Ground design

Clear Lake’s Newest Flood Control: Exploration Green Park

A tern sailed gracefully across the shallow lake of Exploration Green, diving to catch fish wriggling in the water, while a hawk on a branch of a nearby loblolly pine scanned the land for its next meal.

Not too long ago, neither bird would have been in Clear Lake’s newest park, etched on a 200-acre former golf course and the product of nearly two decades of effort.

Construction of the fifth and final phase of the $43 million project is underway and is expected to be completed in early 2023. When complete, the park will have five man-made ponds with islands of wildlife habitat, thousands of new trees, six miles of walking-biking trails and 200 species of native flowers, grasses and other plants.

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People enjoy Exploration Green, a park created on a former golf course and built in phases, Monday, July 11, 2022, in Clear Lake.
Mark Mulligan/staff photographer
People enjoy Exploration Green, a park created on a former golf course and built in phases, Monday, July 11, 2022, in Clear Lake.
People enjoy Exploration Green, a park created on a former golf course and built in phases, Monday, July 11, 2022, in Clear Lake.
Mark Mulligan/staff photographer

People enjoy Exploration Green, a park created on a former golf course and built in phases, Monday, July 11, 2022, in Clear Lake.

Exploration Green represents the hottest topic in two areas that might otherwise seem unrelated: flood mitigation and parks.

“What strikes me about Exploration Green is the depth of community engagement of people of all ages, professions, backgrounds and income groups – a genuine appreciation of what space could become and its realization,” said James Vick. , the architect and urban planner SWA in charge of the park’s master plan. “If you’ve gone out like me and seen children and parents and grandparents coming out and putting up trees and planting grasses, the scale of what happened is striking.”

Begin

Decades ago, as NASA and the petrochemical industry expanded in Clear Lake, Exxon’s real estate arm, Friendswood Development, planned neighborhoods around the headquarters of the space industry. It was the first planned community in Texas, and owners paid a premium for homes on the then-private Clear Lake golf course.

Many were built in the 1960s, and longtime neighbors like Nina Johnston and Ellen King watched the kids grow up and start families of their own. As neighborhoods spread all around them, flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes also increased.

So when the private golf club waned in popularity as golfers turned to newer, more enjoyable options, Clear Lake Golf Club was purchased by a company that operated it as a public course. Then a new buyer saw it as prime land for more homes, and Johnston, King, and their neighbors rallied to block it.

David Sharp, president of the Exploration Green Conservancy, points to a sign for bluebird nesting boxes in the park.  They were built for the Eagle Scout projects and a scout returns regularly to service them;  affectionately called the "Bluebird owner."

David Sharp, president of the Exploration Green Conservancy, points to a sign for bluebird nesting boxes in the park. They were built for the Eagle Scout projects and a scout returns regularly to service them; they affectionately call it the “Bluebird Landlord”.

Mark Mulligan/staff photographer

The neighbors formed the Green Space Preservation Committee, and Johnston was its outreach person. With every piece of news about the golf course and its buyer, Johnston and his friends sprang into action, writing rebuttals from their kitchen tables. To raise money, they held hot dog socials, charging $5 per person and raising $2,000 at their first event.

Quickly, however, the Clear Lake Water Authority stepped in, seeing open land as an ideal option for flood control. Stormwater from 2,000 nearby homes pours into the 200-acre site, and water board chairman John Branch has recognized the opportunity.

The water authority engaged SWA to develop a master plan and initiate hydrological studies. When Vick and Branch took the committee members to see Willow Waterhole, a similar project that had just started in southwest Houston, the neighbors were convinced flood control could be much better than they expected. had never imagined.

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The project had its detractors, residents who felt that their privacy would be invaded or that it would bring too many people too close to their homes. Others worried that the lakes would become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Over time, their concerns were taken into account.

Construction on the first phase of Exploration Green began in 2016, and when Hurricane Harvey dumped four feet of rain on the Houston area, the “big dig,” as neighbors called it, proved its worth. . The owners looked out their back doors at the giant hole in the ground and saw it fill with water – doing its job before it was even finished. Some 120 usually flooded homes remained dry.

