For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

The new app answers all those recycling and trash schedule questions. Photo courtesy of Richwood Place

City of Houston sorts trash and curbside recycling questions with new app

there's an app for that

Ah, the age-old Houston recycling questions: Is recycling today? Next week? Is glass accepted? Recycle the birthday card from the ex or burn it?

The City of Houston is here to help with those questions (er, perhaps not the last one) with a new app designed to help locals. HTX Collects is a new mobile app aimed at helping residents keep track of weekly services, updates, and collection delays.

HTX Collects will include collection reminders for garbage, recycling, yard waste and tree/junk waste specific to residents' service addresses. The app will also send a reminder to residents of their collection days, a press release notes. (Yes!)

Other features include:

  • Collection Calendar: Trash, Recycling, Yard Waste, Junk/Tree Waste services. Users can set reminders and receive alerts via email, push notifications, and phone call.
  • Waste Wizard: A searchable solid waste directory, plus curbside services and drop-off location information.
  • Waste Sorting Game: An interactive educational tool to engage, challenge and change recycling behavior.

Residents can find and download the mobile app for Apple and Android devices via the Apple App Store or Google Play Store by searching for the keywords Houston Trash and Recycling.

Those who would prefer not to litter their home screen can visit the website HoustonRecycles.org and search their home address in the My Schedule tool. They can also:

  • Sign up to receive waste collection reminders by email or phone call.
  • Download their collection schedule into their iCal, Google calendar, or Microsoft Outlook calendar. Print their personalized collection schedule.
  • Search the Waste Wizard on HoustonRecycles.org to learn how to recycle or dispose of materials properly.

By the numbers, Houston's Solid Waste Management Department collects curbside service for over 395,000 residential homes within the city limits, per a release. (No word on how many of those collected items are ex's birthday cards.)

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The roof of Carnegie Vanguard High School features an example of the Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Photo courtesy of the City of Houston

City of Houston launches pilot program to promote stormwater infrastructure growth

seeing green

The City of Houston has launched a pilot project that will speed up the permitting process for environmentally friendly stormwater projects.

The Green Stormwater Infrastructure Expedited Permitting Pilot Program, announced August 4, will approve at least 10 projects in the Houston area by August 2022. In conjunction with the Resilient Houston initiative, the city is targeting 100 green stormwater infrastructure projects by 2025.

The city is working on rules and regulations that will govern development of green stormwater infrastructure. Mayor Sylvester Turner rolled out a tax abatement program for green stormwater infrastructure projects last December.

According to a city news release, green stormwater infrastructure improves the performance of drainage systems and can make real estate projects more attractive to buyers, while delivering benefits such as heat reduction, improvement of air and water quality, and conservation of native habitats.

Green stormwater infrastructure helps reduce the downstream impact of development and mimics how rain behaves when it falls onto an undeveloped green landscape. Techniques that fit into this category include green roofs, rain gardens, rainwater harvesting, permeable pavement, and urban forests.

"In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we have taken critical steps to address our flooding and drainage challenges. As Houston has rapidly developed, we have relied on traditional gray infrastructure systems to keep us safe. However, as we build forward, we must consider new and innovative approaches for achieving greater flood resilience in Houston," the city says in a 2019 report about green stormwater infrastructure.

Traditional "gray" infrastructure, designed to move urban stormwater away from the built environment, includes curbs, gutters, drains, piping, and collection systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Generally, gray infrastructure collects and moves stormwater from impervious surfaces, such as roadways, parking lots, and rooftops, and into a series of pipes that ultimately send untreated stormwater into local waterways.

In tandem with Houston's new permitting program, the city has created the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Awards and Recognition Program. The program salutes green development and redevelopment projects. It "is intended to recognize some of the most effective and exemplary of 'green' building in Houston and encourage more development projects to adopt resilient measures," according to the news release.

Projects considered for the awards program will be judged on factors such as:

  • Proximity to nearby communities.
  • Impact on nearby communities.
  • Efforts to conserve native plants.

Turner says the permitting and awards programs are part of an initiative aimed at "futureproofing our city" to ease harm caused by hurricanes and flooding.

