Texas flood and the Katy Prairie Stream Mitigation Bank

The Katy Prairie west of Houston is in a certain sense ground zero for the recent Texas floods. The section of Harris County where RS’ Katy Prairie Stream Bank is located is an absolutely critical landscape for protecting Houston from flooding — and indeed mitigating the threat that already exists.

2009 Katy Prairie flood

Here is the deal: The 7000 acre Warren Ranch (owned by our partner in the mitigation bank, the Katy Prairie Conservancy) is centered in the last undeveloped expanse of the Katy Prairie west of Houston. It is well known that the relative worsening of Houston floods over time is attributable to the loss of storage capacity upstream as formerly pervious agricultural landscapes are devoured by the ‘concrete beast’ lumbering westward from the city center.

As the city and its environs devours land that once soaked up peak rain events, flooding downstream in Houston increases. The situation is the subject of increasing anxiety for Houston residents and the Corps of Engineers, who operate two flood control reservoirs protecting the city. 

The Katy Prairie Stream Mitigation Bank was deliberately located to address these problems. The project is a very positive development for Houston flood control for several reasons:

  • Water courses on the Warren Ranch are permanently protected in the future from culverting and concrete armoring which worsens flooding.
  • The former canals and ditches that once conveyed flood water too quickly downstream are restored to natural design channels which (ironically) flood more easily, thereby easing the flow downstream to the city.
  • Proceeds from the mitigation project collected by the Katy Prairie Conservancy are plowed into protecting more uplands in the region — leading to a virtuous cycle whereby mitigation dollars for aquatic mitigation are indirectly leading to the protection of flood protection uplands.

The 2008 Mitigation Rule is very clear that banks should be located using a watershed approach whereby the purpose and needs of the project are addressed regionally instead of locally. It would be hard to identify any mitigation bank in the country that more appropriately incorporates the watershed approach than the KPSMB.

Finally, perhaps you were interested to know how the restored streams fared in the recent deluge? Keep in mind 90% of the time our restored creeks are bone dry (or a “low-energy” system in hydro-parlance) but were designed — hopefully — to withstand every now and then a monstrous event of the scale recently witnessed.

Travis Hamrick popped up the drone and took the photos above and video below. Using a drone is my new hobby, so I watched him very carefully. As they used to say in the Timex commercial, the KPSMB: ‘Takes a lickin’ — and keeps on tickin'”…

Conservation Groups Challenge Limited Protections for Lesser Prairie Chicken

Three conservation groups – Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians – have filed a legal challenge to force full protection of the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act. The move comes in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to protect the highly imperiled bird only as “threatened” while providing special exemptions that would allow ongoing destruction of their dwindling grassland habitat.

Restoration of Warren Creek on the Katy Prairie, Texas

A section of the Katy Prairie’s Warren Creek that has been restored and recently seeded; just one small part of 100,000 linear feet of stream restoration being performed by Restoration Systems for Texas DOT’s Houston Grand Parkway toll road currently under construction by the Zachry-Odebrecht Parkway Builders.

Sage Grouse Rebellion: Will listing of two small birds limit oil drilling in the West?

Almost half the land west of the Mississippi belongs to the federal government, including 48% of California, 62% of Idaho and 81% of Nevada. No surprise that the Obama Administration wants to control more. But the result could be to suppress the country’s booming oil and gas developmentIn partnership with green activists, the Department of Interior may attempt one of the largest federal land grabs in modern times, using a familiar vehicle—the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A record 757 new species could be added to the protected list by 2018. The two species with the greatest impact on private development are range birds—the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken, both about the size of a barnyard chicken. The economic stakes are high because of the birds’ vast habitat.Interior is expected to decide sometime this month whether to list the lesser prairie chicken, which inhabits five western prairie states, as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Meantime, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are considering land-use amendments to protect the greater sage grouse, and to use proper Inflatable Packers for mining, which’d mitigate the landslides in the area. The sage grouse is found in 11 western states—California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Most of the areas affected are federal lands routinely used for farming, ranching, mining, road building, water projects and oil and gas drilling.

