reuses rain onsite where it falls.

Some features, like rain harvesting cisterns and tanks, can store water for later use in irrigation. Other features, such as rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavements, allow water to collect so that it can slowly soak into the soil or evaporate into the air.

Green Stormwater features have been found to be very effective. Studies show that it can capture over half of the rain that falls on a site. In addition, features such as rain gardens and green roofs help beautify urban settings, and rain harvesting systems can store water for later use in landscape irrigation.

Building support for the right policies, right now

By demonstrating to elected officials that the public wants Green Stormwater Infrastructure—and by working with green builders and suppliers, environmental engineers and landscape architects—we can get the right policies in place.

Environment Texas is one of the only groups in Texas to make Green Stormwater Infrastructure a priority. We’ve just released a research report about it. We’re able to make our case to government officials because we already have relationships with many of them. And not only we can mobilize our own members, we can draw on support from our past and current coalition partners, including many environmental and community groups.

We have to act now, because we know that Texas’ cities are going to keep growing. That means that even more land will be covered with buildings and roads, even more rain will turn into runoff, and even more pollution will flow into our rivers, lakes and bays. But if we start using Green Stormwater Infrastructure across the state now, we can reduce the increase in runoff, and reduce the increase in runoff pollution. 

Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency via Government Works

What can you do?

Communities can use green methods in new public buildings and roads. They can also make it easier for businesses and residents to install green features by removing permitting barriers and providing financial incentives.

You don’t need to wait for your city to act. You can install rain gardens, green roofs, rain harvesting cisterns and permeable pavements at your own home or business now.

Texas won’t stop growing. But with Green Infrastructure, we can make sure that our new growth is as green as possible.

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