"In Houston and in towns across the U.S., climate change is no longer knocking on our front door; it's broken into the house," Turner wrote in an opinion piece published in July by The Hill.

Houston's 311 is going virtual. Image courtesy of the City of Houston

City of Houston reboots with efficient new virtual 311 system

THE 411 ON 311

Houstonians who've been occasionally frustrated by having to call the city's 311 service for the simplest of issues are now in luck. The City of Houston has launched an innovative new virtual 311 platform.

Now, locals can address needs and create individual cases via a newly created, cloud-based "Virtual Agent." This means residents should only need to dial into the 311 call centers for the most complicated cases, which promises to reduce call volumes and wait times.

The new system officially launched on June 26; city technology and data teams have stabilized the process as the city transferred over 10 years of data into the new system, a press release notes.

Why upgrade now? Each year, the 311 Call Center receives roughly 2.2 million contacts and creates approximately 450,000 service requests, the city estimates. The 311 system was crucial during the Tax Day Flood, Hurricane Harvey, and Winter Storm Uri. This system refresh assures a more responsive and minimal wait time during times of crisis, press materials note.

Residents can now create a service request by an app (Apple and Google), web portal via the Virtual Agent, and through call taker in the 311-call center.

Some of the new functionality improvements include:

  • A customer self-service portal with a virtual agent, allowing residents to create service requests on their own
  • The ability to re-classify a case instead of having to close it and create another one
  • Cases being routed to a team, instead of an individual minimizing case inactivity due to staff being out of office
  • Cases created via web portal, app, or call taker all have the same service request numbers and, when not confidential, are searchable on all platforms
  • Prior to service requests being created, there will be a proximity search performed to ensure no duplication of cases created (e.g., pothole cases being flagged as 1000 Main St. and at the corner of Main Street and Texas Street)

"The new, innovative system is a significant accomplishment for the City of Houston," Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a press release.

"Last fiscal year, we prioritized the development of a new 311 system by funding it through the CIP process. In nine short months, HITS and ARA were able to take that investment and develop a 311 system that modernizes 20-year-old technology and creates a platform that equips the City to better handle increased demand."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houstonians can now opt into a citywide solar co-op. Photo courtesy of Houston Mayor's Office

City of Houston joins forces with nonprofit to launch a citywide solar co-op

Climate action

One year ago, the city of Houston announced its Climate Action Plan and its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. This year, the city has another Earth Day announcement that builds upon CAP.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and solar nonprofit group, Solar United Neighbors, announced a citywide solar co-op on Earth Day — exactly one year since CAP launched. For an update on the plan's execution in Houston, click here for a report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

"As we celebrate Earth Day, I'm proud to welcome this community-driven initiative for local rooftop solar and thank Solar United Neighbors for being such a strong supporter of the Houston Climate Action Plan," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I encourage Houstonians to take full advantage of this opportunity to learn more about the benefits of residential solar and how they can take part. Bulk buy programs like this will help our city meet our energy transition goals and grow local investment in renewable and resilient energy."

SUN is familiar with Houston, and, since 2018, the nonprofit has hosted six neighborhood solar co-ops in Spring Branch, Lake Olympia, East Houston, Central Houston, the Woodlands, and West Houston. According to SUN, Texas solar co-ops provide 569 kW of solar power, $1.64 million in local economic investment, and more than 18.4 million pounds of lifetime carbon offsets.

"The co-op will enable homeowners and business owners in and around the city of Houston to join the growing community of people taking control of their energy bills and improving grid resilience by harnessing solar power," says Hanna Mitchell, Texas program director for SUN, in the release. "Together, we're building a movement to transform our electricity system into one that is cleaner, fairer, and shares its benefits more broadly."

Data from Environment Texas shows that Houston's installed solar capacity has quadrupled from 2018 to 2020, and Houston is the nation's largest municipal user of renewable energy in the United States, according to the release. Additionally, Houston Permitting Center saw a 63 percent increase in solar installation permits from 2019 to 2020.

For more information on the co-op, visit SUN's Houston website. Or, sign up for one of the two information sessions on Thursday, May 6, at 6:30 pm, or Wednesday, May 19, at noon.

