Tropical Storm Harvey and Houston Floods

Most of yesterday, I was following the flooding in Houston via online news sites and twitter.  The misery and destruction that Tropical Storm Harvey has brought there has been incredible.  With up to 50 inches of rain expected by the end of this storm, it has created a deluge in parts of Houston that has been described by the National Weather Service as “unprecedented” and having impacts that are “unknown and beyond anything experienced.”

I have a personal interest in the events since my parents live right in the flooded areas in the Southwest part of Houston.  Yesterday, their neighborhood was completely inundated, with all the streets looking like canals.  TV news were showing people getting rescued from homes many feet under water and people walking through chest-high water to get to dry ground.  Fortunately for my parents, the waters stopped rising just after the water had started entering their house.  Hopefully, the flood damage at this point is not too bad.  However, more rain is expected over the next few days.

In looking for information about conditions in the area, I came across the stream level gauges that the Harris County Flood Control District operates in the Houston area.  My parents live not too far, maybe just a mile, from the Brays Bayou, which overflowed yesterday. I think this may have been the first time that has happened.  In almost 30 years that they have lived there, they have never seen floods coming into their house.  However, the data from that gauge (Brays Bayou at Stella Link) was fascinating.

Braes Bayou at Stella Link 8-28-2017

When the flooding was worst yesterday (Sunday), the water was about a foot over the banks of the stream, at a stream level of almost 50 ft.  It then started to recede by a few feet, probably because the rains did not come down as heavily in their area. Today, it appears to be rising again.

Braes Bayou at Stella Link pt2 8-28-2017

If one looks at yesterday’s stream level and the historical information, one sees something remarkable.  Yesterday’s top stream level of 49.87” rose to that of a 100-year flood (49.60”).  (The stream bank stands at 48.40”, which means that at its highest level, the stream was overflowing its banks by about a foot.)  When FEMA designates 49.60” as a 100 year flood level, it expects such a deluge to happen, on average, only once every hundred years.

So, Ok – Harvey has been said to be unprecedented in its impact.  And a 100-year flood might not be so unexpected.  (Others have thrown around the comparison to a 500-year flood.)  But past data show that stream elevation was at 48.38” in 2001 (during Hurricane Allison, another really bad event that flooded most of the same parts of Houston) and at 48.30” in 2015, just a couple of year ago.  (Both times, my parents were lucky and were pretty much unaffected.) Both of those levels exceed the 50 year flood levels, 47.50”.

Taken together, this means that over the last 16 year, Houston (and maybe more specifically, the area where my parents live) has had two 50-year flood and one 100-year flood level events!  (And stream levels have reached 10-year flood levels in 5 of the last 10 years — an event that that has been calculated to have a 10% probability has occurred 50% of the time over the last 10 year.)  Hmmm.

Of course, these data points are very specific to one area, and one would need much more data to draw broader conclusions.  (And in any event, this storm and flood is not over, yet.)  But the events are also consistent with the greater variations in weather and higher frequency of severe storm events that scientists have predicted as an effect of climate change.  If this is a sign of what’s to come, as greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere rise, we are in a lot of trouble.

I sure hope that I am wrong.  Either way, this is one more example of what is at stake in the effort to bend the curve on greenhouse gas emission.


Lisa Jackson life story on Moth Radio Hour (original broadcast of May 31, 2012)

The Moth Radio Hour recently rebroadcast the show where Lisa Jackson, the first African-American Administrator of the U.S. EPA (2009-2013), told the story of how she became an engineer and then entered the environmental protection field.  I think it’s a great story for young folks, including my law students, to hear about one person’s path into environmental policy and government service, especially that of a racial minority.  Enjoy!


Positions: Env. Law Faculty Openings, Vermont Law School (Deadline: Sept 15 & Oct. 20, 2017, South Royalton, VT)

(1)    VERMONT LAW SCHOOL invites applications for a tenured or tenure-track faculty position teaching environmental law courses and potentially a first-year course. Hiring rank will be dependent on the background and experience of the applicant. The successful candidate will be an environmental expert with a strong academic background including a demonstrated interest in scholarship; a commitment to excellence in teaching; and relevant experience in private practice, government service, or non-governmental organization.  Vermont Law School is the top-ranked school for environmental law in the country.  Our graduates become attorneys and environmental professionals who work across the country and the globe.  We offer a rich array of environmental courses and a range of degrees including a Master of Environmental Law and Policy and an LLM in Environmental Law as well as certificates in the JD program in climate law, energy law, food and agriculture law, land use law, and water resources law.  More information about our environmental program is available at


