Uplifting Black, Brown, and queer voices across the South—no matter who's in office.
This piece was reported and published in partnership with InsideClimate News.
Midsummer, from a corner office in City Hall, Stephen Costello ticked off Houston's recent floods from memory: Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 dumped on the northeastern part of town. A storm in '09 hit the west side. 2015 saw Memorial Day flooding swamp the northwest closer to downtown, while Halloween rains slammed the south. The Tax Day floods of 2016, the worst since Allison, spread across the city; Memorial Day that year saw the county northwest of Houston underwater.
Then came Harvey, and everything turned to soup.
It is Costello's job to make sure that whenever the waters arrive, the city is prepared. He is Houston's "flood czar," a position minted the day after the Tax Day floods to respond to the recent uptick. He has no dedicated staff, and no clear job description. A whiteboard attests to his "all the above approach," a wishlist with initiatives from bayou renovation projects to wetland protection to programs to get citizens involved in stormwater drain maintenance.
Trim behind his rectangular glasses, Costello looks a bit like a goofier Rick Perry. "The unique thing about Houston," he tells me, "is we're never going to prevent flooding. All we can do is try to mitigate for it." How Houstonians feel about this position—how they feel about Costello—says much about what they think of the city's efforts generally.
Nearly all Houstonians are less optimistic after the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Harvey in late August. The numbers hint at the scale: trillions of gallons of water dumped on the area, more precipitation than has ever been recorded in an American storm. Fifty thousand 911 calls on the first night alone. Over fifty dead. Half a million cars flooded out.
Images of Houston underwater may have come as a surprise for those who haven't visited, but Houston is subtropical, less like the vision of Texas as tumbleweed country and more like the dank wetlands of southern Louisiana. Built atop a swamp, the city—now the nation's fourth largest—is booming. Since 2000, the metropolitan population has jumped from around 4.5 to nearly 6.3 million, and the trend continues apace—last year, Houston's Harris County was the second fastest-growing in the nation, after eight years spent atop that list.
That means both ever more homes to be flooded, and ever more paved land happy to usher the water along downstream. Houston, bustling with engineers, has constructed an elaborate series of reservoirs and channels to remove its water safely into Galveston Bay, to the southeast. But the water has gone delinquent.
Flooding is a risk throughout Houston and Harris County, but the battles to address it are generally fought on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Tony River Oaks floods and the residents have City Hall on the line. White Oak Bayou floods and its neighbors sue the county. Cypress Creek floods and the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition springs into being.
Dean Bixler lives in Memorial City, itself home to a local drama. While he escaped much damage during Harvey, he has seen his home flooded three times since he bought it in 1996, and has lost two cars to the water. Gruff, goateed, and fatalistic, he chuckles at what he sees as the callousness of the city.
"The first flood," Bixler says, "you would think that when they start to develop, they would take that into consideration. No, because we aren't in a mapped floodplain, they continue to develop because they can. Now, three floods later, they are still developing, as if the area is not a flood hazard. That's criminal."
Harvey's water carried dead animals, chemicals, plain old debris, and, infamously, floating colonies of fire ants.
Dean's neighbors formed a group, Residents Against Flooding (RAF), to battle the city's oversights. In their neighborhood, much of the property is owned and developed by MetroNational. The developer's local dominance is clear: it rings its buildings in fluorescent blue lights, and when night falls the sky glows. Bixler calls MetroNational's headquarters, topped in a corona of blue, "the tower of Isengard," after an evil wizard's home in 'Lord of the Rings.'
Much of the flooding that residents of Memorial experience is exacerbated, RAF claims, by the developments in the area, many of which are built by their bête noire. But the city, they charge, does nothing to reign in the developers. Ed Browne, president of RAF, told me the "city is owned by developers. There's no zoning, so you can pretty much do whatever you want. Or whatever you can convince the politicians to let you do."
Developers' connections are well lubricated. MetroNational put on a fundraiser for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during his primary race in 2014. The following year, former MetroNational President Jim Jard hosted a Super Bowl party, and Turner and his then-opponent, Stephen Costello, were in attendance. MetroNational did not respond to requests for comment.
