Houston Youth Digging in to Protect their Communities from Flooding

What does the health of my watershed have to do with resilience to climate change? 

The National Wildlife Federation’s Student Climate Resilience Ambassadors (SCRA) are Houston high school students who use a project-based learning approach to answer this question and to take action to protect their schools and communities from flooding.

Empowering students to analyze their campus and make decisions that directly impacted our campus was truly rewarding. Students loved assessing their campus and then choosing a type of project and location to minimize flooding. Students asked, “Are we really going to build this on our campus?!?!” Because of this program, I could say YES! The students really felt like they had ownership over the program and several students said it was their favorite project all year.

Jess Merino, Former Teacher, Energy Institute High School
Students from Energy Institute conduct water quality testing on Brays Bayou

Severe weather events, like the crippling flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, put a spotlight on the enormous climate resilience challenges facing the city of Houston where even three inches of rainfall can overwhelm the drainage systems and contribute to flooding. The heaviest destruction in these types of disasters is typically borne by the most vulnerable communities. The economic and emotional hardship of families in Houston Independent School District (HISD), where 78% of the student population are economically disadvantaged and 88% are people of color, was huge. The SCRA program was developed to help address these challenges. 

The National Wildlife Federation is working closely with our local Houston partners including Houston Parks and Recreation Department, Galveston Bay Foundation, the Student Conservation Association, and TBG Partners Houston to help Houston youth understand how a changing climate, severe weather events, watershed health, and existing infrastructure contribute to flooding and polluted water in their community. 

Along with the National Wildlife Federation’s watershed audit, students use various mapping tools such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) coastal flood exposure mapper, Harris County flood maps, and critical thinking skills to investigate storm resilience problems facing Houston. 

They learn about the impact of those issues on vulnerable populations and water quality and design and implement nature-based, practical solutions to help mitigate flooding on their school campus. These projects include rain gardens, pocket prairies, and bioswales – designs that can be replicated by communities. 

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Students also participate in a tree planting or prairie planting at a community action day by a local bayou which helps them see how the work they are doing on their campus is contributing to Houston’s resilience strategy. 

The most rewarding thing about the SCRA program was learning about Houston’s resiliency plans and being able to equip students with the appropriate knowledge and vocabulary so they may engage in dialogue about their community. 

Talia Camacho. Teacher, Northside High School

Student Climate Resilience Ambassadors also learn that an important part of watershed stewardship is understanding how watersheds are connected and how the actions we take in one watershed impact other watersheds and ecosystems downstream, specifically Galveston Bay. Galveston Bay is Texas’s largest and most productive estuary where fresh water from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers and the extensive bayous and creeks of the Houston-Galveston region mix with the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Student Climate Resilience Ambassadors program was originally funded by the EPA, with additional funding from H-E-B, the Alkek Foundation, the Duncan Fund and the Powell Foundation. In its third year now, the SCRA program has engaged 12 secondary schools in Houston ISD.

Impact by numbers

800 students and 30 teachers; 

7 campus resilience projects

1 pocket prairie | 4 rain gardens | 2 bioswales

 6 community action days along 3.5 acres of Sims, Buffalo, and Greens Bayous

3,500 native prairie plants | 500 native trees

Learn more about NWF’s work in Houston! Watch this video to see an example of a student team from Cesar Chavez High School pitching their climate resilience design solution at the National Wildlife Federation’s First Houston Resilience Design Challenge and Youth Leadership Summit held in October of 2021. To learn more about the National Wildlife Federation’s education program in the South Central Region click here.