Rice U helping to preserve natural environment


Creating and preserving our natural environment is one of the solutions Rice University is proposing to safeguard our region from dangerous hurricane storm surge flooding.

The Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center has been studying different options for protecting the Houston-Galveston area and coastal communities from costly and deadly hurricanes and flooding.

As part of their multiple lines of defense plan, they are looking to create a program that pays private landowners to keep doing what they are doing instead of selling to commercial developers.

About 70 to 80 percent of the low-lying land they are hoping to keep "natural" in Chambers, Galveston, Brazoria and Matagorda counties is privately owned.

"If we can find other ways for decent income off of these low-lying areas rather than developing down there, it would fit very nicely, I think, in the long term strategy which is not to put human structures in high-risk flood zones. It's just sort of common sense," said Jim Blackburn, SSPEED Center co-director.

In order to motivate these landowners to keep their land in tact and relieve the pressures of urbanization, the SSPEED Center is introducing the Lone Star Coastal Exchange (LSCE) program.

LSCE would help local farmers and ranchers connect with companies that are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and help the environment.

"Many corporation are looking to offset the environmental impact of their activities, and they may want to pay farmers and ranchers on the Texas coast to basically offset the harm they are doing elsewhere," explained Blackburn.

LSCE would be fully online and transactions would take place over the internet.

So this is how it will work.

Say Company A wants to offset their impact on Earth by planting a forest of trees that can reduce pollutants in the air. According to the idea of LSCE, they can go online and find a Texas farmer who will allow the company to plant the trees on their land.

In the end, the farmer would get paid for the land use.

"Ecology has dollar value that in the past has never been recognized," said Blackburn. "We think the time is right to buy and sell what nature produces naturally."

Basically, the landowner would get compensated for building and maintaining a natural ecological system, like a forest or marshland, on their property that would withstand storm flooding and keep people out of the way.

"What we are talking about is that they farm and ranch natural activities," explained Blackburn. "If you farm a marsh, you basically create and cultivate marshland and lands that are able to be flooded. Then when they flood that is just part of nature."

The LSCE will be under development for the next year and a half. The SSPEED Center will be approaching serious buyers and sellers by this fall.

"We want to be there and be ready when these types of companies are ready to make those transactions."

Storing Flood Waters

Blackburn recently finished a research project for the National Parks Conservation Association.

In it, another idea for farmers to be compensated would be to sell the government flood storage rights.

When Hurricane Ike hit, water flooded low-lying areas all the way up to Louisiana.

It took about three to five days for the flood waters to drain out.

If the land wasn't development and was made up of farmland or ecological structures like wetlands, the damage would be minimal.

"Rather than building buildings, land owners could sell the government storage rights" said Blackburn. "That way it's a form of compensation for not developing property and holding it natural."

In the study, Blackburn and his colleagues suggest landowners selling flood storage rights to agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to incentivize the local farmers or ranchers from selling under the pressures of developers.

A National Park Network

Also intertwined in the plan is the Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area (LSCNRA).

There are about 220,000 acres of protected land that could be used as a recreation area.

Legislation would need to be involved with this option, but if it does become a reality, private landowners could benefit from tourism dollars.

They would have the option to open up their ecological developments, like marshlands or forests, to tourist coming for the LSCNRA.