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Reclaiming golf courses could help Houston fight the next Hurricane Harvey

An aerial view of Exploration Green in the Clear Lake City part of Houston. (Dan Riggle)
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Like many parts of Houston, Clear Lake City has a history of flooding. The area got an unexpected break when Hurricane Harvey dumped record rainfall, thanks to its decision years ago to sacrifice one of its golf courses to flood control.

After 12 years of planning, crews in November completed the first of five construction phases of Exploration Green. Three months ago Harvey gave the budding project its first trial, and planners say it saved 150 homes from inundation.

“It held the water like a champ,” said Doug Peterson, a retired NASA employee and 30-year Clear Lake City resident who helps lead the community effort to turn the 178-acre former golf course into a combination wetland park and floodwater reservoir. “This project is a model for other areas where we’ve had these massive rains.”

When Exploration Green is completed in 2021, it will drain up to half a billion gallons of storm water and protect up to 3,000 homes, officials say.

While Houston struggles to develop a more robust regional drainage system, Exploration Green shows how a local community can claim land for local flood control. Planners have turned from the concrete basins of the past and look instead to existing green space to drain floods. 

“Its being a golf course made construction really easy,” said Kelly Shipley, project manager for Exploration Green and an engineer with LAN, Inc. “You can just dig a hole, essentially.”

A lack of available land limits Houston’s ability to build an infrastructure that could stand up to another storm like Harvey. The Harris County Flood Control District, which includes Houston, manages about 15,700 acres of storm water reservoirs across a 1.1 million-acre area.

Before-and-after visuals of the massive flooding in Texas

A systemwide upgrade to protect the region fully from a 100-year storm would require an additional 52,000 acres, the district has said. But the cost of acquiring that land exceeds the district’s annual budget several times over.

In Clear Lake City, a middle class community in southeastern Houston sliced by muddy Horsepen Bayou and Cow Bayou, planning for Exploration Green began in 2005 following the closure of the Clear Lake Golf Club, a 173-acre, V-shaped tract of fairways and green embedded in the center of the master planned community.

The owner had initially sought to pave over the golf course for commercial development and apartment buildings — but local officials intervened, prompted by concerns the construction would worsen floods.

“We’d noticed increased flooding in the area as areas around us developed,” said John Branch, president of the board of directors of the Clear Lake City Water Authority.

CLCWA asked to buy the tract but the owner declined. It appealed for City of Houston funds to make a better offer, but again was turned down. So the community filed to condemn the property and fought a six-year battle to acquire the land for $6.2 million in 2011.  Locals later opted to build a park with wetland preserves and miles of trails that would go underwater during heavy rains — so saving local homes. Construction began in 2015.

The morning after Harvey struck, Branch made his way as soon as he could to the site of Exploration Green and found it full of water.

“It works,” he remembered thinking. Millions of gallons of water that would have swamped streets or homes settled drama-free into the spot where crew had scooped out almost 34,000 cubic yard of dirt.

Clear Lake City suffered relatively little damage during the hurricane — only several dozen homes took on water — even while places a few miles away were submerged under several feet. That was thanks partly to luck, partly to the neighborhood’s initiative to develop its own drainage infrastructure.

Flood control experts say the project sets an example for Houston as it grapples with improving its flood control and drainage systems after Harvey. Space for needed projects may come from scooped-out city parks or bought-out neighborhoods. Golf courses would be a natural place to start — easier and cheaper to convert to flood control than areas with construction. 

Greater Houston has nearly 200 golf courses. It’s not enough land to protect all of Houston in the event of another huge rainstorm, but they would be a good place to start.

“I think you’re probably going to start seeing more projects like it,” Shipley said.