The second annual Green Communities Conference kicked off Monday morning at the Waco Convention Center, bringing Wacoans together to talk about sustainability efforts in Waco and around the state.
Mayor Dillon Meek provided opening remarks at the two-day conference, which drew about 360 registered attendees. The event was organized by Keep Waco Beautiful with sponsors including the city of Waco.
Keynote speaker Sascha Usenko, associate professor of environmental science at Baylor, focused on the future challenges for Texas and the world as populations grow in the next few decades, including clean water and sanitation, clean food, clean air, clothes and shelter and clean energy and transportation.
“When I think about these new residents, of course that’s my kids or my kids’ kids. … We will see the state of Texas top 40 million, or 45 million, or maybe even 50 million,” said Usenko, an atmospheric scientist. “How are we going to handle those challenges? What are the needs of those people? That’s a conversation I think we’re going to be having today.”
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Usenko said there are innovative ways to combine solutions for seemingly opposing challenges, such as the land use conflict between growing food and siting solar farms. He pointed to efforts already in use to use sheep to graze under and around panels, so that the land provides food as well as energy.
Likewise, he said, the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy could be resolved using fracking technology now used in Texas to extract fossil fuel. Using oilfield techniques to drill deep into the Earth’s crust, Texans could combine geothermal steam turbines with other renewables to ensure reliable energy without major carbon emissions, he said.
The conference Monday broke into sessions on energy and climate technology, environmental justice and climate, food and waste systems and water.
Bardia Heidari, research scientist at Texas Water Resources Insitute, kicked off conversations about water conservation and planning with his presentation on green storm water infrastructure meant to preserve natural areas while also meeting increasing drainage needs amid growth and development, as Texas is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, he said.
Land fragmentation, subdivision and land use changes have changed the way stormwater behaves as Texas’ population has increased by 10 million people over the last 20 years, Heidari said. More urbanization means more impervious land, and that means more runoff that current stormwater infrastructure can handle, he said.
Heidari said this increased urbanization comes at the same time as changing precipitation patterns, with an upward trend in totals in eastern Texas. As years pass, the chances increase of a news-making, problem-causing flood, known as a 100-flood, defined as a flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in a given year.
Heidari said his center is working on “green” stormwater infrastructure, which could mean bioretention with vegetated depressions and engineered soil, or rain gardens with mulched depressions. Different types of natural drainage features could suit different areas, but measures should slow the immediate amount of runoff while helping improving a drainage system’s capacity.
Heidari’s team did a case study in Dallas, where they found a combination of traditional and natural drainage measures produced the most effective results.
Waco watershed protection compliance manager Mark Keeley said green stormwater infrastructure will become more popular as the city updates its design criteria for drainage and roads within developments.
“Right now, they are not allowed to cause excess water to run off the property from what it was before they developed it,” Keeley said. “We’re going to increase that to the point that now, yes, they do have to detain the water … but in that detention process they’re going to have to be able to prove out that they’re reducing the sediment load and any contaminant loads by 80%. A lot of that’s going to come with the green infrastructure that he was talking about.”
The city won’t mandate green infrastructure, Keely said, but it will guide developers to meet stormwater and drainage requirements “the smart way,” which is through green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is already designed into some of the city’s properties, including Cameron Park and the Lake Waco Wetlands, Keeley said.
“A lot of times when people are playing Frisbee golf and stuff like that, they’re actually in a basin and they can’t tell,’ he said. “It’s like a green infrastructure basin. They’re real shallow, but they’re really wide and so there’s a lot of that stuff designed into the park.”
Keeley said the city sustainability office is looking into creating some micro-scale urban wetland areas. In addition, the city recently passed a drainage fee based on the impervious cover on each property, and the city could eventually give discounts to developers who use green infrastructure.
The event continues Tuesday, with other sponsors including Texas State Technical College, McLennan Community College, Central Crushed Concrete and Heart of Texas Goodwill.