Of course, political support is legal and expected, and powerful people hang out. But developers barely need to move the regulatory needle for the flooding in Memorial City to worsen. Bixler, along with Browne and their co-Resident Cynthia Neely, toured me through their neighborhood to show off the building practices at work. In other circumstances, the issues would hardly be worth a second look. Browne, himself an engineer, blames fill dirt: before construction, developers truck in thousands of cubic feet of earth to lift the base of entire structures, preventing flooding in the raised buildings. As Browne notes, though, that displaces more water downstream, where older houses are usually not elevated from street level.
RAF alleged as much in a lawsuit filed against the city and a special tax reinvestment zone in 2016. The organization charges that the city postponed mandated—and planned—mitigation projects to contain runoff from new construction, developing such that more stormwater entered neighborhoods, and as a result, "hundreds of homes in the Memorial City area have suffered repeated and horrific flooding." Their case was dismissed in federal court, but is currently under appeal.
Jim Blackburn, a mustachioed gadfly on Texas environmental issues, was the initial plaintiff's attorney in the RAF case. "One could argue that the developers' property rights are more valuable than the individuals' property rights," he muses. "And if you've got a government just sort of fronting for the developers, you can't get to them. So it insulates them."
Sometimes, the government's role is not as a shield, but as a spear. When I spoke with Neely of RAF before Harvey, her house had never flooded. That was still true after the heaviest rains of Harvey had passed on Sunday, August 27. Watching out her window that day, Neely saw the water levels outside dropping. The sun came out; she and her family took a walk. But then the trend reversed, and water began to rise again.
Night fell. Sewer water began to gurgle up through her shower and tub and spread across her bathroom floor and into her bedroom, where it met with the water that entered from outside. Harvey's water carried dead animals, chemicals, plain old debris, and, infamously, floating colonies of fire ants. The noxious brew sat in Neely's house for a week. It invaded appliances—her fridge, her dishwasher, her washer-dryer, all but the oven. Most everything it touched was ruined. Her first floor is now gutted, the house mostly worthless—she is hoping to sell for lot value and leave. A pile of junk still sits outside on the grass out front like a beached whale.
The late-hitting flood came because the Army Corps of Engineers decided that two huge reservoirs on the west side of town, Addicks and Barker, had become too swollen. They let out a "controlled release" of their contents into Buffalo Bayou to reduce the pressure on the dam. "This whole Memorial area was the reservoir's detention basin," Neely said. More water would mean overflow or, worse, dam failure, a catastrophic event that the Houston Chronicle predicted would doom a the city to a "week of corpses by the mile." That possibility is not abstract: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rated the two dams in 2009 as among the six most at-risk in the country. Even in the controlled releases, a woman died in the townhouses across the street from Neely.
"There's no zoning! We have homes and hospitals, clinics, daycares, sitting right next to refineries and chemical plants. That's just what Houston is."
Circumstances likely forced the Corps' hand. But "what we don't know," Neely says, "is—how much did you have to release, how fast did you have to release it. And did you do it because you were panicking, because you haven't done your frickin' job to protect us in the first place? So that's where we are, and that anger is what keeps me from crying. We lost all three cars. We lost our home. I don't think it can be restored."
"All of this," she says, "is so predictable. We said it over and over, for years and years, and nobody would listen. People before thought 'oh, you're just an alarmist.' My husband was one of them! Because we had never flooded."
Downstream residents caught in the dams' releases have initiated a series of suits against the Corps for "inverse condemnation," claiming that their property was taken for use by the government without due compensation. Upstream residents have filed suit as well, citing surprising backflow from overfull reservoirs. Costello is unimpressed with these post-Harvey cases, which, unlike the RAF case that sought infrastructural redress, are "all monetary-related lawsuits."
Memorial City is a relatively nice neighborhood, full of stately houses and conservative voters. Even upscale neighborhoods can find themselves downstream. But water in Houston flows southeast. Industry trickles the same way. Nestled amid the two, adjacent the Houston Ship Channel and surrounded by petrochemical processing, is Manchester, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood that environmental justice activist Yvette Arellano describes as "the most polluted community in the entire nation." And that, she says, is because, "There's no zoning! We have homes and hospitals, clinics, daycares,
sitting right next to refineries and chemical plants. That's just what Houston is."
