The city is preparing to start a pilot program for technology to ease street flooding, which is at best a nuisance for islanders and can damage cars and homes.
Initiatives such as adding backflow prevention devices to the drainage system are part of a wider plan to address flooding, particularly as the coast deals with the increasingly noticeable effects of climate change, including sea rise, City Manager Brian Maxwell said. City employees were out Monday testing a device to suck sediment out of storm drains to mitigate flooding.
Week after week, new scientific reports are published detailing the effects climate-related changes are already having on coastal communities. In Virginia, for instance, Norfolk and Virginia Beach residents, particularly those who live near the beach, have been grappling for several years with water flooding into their homes and cars during rains, according to numerous news reports.
Experts attributed those changes — at least in part — to sea rise, which is happening more rapidly between North Carolina and Massachusetts than anywhere in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In Galveston, intense precipitation — that is, heavy downpours as opposed to more gradual rainfall — is causing more acute drainage issues, said Wes Highfield, an associate professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston and associate director for research at the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores.
Scientists, including the state’s climatologist, attribute the greater frequency of downpours to climate change because the warmer air temperatures fuel more evaporation, Highfield said.
As the water comes down quickly, it’s more difficult for the drainage systems to clear it, so it backs up despite improvements to the city’s drainage infrastructure, Maxwell said.
“Even though we’ve made changes to improve the system, we’re seeing that when we get these rains it’s sometimes taking a longer time to drain,” Maxwell said.
The island hasn’t felt the effects of sea level rise as much as other coastal communities in the United States, particularly the Northeast and south Florida, Highfield said. But planners look at predictions for sea rise with trepidation about what’s already happening and what’s to come.
“There’s no denying that sea rise is real and we’re experiencing it,” Maxwell said.
Galveston has been eyeing changes it can make to address coastal flooding issues, Maxwell said. A federal program that offers lower flood insurance for property owners in cities who reduce flood risks could provide a carrot to make those changes, Maxwell said.
The pilot program, using the Swedish-company Wapro’s WaStop in line check valve, is one part of that. The system works by preventing back flow in stormwater drain lines, Maxwell said. The first device will be installed this month in a drainage line near 57th Street and Avenue Q, Maxwell said.
The city is trying the system at no cost, but if it works, the city plans to install more at an estimated cost of $3 million, Maxwell said.
The city also is exploring hiring a floodplain administrator and beefing up its staff that works on flooding issues, Maxwell said.
“These are all things we have to debate in order to keep ourselves viable and keep flood insurance from going through the roof,” Maxwell said.
Those changes could also gain some political support because they could lead to lower flood rates, Highfield said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which manages the National Flood Insurance Program, in 1990 created a community ratings system. The system allows communities to earn points by taking steps to mitigate flooding and reduces rates for all property owners based on a point system for what changes the community makes, Highfield said.
The program incentivizes initiatives such as freeboarding — elevating structures above the water line — and upgrading drainage infrastructure, Highfield said. Communities also get credit for things such as developing a flood warning system, he said.
Galveston is one of about 1,500 coastal communities that participates in the community ratings system, Highfield said, and the proposals the city is making could help earn more points. There are about 23,000 coastal communities across the country where residents purchase federal flood insurance.
Planning and implementation for flood mitigation has to be local, although funding for it sometimes can be tapped at the local or state level, Highfield said.
That can be a big help, Maxwell said.
“The biggest challenge is always money,” he said.
“The biggest challenge, too, is going to be what happens globally with actual sea rise: Is this going to be something we experience for 50 years and it starts to diminish or are these issues going to get bigger? But in the world of things we can control we need to try to keep ahead.”