Fake News: Ignorant Reporters Blame Houston
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She spent evenings with the art books Yankel had bought for her in Lutsk, and each morning sulked over breakfast. They were good and fine, but not beautiful. No, not if I’m being honest with myself. They are only the best of what exists.”
— Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

Every year, when the journalism prizes roll around, I feel melancholy and discontent in the way of Safran Foer’s character Brod. It’s not jealousy. There’s only one year I did anything worthy of a prize, which was not the same year that I actually received a small honor.

Year after year, Big Journalism recognizes work that is neither fine nor good. It is only, at best, the best of what exists. The right way to understand the practice of journalism is not from the standard framework of the right (bias!), which is correct, but boring and mostly irrelevant. Instead, regard journalists the way scientists do, as practitioners of an art that has nothing to with their own pursuits, as scribblers with little capacity for mathematical or abstract thinking,

As a method for approaching the truth, a narrative based on two anecdotes, three half-relevant statistics, and a bit of misguided paraphrasing is no substitute for controlled experimentation. It’s not even a substitute for a decent argument. Yet mainstream journalism foregoes even this simple tool, available to all, in favor of simply pronouncing the world to be a certain way.

The Texas Tribune is guilty of this, and of misleading its readers and other journalists into believing that Houston is somehow to blame for its devastating floods. For those not familiar with the name, the Texas Tribune is a conflict of interest organized as a 501(c)3. The Austin-based conference production/journalism outfit covers state politics, and takes lots of money from people who do business in the capitol. It covers for its biggest institutional backers, such as the University of Texas, while occasionally doing serious work that doesn’t threaten its bottom line.

This year, the Texas Tribune won Peabody and Murrow awards for a collaboration with ProPublica that blamed Houston’s flooding problems on global warming and unregulated overdevelopment.

As for the idea that global warming can be definitively blamed for disastrous weather, I think Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric science professor at MIT, said it best.

“The present temptation to attribute these normally occurring events to climate change is patently dishonest,” Lindzen wrote. “Roger Pielke, Jr. actually wrote a book detailing the fact that there is no trend in virtually any extreme event (including tornados, hurricanes, droughts, floods, etc.) with some actually decreasing. Even the UN’s IPCC acknowledges that there is no basis for attributing such events to anthropogenic climate change.”

But I don’t want to litigate the climate change question here. It’s the other angle, that development is to blame for the flooding, that can be refuted rather easily.

The Texas Tribune has been flogging its take in its stories and on social media in recent days, telling readers to go back and read the prize-winners if they want to understand how and why Houston is flooding. And now the narrative has taken off, with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, Newsweek, Bloomberg Businessweek and others all running with some version of this claim, as phrased by the Economist:

“Although a light touch has enabled developers to cater to the city’s rapid growth — 1.8m extra inhabitants since 2000 — it has also led to concrete being laid over vast areas of coastal prairie that used to absorb the rain.”

The idea that pavement is to blame for Houston’s flooding is, to put it simply, idiotic, even comical. The daily journalists on their deadlines haven’t had time to realize how out of their depth they are, but the Tribune has no excuse for its shoddy reporting. The committees that awarded those prizes should be ashamed of their inability to spot the obvious hole in the narrative, which has been there all along.

The turf surrounding Houston is not, in the words of the county official the Tribune singled out for abuse, a “magic sponge.” Yes, it absorbs some water. Yes, of course, impermeable surfaces produce runoff. But no, absolutely not, no way, no how, could the clay and sandy soil around Houston have absorbed this deluge. The poor absorptive capacity of our soil is a matter of record, but that didn’t really matter. Even if our turf had the absorptive capacity of the Shamwow, Hurricane Harvey would have overwhelmed it.

A study by the Harris County Flood Control District, which focused on the same Cypress Creek region that interested the Tribune, found that a residential development with 50 percent impervious cover would indeed absorb less water, creating more runoff. To be precise, the development would absorb exactly 1.79 inches less rainfall than an undeveloped property. But we got hit with up to 51.88 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey. That’s more than rainy Seattle got all last year.

So even if the Tribune had had its anti-development agenda fully realized, it would have made no difference. The soil would have absorbed the first couple inches of rainfall, and the next 50 inches still would have had to go somewhere. Back in 1935, when the area was almost entirely covered by natural wetlands, it still got flooded.

