By Chris Moran
Houston, TX (November 30, 2009)- When you cut 16,000 acres of lawn, you try to cut corners, too. The public agency that maintains local flood channels believes it can trim its $4.8 million annual mowing bill simply by using shade to make the grass grow more slowly. Tax money has paid for the planting of tens of thousands of trees this decade to cast that shade on channel banks, allowing longer waits between mowings.
“It really is a forest we’re dealing with, it’s not one or two trees we’re talking about,” said John Watson, a forester who is the Harris County Flood Control District’s assistant facilities maintenance manager. The strategy of adding shade to blade so far is saving the district about $210,000 a year, spokeswoman Heather Saucier estimated.
It’s tree planting season on the bayous, and during the next six months the district plans to plant nearly 40,000 trees. That is up from 1,300 during the winter of 2003-04. The new forests of loblolly pines, wax myrtles and cherry laurels expand what planners call the “green infrastructure.” “We’re not planting purely for aesthetics. We’re planting for very practical reasons,” Saucier said.
Not only do the trees cast shade, but they protect what Saucier called the area’s “sugary” soil: granular dirt easily swept away by water and wind. The trees’ roots serve as underground fingers that grip the soil so it does not slide into channels.
The strategy means flood control no longer is the exclusive province of engineers. Foresters increasingly play a role. The district hired its first urban forester, Watson, nine years ago and now employs three. The shade brigade has overseen planting and growing that have made the flood control district a major tree farmer.
A decade ago, the district could shop at local nurseries for the seedlings it needed. Eventually, its rising demand outstripped supply. The district needs trees that nurseries do not always stock because they do not sell well, such as water tupelo and black locust, Watson said. So, the district opened its own tree farm six years ago at its South Service Center in southern Houston. Its current crop is 6,600 trees. The district boasts that it loses only 5 percent of its trees to infestations and other threats, well below the industry average.
That means more trees in the ground along 2,500 miles of channels maintained by the district. Officials acknowledge that it will take several years for the agency to reap the benefits of the plantings. Canopies take time to develop.
Tree planting is a great long-term investment, said Barry Ward, executive director of the nonprofit Trees for Houston, which has planted 360,000 trees since 1983. Aesthetics are a recruitment tool, he explained, to lure the best and brightest to Houston. The city does not have a scenic oceanfront, but it does have an advantage over other areas of the country, he said, and that is a more salubrious climate for growing trees.
The district also uses urban forestry as an instant response to sprawl. Many of the district’s greenbelts along channels do double duty as public parks. “People see the city expanding farther and farther out,” Watson said. “We’re cutting trees down to make more room for development, and people miss that. They want green space.”
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