HOUSTON — A small thunderstorm three years ago pushed more than a foot of floodwater into Stan Cook’s home in the small community of Clear Lake, ruining old home movies, destroying kitchen cabinets and causing more than $130,000 in damage.
So when Hurricane Harvey dropped biblical amounts of rain on the region in August, he braced for the worst. Yet, only an inch of water crept into his Reseda Drive home, soaking carpets but not much else.
The reason for the drastic change: A new golf-course-turned-lagoon-sized detention pond sprawling just beyond Cook’s backyard.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Cook, 62, looking out at the complex of water, trees, pipes and culverts. “I’m hoping I’ll never flood again.”
The record-shattering rains that Harvey unleashed here in August killed about 50 people in the greater Houston area, displaced thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage. Ever since, residents and regional leaders have debated how best to rebuild neighborhoods to prevent future catastrophic flooding.
Houston’s robust development and lack of greenways and retention ponds to absorb heavy rainfalls have been eyed as key reasons the city inundated so drastically during Harvey.
A project in the Clear Lake neighborhood of southeast Houston, called Exploration Green, is being heralded as a solution: living with water rather than constantly fighting off floods.
Started last year, the project is using a $28 million bond approved by voters to transform a former golf course into a sprawling 178-acre greenway that when completed will include bikeways, bird habitats, wetlands and a series of detention ponds with the capacity of holding 500 million gallons of rainwater. The project is being built in five phases and is scheduled for completion in 2021.
The first phase of the project was about 80% finished when Harvey hit. An estimated 150 Clear Lake homes were spared serious flooding by what was already in place, organizers said.
Though the project won’t protect the neighborhood from the surge of a large storm coming inland from Galveston, it’s a step in the right direction and could be replicated in coastal cities around the USA, said Jim Blackburn, a planner and environmental law professor at Rice University.
“It’s the perfect example of the type of thinking that’s out of the box,” he said. “It broke our mode which is: Every square inch needs to be developed. It’s about living with water.”
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Clear Lake City was developed in the 1960s, around the same time the nearby Johnson Space Center opened to run NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. The community’s 200-acre golf course was popular at the time but over the years became less and less in demand.
Clear Lake City was annexed by the city of Houston in 1977 but the area retained the Clear Lake City Water Authority. When its owners wanted to sell the old golf course, the water authority proposed buying the greenway and transforming it into a detention pond to cut down on future flooding. Clear Lake City Water Authority customers approved the $28 billion bond and Exploration Green was born.
When complete, the project’s detention ponds are expected to buffer around 3,000 area homes from flooding, said John Branch, president of the Clear Lake City Water Authority.
“The water has to go somewhere and it’s better to go into a detention pond than into a bayou where it’s just going to overflow,” he said.
Locals saw development in Houston and nearby Pasadena galloping toward them at the same time that bigger and more frequent rain events were occurring, said Doug Peterson, vice chairman of the Exploration Green Conservancy that was created to usher the project along. That mix of more concrete and stronger storms raised concerns the area could soon see the type of catastrophic flooding West Houston experienced during Harvey.
“It’s a bad combination,” he said. “That’s what we were facing.”
Not everyone is sold on the project. Critics decried the project for cutting down live oaks and sycamore trees that lined the golf course and opposed piping in treated sewage water from a nearby water treatment plant to keep water levels flowing.
Carole Henning, spokeswoman with Friends of the Old Golf Course, which opposes the project, said she and others are skeptical the project will do what it proposes and at such a high cost. The money would be better spent improving drainage lines and buying out homes prone to flooding, she said.
“It doesn’t achieve the thing they say it does and it wastes a lot of money,” Henning said.
But for resident Bev DeMoss, proof of the project’s effectiveness was as close as her backyard. The same 2015 storm that deluged Cook’s home pushed more than a foot of water into DeMoss’s backyard, with some seeping into her home. During Harvey, the street outside never went underwater and her backyard didn’t flood at all.
Soon after Harvey, she saw Branch, the water authority official, at church. “I ran up to him and hugged him and said, ‘Thank you! My house didn’t flood!' ”