Texas’ five largest cities still have work to do when it comes to deploying citywide stormwater management, according to a scorecard released Monday by Environment Texas.

Researchers with the environmental advocacy group graded cities according to 10-step regulation and education efforts surrounding green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), also known as low-impact development (LID). Austin is, unsurprisingly, ahead of other cities with 9 points (90%) compared to San Antonio’s 6.5 (65%), followed by Fort Worth (60%), Houston (50%), and Dallas (40%).

San Antonio lacks rules that requires developers to plan for on-site stormwater retention. In the report’s grading system, the city received only partial credit for on-site pollution control and regulatory credit policies. While some financial incentives for developers and homeowners are available through the San Antonio River Authority and other entities, there are few regulatory incentives through the City and Bexar County. Neither requires low-impact development features for new or redeveloped buildings; such features are voluntary. Only projects that are near the San Antonio River in RIO planning overlay districts are required to adhere to LID standards.

Low-impact development features are architectural and irrigation elements that allow buildings to retain and filter rainwater rather than pass off often-contaminated water to already-strained, traditional drainage systems like underground pipes and street curbs. For developers, however, the upfront costs of LID exceed that of typical impervious surfaces such as paved parking lots, so many would not welcome increased LID regulations.

“Stormwater is most commonly viewed as an issue for flood management,” the report states. “The conventional approach has been to move runoff away from buildings and roads and into natural water bodies as quickly as possible, and to do this with concrete curbs, pipes, drains, and tunnels. But this gray infrastructure is now being supplemented by green infrastructure, which uses plants, soil, and natural processes to manage runoff on-site.”

The more impervious surfaces – that is, surfaces that water cannot penetrate – that development creates, the more water can flood the city. As the San Antonio area braces for 1 million additional inhabitants by 2040, city leaders will be looking for ways to balance that growth with environmental sustainability.

There is little anyone can do to avoid the catastrophic destruction that more than 50 inches of rain, as seen during Hurricane Harvey in Houston, wreaks on a city. But LID provides relatively simple ways to “avoid smaller, local flooding” experienced throughout Texas by using rain gardens, bio swells, water capture and cisterns, permeable pavement, and more, report author Brian Zabcik told the Rivard Report. The report is based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy checklist, which provides a list of ways to incentivize and promote private and public adoption of LID standards.

Ten points are possible on the Texas Stormwater Scorecard.
Ten points are possible on the Texas Stormwater Scorecard. Credit: Courtesy / Environment Texas Research & Policy Center

“… [W]e found that even Austin has room for improvement, especially given that the actual use of GSI/LID in the city is low,” stated the report. “Fort Worth and San Antonio chalked up respectable mid-range scores, and both are poised to do more because of strong support for GSI/LID from local water authorities. While Dallas and Houston have taken some encouraging steps, GSI/LID is a low priority in both.”

San Antonio scored well on the “public initiatives” section of the scorecard as many new city buildings have LID features, including the Mission Branch Library, where water advocates and partners including the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance will gather to formally announce the scorecard results Tuesday morning.

The report, produced by Environment Texas Research & Policy Center, is available to download from their website here.

Mission Branch Library by Muñoz & Co. Photo courtesy of AIA-SA.
Mission Branch Library.

The library’s air conditioner and roof deposits condensate and rainwater into large cisterns for landscape irrigation. Drought-resistant plants have been chosen for the facility’s rain garden, and most of the parking lot is made of permeable material. A donation from SAWS made the LID enhancements to the library possible. The library partnered with Texas Public Radio for a volunteer event to install the rain garden during National Public Lands Day in 2011.

Zabcik, a clean-water advocate for Environment Texas, will be presenting his report’s findings during the 2017 EPA Region 6 Stormwater Conference next week in San Antonio. Environment Texas originally planned to release the scorecard during the conference, but Zabcik felt it that after Harvey the topic was too timely to wait.

The biggest advocate for GSI/LID implementation locally is the San Antonio River Authority. Since fiscal year 2015, it allocated almost $1.3 million to help LID projects through its Watershed Wise Rebate budget, and nine school projects were funded at local schools through its Watershed Wise School Grant program at around $22,000 to $25,000 each. Applications for the 2018 Watershed Wise Rebate program are being accepted as of Monday.

Through targeted and general training sessions over recent years, the River Authority has reached out engineers, landscape architects, contractors, developers, and business owners about the immediate and longterm benefits of LID.

This map shows low impact development projects completed or in progress in the City of San Antonio.
This map shows low impact development projects completed or in progress in the City of San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio River Authority

“The City, County, and River Authority has been working very hard the last few years to educate the community on LID,” said Karen Bishop, the River Authority’s green infrastructure expert. “[We want to] eliminate the mystery of this new way of designing, and we’ve seen quite a bit of success and projects going in the ground as the result of the LID manual, grant, and rebate programs.”

The River Authority worked with the City through the development code update process that resulted in easier access for developers to build or install LID features. As of February 2016, when that section of code was approved by City Council, developers don’t have to apply for a variance in order to do so, Bishop said.

But Council did not approve what the River Authority recommended. One of the many significant changes was amending the directive “shall” to “may” in several instances.

“So low impact development is more of a suggestion. It’s not incorporated as a requirement,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Aquifer Alliance.

Impervious cover restrictions encountered similar pushback during the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan adoption later that year. Originally, the sustainable strategy read: “Develop and implement effective impervious surface standards for new development and redevelopment projects.”

Now the strategy is to, “through a representative stakeholder process, conduct a science-based assessment of the impact of increased impervious cover and determine if development standards are needed to address flooding, water quality, and urban heat islands.”

SA Tomorrow Plan Approved Amid Concerns Over Regulatory ‘Teeth’

An important mechanism to increase LID use, Peace said, is increased stormwater fees, which are set by the City and added to each SAWS bill according to the level of impervious cover based on rate and volume of storm water runoff.

“The fees aren’t high enough to encourage developers,” Peace said. “So instead, taxpayers end up paying for new stormwater projects.”

The proposed fiscal year 2018 budget includes a nominal increase, 4.22%, for commercial and residential SAWS customers. That budget will go before City Council for adoption on Thursday. The increased revenue, an estimated $2 million, will pay for six drainage-related capital projects.

But GSI and LID are not part of the average person’s lexicon, said SAWS Director of Conservation Karen Guz. So SAWS is partnering with the River Authority to offer more discounts and rebates on LID and conservation-related activities for residential and commercial customers.

One of the most popular and recent programs has been the SAWS rain barrel coupons.

“Ultimately, we want to see more green infrastructure built in Texas because we think that it’s an essential tool of reducing water pollution in the state and reduce flood severity,” Zabcik said. “Short-term, I hope this report raises the visibility and public awareness of green infrastructure and to start a statewide conversation.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org