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

Guest Blog: Make America’s Swamps Great Again

kevincoulton_042117An opinion-editorial by Kevin G. Coulton, PE[1], CFM[2]

March 10, 2017

An extended article will appear in ASWM’s March/April issue of Wetland News.

[1,225 words]

The Trump Administration has announced an “America’s Infrastructure First” policy[3]. While I am supportive of the need to improve our Nation’s infrastructure, I am concerned that we may end up draining more than just the “political swamp” to accomplish this goal and place new and rebuilt infrastructure at risk from flooding, the most costly natural disaster in America[4].

America was first made great because of our natural resources and, in part, by the draining of swamps (the bogs, marshes, and frequently flooded areas, collectively known as wetlands) to allow navigation, agriculture, transportation, and land development to occur and our Nation to prosper. In the early 1600’s, the land area comprising the eventual United States had approximately 221 million acres of wetlands[5]; now only about half of these important resources remain[6].

This conversion of the natural to built environment is characteristic of our perception of “infrastructure”; i.e., over the eons, humans have attempted to dominate and control nature to survive, then subsist, and now hopefully flourish. As a practicing civil engineer I was taught to design infrastructure and for much of my career I associated this with the tangible concrete and steel projects built by engineers that we see around us.  This definition of infrastructure is supported by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)—which I am a member—that publishes a Report Card for America’s Infrastructure every four years. With respect to flood control, the recently released 2017 report card grades the 90,580 dams and the 30,000 miles of levees in the U.S. both a D, with estimated needed investments in excess of $64 billion and $80 billion, respectively[7].

Even with dams and levees to control flooding, much of our infrastructure remains at risk. For example, the President himself owns a significant amount of coastal infrastructure and his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida is located in a FEMA flood hazard zone that was established back in 1982[8]. Over the intervening 35 years there has been an observed rise in mean sea level of nearly a half foot in this area[9] and an accelerating rise in local sea levels, combined with more frequent rain, high tide, and storm surge events[10], may lead to an increasing frequency of flooding for this region in the years to come.

The new President is a businessman and, as he says in his book, The Art of the Deal, he takes a very conservative approach and always anticipates the worst.[11] As he leads the nation to rebuild our infrastructure, I would encourage him to anticipate the worst and consider an approach to reduce flood risk through infrastructure spending that costs less to maintain and is more resilient to future flooding.

But how should we do that?

Again, from the President’s book, “Sometimes your best investments are the ones you don’t make.”[12] I agree, and infrastructure to reduce flooding is already available to us free of charge and involves working with the natural systems of forests, floodplains—and, yes, swamps—that have inherent abilities to slow and reduce the force of water.

We need to view Nature as our business partner.  As we improve our aging infrastructure by working with nature instead of against it we have an opportunity to make these pending investments more resilient to flooding and economically viable by accommodating the natural functions of floodplains (peak flow reduction, flood storage, erosion control, water quality maintenance, groundwater recharge, etc.[13]) instead of trying to control them.

As a practicing civil engineer, and former city planning commissioner, I understand the human desire to build things, and flat floodplain lands have been tempting to drain and develop to increase the tax base of a community and the economic vitality of the nation. However, this economic boost is then plagued in perpetuity with the uncertainty of the timing and magnitude of the next flood event that will inevitably occur and threaten infrastructure that was built in harm’s way.

According to the ASCE, the Nation’s aging roadways, bridges, ports, water systems, and other critical infrastructure will require $4.6 trillion to fix by 2025[14]. While we intuitively understand the economic benefits of a road or a bridge, and that the concrete and steel for this infrastructure comes from our natural resources, what about the economic benefit of a swamp? Increasing efforts are being made to value the benefits we derive from ecosystem services (water supply, natural waste treatment, habitat, food production, etc.)[15]. With an estimated 20 million acres of floodplain area in the U.S.[16] and a potential value of $10,000 per acre per year in ecosystem services provided by swamps and floodplains[17], we may have $200 trillion per year in natural infrastructure available to help us reduce America’s flood risk…while making America’s swamps great again.

Kevin Coulton is a consulting water resources engineer and a Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM) with an academic background in civil engineering and landscape architecture.

Kevin G. Coulton

[1] Registered Professional Engineer (PE) in WA, OR, ID, and CA.

[2] Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM) by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

[3] Trump Pence Make America Great Again, 2017. Infrastructure: Donald J. Trump’s Vision

[4] National Flood Insurance Program, 2010. Flooding: Our Nation’s Most Frequent and Costly Natural Disaster, March.

[5] Dahl, T.W., and G.J. Allord, Technical Aspects of Wetlands: History of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States, National Water Summary on Wetland Resources, United States Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 2425,

[6]Dahl, T.E., 2011. Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service Report to Congress, Washington, D.C. 108 pp. Page 37.

[7] American Society of Civil Engineers, 2017. 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, March 9.

[8] FEMA, 1982, Flood Insurance Rate Map, Town of Palm Beach, Florida, Palm Beach County, Panel 3 of 5, Community Panel Number 120220 0003 C, Map Revised September 30. [The Mar-a-Lago estate is located in a FEMA Zone C (an area of minimal flood hazard, with ponding and local drainage problems)].

[9] NOAA, 2013. Tides & Currents, Mean Sea Level Trend 8722670 Lake Worth Pier, Revised: October 15. [The mean sea level trend at a tide gage on the Lake Worth Pier , located about 4 miles due south of the estate].

[10] Shimon Wdowinski, Ronald Bray, Ben P. Kirtman, Zhaohua Wu. 2016. Increasing flooding hazard in coastal communities due to rising sea level: Case study of Miami Beach, Florida. Ocean and Coastal Management. Volume 126, June 2016, Pages 1- 8. [A 2016 study indicates the average regional rate of sea level rise in southeast Florida has increased to about 9 millimeters per year after 2006 based on data from a gage about 70 miles south of the estate].

[11] Trump, D.J., 1987. Art of the Deal, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, page 48.

[12] Trump, D.J., 1987. Art of the Deal, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, page 28.

[13] The Task Force on the Natural and Beneficial Functions of the Floodplain, 2002. The Natural & Beneficial Functions of Floodplains: Reducing Flood Losses by Protecting and Restoring the Floodplain Environment, A report for Congress, June.

[14] American Society of Civil Engineers, 2017. 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Economic Impact, March 9.

[15] Earth Economics, 2016. The Ecosystem Valuation Toolkit.

[16] Tockner, K, and J.A. Stanford, 2002. Review of: Riverine flood plains: present state and future trends, Biological Sciences Faculty Publications, Paper 166, University of Montana.

[17] Costanza, R., R. de Groot, P. Sutton, S. van der Ploeg, S. J. Anderson, I. Kubiszewski, S. Farber, and R. K. Turner, 2014.  Changes in the global value of ecosystem services, Global Environmental Change 26, pages 152–158.


© 2017 Kevin G. Coulton – All rights reserved

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