Turning Floodwaters Into Liquid Assets


AUSTIN, TX — With the recent devastating floods in Colorado washing away communities, ruining expensive infrastructure, and causing untold environmental harm, it’s hard to see what benefit could come from such a treacherous event.

This week, a SXSW Eco presentation by Rives Taylor suggested that floodwaters could be used as assets to address water shortages during drought. Rives is a principal in the Houston office of Gensler, member of the Houston Mayor’s Water Conservation Task Force, and architecture teacher at the University of Houston and Rice University.

Floods now affect an estimated 520 million people annually, causing global economic losses between $50 and $60 billion, according to data from the 5th International Conference on Flood Management.

In the talk Taylor argued that while our immediate response to getting rid of offending flood or storm water as fast as possible is natural in the face of disaster, there are ways to better design cities to redirect and leverage the power of this water, and even turn it into an amenity.

“We overbuild our cities with concrete, asphalt, and buildings that get rid of what used to be nature, which is what used to take the water and make it a positive thing,” Taylor said. “We now look at rainwater — stormwater — as a bad, negative thing. Something to get rid of really really quickly. But doesn’t it make sense that we turn that water into gold and look at it as something we should harvest and celebrate?”

Taylor said we need to look at the design of our cities and take advantage of things like parks and other green spaces that can be used to collect water. He gave the example of bike racks or public restrooms that could capture stormwater.

“We need to balance demand for water — being smart with our water — with what we do when we get the rain,” Taylor said. “We need to rethink our partnership with stewardship of water.”

In an editorial last year, Taylor wrote that floods had devastated China, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, the U.K., Florida, Minnesota, Haiti. This year has been just as brutal. Meanwhile large swaths of the country, including much of Texas, remain in extreme drought.

In the editorial Taylor ponders how things could be different if we forged an alliance with stormwater, slowed it down, and turned in into something useful that could even provide long-term economic benefits for cities and communities.

He writes:

“Soccer fields might turn into temporary ponds without even flipping a switch, giving the surging water a place to go. Streets would be designed to become canals (with appropriate warning signage when they do), putting the homes along them above most storm water levels. Heck, gulley washers (as I refer to furious rains) might even be construed as something good for the rose bushes or, more generally, the landscape, which in turn, keeps our cities cool and sequesters the carbon dioxide that’s likely causing the problem in the first place.”

Taylor also talks about how in Houston they’ve made key roads, parks, and parking lots that are able to transform into giant water containers when flash flood and stormwater events occur.

In Austin the Waller Creek tunnel project is addressing similar issues. The nearly mile-long tunnel, 26-feet in diameter, will alleviate much of the urban flood plane that has in the past led to intense and dangerous flash floods. The water will be collected and released into Lady Bird Lake which is a dammed section of the Colorado River. That water is used for drinking, agriculture, and estuary supply before eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.