Houston Wilderness Turns To "Super Trees" and Old Golf Courses To Fight Flooding and Climate Change

Exploration Green, an old Clear Lake golf course flipped into a flood prevention area, is one of many local projects to protect our region from the effects of hurricanes.
Photo by Deborah January-Bevers
Exploration Green, an old Clear Lake golf course flipped into a flood prevention area, is one of many local projects to protect our region from the effects of hurricanes.
Houston Wilderness president Deborah January-Bevers knew that the coronavirus was going to turn Houston upside down when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner cancelled the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in early March. When she heard the news, the local environmental nonprofit was just wrapping up a tree planting event with NRG Energy.

“NRG volunteers were helping us, and as we were finishing up the large-scale tree planting, the mayor announced the rodeo was closing… that was sort of the wake up call,” she said.

The bright side of the ensuing stay home orders and shift to remote work meant all of a sudden it was way easier to get all of the stakeholders involved in the city's Resilient Houston Plan's bold goal and Houston Wilderness facilitation efforts to plant 4.6 million trees in the Houston area by 2030 all together at the same time for planning meetings, albeit virtual ones.

Those informal virtual meetings led to the formation of the Tree Strategy Implementation Group, which is trying to fight climate change by planting more than 450,000 native trees annually to help our region hit the target of increasing the amount of carbon sucked out of the atmosphere by 4 percent each year.

January-Bevers said they’re focusing on 12 locally native “super trees” that are particularly good at absorbing carbon and strengthening soil to absorb more flood water: Live Oaks, Boxelders, Laurel Oaks, Red Maples, River Birches, American Elms, Slippery Elms, Tuliptrees, American Sycamores, Green Ashes, Loblolly Pines and White Ashes.

These volunteers planted trees with Houston Wilderness near the Houston Ship Channel back in January.
Photo by Deborah January-Bevers
That ambitious tree planting goal is just one part of the Gulf-Houston Regional Conservation Plan, an effort spearheaded by Houston Wilderness to preserve and protect the greater Houston area’s natural resources, improve water and air quality and protect our flood-prone neck of the woods from future natural disasters.

The plan is focused on Harris County and the seven counties that surround it — Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller. January-Bevers said planning for the Gulf-Houston RCP started back in 2014, but really got up and running after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 got government agencies and local interest groups more focused on setting aside money for flood control efforts.

In addition to the carbon reduction goal, the Gulf-Houston RCP calls for increasing the amount of protected and preserved land in these eight counties to 24 percent of total land coverage and ensuring that 50 percent of the region’s land has been bolstered by nature-based flood prevention techniques (like water-absorbing open grasslands, wetlands and natural cisterns), all by 2040.

Those numbers weren’t just drawn out of a hat, January-Bevers said. “We determined that based on growth rates over the next 20 years, and based on what we thought was the amount of protected, preserved land that would be needed to really provide resilience to the region,” she explained, and the final targets were approved by the RCP Science Task Force of local scientists and academics.

As the conservation plan’s main facilitator, Houston Wilderness plays the tricky role overseeing the efforts of over 100 local nonprofits, businesses and government entities who have signed on as willing participants in helping greater Houston bounce back faster from hurricanes and steeling the region against the threat of climate change.

Depending on the project, that could involve helping connect developers with grants to build eco-friendly recreation areas, rallying support for local flood control projects or bringing together environmental researchers and academics to help figure out just how aggressive our region needs to be in fighting climate change in the years ahead.

Houston Wilderness also keeps close tabs on all the environment preservation and flood prevention projects going on in the region to measure how much progress is being made on the land preservation, nature-based flood prevention and tree planting efforts it’s coordinating.

Since 2017, the amount of protected and preserved land in the eight county area covered by Houston Wilderness’s plan has increased from 9.3 percent to 14.7 percent, January-Bevers said. While a 5.4 percent increase doesn’t sound massive, that adds up to 248,000 acres of newly protected green space.

Two hundred of those acres are down south in a former golf course in Clear Lake. Back in 2011, the Clear Lake City Water Authority bought the overgrown and neglected Clear Lake Golf Course with the goal of turning it into a flood water detention zone that’s also an outdoor recreation area chock-full of hiking and biking trails and wildlife habitats.

Called Exploration Green, that project is estimated to have saved 150 homes in Clear Lake from flooding during Harvey. January-Bevers said the success of Exploration Green has led to three other ongoing projects that will make flood prevention areas out of other old golf courses: the former Inwood Forest Golf Course off White Oak Bayou, the old Brock Park Golf Course where Greens and Halls Bayous converge and the Raveneaux Golf Course up in Cypress.

“I’m sorry the golf courses weren’t working out, but they clearly weren’t profitable and they were already defunct. And now, we have a really cool way to turn them into substantial protective reserve land and nature-based stabilization techniques,” January-Bevers said.

While it continues to monitor those projects — which are being managed by the city of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control district — January-Bevers said Houston Wilderness continues to advocate for more environmentally-friendly development across greater Houston.

One initiative the group is focusing on is a lobbying effort for the upcoming state legislature session to rewrite a state law that limits the amount of taxpayer bonds that can be issued to fund outdoor recreation facilities — which can often double as flood water retention zones if they’re designed right — to less than 1 percent of the taxable property value in a given municipal utility district.

“They can make all the grey infrastructure they want… but they can only sell recreational bonds for green space up to 1 percent of the value of their property. So we’d like to go back to the Legislature and ask for a bigger percentage,” January-Bevers said.

Houston Wilderness is also working with the city of Houston on a big citywide tree planting push for Texas Arbor Day on November 6.

January-Bevers hopes that this year’s overactive hurricane season will keep the importance of flood control projects like those the Gulf-Houston RCP is calling for top-of-mind for both local leaders and residents.

While she knows better than anyone that there’s a lot of work left to do before our region can say it’s anywhere close to being ready for the next massive storm or the impending consequences of global warming, she also wants Houstonians and area residents to know there are plenty of concerned residents like her taking these issues seriously.

“Those hurricanes do sort of provide reminder after reminder that we’ve got to act now. And I know that there’s been some feeling that this region still isn’t acting fast enough, but really, there is a lot happening out there, perhaps more than people realize,” January-Bevers said.