Q&A: Houston hydrologist explains climate change’s role in intensified flooding, importance of planning for future storms

Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston region in 2017. (Vanessa Holt/Community Impact Newspaper)
Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston region in 2017. (Vanessa Holt/Community Impact Newspaper)

Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston region in 2017. (Vanessa Holt/Community Impact Newspaper)

Climate change’s effects on water in the Houston area—from droughts to flooding—has been a key consideration in some of Stephanie Glenn’s most recent work.

Glenn has worked with the Houston Advanced Research Center since 2003, specializing in ecology and hydrology. She currently serves as the organization’s hydrology and watersheds program director, and she has worked with the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium to help identify steps to mitigate the effects of flooding locally.

“We are definitely staring down the barrel of hurricanes with stronger winds, more rainfall,” she said. “We’re looking at more intense and more frequent storms, and so, as a region, we’re going to need to think about that when we’re planning. We need to plan for that worst-case climate change [scenario].”

A best-case scenario to mitigate the impacts of climate change long-term would be lessening the amount of emissions in the air and having nation leaders worldwide agree on certain protocols, Glenn said.

However, she said she believes this is an unlikely outcome, and most scientists project climate change falling somewhere between this best-case and a worst-case scenario, in which sea levels along the Texas coast could rise by 6 feet and the annual average temperature could rise by 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century, according to a report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.


Community Impact Newspaper interviewed Glenn about flooding issues in the Houston region and how climate change plays a role. Responses may have been edited for length and clarity.

What are your thoughts on the $2.5 billion bond passed a couple years ago for new flood mitigation projects in Harris County?

I would say it’s definitely a good starting point. I know it sounds like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money, but when you’re talking about some of these flood mitigation projects—these are major, expensive projects. Every little bit helps.

Flooding is the whole region’s problem. It’s a problem for the people that it impacts at the time, but solutions to it are regional, and so every little thing that’s put in along the watershed is going to help protect flooding downstream. If you put a solution into one place, you’re just moving the flooding problem further downstream, so you want to make sure that you have a combination of solutions all throughout the watershed.

The bond includes some drainage projects, sedimentation projects, some floodgate type projects for some of the reservoirs—everything like that can help. But there is no one ring to rule them all. There’s no big solution that could come in and stop flooding, but you can mitigate its impacts, and these projects will definitely help mitigate the impacts.

Beyond the projects included in the bond, what are some other steps that could be taken at the county, state and federal levels to help make the region more flood-resilient?

It’s critical in the region that we have the counties working together, the cities working together, that we recognize that flooding doesn’t stop at these divisions of county lines. It really is watershed by watershed, and all these watersheds end up in one bigger watershed, and they all impact each other.

I think that we need to continue having the discussions where we take into account vulnerability and social equity. Hurricane Harvey really showed households that are struggling financially are going to be the hardest-hit. They don’t have the capability of recovering as some of the other households do.

With these big flooding events, there’s always a big response right afterwards, but it is crucial that we focus those conversations to before the big storm and not after.

Why is it important to take preventive measures rather than to try to figure it out in the aftermath of a major storm?

Harvey was such a turning event for Houston because it really gained a lot of traction to continue talking, to continue planning among agencies, to face the fact that we’re going to have to design differently. The rainfall that we’re looking at now is not the rainfall of the past. A 100-year flood plain is going to have to have different design standards because there is going to be more precipitation in those 100-year storm events.

Really focusing regionally and looking at the hardest-hit areas, what happened and what we can do differently next time—having those kinds of plans in place beforehand and talking about response and recovery is important. What systems are in place, and where can people go? What is it going to mean if this vulnerable population is without electricity for a certain amount of time? Where can they go to get the resources they need, and how can we get them there?

The conversation is about mitigating impacts in all different areas and mitigating the flood itself. What can we do to help those waters come down slower and dissipate to all areas and not just one? What can we do to help the people in the path of the floodwaters? What can we do to help the response teams? What can we do to help with planning?

How is climate change contributing to the increased frequency and devastation of these major flood events?

When you’re looking at things like storm events and hurricanes, this season alone is a good example of what happens when you have warmer temperatures in the Gulf. And it doesn’t have to be by a lot, but the current predictions are more frequent and more intense storms, which bring more and bigger flood events.

We hear a lot about the importance of having updated flood plain maps. How much does climate change play into that versus development?

