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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'”…

More Wetlands, More Seafood: Corps and EPA clarify jurisdiction to protect additional waters

The welcome new guidance is Scribd below. Below that is a nice take on the subject from the always reliable and relevant Ecosystem Marketplace:

Draft 2011 Corps EPA Wetland Jurisdiction Guidance

From Hannah Kett and Ecosystems Marketplace:

US Aims to Expand Wetland Protection
Author: Hannah Kett

9 May 2011 | The Obama administration last week proposed a national clean water framework that could expand the protection of wetlands and waterways across the United States by providing new guidance for the Clean Water Act (CWA) that clarifies which waters and wetlands the CWA protects and which it does not. Comments can be offered here.

The new framework encompasses all current actions aimed at ensuring clean water across the country, as well as future plans for continued collaboration with communities and NGOs. It has won support from conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and regulators alike for aiming to expand protection of waterways without requiring new legislation or violating Supreme Court decisions that threw the definition of covered wetlands into question.

”The steps we’re outlining today will be instrumental to protecting the waters of the United States, and ensuring that the vital natural resources our communities depend on for their health and their economy are safeguarded for generations to come,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson at the time of the release.

Read more

Fee not Banks in Louisiana?

A friend sent me an interesting PowerPoint this morning.  I can’t say I agree with all the conclusions — particularly Slide 42 where NO negatives are identified with Fee Programs — but I am sympathetic with the authors. Louisiana is indeed woefully under-served by mitigation banks and professional delivery systems. The banks that are available seem (how can I put this delicately) kind of  “old school.”  Most of them, but not all, seem to be ad-hoc affairs where an enthusiastic landowner plopped down a bank at the best place — for him — land he owned.  In short, the banks seem to be located on available land — not ideal land.

I contend the state of Louisiana won’t do much better job than the private sector if they follow the traditional fee program path.  Fee Programs tend to get wrapped around the axle on certain matters, such as inappropriate government established “static” pricing of the mitigation credit, and the inablity of state employees to properly “wheel and deal” in the assemblage of the appropriate real estate.  The sad truth is, fee programs often end up over-or-under pricing their wares, and\or siting their project on state property or donated land — neither of which is ideal.

What to do?   If one must — simply must — establish a state clearing house for mitigation, the actual projects should be purchased\funded using the same model the North Carolina fee program operates:  Full Delivery.  Full Delivery mitigation projects are contracted “turn-key” restoration projects purchased to fulfill mitigaiton obligations, like those generated by a fee program.

Full Delivery operates  under a “two-envelope” bid system whereby a sealed technical proposal and a sealed cost proposal are solicited from qualified vendors to be opened at a date certain.  Full Delivery providers, such as Restoration Systems, respond to these bid advertisements with the following:

  • A Land Contract allowing the provider to “close” the necessary real estate (fee-simple or easement) if the bid is awarded.
  • A conceptual plan for the restoration of the subject property.
  • A justification of the project goals and location in light of state and federal planning efforts.
  • A commitment to obtain an A+ rated Surety Bond to guarantee success of the project.
  • A flat, not to exceed, per unit and total price.
  • Several dozen other commitments and determinations.

How Government Successfully Purchases Large Amounts of Wetland Mitigation and Environmental Restoration: T…

Above is a typical Request for Proposals from the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program

The technical envelope is opened first and the project is reviewed by state personnel from a quality standpoint alone, including a team visit to the site with the provider.  If the state wants, it can kick out any site it does not like at this stage — no questions asked.  Those that pass muster, however, are given a “technical score” that adjusts the final price so that higher quality project can have some chance of beating lower priced project.

Finally, those projects passing technical review and receiving scores have their “cost envelopes” opened.   The per unit cost is then  modified by the technical score, and awards are made.  I should stress that even AFTER the technical and cost proposals are opened and approved, the state can still reject any or all all  bids without explanation, if doing so is deemed in the interest of the state.  The entire cost to the state of generating dozens of qualified proposals for “turn-key” project under the Full Delivery is $0.  Yet the state is provided with multiple optinos for restoration at a price certain, with no chace of cost over-run.

Pretty cool, huh?  Literally hundreds of projects and dozens of firms have been funded in this manner by North Carolina, to the tune of several hundred million dollars. Billions of dollars are to be spent in Louisiana for compensatory mitigation of civil projects, such as state and federal levee construction, and relatively little thought has gone into best way to contract for the work.  This system works quite well and should, in my humble opinion, serve as the basis for the acquisition of  mitigation and coastal protection projects in the Pelican State.

NOTE:  The meat of the mitigation discussion begins on Slide 23.

Louisiana In-Lieu-Fee Wetland Mitigation Program Propsal

National Wildlife Federation report on Great Lakes Wetlands

Interesting report today concerning wetlands in the Great Lakes area from the National Wildlife Federation.  On the whole, I think the authors did a commendable job for folks that want to bone up on the status of the 404 and 401 wetland permitting programs in these states.  But I found a couple of things that bugged me a bit from the perspective of a mitigation banker — and a citizen.

 

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Click logo for the report

 

First, they continue to harp on the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s flawed study a few years back (p.66) indicating ecological short-comings in a sample of mitigation banks.   I have always maintained this study supports my contention that non-profit efforts to restore wetlands – banked or non-banked – tend to do poorly. 

 

If I remember correctly 7 of 9 of the sites studied in Ohio were non-profit efforts.  In other words, the sponsor did not have a personal financial stake in the ecological outcome of the restored wetlands.  I consider most of the benefits of mitigation banking – not all, but most — to be derived when the bank is a for-profit activity for which the sponsor will be held personally and financially accountable.  The motivation (financial reward for properly restoring a wetland) is more important than the method (banking, off-site consolidated, etc.)  We need to move away from wetland restoration as the province of part-timers and do-gooders 9god bless tham all) and toward a system of professionals personally invested in the outcome of the restoration effort.

 

Second, the authors do not stress large-scale agricutural restoration as public policy moving forward.  They go into exhaustive detail concerning the permitting of wetland losses, but short change the potential to restore those areas once considered “lost.” 

This is a subject you will hear more from me on.  Academics and wetland advocates tend to fight only the last war – protecting wetlands – when additional and incremental efforts would be more effectively focused on the next war:  Restoring the millions of acres ditched and drained for agriculture during the orgy of government funded wetland draining of the 20th century.  Restoring wetlands is not as politically saleable as the pained cries to “Save” the “fragile” acres here and there.  The wetland protection industry of NGO’s and government bureaucracy depend on the boogey man of development to drive interest and support — rather than taking responsibility for reversing the course of failed public policies. 

 

Dramatic gains for water, or any gain at all for that matter, cannot come from lowering the wetland loss in Ohio from 300 acres to 200 a year.  (Or whatever the figures are).  Worthwhile gains (the kind we owe children) will only come from stopping the subsidy of farming in formerly drained wetlands — and paying for their restoration.

 

 

 

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This figure is not from the NWF report, but it helps illustrate my 2nd point.