"And when you look at the bottom line, and you try to make it as cost-efficient as possible, the most cost-efficient way to approach anything is by inundating all the bad stuff on poor communities. It's always been that way."
Most of Manchester's woes are not flooding-related. A chemical tang, like pickled poison, hangs in the air. Spending even twenty minutes walking outside gave both me and Arellano headaches, even though her work with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) takes her to the area regularly.
And that was on a sunny day. Texas A&M researchers testing after light rains found elevated levels of heavy metals in surface water in the neighborhood last year, from lead to (especially) barium. During Harvey, floodwaters swirled through chemical plants on their way into Manchester. Meanwhile, the Valero refinery that abuts the neighborhood leaked a cloud of benzene when a storage tank's roof failed—an initial report of seven pounds escaping, Valero later admitted, was "significantly underestimated." Power was out, the air sweltering, so many residents kept their windows and doors open, increasing their exposure. A week after the storm, the atmosphere in the area was still showing elevated levels of the carcinogen.
Marccus Hendricks, a professor at University of Maryland in the urban studies and planning department, until last year studied environmental preparedness and resiliency in Houston. He notes that "systematic, structural, and invisible social processes take place every day," isolating lower-income communities and communities of color into certain areas which then lack the infrastructure investment of wealthier areas. Sure enough, much of Manchester's drainage is poorly maintained open-air ditches, which after heavy rains or flooding become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. "Disaster is providing a unique opportunity where these things are illuminated," by laying bare inequities that precede disaster's arrival, Hendricks says.
Valero is back to work, its fellows along the Ship Channel up and running after the storm. It's just business. But, Arellano suggests, that may be the problem. "The markets have always looked down for the bottom line," she tells me. "And when you look at the bottom line, and you try to make it as cost-efficient as possible, the most cost-efficient way to approach anything is by inundating all the bad stuff on poor communities. It's always been that way."
Matt Zeve is the Director of Operations at the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD). The District, created in 1937 in response to flooding throughout Houston's county—1929 and 1935 saw particularly violent deluges—is charged specifically with preventing "riverine" flooding from bayous and reservoirs. (The city is charged with road and ditch drainage, which is of course interrelated.)
Zeve sighs knowingly when asked about inflamed residents. "Flooding has been a hot button issue since basically the 1920s in Houston-Harris County. I don't know what else to tell you—it's always flooded here, it always will flood here. But the thing is if you happen to be that group of people that has been negatively affected by a flood, then it gets in your head."
Zeve looks at flooding through a historical lens—before joining HCFCD, he worked as a hydraulic engineer and coauthored a book about the bayous of Houston. The HCFCD, too, relies on historical data, using records of rainfalls past to estimate future events. Accordingly, water mitigation systems are put in place to retain rainfalls that might be expected every x number of years.
Hundred-year floodplains are an especially important benchmark. These are areas predicted to flood in a rainfall expected only once every hundred years, with a one percent chance of flooding in any given year. Their contours help define where flood mitigation is most urgent and what should be built where; building codes become more restrictive inside, and lenders within often require federal flood insurance, subsidized by FEMA. Broader floodplains might dampen development, but would be expected if, say, rainfalls were heavier than previously believed, or runoff levels were higher.
As Houston-Harris County has experienced a run of 100-year floods—last year's Tax Day flood was a 10,000-year event in some places, and Harvey was this country's largest-ever rainstorm—climate scientists believe such an adjustment is warranted. "In terms of heavy rainfall, you take any threshold you want—six inches in a day, eight inches in a day, whatever—the likelihood of surpassing that threshold sometime in a given year has increased by about 30% over the past century," says Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.
The city and the district, though, do not attribute recent rainfall patterns to a changing climate. Mike Talbott, the HCFCD's last director who retired last year, outright dismissed climate change as an explanation for the frequent storms in an interview with ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. Jim Blackburn, the environmental lawyer, scoffs at this position. "I mean, how can you have any faith in these guys?" he asks. "Of course climate change is involved! I bet we've had ten 100-year-plus storms in the last 40 years. Statistically that's not supposed to happen. But with climate change, your statistical base is by definition changing. We don't keep up with that. That's where the denial really undercuts everything you're trying to do."