Texas, drillers gear up for long-term battle over endangered species

HOUSTON — The state of Texas and other oil and gas industry supporters are advising energy companies to prepare for a decades-long fight over plant and animal conservation and the Endangered Species Act.
Next month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a decision on whether to list the lesser prairie chicken, a species inhabiting prime drilling land in the Texas Panhandle, as threatened or endangered. Hagstrom Drilling and many other companies in the drilling and gas industry oppose that move and are hoping to win over FWS with their own protection plan as they successfully did with the dunes sagebrush lizard in the West Texas oil patch.
But the industry is being warned that the lesser prairie chicken is just the tip of an iceberg. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates that about 30 separate species in the state could be up for consideration next. David Blackmon, an industry adviser with FTI Consulting, said oil and gas companies could find themselves fighting cases involving as many as 250 individual species in the coming years. Just a handful of new ESA listings could seriously hamper drilling activity in Texas, he said.
“There will be a lot of litigation around it, and that’s never a productive way to spend money,” Blackmon said. “The requirements that come down with a listing can result in time delays in getting your work done … it can result in feasibility restrictions around mating seasons and migration seasons.”
In an interview, Blackmon pointed out the problems oil and gas companies have faced with meeting ESA requirements in the Rocky Mountains for the past 20 years. In California, “whole regions” have been designated off-limits to drillers due to ESA listings, he said.
Blackmon and others gave an impassioned plea to oil interests at a recent oil and gas prospects conference, urging companies to get ahead of the threat and develop a response strategy. They oppose listing the lesser prairie chicken, fearing that could bog down drillers in expensive conservation fees and litigation, burdens that may force smaller operators out of certain promising tight oil fields.
The state of Texas is also intervening. Last month, the office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts launched an initiative to get state universities involved in researching dozens of contested species to determine if any future ESA listings are warranted. In an interview, Comptroller Susan Combs said the research grants on offer are a deliberate push to get ahead of future FWS reviews.
“What we’re trying to do is help Fish and Wildlife have more information upfront so that their decisions then are based on really good science,” she said.
Conservation groups say they are not backing down as they wait for FWS to consider the status of several more species that call Texas home. They are already fighting the lizard decision in the courts and are pushing firmly for the lesser prairie chicken to be listed.
“We’re in the middle of an extinction crisis, and there’s more and more people, and more and more development, and more and more fossil fuels, and less and less habitat,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and who is involved in the effort to get FWS to move forward on listing considerations. “The number of endangered species is going to grow as we develop more and more habitat.”
Both sides see the dunes sagebrush lizard fight as round one of this conflict. Up for round two is next month’s lesser prairie chicken decision. That bird’s habitat covers five states and encompasses some of the most promising oil and gas real estate in the country, including the Texas Panhandle.
Adam Riggsbee, a principal at the Austin-based conservation firm RiverBank Ecosystems, said the forthcoming decision on the chicken’s status is the hottest topic in his industry.
“You sort of have the convergence of multiple interests in a high-stakes game here on the southern prairie,” he said. “You’ve got some of the biggest plays in the oil and gas industry right now in North America that could be affected by a listing of this bird, there’s no doubt about that.”
Riggsbee and others in his industry are critical of the plan being promoted by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA that’s supported by oil and gas interests.
That group’s Range-wide Conservation Plan was recently submitted to FWS for consideration as an alternative to a listing. The plan is voluntary, so its organizers are scrambling to get as many industry stakeholders on board as quickly as possible to show the government that they are up to the task. A lesser prairie chicken listing would affect not only drilling but also pipeline construction, utility work and even the large Texas wind power industry, they say.
“It is very important to us that the interest of all of our members and at large the industry is represented in the way this plan is executed, put together and the way it moves forward hopefully to keep [the lesser prairie chicken] from being put on the endangered species list,” said Wayne Hughes, executive director of the Panhandle Producers & Royalty Owners Association, at the start of a December 2013 briefing on the WAFWA plan in Amarillo, Texas. He said getting the industry to buy in to the WAFWA plan — an arrangement similar to one in place for the dunes sagebrush lizard in the Permian Basin — is urgent “so that we can have a good faith show for the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
WAFWA’s plan would implement an incentive system for landowners to preserve and expand the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat, along with a credit system enabling off-site habitat conservation and the offsetting of negative impacts to the chicken’s rangeland on a 2-1 basis. It has already been endorsed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. FWS is now taking a closer look at a separate plan put forth by the American Habitat Center, a group formed from oil and gas interests along the lines of the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation, which was founded by the industry to manage dunes sagebrush lizard habitat.
