One of the main undercurrents of the Foxconn deal, after you get past the breathtaking $3 billion state tax subsidy, is the environmental waivers that the state is providing. One of the variances applies to wetland management, something I wrote about briefly last month. But essentially Foxconn will have the authority to fill in existing wetlands on their construction site and replace them with newly created wetlands anywhere else in the state. And here’s where Houston comes in.

As Houston has grown phenomenally over the past 20 or so years, the zoning and approval process for new construction has been literally the wild wild west. Prairie has been paved over, bayous filled in, wetlands destroyed, and housing built on floodplains. Now of course the Foxconn site is small potatoes compared to Houston…but even Houston’s issue probably started on a similarly small scale. But if you go back to my earlier post, the areas under consideration have already been hit by flooding this year even with their current wetlands intact. Some background on how Houston got where it is:

Poor planning bears even more blame. Houston, which has almost no restrictions on land-use, is an extreme example of what can go wrong. Although a light touch has enabled developers to cater to the city’s rapid growth—1.8m extra inhabitants since 2000—it has also led to concrete being laid over vast areas of coastal prairie that used to absorb the rain. According to the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, a charity that finances investigative journalism, since 2010 Harris County has allowed more than 8,600 buildings to be put up inside 100-year floodplains, where floods have a 1% chance of occurring in any year. Developers are supposed to build ponds to hold run-off water that would have soaked into undeveloped land, but the rules are poorly enforced. Because the maps are not kept up to date, properties supposedly outside the 100-year floodplain are being flooded repeatedly.

So why would Wisconsin just cede wetland management to private corporations when the surrounding area is already subject to flooding? Who will be held accountable for future damages caused by flooding around the Foxconn factory, the local municipality? the county? the state? FEMA? not very likely Foxconn.

… politicians can learn from Houston. Cities need to protect flood defences and catchment areas, such as the wetlands…, whose value is becoming clear. Flood maps need to be up to date. Civil engineers, often starved of funds and strangled by bureaucracy, should be building and reinforcing levees and reservoirs now, before it is too late. The NFIP should start to charge market premiums and developing countries should sell catastrophe bonds. All this is a test of government, of foresight and the ability to withstand the lobbying of homeowners and developers. But politicians and officials who fail the test need to realise that, sooner or later, they will wake up to a Hurricane Harvey of their own.

And our federal government isn’t much help. Although they provide flood insurance they don’t charge market rates resulting in risk taking with new construction and they don’t enforce the flood plan rules when they sell insurance.

…the federal government subsidises the insurance premiums of vulnerable houses. The National Flood Insurance Programme (NFIP) has been forced to borrow because it fails to charge enough to cover its risk of losses. Underpricing encourages the building of new houses and discourages existing owners from renovating or moving out. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, houses that repeatedly flood account for 1% of NFIP’s properties but 25-30% of its claims. Five states, Texas among them, have more than 10,000 such households and, nationwide, their number has been going up by around 5,000 each year. Insurance is meant to provide a signal about risk; in this case, it stifles it.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, despite all of the grief it is given around overflows during heavy rains, has been taking a different approach, one that could be emulated in other places. MMSD has purchased homes that have been continually flooded and razed them and replaced them with containments for run off. They are removing the misguided concrete liners that were put in smaller creeks and rivers in the 1960s and repairing the river beds with natural rocks, native vegetation, and wetlands to reduce flooding across the county. They are essentially trying to restore the way nature had handled water before mankind decided to rebuild everything. I don’t know if Houston can emulate MMSD on a large enough scale to do any good in the case of future hurricanes. But the nation as a whole needs to recognize that sometimes…it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

BTW: I was going to include a letter to the editor that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over the weekend…but no matter how I approach the letters page on their JSOnline website, I can’t find letters newer than mid-June…go figure. But that letter talked about this issue better than I can.

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3 Responses to Houston’s Lesson for Wisconsin and for Foxconn

  1. Joanne Brown says:

    Notably, during the JFC “debate” on Foxconn, when Rep. Shankland brought up the environmental issues in Houston as a reason to rethink the liberties being given Foxconn, she was scolded by one of the Republicans for “using” Houston’s “tragedy” to make her point. The sanctimonious Republicans of the Wisconsin legislature have no room in their heads for genuine argument or logic.

  2. Duane12 says:

    Our “sanctimonious Republicans…” would do well to take a refresher reading from “Matthew 7:24-7” on the lack of wisdom and the future tragic result by building on sand.

    “Oh, the humanity.”

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