The district's stance may have softened with Talbott's retirement: it awaits, Zeve says, the results of an ongoing national climate survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The survey happens to get to Texas last of all, and will not be done until next spring. In the meantime, the district has not adjusted rainfall estimates since 2007. The city is following their lead.
Zeve also denies that the quick pace of development, and the proliferation of concrete, make flooding worse. "If there's a flood out in the middle of nowhere, nobody's going to say anything," he says. "But if there's a flood in the fourth-largest city in America, a lot of eyes are on it. So do I think the growth has contributed to the flooding? I don't. But I think there's a lot more eyes on it and a lot more lives affected by it, just because there are more people here."
But those people have been moving outward from the city, paving across former fields and ranchlands. The increase in impervious surfaces is widely cited as worsening runoff. Texas A&M-Galveston marine scientist Sam Brody, something of a guru in the anti-flooding circuit, calculates that each additional square meter of paved surface causes $4,000 of increased damage per flood event in the pavement's watershed. More runoff means more "sheet flow," water skirting across the ground on its way to channels and ponds. This flow is to blame for many newly flooding residences of late—even outside of Harvey—some half of which, flood czar Costello notes, "are nowhere near floodplains." This type of flooding is referred to as "urban flooding," as opposed to the riverine variety, and it is why, despite HCFCD's claim that "today's floodplains are smaller than they have ever been in Harris County," so many houses flood during heavy rains.
Against the pavement stands the Katy Prairie Conservancy (KPC), a nonprofit group a quarter-century old, dedicated to protecting prairielands to the northwest of the city. Once ubiquitous, the tall prairie grasses there send roots more than ten feet below the surface, helping suck down water. Studies along Cypress Creek suggest that land blanketed by those grasses could absorb nine inches of rain in a twenty-four hour period—more than four times as much as agricultural pastureland and 18 times more than traditional turf grasses.
That does not make the prairie grasses a panacea for flooding, as even Mary Anne Piacentini, head of the KPC, admits. "Now, will keeping the Katy Prairie whole and in its natural state stop all the flooding?" Piacentini asks. "No, it's not going to. But it's one leg of the stool. And if there's something else that was done in the northeast, and in the southeast, and in the southwest, then you start to have a regional model, that people can say 'okay, we haven't eliminated flooding, but we've reduced it by 70 percent.'"
The Conservancy has protected about 20,000 acres of land thus far; they are aiming to protect somewhere between 30 and 60,000. But it will be a difficult ask to keep the grasslands intact. As it imbibes more citizens, Houston has been letting out its beltline. The Grand Parkway, its third concentric ring road, has come online in parts, and will ultimately encircle an area that is—like almost everything in Texas—larger than Rhode Island.
Piacentini knows this sprawl spells trouble for the prairielands. Her philosophy is that "roads don't follow development, development follows roads." Sure enough, on my way back to the highway from the Conservatory's Indiangrass Preserve to the west of the city—after stopping through a local park, where signs next to softball fields warn pedestrians of alligators underfoot—I stumbled from fields of soy and cattle into Elyson, a subdivision plopped on the grasslands as if by aliens, or some half-assed SimCity player. The development was still, but not particularly peaceful. The Grand Parkway shot right by, but I couldn't even get on, because the highway is a private toll road. I chugged back through the cow pastures instead.
Houston is chaotic in places, pragmatic, and more concerned with functionality than style, its impressive McMansions aside. Its homeliness, though, belies an abundance of engineering marvels. Oil and gas may now strike certain non-Texans as a dirty game in a world blanketed by greenhouse gases, but the techniques to extract, transport, and refine black gold are intricate in the extreme.
Blackburn, the environmental lawyer, recognizes this. "There's marvels of engineering all around us," he says. "We're an engineer-dominated community."
That truth is of great benefit in battling flooding; it can also stilt the city's response to the issue. As Chris Bell, a former city councilman and U.S. congressman who ran against Costello and Turner in 2015, cracks, "it's hard to find an engineer who's ever made a mistake." Such is the charge of flooding discontents against flood czar Costello. Costello had an engineering business in Houston for decades before joining city council in 2009.
"He is one of them!" says Blackburn. "He's an engineer. I think you'll find that he believes that we can engineer our way out of this." RAF's Neely—to be fair, perhaps not the most impartial voice on the matter—calls Costello "Mr. Slick."