Hurricane Harvey put a third of Harris County, which includes Houston and some suburbs, completely underwater. The BBC shows us what that looks like. The Post gives us a sense of the scale.

Now compare that to the extent of development in Harris County in recent years.

“Between 1953 and 1989, 23,000 acres of freshwater wetland were lost in the Houston-Galveston Bay region. Since 1996, another 19,000 acres of freshwater wetlands have been lost,” scientist Erin Kinney writes.

And what does all that development since 1996 look like? This. Could those little specks of hardtop to the north of Houston redirect an ocean of water downtown? The question answers itself.

Thomas Debo, a stormwater management expert at Georgia Tech, scoffs at the idea that open space is sufficient.

“It’s like taking an aspirin to cure an ailment,” he says.

Charles Marohn, an engineer, land use planner, and sometime hydrologist who publishes Strong Towns, has been for several years now one of the most interesting voices in the New Urbanism conversation. He’s very much on the side of planning and opposed to sprawl, so you might think he’d join all the journalists who are blaming Houston’s loose regulatory environment. Instead, he devastates their narratives with a single fact.

“The Texas A&M research I highlighted above suggests reckless wetland filling robbed Houston of 4 billion gallons of stormwater storage capacity,” Marohn writes. “For context, the Washington Post is reporting now that Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons on the Houston area. That means that, had those wetlands never been filled, they could have accommodated 0.02% of the water that fell in Harvey.”

So if none of us lived here, and we tore down all our houses and roads, we could solve 0.02 percent of the problem. The Tribune is pushing nonsense, green fantasies dressed up as science.

The Tribune insists that “experts say Houston-area officials could work to preserve green space; strengthen regulation on development; plan for a changing climate; and work harder to remove the 140,000 homes that remain in the 100-year floodplain.”

That’s a Vietnam War mentality, isn’t? We must destroy the homes in order to save them. Houses in floodplains may lose their value, but the problem we face is one of inadequate engineering, not overdevelopment.

Houston and its suburbs sit on a flat, low-lying plain interspersed with bayous that receive water from tributaries and drainage channels. They all drain into the bay to the east. Almost all of our roads have ditches that run alongside and plug into the drainage network. If we had no improvements, the entire region would be susceptible to flooding at much lower levels of rainfall than Hurricane Harvey produced. But this drainage network works.

My town of Pearland, a suburb just south of the city, demonstrates how the practical approach works. Our longtime mayor is a retired engineer from NASA, and the city’s infrastructure reflects that. In 1990, the city had a population of 16,000 and was mostly rural. But it has boomed to a population of 113,570. According to the Tribune’s angle, all that additional development should have created a flooding problem, when actually we flood less than ever.

In 1997, Pearland passed the first ordinance of its kind, requiring retention ponds in new developments. The developers built housing tracts with low-lying water features that served two purposes. They look pretty year round, but they’re dug deep to accommodate the torrential rainfall we get. Schools are built on large plots, with their vast lawns a few feet below building level; the lawns turn into lakes when the rains come, but the buildings stay dry.

The city also builds its own ponds. We’ve got 143 of them around town, at least, and these saved almost all of us from water damage this week, when we got hit with 24 inches of rain in a single day. It’s a remarkable network. The ponds can be the size of 10 or 20 football fields, dug 10 feet deep, all interconnected by channels, and they all filled to the brim during this storm.

I have a strong bias against city planning and zoning requirements in general, but I have to concede this point to the planners. Actually, I offer my thanks for their foresight and wisdom. This is the sort of thing we have governments for.

The Houston region is always going to be prone to flooding. There’s really nothing you can do to parry a 1,000-year storm, the Tribune’s insistence otherwise notwithstanding. But there are practical answers to the flooding that has grown routine — build some more retention ponds.

The Houston Chronicle may report as fact that detention and retention ponds are “certainly not as good as the natural mini-wetlands,” but it’s dead wrong. A pond holds water by the acre-foot; the natural turf might hold three inches.

Houston’s financial stresses — unfunded pension liabilities, in particular — are going to impede efforts to improve its infrastructure. But the answer is to press forward with practical improvements, and to ignore the fantasies of the environmentalists.

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