It’s about both. The development is very important to keep up with because that changes a lot of what goes into some of those flood plain calculations. The simplest way to think about that is more development brings more concrete and quicker, flashier runoff. That impervious area change is a big deal for those.

Climate change is also a big deal. Atlas 14 [a study including historical and projected future rainfall data] was prompted by a big change in precipitation—especially with Harvey, where we got more than we’d ever gotten in that short amount of time. They use some of those models to figure out where the 100-year storm and the 500-year storm is going to be when calculating those flood plains, too.

Do you ever see Harris County getting to the point where it won’t have devastating floods like Harvey?

I’d like to think we can get to the point when we could say we put ourselves in a position to really help mitigate the devastating impacts from storms like Harvey. Will we continue to see storms that are more intense? Yes. But can we continue to plan so that the impacts we see aren’t as intense? I think as a region, we have the capability to do so.
By Danica Lloyd
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper as a Cy-Fair reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She covers education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development and nonprofits.


MOST RECENT

"Breaking Strongholds" is a faith-based, eight-episode series that explores topics such as suicide and depression. (Courtesy Terry Weaver)
Series shot in Montgomery County aiming for Hulu, Netflix deal and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

Services at Lonesome Blonde include haircuts, coloring, styling and customizable treatments. (Courtesy Lonesome Blonde)
Lonesome Blonde hair salon now open on Cypress Rosehill Road

The new, upscale salon opened in February.

The temporary waiver covering initial vehicle registration, vehicle registration renewal, vehicle titling, renewal of permanent disabled parking placards and 30-day temporary permits will end April 14. (Hannah Zedaker/Community Impact Newspaper)
DMV officials say no grace period following waiver of car title, registration; new housing set for Magnolia, Cypress

Read the top business and community news from the past week from the Houston area.

Construction is underway on the office condo project. (Rendering courtesy Read King Commercial Real Estate)
Office condo project coming soon to Vintage Marketplace

The new offices are within walking distance of restaurants such as Ambriza Social Mexican Kitchen and Bellagreen.

The store is known for its color-coordinated in-store setup of clothes, shoes, jewelry and other accessories. (Courtesy Charming Charlie)
Charming Charlie returns to Houston with new Willowbrook Mall storefront

The store is known for its color-coordinated in-store setup of clothes, shoes, jewelry and other accessories.




From left: Owners Dion Burks, Yolanda Burks and Mario Navarrete and employee Jana Cone run Popcorn Blast together on Hwy. 6 in Cy-Fair.
Family-owned shop brings creative flavor pairings at Popcorn Blast

“The excitement even when grownups come in, it’s pure beauty.”

After serving up chicken in College Station for nearly three decades, Layne’s Chicken Fingers is opening its first location in the Houston area in Katy. (Courtesy Layne's Chicken Fingers)
Layne's Chicken Fingers coming to Katy; Gyro King opens in Sugar Land and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

Less than 25% of American office workers have returned to in-person office settings since the start of the pandemic. (Courtesy Pixabay)
DATA: Texas metros lead the nation in return to in-person work since start of pandemic

About 37% of Houston office employees had returned to in-person work as of the end of March, as compared to an average of less than 25% in other major U.S. metros.

All arrangements at Amanda Bee's Floral Designs are made in house and designed by florist and store owner Amanda Bowman. (Courtesy Amanda Bee's Floral Designs)
Local florist opens Amanda Bee's Floral Designs on Fry Road in Cypress

All arrangements are made in house and designed by florist and store owner Amanda Bowman, who said she specializes in one-of-a-kind posey arrangements.

In order to move to Level 2 on the threat level system, Hidalgo said the county would need to get down to an average of 400 new COVID-19 cases reported daily, a positivity rate of 5% and an ICU population of 15%. (Screenshot via Facebook Live)
'We're close' Hidalgo says of possibility for Harris County to lower COVID-19 threat level

In order to move to Level 2 on the threat level system, Hidalgo said the county would need to get down to an average of 400 new COVID-19 cases reported daily, a positivity rate of 5% and an ICU population of 15%.

Archie Dunham (third from left) celebrates the ground breaking at Dunham Pointe alongside homebuilders and local government officials. (Courtesy Dunham Pointe)
Developers break ground on new master-planned community Dunham Pointe in Cypress

Homebuilders, amenities and plans for new schools in Dunham Pointe have been announced. Officials said new residents could move in by the end of the year.