Vermont Law School’s mission is to educate lawyers for the community and the world. The faculty believes that its scholarship, teaching and service should be meaningful and relevant to the local, national, and international communities. The law school is dedicated to building a diverse faculty, and it strongly encourages candidates of color, women, veterans, and members of other underrepresented groups to apply. Please submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and references to Vice Dean Stephanie J. Willbanks, Vermont Law School, 164 Chelsea Street, South Royalton, VT 05068.  Electronic applications are strongly preferred and can be submitted Materials should be submitted by October 20, 2017, although submissions received after this time may be considered until the position is filled.


(2)    VERMONT LAW SCHOOL invites applications for a clinical professor at the law school’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic. The Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School and Earthjustice are partnering to expand our environmental justice capacity through the creation of a new environmental justice initiative.  We are hiring an attorney professor who will be located at the Clinic and will work with Earthjustice’s Healthy Communities program and as part of the Clinic’s growing environmental justice program area. Cases and projects will include Vermont and New England-based initiatives as well as efforts at the national level and in other areas of the United States.


About Vermont Law School

Vermont Law School’s top-ranked environmental program includes a curriculum of more than 60 environmental law courses, as well as master’s and LLM degrees in three areas – environmental law and policy, energy regulation and law, and food and agriculture law and policy.


Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic

The ENRLC forms a key component of the environmental education we offer our students.  The program functions as a pro bono public interest environmental law firm and gives students the opportunity to hone their skills in real-world cases and projects.  The ENRLC is organized into four main program areas – Water and Justice, Coal and Climate, Healthy Communities, and Biodiversity – and we retain the flexibility to take on cases and projects outside these areas as well.  The clinic’s work includes a mix of litigation, administrative agency proceedings, client counseling, and other forms of environmental advocacy.  Our clients are community groups and conservation organizations, and we partner with a wide variety of organizations at the local, regional, and national level. We are seeking to grow our environmental justice program.  Clinic Director Jill Witkowski Heaps is a leader in the environmental justice field, serving as Vice-Chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. The addition of an environmental justice attorney will lay the groundwork for a more formalized program and the Clinic and in the law school as a whole.  More information is available on the ENRLC website:


About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the nation’s original and largest nonprofit environmental law organization.  Earthjustice has more than a hundred attorneys in offices across the country, and it leverages its expertise and commitment to fight for justice to advance the promise of a healthy world for all. In the Healthy Communities program, Earthjustice fights for a future where children can breathe clean air, no matter where they live; where products in our homes are free of toxic chemicals; and where all communities are safer, healthier places to live and work. Like the ENRLC, Earthjustice represents its clients free of charge. More information is available on the Earthjustice website:


Duties and Responsibilities

The Earthjustice Clinical Professor will be a full-time attorney housed within the Clinic. This position will be dedicated to working on environmental justice issues, with cases and projects chosen in collaboration between Earthjustice and the Clinic. Specific responsibilities include:

  • In collaboration with and under the direction of Earthjustice and Clinic attorneys, developing and implementing a suite of environmental justice cases and projects. Cases and projects may include state and federal litigation, influencing administrative agencies, legislative work, client counseling, and other advocacy.
  • Working with clients and/or community advocates to help build capacity and sustainability to empower them to continue efforts in conjunction with or subsequent to any litigation in their communities.
  • Managing and fostering relationships with co-counsel, clients, and partners.
  • Coordinating with and contributing to other aspects of environmental justice campaign work, including education, outreach, and messaging.
  • Supervising and providing extensive feedback to students on project and casework.
  • Teaching in the ENRLC seminar program.
  • With other ENRLC faculty and staff, assisting in the administration of the Clinic through regular participation in staff meetings, helping with the student recruitment process, assisting with public relations materials and reports, etc.
  • Participating in the life of the law school through attendance at faculty meetings and campus events, service on committees, and the like.