Comptroller Combs vigorously defends the habitat conservation foundation’s model, arguing that voluntary measures that emphasize control are key to winning over landowners and local oil and gas companies to species protections.
“Texas is 97 percent private land, so you sort of take your features where you find them,” she said. “This is a private-land state and people do want to be cooperative, but they are, as you well might imagine, suspicious of the federal government, and the federal government understands that, and they work through other entities and they get good, reliable partnerships.”
Private conservation bankers worry that there is too much flexibility built into the WAFWA plan in an effort to keep conservation efforts as cheap as possible. They support a conservation banking system that’s been a regular feature in habitat protection since 2003, instead of the more fluid, less permanent solution to protecting lesser prairie chicken habitat envisioned by WAFWA.
Wayne Walker of Common Ground Capital, a firm that’s been busy for two years identifying prime lesser prairie chicken habitat for conservation projects that can generate marketable credits, worries that WAFWA’s plan moves the government and industry away from proven habitat banking methods. The credit system WAFWA is proposing deals only with “term impacts,” he said, and does away with efforts to create permanently protected zones.
“Instead of having permanent offsets for impacts, which is what you normally do for species, we’re going to change those rules,” Walker said. “We’re going to create a whole new market and credit type that’s based on five- or ten-year credits, mostly five-year credits, and that, of course, cheapens the cost of conservation because you don’t have to have an easement on property, the endowment cost is less, and the belief is the industry will flock to this because it’s easier.”
Walker predicts that the industry will trade more affordable and flexible conservation efforts for greater risk of future litigation by outside environmental groups. Riggsbee agrees, arguing that lawsuits are almost certain if the Fish and Wildlife Service seems too willing to bend to the interests of landowners and developers over the interest of the lesser prairie chicken species.
“Unfortunately all indications would point to that they just picked what solutions were presented to them and that they are leaning toward accommodating,” he said. “Those particular solutions are full of legal uncertainties.”
Curry at the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization and others aligned with it oppose the voluntary approach that’s increasingly being promoted. That’s one reason they are attempting to force FWS to reverse course on the dunes sagebrush lizard.
“There has to be something legally binding in there somewhere that says we are not going to destroy the habitat of the species, and this isn’t present in a lot of the voluntary measures,” she said.
“There has to be some actual accountability in there somewhere,” Curry added.
The Center for Biological Diversity and its allies will press for action on the status of 252 other species the government has committed to reviewing as part of a settlement reached in 2011 between the center, Fish and Wildlife Service, and WildEarth Guardians, Curry said. Fish and Wildlife has until September 2016 to finish that work.
Those species have been waiting for reviews for decades, Curry said. She said the environmental groups’ legal actions against FWS are meant to compel that understaffed and underfunded agency to do the work that it is charged to do.
FTI Consulting’s Blackmon sees a larger role to stymie oil and gas development, using the Endangered Species Act as an effective tool to accomplishing this.
“These species were targeted by these groups because they exist in large numbers over large geographic areas, and a listing of them would have maximum negative impact on development,” he argued. “If you end up having to deal with 20 different species — some of which have seasonal restrictions, some of which have provisions [that] require you to perform biological surveys or to be set back so many thousand feet from a nest or a hole that a lizard lives in — then pretty soon you run out of time in the year or land on which to actually do any development, and that’s the whole goal, strategy that these groups are following under this law.”
Scientists believe the population of lesser prairie chickens has been in sharp decline over the past decade. Drought conditions in 2011 and 2012 were particularly hard on the bird.
Walker at Common Ground Capital said it’s important for the sake of the chicken’s survival that the right conservation model be put in place. He points to a cousin of that species as an example of how difficult protecting the lesser prairie chicken could be.
The Attwater’s prairie chicken is making its final stand at a small wildlife refuge managed by FWS about an hour west of this oil and gas capital. Closely related to the lesser prairie chicken, the Attwater’s chicken was one of the first species put under protection in accordance with ESA, but Fish and Wildlife is still struggling to figure out how to make the population viable without captive breeding.
Attwater’s chickens were decimated by hunting and the development of the Texas and Louisiana coastal plains. In 1900, the government estimated its population at about 1 million. Today, fewer than 60 call the refuge home, while a smaller number of Attwater’s prairie chickens are being kept alive as part of a captive breeding program. Fish and Wildlife officials believe strongly that captive breeding is the only thing keeping this bird from going the way of the passenger pigeon.
“Big, un-fragmented landscapes are what these birds need,” Walker said. “Back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s … there were some ranches that could have been bought, large ranches to be permanently protected, and a lot of scientists think if that would have been done, you would have enough landscape left to have a viable Attwater’s chicken. To some extent, we’re kind of repeating history here.”
Reprinted courtesy of Nathanial Gronewold, E&E reporter; published February 20, 2014


