For long-term resilience to climate change, flooding is not the only issue we must deal with at this time. In light of the current situation, it is easy to place all of our efforts on reducing flooding risk. We have a tendency to focus on the most recent event and ignore other threats to our well-being. It is human nature to do so. However, taking a narrow view on one particular issue could be detrimental to the Gulf Coast’s long-term well-being.
Granted with Hurricane Harvey, the Ike Dike and Coastal Spine have garnered a significant amount of attention. This is interesting due to the fact that Hurricane Harvey’s flooding would in no way be mitigated by this infrastructure. In any case, it is good to see flooding not being the only issue discussed.
As important as it is to work on our flooding and storm surge issues, three floods in three years and storm surge with Hurricane Ike, we must also keep in mind that Texas is one long-drought punctuated by torrential rainfall. It was only five years ago that the entire state experienced a significant drought that resulted in considerable damage to our road infrastructure, water distribution systems, power generation, livestock and agriculture and our St. Augustine (The last is a joke. We really should get rid of this stuff, it is a huge waste of water.) In any case, droughts are a real issue that we cannot ignore.
I have mentioned the drought experience and future risk for our power grid in previous posts. The first one looking at our current predicament and the second considering what our future grid faces. I have not covered the variety of other drought-related issues that we have recently faced and may face in the near term. During the 2011-2012 drought our horizontal infrastructure, pipes and street, faced considerable issues, particularly our water system in Houston. At one point, during the drought over 700 pipes per day were breaking. It is estimated that 15%, 22.4 billion gallons of water, was leaked and never made it to the end-user.
The drought also caused an estimated $7.6 billion loss to the farm-sector. The hardest hit being the livestock industry and hay production. Closer to the Gulf Coast, we see that the drought greatly damaged the rice industry and placed its future in question. As we move along the Gulf Coast, we see that the drought also had a significant impact on the Gulf ecosystem with elevated salinity levels. This damages oyster beds and fisheries that are dependent on freshwater inflows from the Colorado and Brazos River.
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Also, as many are aware, it gets hot in Houston, and it is expected to get considerably hotter. Between 1981 and 2010, the Houston region averaged 31 days over 95 degrees. If climate models are correct, it is anticipated that the number of days will triple to close to 90 days per year at or above 95 degrees. These temperatures are already having an impact on the region. For example, the City of Houston has put in place an extreme heat emergency plan and had to put it in action the Summer of 2016. This heat not only melts and warp infrastructure, it is a significant public health issue for those who work outside, as well as those vulnerable populations that do not have access to appropriate air conditioning.
The heat is anticipated to have a significant economic impact on the Gulf Coast. A recent Science article looked at the economic consequences of climate change in the United States. The study finds that there is likely to be a significant transfer shift of wealth from southern states up to northern and western states. It looks like there will be a point when it will get too hot in the kitchen and people will get out…
Public Health – Vector-Borne Diseases
The factors mentioned above will have public health implications, whether it is contaminated flood water or extreme heat and humidity. Other public health issues we anticipate with a warming climate, is the increasing number of vector-borne diseases (VBD). This is largely the spread of disease to humans through ticks, mosquitoes, and flies. We have been dealing with West Nile virus for a few years and recently have started to see Zika get a foothold in the region, the most recent south of Houston in Hidalgo County. Ticks have been a nuisance for years, particularly the ones carrying, Lyme disease.
It is anticipated that we should expect a greater number of disease transmission with increasing rainfall and humidity, rising temperatures and human migration. Rainfall, humidity, and temperatures provide ideal breeding grounds (except it can get too hot for mosquitoes) and migration allows for the introduction of creatures that otherwise may have a more difficult time making it to the Gulf Coast. Limiting these impacts will require that we set up robust sentinel and surveillance programs to identify the arrival and movement of these diseases around the Gulf Coast. This should be coupled with prevention methods that reduce standing water, as well as public health education programs.
All the Above Resilience
As we move forward with improving our economic resilience, we must keep in mind two things. First, community resilience and adaptation is a regional issue. Taking action as an individual community or county and not coordinating with others in our region may likely be a waste of money and time. Second, we need to approach resilience holistically and not solely focus on one issue. It is easy to focus on just flooding at this time, but we should not forget that just a few years ago the entire region was dealing with a historic drought, is now regularly facing extreme heat days and seeing an increasing number of VBDs entering the region. So, as we move forward, we need to work together and take an all the above approach.