In recent testimony to the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, Texas Ag Land Trust Board Member and Texas Land Trust Council Chairman, Jim Bradbury advocated for the conservation of open space as a strategy to mitigate the impacts of urban flooding. His written testimony to the Committee is included below.
Chairman Larson, Members of the Committee: Thank you for the opportunity to provide remarks on behalf of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust and the Texas Land Trust Council. I am here to today to provide testimony on the Committee’s interim charge to explore natural infrastructure and mitigation strategies that would reduce the impact of future flood events, and strategies to fund those efforts. The land trust community joined the rest of Texas in watching its fellow Texans endure the catastrophic damage that nature can deliver without warning. As part of the re-building and re-design of urban infrastructure in Houston and the gulf coast, our trusts are prepared to lend their experience in the area of land use and conservation strategies.
Hurricane Harvey was an unspeakable tragedy that re-defined risk to urban centers. Our hearts go out to those who lost so much. We applaud the committee’s prompt efforts to investigate strategies and tools to mitigate the effects of future storms. We believe that these events have given rise to an innovative look at how we live and why we should be more strategic about the natural landscapes that surround our communities.
I am here today to discuss the creation and protection of open space as a strategy to mitigate the impacts of excessive rainfall and downstream floods. Natural landscapes are the best tool to address the velocity and volume of floodwaters. Vegetation and pervious cover – as opposed to concrete and asphalt – allow the water to be absorbed into the absorbent soil. Additionally, open spaces tend to be less densely populated, with the result that flooding, when it does occur, has far less economic impact than highly developed areas. A report published by The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M Galveston in December, 2016, entitled “Protecting Open Space & Ourselves: Reducing Flood Risk in the Gulf of Mexico Through Strategic Land Conservation,” demonstrates the need for these strategies. The report maps those Gulf Coast watersheds that are likely candidates for flooding and identifies areas of high opportunity for land conservation.
More specifically, the tool most often used to protect open space is the conservation easement. The conservation easement is a voluntary agreement, negotiated between a landowner and the easement holder, possibly a governmental entity or a trust. Conservation easement programs exist at the federal, state, county and city levels for a variety of purposes. Two existing conservation easement programs in Texas are the Texas Farm & Ranch Lands Conservation Program, which was created to protect the state’s productive agricultural lands, and the Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan, which protects recharge areas over the Edwards Aquifer. Counties and cities around the country have used the conservation easement as an alternative to zoning and regulation for land use control. Given the nature of the transaction, it’s a lower cost approach that does not require a full purchase, carries tax benefits and enjoys potential cost sharing. Furthermore, because the easement transaction is typically between the landowner and a non-profit land trust which is specifically organized to hold conservation easements, the governmental entity has no ongoing maintenance or overhead obligations. As Texas begins to re-build, we encourage you to consider the use of the conservation easement to address natural risks that we now know so well.
Minnesota is an example of a state that has used the conservation easement at several levels to mitigate potential impacts from floods. Since 1986, the state has invested more than $200 million dollars to help improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and flood attenuation on private land through the Reinvest in Minnesota Reserve (RIM) Program. The program compensates landowners for granting conservation easements on economically marginal, flood-prone, environmentally sensitive, or highly erodible agricultural lands. In partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the county Soil and Water Conservation Districts, land trusts and other conservation organizations, the state has purchased more than 6,000 conservation easements covering more than 250,000 acres since the program began. Meanwhile, at the county level, Dakota County created the Vermillion Corridor Plan, with the goal of developing a continuous corridor of perennial, native vegetation along the Vermillion River to mitigate flooding while protecting farmland and wildlife habitat.
Projects like Minnesota’s are typically funded through bond monies. However, there are a number of resources at the federal level for open space protection. In the late 1990s following flooding along the Mississippi River, the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, now administered by FEMA, began to offer funds to buy conservation easements on farmland in Illinois. FEMA also administers a voluntary Community Rating System (CRS) which provides an opportunity to use open space protection to meet multiple objectives including flood risk reduction. In this program, the community gets points for flood mitigation activities and can earn discounts on their resident’s flood insurance premiums. Open space protection is a creditable CRS activity but is often underutilized.
In closing, I would like to point out that the damage and losses to Houston and the gulf coast are foremost in our minds as well as the work that lies ahead. But many parts of Texas stand to gain from the development of new approaches to land use and mitigation. Last year saw horrendous floods in Central Texas that were no doubt a result of the loss of open space to development. So, we are all in this together. The Farm and Ranchland Conservation Program has been a demonstrated model of how state dollars can be leveraged to aid landowners to protect their property with a conservation easement would help protect the state’s agricultural lands and wildlife habitats while mitigating the devastating effects of future storms.
I appreciate the Committee’s time and interest and renew our offer to serve as a resource to this Committee, Chancellor Sharp and the governmental leaders that testified today. I would be happy to answer any questions.