Lesser Prairie Chicken (LPC) Resource Center

We love the LPC everyday, especially on Valentine’s Day! Lesser prairie chickens (LPC) once ranged all across the Southern Great Plains. Historically this area of the United States boasted both lesser and greater prairie chickens along with teeming herds of bison and pronghorn antelope, huge black-tailed prairie dog towns and mule deer in the wooded draws and canyons.

Lesser prairie chickens could be found in much of western Texas, western Oklahoma and Kansas, eastern New Mexico and southeast Colorado. This regional landscape, however, has seen many changes over the last 150 years, leading to an estimated 92% decline in this little grouse’s population. These losses are a direct result of the declining quality of habitat due to human activities such as conversion of native prairie to tilled agriculture, oil and gas exploration, urban development and suppression of naturally occurring fire.


17,000 feet of stream restoration in Texas

Reach 5 of Warren Creek: 17,000 feet of stream restoration completed ahead of schedule by Restoration Systems for TxDOT  – 52,000 feet still to be done – compensation for impacts of under-construction segments of the Grand Parkway, Houston, Texas.

RS Video: Katy Prairie Stream Mitigation Bank

Restoration Systems was thrilled to see the final cut of the video below RS produced to profile our Katy Prairie Stream Mitigation Bank. The point of a corporate video of this kind is to help explain a project, so I will keep the narrative here to a minimum. Suffice to say, however, that we are immensely proud of this mitigation bank and our many partners; particularly, the Warren Family and the Katy Prairie Conservancy; our stream design team, KBR, Stantec and Forbes Consultancy; our contractor Land Mechanic Designs, and planter Stuckey Seeding — among many others.

We will be turning dirt out on the prairie for years to come, so this is unlikely to be the last version of the film. It will be fun taking footage of the site as it matures — over the next several decades — and including it in an evolving series of similar productions from Human Films.

Stay tuned!

Warren Creek Newly Restored

We were sent some great photos this morning of the newly restored reaches at Warren Creek from Land Mechanics and the construction crew in Texas.

All we need now is both banks planted thick with yellow roses. (Just kidding.)

E&E: Future of Conservation?: RS Katy Prairie Bank Nation’s Leading Commercial Mitigation Project

From more pics of the project visit our public Facebook page.

To learn more about the project visit our Katy Prairie project page:

I’ve read a lot articles about mitigation banking. But this one got it just right.