The city of Houston has implemented a new free internet program in collaboration with Comcast. Photo via Getty Images

City offers internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians amid pandemic

tech support

It's an increasingly digital world, and COVID-19 has just accelerated that trend exponentially. Yet, there are still tons of Houstonians operating offline due to socioeconomic inequities.

The Houston City Council recently approved a $624,960 program with funding from the CARES Act to help bridge this gap. The program, by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force in partnership with Comcast, will provide 5,000 internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians. Applications for the vouchers are open from now until December 20, 2020, and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. They will provide internet for one calendar year.

"This pandemic has highlighted the importance of quality internet service particularly for those vulnerable populations who must stay at home to stay safe," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "This program will provide a lifeline for citizens that have struggled through the pandemic without internet access and a way to stay informed, connected and safe during these challenging times."

To be eligible for the voucher, applicants must live in the city of Houston and have a Comcast serviceable address, as well as meet two personal sets of criteria. First, they must prove that their total household income before February 2020 was lower than 80 percent of the area median income, and second, they must either be over age 65, a person with disabilities, households with children less than five years of age, or a person between 16-24 who is not currently enrolled in school or participating in the workforce.

"During this unprecedented time, it is vital for Houstonians to stay connected to the Internet — for education, work, and personal health reasons," says Comcast's Melinda Little, director of Government Affairs in the Houston Region, in the news release. "We're proud to partner with the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response Task Force to help keep Houstonians connected through our Internet Essentials Program."

While there are existing internet access programs, this program, which is complementary to the city's Computer Access Program, is specifically targeting critical groups that have been overlooked.

"The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19," says Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in the release. "Thanks to Mayor Turner's commitment to equity and accessibility and the City Council's support, this program will breakdown that barrier by providing in-home internet access for qualifying Houstonians with disabilities, enhancing their independence and self-determination."

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Houston makes play to score soccer innovation

new goal

Houston is kicking up its 2026 FIFA World Cup bid by a notch or two with a new innovative initiative.

The Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee on October 14 committed to establishing the nonprofit Soccer Innovation Institute if Houston becomes a host city for the FIFA World Cup.

"The institute will rely on Houston's spirit of innovation to create a united community investment in building a legacy that goes well beyond the city," according to a news release announcing the potential formation of the nonprofit.

The soccer institute, made up of a network of experts and leaders from various global organizations, would conduct specialized think tanks and would support a series of community programs.

"As the energy capital of the world, the global leader in medicine, the universal headquarters for NASA, and the home to numerous sports tech companies, Houston has an abundance of resources that are unmatched by other cities," Houston billionaire John Arnold, chairman of the 2026 bid committee, says in a news release. "By bringing these organizations together under one umbrella, the Soccer Innovation Institute presents the ultimate opportunity to redefine the player and fan experience, and develop a lasting legacy for the long-term benefit of the FIFA World Cup."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the institute would align with the city's efforts to build a strong ecosystem for innovation, along with its passion for soccer.

"Houston is recognized as a leader in technology and innovation. We have many innovation hubs around the city that bring bright minds into collaborative spaces where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," the mayor says.

Held every four years, the World Cup assembles national men's soccer teams from around the world in one of the most planet's most watched sporting events. The traditional 32-team tournament will expand to 48 teams in 2026. After 2026, the World Cup might be staged every two years.

Among those collaborating on the Houston 2026 bid are NRG, the Texas Medical Center, Shell, Chevron, the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the Council for Responsible Sport, the Houston Dynamo, the Houston Dash, the City of Houston, Harris County, and Houston First.

The FIFA World Cup 2026 will be played in 16 cities across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Houston and Dallas are among the 17 cities vying to become a U.S. host. A final decision is expected in the first half of 2022. If Houston is selected, it will host six World Cup games at NRG Stadium.

Between October 21 and November 1, World Cup delegates will visit eight cities in the running to be North American hosts: Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Monterrey, Mexico.

Why small businesses are a big deal in Pearland

Small Business, Big Success

Here's a fun fact: 82 percent of businesses in Pearland are locally owned.

Besides providing a warm, fuzzy feeling, that fact actually has a big impact on what the the Lower Kirby city has to offer other companies that are looking to relocate.

