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

For Peat’s Sake: Innovation and Integration – the Key to Better Programs and More Resilient Communities

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) Annual Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan with about 1,000 other folks from a variety of professional backgrounds. The common theme that brought us all together was, of course, floodplain management. This year marks the 40th marlaanddave070616Anniversary of ASFPM and it was interesting to see and hear how profoundly the practice of floodplain management has changed over time.

Flood control used to be primarily about – you guessed it – controlling floods. Flooding was typically viewed as a nuisance seen through the lens of hazard management. Rivers were dammed, leveed, moved and channelized – floodplains were filled – all to encourage and protect development, agriculture and the people who worked and lived in floodplain areas. The 100 year flood event was the level of risk that we prepared for. These days the strategy has changed. Climate change is driving an increase in the intensity of precipitation events and increasing the frequency of disastrous floods. Thus we are discovering that we need to rethink our “command and control” approach to floodplain management and instead find innovative ways to manage excess water – or in other words, work with nature, not against nature.

Grand Rapids itself has done a 360 degree shift in regard to how the city manages its floodwaters. In 2003, the city spent $10 million to add an extra foot of protection to existing floodwalls, although FEMA still wanted them to add more. And then ten years later in 2013, the Grand River, which runs through downtown Grand Rapids crested at grandrapids07061621.85 feet – the highest water levels charted in Grand Rapid’s history – and was gushing at approximately 37,000 cubic feet of water per second. Although the river never reached the height of the floodwall – it was still about three feet shy – the city still had to spend another $500,000 to manage the resultant flood damage. And the possibility that it could have crested over the floodwall was very real – fortunately the weather forecast for another 4” of rain never materialized.

Grand Rapids is a growing city and the entire watershed in which it is situated is witnessing significant development pressures. This has resulted in the expansion of impervious surfaces (parking lots, roads, buildings, etc.) that cause water to runoff the land instead of being absorbed into the ground. This runoff water, aka stormwater, is then channeled into streams, creeks, drainage ditches and smaller rivers. All of these eventually feed into the Grand River which raises the water level of the Grand River even higher.

conventioncenter070616Hard infrastructure solutions such as levees and floodwalls can be very effective – of that there is no doubt. But we are discovering that they can also have many unintended consequences for communities downstream and upstream. The neighboring communities of Grand Rapids, Grandville and Comstock Park’s Abrigador Trail, were inundated by major flooding during the 2013 event. Grand Rapids’ floodwalls created a channel that increased the river’s velocity before it hit the iconic arched bridges that span the Great River downtown. The bridges pillars slowed the river’s flow essentially causing some of the rushing water to back-up into neighboring towns. According to the USGS, “structures that encroach on the floodplain, such as bridges, can increase upstream flooding by narrowing the width of the channel and increasing the channel’s resistance to flow.” And American Rivers reports that the unnatural channel created by floodwalls cause water to rise higher and faster than it normally would, which “lead to more powerful and rapid flooding downstream, or creates a bottleneck which causes flooding upstream.” And what would have happened if the floodwall breached or overtopped? The consequences would have been catastrophic.

Fast forward to today. The City of Grand Rapids has recently completed a “GR Forward Community Plan and Investment Strategy” with a chapter on “Restore the River as the Draw & Create a Connected & Equitable River Corridor.” According to the report, “the annual average rainfall in Grand Rapids has increased by 16% in the last 60 years and this lyonriver1trend is expected to continue or possibly increase.”  It goes on to explain their new approach to floodplain management –  “Rather than floodwalls like those created in previous generations, the approach is to use landscape design as a method of reaching the critical elevations necessary to achieve flood protection and create an amenity along the Grand River corridor.” Truly a radical departure from past practices.

Wetland managers have a critical role to play in the future of floodplain management. More than 80% of wetlands are located in floodplains. The unique ecosystem services that wetlands provide are critical for reducing the impact of floods. Wetlands function as rivertrail070616natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water, rain, snowmelt, groundwater and flood waters. Wetlands within and downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable, counteracting the greatly increased rate and volume of surface- water runoff from pavement and buildings.

Despite the many benefits that wetlands provide to support climate change mitigation and adaptation, they have historically been excluded from policy decisions regarding floodplain management, stormwater, water quality, and hazard mitigation, partly because many of the ecosystem services provided by wetlands are not directly bought or sold on the market and therefore have not or cannot be directly calculated in terms of dollars. But that is fortunately starting to change with new innovative economic frameworks that are being developed to account for these important ecosystem services. Part of the problem also has to do with federal, state and local agencies that operate in isolation from each other – the unintended consequence of laws that were developed long ago during a time of program specialization. Narrowly focused missions and agency priorities segregate natural resource management decisions into policies and actions that inhibit a broader consideration of the movement of water across the landscape on a watershed scale and the impact of decisions on upstream and downstream hydrology.

epa070616The good news is that some state agencies are already beginning to do the hard work of program integration (e.g., Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, Vermont). By using a watershed approach we can comprehensively address the impacts of climate change and maximize our use of the natural and beneficial functions of wetlands in floodplains to provide cost-competitive solutions that maximize benefits for humans and nature. Water quality and quantity are at risk under every climate change scenario.

So for Peat’s Sake, innovation is the key to solving many of our problems and it will be critical in order to provide increased flood and drought protection, provide clean drinking water, and maintain habitat under changing climatic conditions. Traditional wetland protection and restoration programs as well as hybrid systems using green infrastructure will both be needed to support overall watershed health. Ecosystem valuation can enhance the decision making process when considering alternative approaches. To efficiently develop these projects, however, the various programs that manage wetlands, water quality, flood protection and habitat need to pursue innovative ways to integrate their efforts, including leveraging the ecosystem services provided by natural resources such as wetlands. The benefits of integrating these programs will provide strategic opportunities to maximize multiple benefits and program efficiencies.

References & Resources:

City of Grand Rapids Green Infrastructure Program info

City of Grand Rapids “GR Forward Community Plan and Investment Strategy” chapter on “Restore the River as the Draw & Create a Connected & Equitable River Corridor

ASWM webpage on Floods & Natural Hazards

The Natural Floodplain Functions Alliance webpage

The Association of State Floodplain Managers website

Grand Rapids Flooding At Record Level, State Of Emergency Declared In West Michigan City” news story

2013 Flood: Experts describe how close Grand Rapids was to crippling floodwall breach” news story

This entry was posted in adaptation, climate change, Ecological Restoration, ecosystem services, flooding, floodplains, green infrastructure, natural hazards, resiliency, stormwater, watershed management, wetland management. Bookmark the permalink.

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