  • Minimum 3 years of significant legal experience, including litigation.
  • Licensed in Vermont or willing to become immediately licensed in Vermont.
  • Must have a passion for and experience with environmental justice communities and issues.
  • A background in community organizing and an understanding of health disparities or public health background are preferred
  • Must possess: cultural competency and significant exposure to communities that are vulnerable, disadvantaged and/or communities of color; an understanding of the opportunities and challenges of working with environmental justice communities and on environmental justice issues;  solid grounding in some aspect of environmental law that is relevant to the projected work of the environmental justice initiative; good narrative skills; history of supervising others in a legal context; excellent communication, analysis, and writing skills; demonstrated good judgment and sensitivity in a variety of situations; very strong academics, initiative, and work ethic; the ability to work exceedingly well with others; project management capability, including strong creative and strategic thinking skills; and a commitment to engaging in clinical teaching.
  • All types of diversity are welcome and encouraged.


Application Instructions

Vermont Law School is dedicated to building a diverse faculty, and it strongly encourages candidates of color, women, veterans, and members of other underrepresented groups to apply.  Please submit a cover letter, resume, law school transcript, writing sample, and references online here

The cover letter should clearly convey your interest in and experience with environmental justice communities and issues.  The writing sample need not be a traditional legal writing sample but may reflect your past work on environmental justice issues.  Electronic applications are strongly preferred and can be submitted online.  Applications will be considered as they are submitted. Please submit your information no later than September 15, 2017.


Position: Assistant Professor, University of Oregon Law School (Deadline: Sept. 1, 2017, Eugene, OR)

University of Oregon School of Law is hiring a tenure-track faculty member to teach in the area of land use, transportation, and green development. This position will work in partnership with the University’s Sustainable Cities Initiative, a multi-disciplinary initiative at UO focussed on sustainability and the built environment. Applicants should send a cover letter and c.v. to Professor Stuart Chinn, Associate Dean for Programs and Research ( and copy Jill Elizabeth (

The position posting is linked below:

Op-ed on California Electric Vehicle Rebates

Here is an op-ed piece of mine in support of rebates for electric vehicles, appearing in various newspapers.  The Sacramento Bee is running it today:


Yes: Rebates a prudent way to save world from climate change

By Tseming Yang

California Gov. Jerry Brown may soon sign legislation extending cash rebates given to residents who buy low-emission vehicles from Tesla and other automakers.

While the bill’s details are still evolving, the governor should in principle sign off on the subsidies because they will further spur California’s transition to a clean-energy economy and improve the state’s air quality.

Addressing climate change is the chief motivation for the rebates, which have been in place for years and would be beefed up through the pending legislation. With a populous coastline and dependence on seasonal rains, California is particularly vulnerable to the dangers posed by global warming, including rising sea levels and more-frequent droughts and wildfires. Reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions would help not only California but, given the Golden State’s large population, the rest of the world as well.

Among low-emission modes of transit, electric vehicles in particular present a big opportunity to reduce carbon pollution.

And while the use of most EVs does result in some emissions – the electricity used to power them has to come from somewhere, including fossil fuel-burning plants – such vehicles are, all things considered, far friendlier to the environment than traditional cars, a 2015 Union of Concerned Scientists analysis showed. That’s not to mention California’s requirement that utilities in the state to get half their power from renewable sources by 2030, with tougher standards anticipated in the future.

Ultimately, these purchase rebates help create a robust market for EVs and push the transportation sector into better participating in California’s broader transition to clean energy.

Air quality is a key concern.

For decades, vehicle tailpipe emissions have contributed to smog and other toxic air pollution conditions, which are especially harmful to young children, the elderly, and those with asthma and other lung function impairments. Shifting the mix of vehicles on California’s roads toward EVs has become a necessity.

And undoubtedly, the rest of the world stands to benefit from California’s climate leadership.

Decreasing the demand for oil will reduce the need for risky exploration projects and lessen the chances of environmental disasters like the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, supporting the growth of California’s electric car industry is an investment in the state’s clean-tech sector, which will occupy an increasingly important role in the global economy in years to come.

California’s rebates send an unambiguous signal that, even with the Trump administration’s rejection of the Paris climate agreement, the state is still committed to fostering a thriving clean-tech industry.

Ultimately, California’s low-emission vehicle rebates will support three critical outcomes: lowering carbon emissions harmful to the environment, reducing smog and other forms of air pollution, and boosting economic activity in the state’s clean-energy industry.

That seems like a pretty good deal to me.


Jim Rubin


I am deeply saddened that my friend Jim Rubin, a great Washington, DC environmental lawyer, passed away last week.   The environmental bar lost an incredibly  talented and dedicated attorney far too soon.

Law 360 has a write-up  on him.