Report: Stormwater Pollution

Texas Stormwater Scorecard 2020

Released by: Environment Texas Research and Policy Center

Water is a part of life, and our waterways are a part of what makes Texas special. But runoff pollution threatens our favorite swimming holes, our drinking water, our pets and wildlife.  When stormwater runs off roofs, roads, parking lots, and sidewalks, it gathers toxic chemicals, excess nutrients, trash, and other forms of pollution. Traditional concrete channel infrastructure compounds the problem: it concentrates pollutants and directs the dirty water directly into local streams. To address the issue Texas municipalities are turning to nature-based infrastructure. Rain gardens, green roofs, the conservation of natural spaces, and other techniques can reduce runoff pollution by up to 90%.   

The Texas Stormwater Scorecard evaluates the stormwater management policies of local governments across Texas to see how well they support the use of nature-based infrastructure.  This year's scorecard grades 9 Texas cities and 1 county, ranking them based on how well they make use of Nature-based Infrastructure, sometimes called Low Impact Development (LID) or Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI),  to prevent water pollution, mitigate flooding, alleviate drought, and reduce urban heat. Policies were divided into nine fundamental categories of three types:

Private Development Regulations

Stormwater Detention Requirements

Water Quality Requirements

Maintenance Requirements

Private Development Incentives

Regulatory Incentives

Financial Incentives

Public Initiatives

Construction of Public Projects

Education

Monitoring and Evaluation

Regional Collaboration

The results show nature-based infrastructure is growing across the state. Austin, which received the highest score on the 2017 publication of the scorecard, is now tied with San Antonio in first place, with Harris County close behind. All three local governments have impressive public initiatives, from San Antonio’s citywide watershed modeling and LID planning to Austin’s exemplary education program complete with workshops and manuals. San Antonio is also the only local government with any kind of nature-based infrastructure mandate.  Cities including Dallas and El Paso are considering significant nature-based infrastructure mandates, which could cost Austin and San Antonio the top honor unless Austin passes its own proposed nature-based requirements in their Land Development Code rewrite. Governments across the state incorporated incentives for private developers, and many more began public education campaigns, installed nature-based technologies on public projects, or set up projects to evaluate how to best use nature-based solutions in their communities.  The full ranking is shown below:

Across Texas, every local government surveyed is making strides to prevent flooding and improve water quality, and many of their policies directly promote nature-based techniques.  Some of the most exciting policies from each government include:

  • Austin - The City took bold action creating city wide plans like Water Forward, Functional Green, and the Community Climate Plan that emphasize water reuse, urban green space, and nature-based infrastructure. While these plans are not currently legally binding, they provide exemplary guidelines, and some pieces within the plans could become law with the passage of the proposed Land Development Code in the spring of 2020.

  • San Antonio - San Antonio has an exceptionally strong set of public initiatives, including  thorough water quality models to ensure protections for sensitive waterways. They are also the only city in the state to have any kind of nature-based infrastructure mandate. 

  • Harris County - The only county surveyed, Harris County has an exceptional monitoring program, which provides detailed data on how features are working, and includes a novel drone-based data collection method to determine how to improve the efficiency of nature-based features. 

  • San Marcos - The City incorporates education into its maintenance program. If any feature fails its annual inspection, City staff work with the owner to develop a plan to address the problem with best-management practices and the facility is reinspected.

  • Dallas - Dallas was central to the development of the North Central Texas Council of Government (NCTGOG)’s integrated Stormwater Management (iSWM) Program, which encourages the use of nature-based features. They have now incorporated many of those recommendations into their own drainage manual and help encourage other cities to do the same.

  • Denton - The City of Denton, home to waterways like Lewisville Lake and Hickory Creek, proactively guards water quality in environmentally sensitive areas, particularly by encouraging developers to stay away from untouched natural areas.

  • Fort Worth - This large Texas city should be commended for always considering nature-based techniques on public projects, which has resulted in numerous features around the city.

  • Houston - Considering nature-based features on all public projects is standard in Houston. The Bagby Street redevelopment and Buffalo Bayou park are prime examples.,

  • El Paso - The desert climate of El Paso provides a different landscape for implementing nature-based features than other parts of the state. They have created outstanding pilot programs, including one starting in March 2020 that will create a bioswale with a shade tree on streets where rainwater collects.

  • Farmers Branch - Farmers Branch recently updated their drainage manual to include stormwater detention and water quality requirements. This is an essential first step to promoting nature-based infrastructure.

Just as the successful policies across the state are unique to each place, so are the ways local governments can improve their scores and promote nature-based infrastructure.

  • Austin - To remain a state leader in stormwater management, Austin needs to pass the proposed Land Development Code, which will mandate the use of nature-based infrastructure for water quality treatment on highly urban sites.

  • San Antonio - The city should work to expand their water quality requirements to the whole city, a step they can take as part of their United Development Code amendments in the summer of 2020.

  • Harris County - The county is doing a great job promoting nature-based infrastructure, despite the restrictions placed on them as a governing entity. They should examine the possibility of expanding their incentive program or adding regulations to ensure private development adoption of nature-based solutions.

  • San Marcos - The City should work to update the way they monitor nature-based projects. Connecting water quality data taken from the San Marcos River to nature-based projects nearby, for example, could provide invaluable data on how well these features work.

  • Dallas - The City is considering requiring nature-based features in their new drainage manual. Doing so would put them in first place on this scorecard, and be a huge step for nature-based solutions in Texas.

  • Denton - Denton should look at increasing their water quality regulations to include areas outside the designated environmentally sensitive areas currently listed.

  • Fort Worth - The City currently only requires water quality standards be met along the Trinity River. Fort Worth should expand those requirements across the city to protect the City’s other waterways including the river’s tributaries. 

  • Houston - The City of Houston recently proposed an aggressive set of nature-based infrastructure incentives. Implementing these incentives effectively could turn the City into a nature-based infrastructure hotspot in the state.

  • El Paso - As the City of El Paso updates its drainage code this year, they should consider requiring nature-based infrastructure for meeting their water quality goals.

  • Farmers Branch - The next step for cities like Farmers Branch, which recently adopted water quality and stormwater detention requirements, is to promote nature-based features through a formal education program and incentive program to help developers meet those requirements.

Across Texas, it is clear that local governments are recognizing the power of nature-based infrastructure for stormwater management, and that change is on the horizon. Since the last publication of this scorecard in 2017, governments across the state incorporated nature-based features into their public projects, added additional incentives for private developers, and expanded their public education programs to teach Texans about the benefits of treating our stormwater naturally by letting it soak into the ground, instead of forcing it to run over concrete roads, gathering water pollution and flooding communities downstream. Many cities, including Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso, are looking to update their drainage manuals and/or development code in the next year, and plan to include stronger support for nature-based features. Officials across Texas are forming regional partnerships and sharing best practices to incorporate the benefits of nature-based infrastructure into their communities.

To help them in this effort, the state government needs to step in as well. Texas state agencies such as the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) and Texas Environmental Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) need to lead the way with educational workshops, funding resources, and statewide studies demonstrating the efficacy of nature-based techniques. The TWDB has begun to recognize the importance of these features in their flood planning rules, but needs to fully commit to providing funding, and requiring they are incorporated into local flood mitigation plans. 

Environment Texas Research and Policy Center hopes this scorecard can help in both the statewide effort, and those by local governments, by providing a summary of the good work taking place across the state, offering inspiration, and giving recommendations to expand and amplify the benefits of nature-based features.