We made the largest sale in the history of the mitigation industry to the Grand Parkway, for segments F1, F2 and G,” Howard explained. “As Houston grows west, it’s going to demand mitigation, and then that will drive the restoration of the Katy Prairie and the Warren Ranch. — George Howard, E&E, October 5, 2012

Texas launches eco-credit trading to mitigate development impacts
Published:Friday, October 5, 2012 | Source:

Nathanial Gronewold, E&E reporter

HOUSTON — One of the largest highway construction projects in the country promises to deliver more urban sprawl to already-diffuse Houston when it is completed in 2019, threatening vast swaths of untouched natural areas.

State Highway 99, or the Grand Parkway, will become the third freeway loop to circle the greater metropolitan area here, alleviating congestion in some places but inevitably encouraging this fast-growing city to further expand its footprint.

But a new Army Corps of Engineers-administered ecological credit trading system being introduced in the state is viewed by developers as a potential game changer in the struggle to balance conservation and city growth.

Adjacent to the highway project, work crews began construction this week on the nation’s largest “stream mitigation bank” project, a market-based approach to mitigating losses of creeks, streams and smaller waterways affected by development.

The project, undertaken in conjunction with a local conservation group called the Katy Prairie Conservancy, seeks to restore more than 110,000 feet of streams lost to earlier development at a site managed by the conservancy on the Warren Ranch, the largest operating cattle ranch in Harris County. Officials involved in the project say it will serve as a template for this city’s future growth, ensuring that development in one part of the watershed will be met first with protections and ecological mitigation in another part of it.

The project, paid for by the sale of environmental mitigation credits to the highway project, will also potentially create revenues the conservancy can use to purchase and protect other parts of what is left of the historic Gulf Coast prairie that used to dominate Harris County, now almost completely swallowed by the city’s relentless growth.

Mary Anne Piacentini, director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, said the arrangement will earn her organization enough funds to pay off the debt it took to acquire the ranch and create that portion of the preserve. The conservancy owns 72 percent of Warren Ranch, while family members control the rest.

“Clearly the money is important, and it will … allow us to ensure the permanent protection of the ranch,” Piacentini said. “But it also is important because it is really improving habitat on the ranch, not just the streams themselves, but the banks of the streams and the flood way and floodplain and the improved grasslands that are going to be on either side lining the creeks.”

Under the new Army Corps system, which the agency began crafting in 2008, construction projects that would cross or otherwise affect waterways in Houston’s watershed would have to receive a special permit to be allowed to continue. Developers have the option to avoid the impact entirely, minimize it as much as possible or mitigate the damage by restoring an equal amount of waterway in a different part of that watershed.

The stream mitigation bank project on the Katy Prairie will offset damage to other waterways at points where the massive Grand Parkway will be built. Click the map for a larger version. Map courtesy of Restoration Systems LLC.
The system allows third-party developers to manage their own restoration projects and bank credits for doing so. Later projects can then purchase those credits from these mitigation banks to meet regulations and proceed with construction.

Mitigation banking has been up and running in North Carolina for a few years but had yet to be introduced to Texas. George Howard, president of Restoration Systems LLC, said this initial project will serve as a template for future development mitigation banking throughout Houston and eventually across all of expanding Texas. Restoration Systems is the firm leading the Katy Prairie stream mitigation bank project.

“We made the largest sale in the history of the mitigation industry to the Grand Parkway, for segments F1, F2 and G,” Howard explained. “As Houston grows west, it’s going to demand mitigation, and then that will drive the restoration of the Katy Prairie and the Warren Ranch.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates that the Katy Prairie — a popular birding spot and home to a variety of species — once covered an area of 500,000 to 750,000 acres before development began, first in the form of rice farms and later as subdivisions. Little remains; Piacentini estimates that less than 20 percent is in “OK” condition, while perhaps 1 percent is considered “pristine.”

And a booming Houston economy is still putting pressure on the land. Plans for thousands of new homes and businesses are in the works for both sides of the route along the future Highway 99 toll road.

Segment E of the parkway, scheduled to open to traffic in late 2013, was permitted under the old system and is not contributing to the current stream construction. But the other three segments of the highway that will link Houston’s north suburbs will cross more waterways, and the state highway department is required to purchase conservation credits to get the permits it needs.

