Research leader

NSF Career Award presented for research in
flood mitigation, watershed management

For research aimed at developing new, sustainable techniques for flood mitigation and watershed management in rapidly developing coastal regions, Samuel D. Brody, an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University, recently received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award.

The award recognizes and supports the early career-development activities of U.S. teacher-scholars deemed most likely to become academic leaders of the 21st century. Also known as the NSF Career Award, the honor comes with a five-year, $489,000 grant plus up to $25,000 per year to match research funding from other agencies.

“I think the honor is more important than the money,” said Brody. “The award will be good for the university and my department, and will hopefully lead to groundbreaking research and education in my field.”

Brody, who joined the Texas A&M College of Architecture faculty in 2002, has a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His areas of interest include environmental planning, coastal sustainability, ecosystem management and geographic information systems (GIS). He is also a faculty fellow at Texas A&M College of Architecture’s Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center.

Brody’s NSF research examines relationships between the development of wetland areas and the flooding in coastal watersheds. In addition to identifying the causes of watershed flooding, Brody is developing alternative flood mitigation strategies that consider the entire watershed and ecological system.

“The traditional model is, we build, it floods, and then we worry about doing something,” explained Brody. “That is inefficient and costly and becoming politically infeasible.”

Part of the problem, he believes, is the failure of developers, planners and policymakers to consider the big picture, or the effects of localized development and flood mitigation across an entire watershed. As urban populations expand in coastal areas, he said the problem is exacerbated and the resulting floods pose a major threat to both human safety and the natural environment.

“While it is argued that some of the most serious flood hazards result from a failure to understand the regional ecological context,” Brody said, “there has been little empirical research examining how growth and development patterns increase the threat of floods at the watershed level, or on how communities respond over time to repetitive flooding events.”

To answer these questions, Brody is conducting a two-phase analysis of coastal watersheds in Texas and Florida. The first phase employs GIS to map the spatial pattern of wetland development over a 10-year period and correlate that development with coastal watershed flooding. Phase two will examine how communities adjust and adapt to repetitive flooding.

“Texas and Florida offer an ideal comparative situation,” Brody explained. “Florida has undergone tremendous development over the last couple of decades and Texas is poised to be the target of outstanding growth.”

To chart watershed development and wetland loss, Brody’s team is compiling data from traditionally underutilized sources, such as wetland permits and U.S. Geological Survey flood gauge databases. Over 60,000 Florida development permits have already been added to the research group’s GIS database.

The study will aid flood mitigation by increasing the understanding of the specific types, sizes and locations of wetlands that mitigate flooding and by providing guidance for the long-term adaptive management of watersheds.

“By noting flooding incidences and how communities respond to them,” Brody said, “we can adapt and change their management structures over time and develop better, less reactionary flood management policies.”

Because of sustained and burgeoning development in coastal areas and the increasing vulnerability of human populations to coastal flooding, Brody said it is critical to understand the process.

In keeping with the NSF Career Award’s emphasis on teaching and scholarship, Brody plans to use the project’s case studies, or what he calls “place-based learning modules” to enlighten his classroom instruction on complex ecosystem management problems.

Today’s emphasis on sustainability, he said, requires students and practitioners alike to approach ecosystem management from a broad multidisciplinary prospective. Environmental, social and economic factors can no longer be isolated or considered separately, but only as integral parts of the whole solution.

“I am really committed and serious about finding ways to create synergy between my students and the research I do,” Brody said. “This project offers an authentic learning experience that can train them to be either scholars or practitioners.”

As part of his NSF mission, Brody will present his findings, through publications, seminars and workshops, to fellow scholars and public policymakers.

“I believe in the next five to 10 years, as we better correlate the relationship between human health and our development patterns, there is going to be a huge emphasis on planning revived under the rubric of smart growth, sustainability and neo-traditional development,” he said. “My job is to see the waves before they crest. That is the key to sustainable development.”

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