Building More Resilient Communities

A Conversation with Anna Farrell-Sherman on Nature-Based Infrastructure in Texas

This week, we covered the water affordability crisis throughout the country. One of the cities hit the hardest is Austin, Texas. While research found that most water bills increased by almost 30 percent between 2010 and 2018, in Austin, they rose by 154 percent. The average annual bill spiked from $566 to $1,435 in that same time frame.

We talked to Anna Farrell-Sherman, a clean water associate for Environment Texas, to discuss water issues in her state. Based in Austin, she advocates for nature-based infrastructure, such as rain gardens and green roofs, that allow stormwater to slow down and soak into the soil thereby preventing water pollution, easing drought, mitigating flooding, and reducing urban heat.

Q: What’s it like in Texas right now?

Anna: Texas is reeling from a lot of emotions that come with going through a climate crisis. It’s a type of storm that no one ever really expected we would have to deal with as Texans. We are still recovering from the uncertainty and trauma associated with going through those days where we were freezing in our homes, waiting for the power to come back on, waiting for the water to reappear out of our faucets. And there are still folks who don’t have water or power back yet.

We’re trying now to deal with those consequence emotionally and figure out how to turn all of this into real, tangible improvements to our infrastructure system and create resilient systems that will actually keep our communities safe next time a climate disaster hits.

Just to share a little bit of my story. I live with roommate in an apartment in Austin. We lost power early Monday morning (around 1 a.m.), by the time we woke up it was cold enough to put on winter coats. Our apartment is not very well insulated and it’s extremely drafty. We expected to have power back by the end of the day, so we camped out in my bedroom, which is the warmest room in the house. Over the course of the day as the temperature dropped, we realized it was going to be a much longer ordeal than we thought. By Wednesday morning, there was ice in our kitchen. We hadn’t had power or clean water since Monday.

We have to figure out how to keep that from happening again—anywhere in the country.

There are a lot of house-less folks in Austin and warming centers opened up, but we are also in the middle of a global pandemic, and going to those centers is dangerous. It compounds all of the struggles being faced by the hardest hit communities already.

Q: Austin has some of the highest water bills in the country. Are people seeing water bills yet associated with this situation?

Anna: We’re monitoring water bills right now. We haven’t heard yet if they are going to jump up. Austin and the whole state of Texas is pretty consistently right on the verge of running out of water. We are either flood or we’re in drought, and that’s only getting worse with climate change.

There’s been a lot of thought and work going in to strategic water plans. Austin itself has a plan called Water Forward, looking at how to provide water to the city in the next 100 years. In the course of the storm, our reservoirs went down to half of what they normally are. That’s when all of a sudden the emergency notifications switched from “drip your faucets to keep your pipes from freezing” to “stop dripping faucets, we are going to run our wells dry.” Hospitals were being evacuated because they didn’t have enough water.

It’s a clear indication that we have something very wrong with the way our infrastructure works. It’s not resilient enough to deal with these kinds of dynamic situations.

There’s a few things we are focusing on to fix that for the future.

1) Communication. There could have been much better communication about what was happening. We have the ability to send Amber alerts and flash flood warnings to cell phones. That should have been utilized when the water boil notice was issued, and same for losing power.

2) Water Conservation. We need to conserve more water to make sure people don’t run out of water again, as well as preparing Austin for the future. It also saves money on water bills and helps make sure people can afford water.

3) Creating Resilient Water Infrastructure. This is where we can talk about nature-based infrastructure, rain gardens, and all of those pieces that are so essential for our future.

Q: Tell us more about your work.

Anna: Most of my work is focused on nature-based infrastructure because when we look at the water concerns in Texas, we have flooding, drought, and water quality/pollution problems. All three of these things are significantly impacted by nature-based infrastructure. When we start to think about how we can add distributed nature-based systems throughout our cities to capture storm water and prevent flooding, you see really dramatic benefits to water pollution, to conserving water and recharging our aquifers, and preventing droughts.

Nature-based infrastructure is the way to fix the biggest water concerns in Texas.

We’re also working on PFAS contamination and forever chemicals. We’re working to get lead out of schools’ drinking water. And we’re working to push bills that can help protect our waterways.

Q: Can you define nature-based infrastructure and talk about some of the projects coming up?

Anna: Yes, it makes me so excited and happy. It’s beautiful and it’s the future of our cities. The basic idea is that our conventional water infrastructure takes all the rain that falls from the sky and channels it into concrete pipes, channels, and dams where it runs over our roads and rooftops picking up toxic chemicals. It creates these raging torrents of toxic pollution, and when they get out of control, they can flood and destroy communities downstream.

The reason that we are seeing more and more floods here in Texas, disregarding the effects of climate change, is that we’re also seeing an increase in development, or an increase in that concrete infrastructure.

But we’re seeing a shift toward nature-based systems, things like rain gardens, constructed wetlands, and permeable pavements that let stormwater flow down and soak into the ground, where it can get cleaned of pollutants and recharge aquifers.

We can not only prevent flooding, filter out water pollutants, and recharge aquifers, but we also add these beautiful green spaces to our cities that help with mental health, reduce stress and anxiety, and reduce urban heat.

In the most hard-hit communities, urban heat is rising exponentially. Dallas is the second-fastest heating city in the country. Adding rain gardens can reduce summer temperatures by 15 degrees, which is huge.

I’m excited to think about the potential for those systems. We’re seeing them increasingly embraced across Texas. When we talk to stormwater engineers, they say, “This is what they want to do, we’re just trying to figure out how to do it.”

What we need is a push from the public, from everyday folks going to their cities and saying, “This is what we want. We don’t want more dams. We don’t want more concrete pipes. We want to have gardens.”

Q: Is it enough for people to try this in their backyard or do we need larger infrastructure projects?

Anna: Backyard rain gardens definitely help. They are beautiful and everyone should build one, if they want one. But to truly make this work, we need it integrated in our water infrastructure systems. We need to have green spaces as the first layers of the defense spread throughout the city in order to take advantage of it.

If we do try to encourage it in backyards, it’s going to mostly go to wealthy, affluent neighborhoods where people have the money, resources, and time to create them. But where it’s needed most, is where the flooding happens, where the urban heat is more intense, and where we see the most water pollution, which are in traditionally underserved areas of our cities.

Q: How can we impact these policies and get more involved?

Anna: The first step is to call your city council member and let them know you want nature-based infrastructure. Tell them how you need green infrastructure in your city. We need to get the language and ideas to our local governments.

If we can keep these issues at the forefront, it can happen. It just needs a little push.

We can bring nature into our cities and really improve some of the worst issues with our cities, while just making the world a better place in general. It makes me really hopeful.

In December, Houston passed some new incentives for private developers to put nature-based infrastructure in their city.

For the first time ever, the Texas Water Development Board included nature-based infrastructure as a major component of funds that are set up to help finance flood infrastructure projects across the state.

The Austin City Council and City Watershed Protection Department has incorporated green infrastructure into their climate plan. Dallas is looking to do the same thing.

El Paso has started this project where they are planting trees in the right of way where puddles collect to test to see if they can integrate that water into the soil and prevent it from running into the storm drains.

It’s popping up all over Texas and all over the country.