The city is eager to open segments F1, F2 and G in time for the opening of a massive new corporate campus that Exxon Mobil Corp. is building in the northern suburb of the Woodlands. To offset the damage caused by those three segments to north and northwest Harris County waterways, the Grand Parkway project will purchase banked mitigation credits from Restoration Systems, covering the cost of the Katy Prairie project and possibly more conservation initiatives.

Howard said it took the group four years to secure the permit for its stream mitigation project, but he said the delay was expected. Having never administered such a system in its area of jurisdiction before, the Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Galveston essentially had to develop standard operating procedures. Future projects will experience fewer bureaucratic hurdles, officials predict.



During a recent tour of the stream restoration project site, Lee Forbes, a fluvial geomorphologist and president of Forbes Consultancy PLLC, explained the team’s plan for building — sometimes almost from scratch — more than 100,000 feet of streams that will be nearly identical to natural streams that once were found on the ranch.

Before the banking method was introduced, construction projects could offset their ecological impact by funding wetland restoration elsewhere in the region. The new rules specifying mitigation of streams bring greater technological challenges, Forbes said.

“Stream impacts, which prior to this were able to be mitigated with wetlands, now have to be mitigated with streams,” Forbes said. “And streams are a lot more complex to design, build and maintain, and they have different function, ecological function, than a wetland.”

Earlier settlers to the site worked to straighten out some streams and create a direct path to their tributaries, believing that was better for moving water efficiently and for flood control. But natural streams engineer themselves to move both water and sediment in the most economic manner that nature allows, creating the winding paths that creeks and rivers take in near-flat terrain.

Blueprints of the first phase of the project show what Forbes and others involved have planned. The course is deliberately windy and crosses much of the existing straight channel several times. Crews will also build the stream to have different depths at different places, and trees and branches will be carefully inserted in places to brace the walls of the stream, just as naturally fallen trees do for wild streams.

“A stream functions best when it has easy access to the floodplain. That’s how it builds itself, how it manages its energy,” Forbes said. “We’re putting back in ripples, runs, pools and glides. … It’s a very complex science.”

Stream construction is so complex that advanced computer models and the latest satellite-driven surveying equipment have to be laid out to plot the best meandering path to take. Local construction crews are also unschooled in the idea, requiring extra training, Forbes said.

“The contractors that do it have been from other states where they have been doing it a lot longer,” he said. “We have a mission here in Houston to start training the local contractors on how to do this.”


Technical challenges aside, both Forbes and Howard are convinced that the market-driven approach behind the mitigation banking concept is the future of environmental conservation across the United States.

Restoration Systems estimates it will generate about 250,000 credits from just this project, each credit selling to construction projects for about $250. As the first project, the Katy Prairie stream mitigation bank is being priced in the absence of competition, but Howard expects more actors to enter the fray and force credit prices lower as Houston continues to grow. City leaders believe Houston will overtake Chicago as the nation’s third most populous city by 2030.

Conservation through market-based credit trading systems has detractors. A similar project proposed by U.S. EPA for Chesapeake Bay is facing a court challenge by environmentalists who allege that credit trading will invite fraud and abuse (Greenwire, Oct. 3).

But the Army Corps of Engineers and the forces behind the pilot in Texas seem convinced that the concept is proved to work and may be one of the best methods for balancing development and environmental protection.

“There could be additional banks, and then it would be a competitive market that sells to the impactor at the best rate, so it’s a market-driven ecosystem management,” Forbes said. “Meanwhile, economic development and growth are restoring some of the last vestiges of native prairie and streams in the country.”

Piacentini says she’s equally enthusiastic about the concept and the millions of dollars her organization will receive from it. She is looking for other market-based conservation models that the Katy Prairie could tap into, to grab hold of more tracts of land to preserve ahead of the expanding zone of concrete.

The stream mitigation bank going up now is a prime example of the obvious benefit, she said.

“It will give us water. It will give us a place to put trails. It will allow us to improve the water quality in that stretch of the various tributaries to Cypress Creek,” Piacentini said. “And it will also just ensure that there are places that continue to be available for wildlife.”

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