Harvey Spawns Interest In How Texas Harvests And Holds Water

Water may seem like a nuisance now, but drought will eventually return. Now is the time to design better water infrastructure for the Lone Star State.

By Joy DiazSeptember 7, 2017 1:45 pm,

It’s clean-up time at the home where Ron Gertson is staying. He’s taking refuge at his brother’s house because his house is uninhabitable at the moment. It is full of flood water from Hurricane Harvey.

Gertson is a rice farmer in Wharton County. And rice farming is all about water. Crops need a lot of it, but they can also be damaged by it. It’s a delicate balance. So Gertson is always watching the weather. Over the last decade, he’s noticed some crazy patterns near the Gulf Coast, where he lives.

“If we are not looking at flooding, it seems like we are looking at drought,” he says.

This flood gave him an idea. What if there was a way to save some storm and flood water and use it the next time there’s a drought?

“It’s just mind boggling just how much fresh water there was in the Colorado system that we now have no ability to do anything with except let flow to the Gulf of Mexico,” he says.

The Lower Colorado River Authority is working on a $250 million project right now, involving the construction of a combination of aquifers, dams and reservoirs that should be up and running by the end of next year.

“Hopefully it’s just the beginning of, perhaps, several similar projects that can take flood waters. And it doesn’t need to be a flood like this, where you can harvest that water – you know? – and save it for later,” he says.

In the event of another flood, harvesting water is just one thing Texas can do to store the water falling from the sky as well as the water already flooding the ground.

Gretchen Miller is an engineer at Texas A&M who specializes in ground water.

“We have a number of ways that we have historically done that. For instance, the lakes in Texas, most of them with the exception of one, are not actually lakes. They are reservoirs,” she says.

And they’re pretty full right now. But how long will that water last? The downside with reservoirs is that water evaporates. So, Miller and her team are looking for new ways to harvest that water and store it underground.

Water harvesting is not just for farming purposes. Urban settings can benefit from it too.  And perhaps the right time to talk about it is now. After the massive destruction Harvey left behind, there will be places that will have to rebuild from scratch. They’ll begin with a blank slate, making it a perfect time to ask: how do we rebuild, keeping in mind that water events and drought events will continue to happen?

Miller says subdivisions could be planned differently, with water harvesting in mind. She suggests thinking about saving space for stormwater management, such as setting aside one lot for a water retention pond, or equipping some of the houses with rain water collection systems for lawns or toilet flushing and changing the direction in which we build. She’s also a proponent of building up, not out.

“So, denser urban planning, denser more walkable communities,I think, could be one way that might be better to rebuild,” she says.

This is because, when there’s a flood, multi-story buildings are normally safer. The lower floors are for office spaces and businesses, and those living in the upper floors are normally untouched by the water.

These are all ideas people have when they see all this water and think about what to do before the next flood hits. But, we tend too often to forget these ideas, only to be reminded of them once the next drought hits.

Robert Mace certainly hopes we don’t forget. He’s with the Texas Water Development Board, the state agency that looks at droughts and floods and how better to react to them. Believe it or not, right before Harvey hit, the legislature asked the Water Development Board to create the state’s first-ever Flood Plan.

“Like, Houston, they are looking at what they need to do for flood[s]. Austin – you know? – the big cities, even the medium-size cities. What this is going to do is pull that all together into a state-wide picture,” Mace says.

The picture will include specific projects, like the ones farmer Ron Gertson is thinking about for storing some of those millions of gallons of water that just fell upon Texas and saving them for the next drought. The one that will inevitably come.