Understanding that small businesses are vital to the local economy, the Pearland Economic Development Corporation does all it can to support the formation and growth of new businesses.

To gain a better understanding of the needs of local businesses, PEDC recently conducted a survey of all businesses in the community. The survey found that 92 percent of business owners felt that Pearland is a great place to live, work, and operate a business, and more than 80 percent of survey respondents gave excellent or good marks to Pearland as a place to do business — higher than the national comparison.

The city recently launched an online permitting portal that helps emerging businesses navigate the business registration process with a streamlined, easy-to-use interface that can be accessed anywhere, any time.

By answering just a few questions, potential new business owners can see all the necessary requirements and fees. And commercial permits are reviewed and approved within 20 days, on average.

Additionally, PEDC and community partners are creating an Entrepreneurship Hub, which will enhance Pearland's innovation entrepreneurship culture by creating events, programs, and activities for entrepreneurs and small business owners to inspire ideation and entrepreneurship.

The Hub will connect the city to local and regional entrepreneurship assistance programs, service providers, and funding sources to help businesses maximize their growth potential and overall success. Offerings of the Hub will include business plan competitions, proactive coaching, networking events, and student programs.

In addition to the resources offered, many small businesses that have relocated to Pearland cite the safety of the community and ease of access via multiple thoroughfares as top reasons that led them to the community.

Brask Neela, a small business founded in Louisiana, constructed a new manufacturing facility in Pearland to custom fabricate heat transfer equipment on 9.45 acres in Pearland's Industrial Drive Business Park. After its move to the Pearland area, the company can better service petrochemical and chemical customers in Texas City, Freeport, and Baytown, as well as global clients.

In addition to PEDC's assistance with land acquisition and attractive incentives, Brask Neela was drawn to the location's proximity to the workforce, the area's infrastructure, and open communications with the City of Pearland.

"Pearland provided incentives, proximity to workforce both for shop and office, infrastructure, and clear communication to address any needs with city officials," says Kevin Sareen, Brask Neela's business development manager.

Rollac Shutters manufactures exterior rolling shutters, solar zip shades, and awnings, and opened a 105,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility that allowed the company to engage in environmentally responsible manufacturing practices and integrate sustainability principles in its day-to-day operations.

"As a family-owned business, location and incentives were most important to us," says Eva Konrad, vice president at Rollac Shutters. "Pearland offered both and we love it here."

Houston-area school scores top 10 status in Texas

star pupils

A Houston-area school earned top honors in Texas in U.S. News & World Report's first-ever ranking of the state's best elementary schools.

Creekside Forest Elementary School comes in at No. 10. Creekside is nestled in the bustling Woodlands and in the Tomball Independent School District.

A public school, Creekside Forest Elementary boasts student population of 571, serving serves kindergarten through fifth grade. Impressively, according to the report, 93 percent of students here scored at or above the proficient level for math, and 87 percent scored at or above that level for reading.

Notably, the student-teacher ratio is at Creekside is 16:1, which is better than that of the district. The school employs 36 equivalent full-time teachers and one full-time school counselor.

The student population at Creekside is made up of 49 percent female students and 51 percent male students, with minority student enrollment at 43 percent. One percent of students here at economically disadvantaged.

According to the school's website, Creekside "is a learning community where all continuously strive for excellence."

Unlike its annual list of the country's best high schools, U.S. News & World Report didn't come up with a national ranking of elementary schools. Rather, it published a ranking for each state.

Myriad other Houston-area schools land later on the list, including West University Elementary at No. 17. According to U.S. News, the 10 best elementary schools in Texas are:

  1. William B. Travis Academy/Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted, Dallas ISD.
  2. Windsor Park G/T Elementary School, Corpus Christi ISD.
  3. Old Union Elementary School, Carroll ISD.
  4. Carroll Elementary School, Carroll ISD.
  5. Hudson Elementary School, Longview ISD.
  6. Sudie L. Williams Talented and Gifted Academy, Dallas ISD.
  7. Canyon Creek Elementary School, Round Rock ISD.
  8. Carver Center, Midland ISD.
  9. Cactus Ranch Elementary School, Round Rock ISD.
  10. Creekside Forest Elementary School, Tomball ISD.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.