Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

Compleat Wetlander: Rethinking Floods — Can We Take Actions Now to Reduce Future Catastrophes?

This has been a year of natural disasters here and abroad.  The news has been filled with stories of tsunamis, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes and floods. Worldwide, 2011 is already the costliest year on record storycode=391797 Taken as a single event, the tornadoes this spring add up to the 5th costliest disaster in U.S. history with a $14 billion price tag webinars/2011_07_natcatreview/MR_III_2011_HalfYear_ NatCat_Review.pdf. With flood waters still high in some places in the U.S., flood damage estimates range from $3 to $9 billion and the ongoing drought and wildfires in Texas could add another $1-3 billion.

There has been speculation in the press over whether 1) these events can be linked to climate change or 2) that perhaps the past hundred years have just been relatively quiet weatherwise.  The truth is we really don’t know.  It could turn out to be either or neither or both.

What we do know is that this year many people in the U.S. and abroad are dealing with catastrophic losses—homes, property, and worst of all, loved ones.  Recovery will take time.  Currently there is a natural desire to assign blame  But assigning blame is also about figuring out how to keep this from happening again.

Natural hazards are not preventable.  They will occur.  The real question:  are there actions that we can take now that will reduce the risks that future events will be as devastating?  For some kinds of natural disaster, specifically floods, the answer is yes.

This week the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Reauthorization and cutting the Red Tape in Recovery”. aspx?NewsID=1335 Associate Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers Chad Berginnis’ written testimony points out that bringing older damaged flood-prone buildings into compliance with minimum National Flood Insurance Program Standards would result in an 80% reduction in future costs.  Chad’s testimony included a number of other actions to reduce future losses and keep people out of harm’s way.

A significant problem is that there are still many communities that are continuing to place buildings and other infrastructure in harm’s way.  In the 15 years following the 1993 flood, 28,000 homes and 6,630 acres of commercial and industrial development were added to land that was underwater in 1993. %5CMississippi_FloodingNatural_Hazards_Ctr_6-2011.pdf

Across the Atlantic the Dutch are dealing with similar problems.  Their solution is the “Make Room for Rivers” program, which uses several different strategies to make room for rivers when flooding occurs.  These actions not only accommodate floods, they are designed to improve the quality of nearby surroundings.

A significant barrier to pursing the kinds of actions the Dutch are using has always been difficult; one of the challenges is found in comparing the merits and dollar value of restoring natural floodplains against the benefits of businesses and commercial infrastructure.  The United Kingdom has just completed a groundbreaking study documenting the dollar value of the natural world. Real Wealth Report (Reports from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment):

In large part we view these natural values—air, water, wildlife, etc. as freely available.   This is not true.  Environmental regulation adds to costs for a whole host of activities in order to secure environmental services for current and future generations.  The appropriateness of whether to assign these costs to individual businesses or all taxpayers is a hotly contested topic in public policy.  The problem is that many studies indicate ecosystem services are declining.  In the UK study 20% of ecosystem services are improving while 30% were declining.

List of Ecosystem Services courtesy Dave Batker, Earth Economics

Flooding is an example of what happens when natural floodways and natural flood storage functions/services are lost or underutilized.

Now, and in the coming weeks, while the spring’s tragedies are fresh in everyone’s mind, is our best opportunity to make changes to reduce future risks.  This needs to be a done holistically with an arsenal of actions to reduce the impacts of future floods.  Restoring natural floodplains and ‘making room for rivers’ should be a significant portion of the nation’s response.

Additional Materials:

National Flood Insurance Program:  Background, Challenges, and Financial Status (Congressional Research Service, March 2011)

2011 Half-Year Natural Catastrophe Review

Valuing Ecosystem Services

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