When it rains, it pours: Why Texas needs to invest in better water infrastructure

Recently, more than 125,000 gallons of raw sewage overflowed in downtown Houston, the result of Hurricane Patricia-related rain swamping the sewage system. 

The sheer volume of stormwater transmitted by roads and parking lots into sewers overwhelmed the capacity of the system and sewage was released through a “safety valve” to nearby bayous and ultimately to Galveston Bay—with bacteria such as fecal coliform threatening the health of swimmers. 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident—there are more than 40,000 sewer overflows every year in the United States—but fortunately, there is something we can do about it—in the next year decisions will be made which could allow us to control stormwater through investments in green infrastructure. 

Water pollution remains a serious problem in Texas, where the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reports that more than 10,000 miles of the rivers and streams in the state are too polluted for basic uses such as swimming or fishing. In 2011, 385 health advisories were issued for Texas beaches due to high bacteria levels. At least 30 percent of impaired waters and beaches in Texas are due to stormwater pollution. 

Texas has natural ways to control stormwater—when it rains, water can soak into fields and forests. But, as the state grows, more and more of these fields and forests are replaced with hard surfaces like rooftops, parking lots, and highways. Rain runs down these surfaces, picks up animal waste, pesticides, motor oil, and trash and sends this pollution down storm drains and ultimately into creeks, lakes, and bays. Dirty water and garbage not only blight scenic waterways, but can make people sick. 

Swimmers exposed to this pollution can suffer a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders, and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.  

The best way to protect Texans from this pollution is to prevent it. A key solution is mimicking natural techniques for absorbing rain through smarter, greener infrastructure on land—like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels—that makes a real difference in the water. Green infrastructure stops rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This keeps it from running off dirty streets and carrying pollution to local swimming holes. It also helps reduce flooding, can serve as new water supplies for irrigating landscapes, and can reduce energy use (e.g., green roofs and increased tree canopy cool homes).  

The EPA says, “green infrastructure can be a cost-effective, flexible, and environmentally-sound approach to reduce, stormwater runoff and sewer overflows and to meet Clean Water Act requirements.”

Texas has two big opportunities to promote green infrastructure by strengthening the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) stormwater program.  First, the EPA is developing new requirements for MS4 permits of smaller cities like Galveston. At the same time, some larger cities such as Houston will seek renewal from TCEQ in the coming months.  

In both cases, we have an opportunity to secure enforceable commitments to promote green infrastructure and reduce harmful bacteria, toxic chemicals, and trash in our waterways. And we can look around the country for good models.  

For example, Washington, D.C.’s MS4 permit set a target of 350,000 square feet of green roofs and 13,500 new trees planted, 50 rain gardens and 17 low impact developments. 

Austin has a robust green infrastructure program as part of its MS4 program that includes regulatory measures such as a requirement that stormwater runoff at commercial properties must be directed to 50 percent of landscaped areas, strong public engagement, and raingardens in the middle of roads that double as traffic-calming devices.  

While not part of the county MS4 permit, the city of Houston reduces its drainage fee for property owners who increase pervious cover, install porous pavement, or other low impact development best practices and includes green infrastructure goals in the $205 million Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative.

Los Angeles has set a goal to achieve zero trash to the L.A. River by 2016 and required the MS4 to implement trash-control measures. The city, county and the California Department of Transportation can comply by installing trash capture devices on their storm drains, enhancing enforcement of litter laws, and increasing street sweeping. The program has been so successful—reducing trash by 1.2 million pounds annually—the state of California is developing a statewide policy based on the Los Angeles experience. 

Texas needs to invest in better water infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, $42 billion will need to be spent in the next twenty years to upgrade stormwater controls in the U.S. A fair share of that will be spent in Texas, where the Engineers awarded grades of C- and D for wastewater and flood control respectively.  

We could spend all that money just on gray infrastructure like more culverts, tunnels, and storm sewers (and we will likely need more of those, too), or we could invest in smarter methods to control stormwater, which can keep our water clean while conserving water and energy.  


Luke Metzger is the founding director of Environment Texas, a statewide, citizen-funded advocate for clean air, clean water, and open spaces. He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside. Luke studied political science and theater at the University of Southern California. Follow Luke on Twitter @LukeMetzger.

Sara E. Smith is deputy director and staff attorney for Environment Texas. She has a bachelors in philosophy and political science and a Juris Doctorate from The Ohio State University. Follow Sara on Twitter @Sara_in_ATX.


The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. 

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