Each of the five phases, which contain a pond and a basin, are deep enough to hold 100 million gallons of stormwater – half a billion gallons of water for the entire park – eventually flowing into Horsepen Bayou, easing pressure on other streams and bayous during heavy rain.

Homes in the neighborhood’s 77062 zip code sold for 24% more in 2022 than in 2021, according to data from Alina Rogers of Sparrow Realty.

Construction of the fifth and final phase of Exploration Green at Clear Lake continues.

Construction of the fifth and final phase of Exploration Green at Clear Lake continues.

Mark Mulligan/staff photographer

Willow Waterhole and Exploration Green aren’t the first flood control projects to serve as both green space and parkland, but Vick, whose company works on similar projects around the world, said efforts of Houston are examples for others.

“One of the first projects SWA did here was the Clear Lake Master Plan. It’s fun for us, decades later, to come back and get involved with Exploration Green,” Vick said of the association of flood control and parks.

“For this to be a model that can be replicated, it would be a huge reward for the community that put so much heart and soul into it. It’s not unique and can’t be done anywhere else. Houston, being the city ​​it is, we borrow and duplicate,” he continued.

How it’s used

At four public meetings, each of which attracted at least 300 residents, it was clear that the people who lived near the park site had high expectations: walking trails, resilient plants that could represent the seasons, wildlife protection and accessibility for them all.

King – who will soon be 80 and has lived here for 50 years – said she was not much of a walker, but looked out over the park from her garden, waving to neighbors as she passed.

“I used to look across a golf course and now I’m looking at a hill. It’s a graduated terraced area – like being in Peru or something,” King laughed. “I look outside and I see the water. I tell people, “It’s wonderful, I moved to a property by the lake and I didn’t have to pack a punch.”

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In the spring, islands of habitat in the center of each pond become rookeries, where a variety of birds build nests and raise their young. Around the edges of the lake are wetlands, Mother Nature’s filter that helps purify stormwater before it runs out. None of the ponds are stocked, but they all have fish, frogs and toads, probably hatched from eggs laid by birds or roots from wetland plantings.

Several bat boxes are displayed at Exploration Green.  Bats are nature's form of pest control, as they come out to feed on mosquitoes and other insects at night.

Several bat boxes are displayed at Exploration Green. Bats are nature’s form of pest control, as they come out to feed on mosquitoes and other insects at night.

Mark Mulligan/staff photographer

Boy Scout Eagle and Girl Scout Gold Award projects have included bat boxes, bluebird boxes, and bee stations. There are towers for chimney swifts which gobble up mosquitoes and insects during the day, once the bats have finished their night shift.

Trees for Houston donated 5,000 trees and the Texas Master Naturalist Program operates the nursery where trees, wetland grasses and other plants are grown before being planted.

Branch noted that while their pre-project planning was thorough, they weren’t afraid to adapt when needed. “These trails would have been higher and when we took a walk we spent all of our time looking into people’s backyards – it’s their privacy,” he said. “That’s when we decided to put in levels and put the path 10 feet below ground level. Now you look at the pond and it looks more like a natural area. We changed the plans as we work on better ideas.

When the lake suffered algal blooms and fish kills, marine biologists recommended bubblers and aerators to add oxygen to the water.

Grids cover the drain pipes at Exploration Green.

Grids cover the drain pipes at Exploration Green.

Mark Mulligan/staff photographer

David Sharp is retired from the chemical industry and volunteers as president of the Exploration Green Conservancy, which plans programming, organizes fundraisers and mobilizes hundreds of volunteers at planting time.

They’ve held nature lessons for kids, including a recent moth-killing event, and allowed local groups to host fun races on the trails. Before the pandemic, a yoga studio held free classes here and at Easter a nearby church used the park for a Stations of the Cross event.

Sharp also calls himself a novice ornithologist, recounting the names of birds he saw one hot summer morning: anhingas, terns, roseate spoonbills and the hungry falcon. Before the park took off, observers could have spotted 40 ordinary birds. Today, Audubon Society counts have recorded more than 140 species, he said.

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