Stormwater Pollution

Runoff on our streets, pollution in our waters

Credit: Kushal Bose/Shutterstock

Natural water features like Galveston Bay, Lady Bird Lake and Woodlawn Lake are the pride of Texas. Whether you like to swim, fish or sail in these waterways — or just admire their beauty — they’re invaluable scenic and recreational treasures. But Texas’ waterways are being polluted by something that a lot of us don’t think about: rain runoff.

Because we’ve paved over so much of our cities, a lot of rain can’t soak into the soil anymore. Instead, it flows over roofs and roads, picking up oils, chemicals, litter and animal waste before it runs off into our great waters with these pollutants.

That’s why swimming is prohibited in Lady Bird Lake and ten creeks in Austin. And that’s why it’s too dangerous to swim or fish in 80% of all major waterways in the Houston area.

Credit: Ilona Koeleman/Shutterstock

As Texas grows, so does runoff pollution

We’re making the problem worse by covering Texas’ land with even more hard surfaces. The state’s population has doubled in recent decades, which is why we’ve built lots of new homes, offices and stores, and paved lots of new streets, highways and parking lots.

But when we cover more land with hard surfaces, we create more runoff. When rain falls on a natural site, up to 90% of it either soaks into the soil, evaporates into the air, or gets used by trees and grasses. When rain falls on land that’s been developed, more than half of it can turn into runoff.

And the runoff problem is being exacerbated by climate change, since Texas storms are getting more severe and more frequent. Heavy rains have increased by 167% in Houston since 1950, and by 67% in Austin.

Credit: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Managing our rainwater

There’s a way to cut runoff pollution, and that’s by preventing runoff in the first place. Texas cities can do this by encouraging and requiring the use of Green Stormwater Infrastructure in buildings and landscapes that captures and reuses rain onsite where it falls.

Some features, like rain harvesting cisterns and tanks, can store water for later use in irrigation. Other features, such as rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavements, allow water to collect so that it can slowly soak into the soil or evaporate into the air.

Green Stormwater features have been found to be very effective. Studies show that it can capture over half of the rain that falls on a site. In addition, features such as rain gardens and green roofs help beautify urban settings, and rain harvesting systems can store water for later use in landscape irrigation.

Building support for the right policies, right now

By demonstrating to elected officials that the public wants Green Stormwater Infrastructure—and by working with green builders and suppliers, environmental engineers and landscape architects—we can get the right policies in place.

Environment Texas is one of the only groups in Texas to make Green Stormwater Infrastructure a priority. We’ve just released a research report about it. We’re able to make our case to government officials because we already have relationships with many of them. And not only we can mobilize our own members, we can draw on support from our past and current coalition partners, including many environmental and community groups.

We have to act now, because we know that Texas’ cities are going to keep growing. That means that even more land will be covered with buildings and roads, even more rain will turn into runoff, and even more pollution will flow into our rivers, lakes and bays. But if we start using Green Stormwater Infrastructure across the state now, we can reduce the increase in runoff, and reduce the increase in runoff pollution. 

Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency via Government Works

What can you do?

Communities can use green methods in new public buildings and roads. They can also make it easier for businesses and residents to install green features by removing permitting barriers and providing financial incentives.

You don’t need to wait for your city to act. You can install rain gardens, green roofs, rain harvesting cisterns and permeable pavements at your own home or business now.

Texas won’t stop growing. But with Green Infrastructure, we can make sure that our new growth is as green as possible.

Issue updates

Headline

In Texas, water referendum wins, Astrodome loses

"We're thrilled that Texas voters have chosen to invest in Texas' water future," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, a statewide advocacy group. "Texas is in a water crisis, caused by drought and made worse by wasteful water use."

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Texans overwhelmingly approve water proposal

“We’re thrilled that Texas voters have chosen to invest in Texas’ water future,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, a statewide advocacy group. “Texas is in a water crisis, caused by drought and made worse by wasteful water use.”

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Votes Flood in for Prop 6 Water Cash

With early voting reported by the secretary of state, Prop. 6 was on to a healthy 3-1 head start. The 76.36% "for" vote held basically steady so far on election day, trembling down slightly to 74.14%. However, with only a scraping of precincts voting, Speaker Joe Straus was quite happy to declare victory at the Rattle Inn in Austin.

Straus described the win as a victory for bipartisanship and the large coalition, ranging from environmentalists to hardcore Tea Partiers like the King Street Patriots, backing the plan. The unusual collaborative mood of the night was summed up when hardline conservative Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, sought out Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger to shake his hand and thank him for his help in the measure's passage.

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How Prop 6 Passed, and What’s Up Next for Water Projects in Texas

Texans passed a constitutional amendment Tuesday to jump-start financing for water projects in the state: Proposition 6, which would take $2 billion in surplus state money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to start a water infrastructure loan program. The measure had widespread support from both sides of the aisle as well as business and environmental groups. With over half of precincts reporting, the measure is passing with 75 percent of the vote and has been called by the Associated Press.

“It really underscored how precarious our future is when it comes to water, and how crucial it is that we shift towards a more moderate, water-efficient future,” says Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. Roughly a third of the funding in the programs are set to go towards conservation projects, an aspect of the plan that helped win support from many environmental groups.

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Headline

Texans approve constitutional amendments

Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said the reservoir would flood 25,000 acres of rare bottomland if it is allowed to be completed. “We don’t want it to be built at all,” said Metzger.

Metzger, whose group was part of the multi-faceted coalition that embraced the initiative, hailed its passage by voters, but said Environment Texas will keep a watchful eye to ensure that at least 20 percent of the projects focus on conservation under an agreement made by lawmakers before the amendment went to voters.

Money for the projects won’t become available until the Texas Water Development Board and regional planning groups adopt rules and meet certain milestones for implementing the amendment and companion legislation, said Merry Klonower, communications director for the water development board.

“The thing we’d like to emphasize…is there will be a lot of opportunities for citizens to participate in the process and we hope they do.”

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