Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Researchers at Odds with Texas Government Over Rise of the Gulf

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Galveston seawall (fore) stopped erosion that otherwise moved coastline hundreds of feet inland (back)

To some researchers, what’s happening to the sea level on the Texas Gulf Coast is a clear and present danger. But they worry the word is not getting out, or that the State of Texas is diluting it.

“It’s happening right now, the evidence is clear all around the region,” said David Yoskowitz of the rise in the sea level. Yoskowitz is an economist with the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Harte Research Institute

Economist David Yoskowitz

Over the past century, the sea level at Galveston Bay has risen by as much as three feet. Scientists predict it could continue at the same pace over the next 100 years. Using computer models, they’ve produced maps showing much of Galveston Island covered with water and the shoreline moving several miles inland in communities along Galveston Bay including Texas City and Kemah.

“This is going to put a tremendous burden on the tax base of those cities and counties. As a planner I’d be very concerned about looking into the future and how to prepare for that,” said Yoskwitz.

But is that happening? Yoskowitz said not to the extent in Texas as it is in other coastal areas with similar rates of sea level rise.

“The Carolinas have been very aggressive in looking at this issue of sea level rise,” he said.

“The biggest thing is they’ve had state-sanctioned studies looking at this and have published those results. We haven’t gotten that far yet as is obvious with the recent issues with Dr. Anderson and the TCEQ report.”

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Refineries in Texas City across the bay from Galveston Island

He’s talking about a controversy that erupted this fall. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) had paid a think tank, the Houston Advanced Research Center, to prepare a report called The State of the Bay. One chapter on the rise in sea level was written by Rice University oceanographer John Anderson. He made references to how rising sea levels were “one of the main impacts of global climate change.” When the TCEQ saw his work, officials took out that and other references to global warming as well as some projections for how much water levels might increase.

Anderson and other researchers involved in writing the paper were outraged.They told the TCEQ not to publish it, saying they feared the edited version of their work was so inaccurate it would tarnish their reputations as science researchers.

Underlying the controversy was the question of politics: the commissioners at TCEQ are appointed by Governor Rick Perry, an acknowledged skeptic of global warming.

“Political censorship did not happen…” Terry Clawson, TCEQ
“Political censorship did not happen and the TCEQ did not propose to remove reference to sea level rise in the report,” said Terry Clawson, spokesperson with the TCEQ, in an email to StateImpact Texas.

“We did not however agree to keep sea level rise attributable to man-made global warming…” Clawson continued. He said the TCEQ also removed references to a report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Texas has faulted the IPCC report as inaccurate for assertions that link global warming to industrial air pollution. That’s a big deal to state officials who are suing the US Environmental Protection Agency over air pollution rules the EPA wants to impose on Texas.

Getty Images

Texas Governor Rick Perry

“It’s no secret that the State of Texas is suing the EPA in part for relying on the same information (from the IPCC report). Why would we then agree to keep it in our own published report,” wrote Clawson.

Beyond the academic and political controversy, why does it matter? The sea level research is intended to help public policy respond to the creeping waters, waters that decades from now could cover roads, inundate sewage treatment plants, hazardous waste sites, even refineries. Knowing where and when the water might rise will help city planners determine where to allow construction of new buildings or relocate critical facilities.

That issue has already come to the attention of Galveston officials. A draft of the latest City of Galveston Comprehensive Plan found that while the City was well aware of the scientific studies, zoning regulations for subdivision development “offer little guidance regarding ways to protect sensitive resources and mitigate the effects of geological processes such as sea-level rise…”.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Kristopher Benson on the seawall

One scientist working with the City of Galveston to formulate public policy is Kristopher Benson with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA has helped the Island restore salt marshes, a key habitat for maintaining fish populations, but which have been damaged by storms and rising waters.

“In southern Louisiana and in  the Galveston Bay system are some of the highest rates (of sea level rise) nationally,” Benson said. And while a lot can be done to mitigate the effects, “the water will prevail,” he said.

“State of the Bay” chapter edited by TCEQ below:

2009 Study of Sea Level Rise Impact on Galveston Island below:


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