Morris: Learning from the Dutch about water management

Texans love the idea that they are unique, which, of course, in many ways, they are. When it comes to Houston land development and flood control efforts, however, there is much Texas shares with the Dutch: Drain the land, channel the bayous, build huge storm-water infrastructure, get flooded, repeat.

In terms of hydrology and geology, there are striking similarities between Rotterdam and Houston, the Dutch Delta and Galveston Bay, and the Dutch and Texas coasts. Moreover, Houston, like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, is a dynamic, economic powerhouse. Which means that as our populations grow and the number of new businesses enter our markets, we also share the potential for devastating flood-induced economic disruption.

After centuries in the business of holding the sea at bay, the Dutch like to say that while God created the earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands. Which leads many to ask, "What can Houston and Texas learn from us about smart water management? The short answer is: long-term planning and financing; water governance; multi-layered protection; and multi-purpose infrastructure. Let me explain.

Coastal areas of Texas and the Netherlands are experiencing rising sea levels, increased erosion, occasional but deadly storm surge events, extreme rainfall and man-made and natural subsidence. Solving the challenge of another Hurricane Harvey or inundation like the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods is critical. But such solutions also must be embedded in a long-term regional plan that addresses tomorrow's challenges too.

The Dutch Delta Program is a comprehensive strategy that looks forward 20, 50 and 100 years. Grounded in science, it shows the future of land use through an engineer's eye, an economist's lens and an artist's imagination. Four primary questions guide the strategy:

1) How to keep the Netherlands safe and attractive; 2) What are acceptable (or unacceptable) levels of risk for both loss of life and economic disruption; 3, What actions are possible - through infrastructure, smart planning and building codes, disaster planning and long-term investment - to minimize those risks, and 4, How to fund those investments, long-term.

For many reasons, this long-term approach is missing in the U.S.

Because floods and weather do not respect political lines, the best approach is to consider geology, hydrology and geography across a drainage area. As in The Netherlands, assumptions about future business, weather, population growth, living patterns and flood typologies - storm surge, heavy rainfall, poor drainage, aging and overwhelmed infrastructure - must be considered region-wide.

Finally, inter-governmentmal efforts to coordinate flood control should align with the physical landscape - watersheds and coastal plains - not political borders.

Good water governance also requires clear, actionable strategies for all stakeholders, including business and private citizens, to act individually and collectively to mitigate their own and nearby flood risks.

Like the Dutch, Texas must not look only at protecting Houston, or only the Upper Galveston Bay or only the lower bay beach communities from storm surge, coastal flooding and tropical rainfall. Instead, the state would plan and invest for the benefit of the entire region, from Galveston and the Ship Channel to the industrial and environmental areas along the bay margins and Upper Bay.

The Dutch achieve high levels of safety by using multiple layers of protection and compartmentalization. The coastal protection system of high, broad dunes, sea dikes and surge barriers is reinforced by secondary levees, pumps, polder ring dikes, river dikes and floodplain structures. Inland cities are protected by river levees, setback levees, overflow and bypass areas, and robust pump and drainage systems. These redundant systems limit widespread impacts should a flood occur.

Finally, the Dutch know that single-purpose infrastructure is not an optimal way to invest. More and more, Dutch infrastructure is being designed and constructed to provide multiple benefits. Better mobility, economic connectivity, recreation, nature and social resiliency are outcomes that can supported through smart water infrastructure policies. While Americans tend to focus on the primary function of an infrastructure project - constructing a road, levee, wetland or surge barrier-the Dutch see their infrastructure investments as a foundation upon which other social, economic and environmental goals can be built, which means the "return on investment" is higher.

In Houston, this multi-use approach to infrastructure already has begun with the construction of parks doubling as detention ponds, such as Keith-Weiss Park in northeast Houston and the Willow Waterhole Greenway Project on the southwest side.

The Dutch, however, have taken this method further. The "water squares" in Rotterdam serve as playgrounds and athletic facilities for nearby schools in dry times and water storage in wet times. Hiding a concrete sea dike under a coastal dune enabled the city of Katwijk to construct a beachfront parking garage in the dune that took nuisance parking out of neighborhoods (and fees for parking partially offset the project cost).

The Dutch say: "It should never be this or that, but instead this and that." Embedding multiple goals in long-term investments broadens their appeal to citizens and lowers cost to taxpayers. These are some of the things that the Dutch are happy to share with Texas as they confront a challenging water-future. There are also many important things Texas can share with The Netherlands in this realm. Let's get started!

Morris is a senior economist with the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, DC. This essay first appeared on the FutureMatters blog of Center for Houston's Future.

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