Costello admits his bias: "I practiced in that for many years," he says, "so obviously I'm going to give you the engineering side. I feel like we're doing okay in terms of mitigation." Even after Harvey, he believes "every flood problem has an engineering solution. It's just a matter of whether or not you can pay for it."
But he recognizes how his past work could affect citizens' views of him, and of the city's efforts generally. "The biggest challenge that we have here, particularly with the drainage issues, is public trust," he says, nailing it. To rebuild that trust, Costello points to some local efforts to encourage community engagement: things like an adopt-a-drain initiative that invites residents to keep storm sewers clear of debris, or maintenance of the plants and trees involved in green infrastructure projects.
RAF, for their part, believe that there has been too much emphasis on these small-scale projects, while major fixes—new detention ponds, stricter building codes—are being overlooked. Ed Browne is dismissive: "90 percent at least of the city's projects are deferred maintenance, like clearing the debris out of a ditch, or repairing a culvert that's collapsed, or something like that. But should be routine." Bixler chimes in: "The most serious flood projects they announce could be done with one man and a little rented backhoe."
Bell spent his time in federal office trying to secure funding for flood protection. But funding such projects is a difficult political sell. "We live in a very immediate gratification society," Bell says. "And infrastructure: those are long term projects, usually looking out for what's going to happen in the future. We just kind of turned our back, because it doesn't bring any immediate gratification and it's expensive."
"The solutions to the problem are evident; they can be done. It's all about the money. Somebody has a financial interest in something, and the deal gets done. This is how it works anywhere in the world, or country," he muses. "Especially Houston."
While there is more money and more political will in Harvey's wake, funding public works can be more iffy in Texas. Texans like to attribute their economic success to the state's business-friendly climate, which limits taxes and regulation in favor of the private sector. Central planning is outsourced, essentially, to the aggregate of variously self-interested actors. Houston's zoneless cityscape intensifies that freewheeling environment.
Matt Zeve tells me that while he wishes his flood control district could do more, it is cash-strapped, because people don't want to pay for bigger fixes. There's a certain irony to last year's enormous flood hitting on Tax Day. "If it does become a defining issue of Harris County," Zeve believes, "then they will get with their elected officials and say 'it's okay to raise the tax rate to pay for flood control.' But that hasn't happened yet."
I spoke with one resident of Bellaire, a community in southwest Houston, who had this flood mitigation advice for neighbors: "Get a boat." Yet he thinks Houstonians are being overtaxed based on inflated property values that fail to account for flood risk. Neely, whose house flooded in Memorial City, predicts that Houston "may not be on the map much longer. We have a horrific, catastrophic event waiting in the wings. And I don't think that if they started today they could move fast enough to prevent it from happening, unless we just get lucky." But when mayor Sylvester Turner tried to hike property taxes to pay for storm clean-up, she found it "morally reprehensible"—had Houstonians not suffered enough?
Michael Bloom, an engineer with local firm R.G. Miller and a frequent blogger on local flood issues, compares tax allotments for HCFCD to monthly expenditures on Starbucks or cable to highlight that "the investment per capita is ridiculously low"—under .03 percent of taxable home value. He notes the figure could legally be 10 times higher by statute, "but we're in a political environment in general where anything at all that looks like a tax increase is not viable."
The city of Houston, on the other hand, voted on a bond referendum in 2010 to authorize a property tax hike to fund flood-resilience projects, and has more money at its disposal. Houston has put this money to use updating its drainage systems as part of its ReBuild Houston initiative, and flood czar Costello expects the fund to keep growing, from $250 million this year to $600 million by 2030.
The budget will evaporate, though, if a lawsuit filed by what Costello calls "no new taxes people" is successful. In 2015, a group of Houstonians challenged the wording of the referendum as misleading. The lawsuit could mean its repeal, and the funding from the rain tax would dry up, leaving the city with fewer options to keep the water at bay.
With conditions seemingly worsening by the year, the specter of climate change looms obviously over Houston's recent floods. Yet, before Harvey, it was curiously rare in the public debate.
