With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Greg Story is a hydrometeorologist at the National Weather Service West Gulf River Forecast Center. His article on the NWS West Gulf River Forecast was published this week in the Texas Water Journal as a Program Note.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Can you tell me about your most recent article that’s coming out?
Greg Story: We are doing an article for the Texas Water Journal on basically what is the function of the West Gulf River Forecast Center. A lot of people are familiar with the National Weather Service and the fact that they have weather forecast offices throughout the state of Texas, and each weather forecast office has a particular domain that they’re responsible for issuing forecasts and warnings for.
But fewer people may be aware that there is a river forecast center — in fact there’s 13 of them across the United States — but one in Fort Worth, Texas, that is responsible for most of the rivers in the state of Texas in terms of forecasts, as well as New Mexico, southern Colorado and western Louisiana. Basically, what this article is going to do is tell a little bit about our history and talk a lot about the function of the river forecast centers. It’s more of an informational article, to have the reader be introduced to what our functions are.
Trib+Water: What’s the goal in trying to have readers better understand the function of the weather service? What do you hope the impact of people learning more about it will be?
Story: There’s a couple of different things. One is a lot of people don’t understand that in Texas in an average year more people die from flooding than they do from other weather-related disasters, such as tornadoes, lightening or heat. Although those are all areas of concern, the thing we want people to be aware of is the fact that when it comes to flooding, we are the agency that issues the flood warnings for rivers.
Each river forecast center around the country is divided up not by geopolitical boundaries but on river basin boundaries. The ones in Texas that we’re responsible for is everything from the Sabine River in the east to the Rio Grande in the west and south. We wanted people to be aware that we’re a resource available to them through our social media and our website, where they can get the latest river forecast for any of the 300-plus points that we forecast for in our area of responsibility.
Secondly, we just wanted people to understand where we fit in the National Weather Service scheme. Like I said, everybody’s familiar with the warnings and forecasts that our weather forecast offices put out, but they don’t realize that their responsibility ends as soon as the water is on the ground. What happens to the rest of the hydrologic cycle? That’s where the river forecast center kicks in, and we determine how much rain has fallen where and what amount of runoff is going to occur into the area rivers and then how high they’ll get. We just went through a major flood in Southeast Texas, around Houston and Liberty and Richmond. It was our office to be responsible for making the forecasts, for example, on how high the river was going to go there.
Trib+Water: Can you talk a little bit about all the flooding Texas had this year and why that was and to what extent it was unusual?
Story: We have had at least three record-setting floods — and maybe more than that, I’ve lost count — since May of 2015. May of 2015 was extremely wet. Just about everybody in the state had abnormally high rainfall and we set monthly rainfall records and three-month rainfall records in the state. Of course, that had an adverse effect on all of our rivers, some more than others.
And, of course, a lot of them turned deadly. The worst one of them all that comes to mind was the terrible flood that hit Wimberley, Texas, on the edge of the Hill Country outside of San Marcos. That one probably resulted from eight inches of rain in a two-hour timespan just upstream of Wimberley.
There have been so many of them. We’re not fazed by heavy rain, it’s just sometimes we get so much of it so fast that it’s a challenge to keep up with it all. But that’s what our job is, and we’re happy to do it. That’s the main function that we have as flood forecasters, to do that kind of work, where we maintain a weather watch on who’s getting how much rain and how hard and where and what the effect is going to be on the rivers.