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Frontlines

Paving Houston's Wetlands
As the Texas House Speaker Billy Wayne Clayton once famously remarked: "Let's do this in one foul sweep."

Since Hurricane Katrina swept through, there's a fair chance that Americans know more about wetlands than they did before. Wetlands help control floods, filter toxins and impurities from water, and support migratory birds. If Louisiana's coastal wetlands had remained intact, the devastation from Katrina would have been less severe.

The Houston-Galveston area of the Gulf Coast of Texas, which was hammered by Hurricane Rita three weeks after Katrina, once had a lot of wetlands, too. But few areas of the country have lost so many so fast. The pace has accelerated since a 2001 Supreme Court decision that removed protection from "isolated wetlands" that could be used by migratory waterfowl. The Galveston Bay wetlands are among the most important bird migration pathways in the country.

According to a November 2004 report by the National Wildlife Federation, the drain-fill-and-pave approach of Texas developers and politicians has put at risk 3.3 million acres of coastal-plain wetlands in the Army Corps of Engineers' Galveston district. Since 2003, scientists at the Texas Coastal Watershed Program, an extension of Texas A&M University, have examined hundreds of aerial photographs to document wetlands loss in the Galveston Bay watershed. This 2002 image shows the destruction of a formerly protected wetlands area, outlined in yellow, two miles from Galveston Bay and adjacent to Interstate Highway 45.

Map of Houston's wetlands

At the time these two "isolated wetlands" areas were paved over they were protected under federal law. Texas has no independent regulatory program to protect wetlands.

1 Fuqua Park and Ride lot for cars and buses, built in 1996 by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas.

2Top: Carmax auto dealership, built in 1997. Bottom: Home Depot, built in 1998.

3This remaining wetlands area, undeveloped at the time this photograph was taken in 2002, now houses a gated community called Alexan Gulf Pointe Apartment Homes. Units in the development include The Seagull, The Pelican, and The Sandpiper, in keeping with a time-honored tradition in the world of real estate that upscale residential areas be named in honor of the natural features (or creatures) that are bulldozed to make way for them.
-- Josh Harkinson


Frontlines
Settling In for the Long Haul
A Little More Ice with Your Bourbon?
Q&A: If It's Good for Business
Green Greens
Life After Katrina
Paving Houston's Wetlands
Field of Dreams


Field of Dreams


A quarter mile from the original city center of Los Angeles lies an elliptical plot of land known as the Cornfield. Once farmland, later a rail yard, it languished for a decade as a trash-strewn brownfield surrounded by low-income neighborhoods. When the city approved an industrial development on the site, NRDC and a coalition of local groups sued to stop it, successfully lobbying instead for the Cornfield to be acquired as future parkland.

In 2005 artist Lauren Bon turned the 32-acre site into a temporary "living sculpture" called "Not a Cornfield." For one complete agricultural cycle, it was planted with corn as "an image of desire, hope, and redemption." The harvest was planned to yield two million ears of corn, all destined for recycling.





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Map: Courtesy of Texas Coastal Watershed Program, drafted by Ricardo Lopez
Photo: Courtesy of Steve Rowell

OnEarth. Winter 2006
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council