When heavy rains hit Galveston Island during a high tide, certain streets are almost guaranteed to flood.
Portions of downtown Galveston, as well as some other parts of the city, flood when saltwater backs up into the drainage system, and sometimes it’s difficult to get the water to drain quickly back into the bay.
“We’re not seeing it happen any worse or any higher but we’re seeing it more frequently,” said Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell.
A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that could be a preview of the future, one that could be avoided if some of the temperature goals of the Paris Climate Agreement were followed. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the climate accord last month.
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The report is being published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal “Elementa” and says Galveston could face chronic flooding as soon as 2030 or by mid-century depending on the rate of sea level rise. The definition of chronic flooding is inundation 26 times a year over 10 percent of a community’s usable, non-wetland area.
“Some 90 communities, mostly in Louisiana and Maryland where the land is also sinking, are already facing chronic inundation from sea level rise,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior analyst in the Climate and Energy Program at UCS and a report author. “As global temperature increases sea level rise, several hundred coastal communities are looking at the same kind of chronic flooding around the middle of the century — from beach vacation destinations like the Jersey Shore and the Gulf Coast of Florida to larger cities, including Boston, Galveston, Savannah and Fort Lauderdale.”
Despite flooding issues, Maxwell, the Galveston City manager, said the city is coping.
Galveston is about to start a pilot program near Offatts Bayou to address street flooding by installing back-flow prevention devices that allow water to drain out but not in. If it works, Galveston will expand the program citywide.
But Maxwell acknowledged during the state of the city speech that sea rise is an issue for Galveston.
“We are experiencing sea rise on the island,” Maxwell said. “I’m not going to tell you if it’s man-caused, regular-caused or we’re just sinking but we’re experiencing it and drainage is going to continue to be an issue on the island.”
The Concerned Scientists report says Port Arthur also could face chronic inundation by 2070, and six of Port Arthur’s 14 refineries are sitting in the chronic inundation zone.
Rice University oceanographer John Anderson lives on Galveston Island and has seen portions of the Concerned Scientists report.
He not only studies rising seas but portions of the Texas coastline that are sinking rapidly. He has identified three places — Follets Island, the southern tip of South Padre Island and Matagorda Peninsula — as hotspots.
Follets Island is an uninhabited island west of Galveston Island but it protects refineries in Freeport, Chocolate Bayou and the city of Surfside from storm surge. If it were hit by a major hurricane, Follets Island could be breached within 24 hours, Anderson said.
Some state and local officials believe the long-range solution could be the Ike Dike, an $11.6 billion coastal barrier protection system proposed by Texas A&M Galveston and named for the devastating hurricane of 2008, to protect all of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, as well as flood-prone sections of Houston.
“It’s picked up a lot of momentum,” Maxwell said. “Unfortunately it’s going to take federal funding. It’s probably going to take a natural disaster to get it built.”
But Anderson, the Rice oceanographer, said it makes more sense to widen beaches and rebuild dunes instead of erecting a costly barrier. There are sand deposits offshore in the Gulf of Mexico that could be used. It would be expensive, Anderson said, but not as expensive as the Ike Dike.
“I think it would be much more economically feasible and environmentally friendly to dredge sand on a continuous basis rather than putting a wall from the Bolivar Peninsula all the way to San Luis Pass,” Anderson said.