Ed Browne, founder of RAF, explains: "It is a politically contentious issue for our group. Many of the people in our organization are very conservative. And so it's not a topic that we dwell on. I'm a scientist, and so to me it's very real." Other at-risk neighborhoods on the west side of town skew conservative too. (This makes for a topsy-turvy political scene of Republican constituents asking a Democratic power structure for, essentially, tighter regulation.) With the issue so politicized, it doesn't make sense to focus on climate change in these areas; instead, activists—and even scientists like state climatologist Nielsen-Gammon—talk more about mitigation.
That same reticence extends to city and county officials, who may not want to wade into such a charged issue. And on top of voter preferences, there is the pressure of the oil and gas industry, deeply entwined with the city's power structure. The American headquarters of Shell Oil Company are across the street from City Hall, connected by an underground tunnel. Shell funds Rice University's "Center for Sustainability." ExxonMobil just built a new corporate campus north of the city to pair with its giant refinery at the mouth of the Ship Channel. Arellano, the activist with TEJAS, calls Houston—like its neighbors Pasadena, Deer Park, Baytown, and Jacinto City—a "company town."
The political calculus that privileges business interests can ignore poorer neighborhoods almost completely. As Brody, the A&M-Galveston professor, explains: "Usually, it's the older homes that are flooding in these urban areas. And on average, the older housing stock is occupied by populations that are more vulnerable, like elderly populations, lower income, fixed-income populations. Parts of society that we want to protect, but in terms of flooding, those are the segments that are impacted the most."
Flooding is more equal opportunity in Houston than it was in, say, Hurricane Katrina. But while wealthy residents get hit, too, the response systems are more attuned to their woes. Brody cites the example of South Park, a working-class, mostly Black neighborhood in south Houston that was flooded in 1994 when 25 inches of rain fell in a day and Sims Bayou overflowed. Few residents had insurance, leaving many hamstrung, unable to rebuild. "So the most vulnerable, poor people of the city were the ones that did not get assistance. And something is wrong with that."
South Park made out okay in Harvey—Sims Bayou has since been widened—but earlier postdiluvian vacancies linger in the neighborhood today. Tracy Stevens, South Park's chairman of infrastructure, wonders why the county has neglected to buy out properties in the neighborhood. "And now, you're gone buy out all these houses out here where the last flood was,"—the county is exploring the option of ramping up its buyout program post-Harvey, to remove people from floodplains—"where the houses are in the millions of dollars. But it goes back to: South Park is a Black neighborhood! Low income, minority neighborhood." On the institutional response, he says, "they're going where the money is first. Because a lot of those communities, and those people out there, they already hired attorneys, lawyers, engineers. A lot of those people are PEs [professional engineers] and shit. You don't have that in South Park."
Charles X. White, the president of South Park's super-neighborhood, has completely lost faith in local politicians. Vis-à-vis Costello, White is blunt: "he is a liar." Of the flooding in his area, White says, "The solutions to the problem are evident; they can be done. It's all about the money. Somebody has a financial interest in something, and the deal gets done. This is how it works anywhere in the world, or country," he muses. "Especially Houston."
But as long as it's someone else's house flooding, who cares, right? Even Dean Bixler, after his flooding trifecta, chuckled when trying to remember the year of the Halloween flood: "You know, it didn't bother me, so I don't know."
In Houston, the lack of zoning and the developer-friendly oversight mean that growth inevitably washes its runoff downstream, to the detriment of long-timers in the area. It is an issue, at its heart, of externalities—your decisions may flood the houses of folks who have nothing to do with you, miles away. Elyson floods Bear Creek, MetroNational floods Bixler, I flood you, and so it goes. Short-term gains—in either the comforts of one's own home or, especially, in the form of profit—make it easier to look away.
In that regard, flooding in Houston looks quite a bit like climate change globally—which in turn feeds the flooding in Houston. The necessary steps to battle the problems clash with the dictates of deregulated capitalism, of which Texas is the example par excellence. Flooding just makes tangible the logic that otherwise proceeds out of sight.
During boom times in Boomtown, in other words, in a city built on oil wealth, it's easy as gravity to let development run its natural course, downstream neighbors be damned. For now, the city is rich and growing, diverse, humming with work and cultural capital; floods, word has it, have always been an issue. Harvey was yesterday. Today's forecast calls for sun. Tomorrow may never come.
This piece has been edited to reflect the distinction between open-air ditches maintained for effective drainage, and open-air ditches that come from poor maintenance.