August 2007: Major storms in the Midwest caused significant flooding in six states and killed 18 people.
June 2008: A “500 year flood” devastates the region, claiming 13 lives and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. This flood hit just 15 years after the epic 1993 flood, another “500 year flood,” which claimed 32 lives and caused $15 billion in damage.
June 2009: As flood season looms ahead, Iowans are bracing themselves for a third straight year of flooding.
Sadly, news stories and images of streets and houses covered in water are becoming more and more commonplace. At a rate of about 2.9 percent, the country’s annual flood damage costs are increasing three times faster than its population. And despite spending $45.2 billion federal tax dollars ($123 billion adjusted for inflation) on structural projects nationwide, mostly within the last 50 years, flood damages continue to rise.
This is not surprising when you consider that many of the so-called solutions to flooding actually exacerbate the problem. Erecting dams and levees, channelizing rivers in concrete straitjackets and building other traditional water infrastructure may appear to reduce local flooding; however, river scientists agree that the resulting disruptions of natural river processes ultimately make flooding worse.
While engineered solutions like levees will continue to be necessary in some places, they are costly and can create a false sense of security, encouraging unwise floodplain development and increasing flood damage costs. Levees also destroy some of the natural features that prevent downstream flooding, as well as river access and fish and wildlife habitat.
Unfortunately, as bad as the threat from flooding is today, it will likely be much worse in the future. Experts predict the frequency and intensity of rainstorms and flooding will increase with global warming.
That’s why communities must embrace 21st-century flood management solutions now to prepare themselves for a stormier world. This approach recognizes the natural flood management ability of healthy rivers and floodplains and uses them to make communities safer and more livable. It also acknowledges that managing or avoiding floods, instead of trying to fight or stop them, will help protect communities, safeguard the environment and save tax dollars.
Throughout much of American history, rivers have been treated as problems that must be “solved” through large-scale engineering projects. But now we know the real answer to long-term safety and well-being lies in working with nature, not against it. Working with nature, we can have clean, healthy rivers that make communities more resilient, more able to withstand frequent and severe droughts and floods.
The best way to reduce flood damage, and to safeguard people and property, is by reconnecting rivers with their floodplains and by protecting and restoring wetlands. Wetlands act as natural sponges that absorb floodwaters and release them gradually after a storm has passed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one acre of wetland can hold one to 1.5 million gallons of water. The same amount of gas would fill the tanks of up to 100,000 average-sized cars.1 Wetlands also act as barriers between storm surges and communities, filter polluted water, and provide critical fish and wildlife habitat. However, wetlands that are drained, filled or isolated behind levees provide little or no flood protection for the surrounding community.
In some places, where no reasonable amount of wetland protection, restoration or engineering can protect a neighborhood or business from chronic flooding, the safest and most cost-effective approach to sparing life and property is to relocate buildings to higher ground. For example, the citizens of Soldiers Grove, Wis., who were subject to multiple floods, realized levee projects were too expensive compared to the town’s property value and income. After another flood decimated the community in 1978, they decided to use federal funding to relocate to higher ground. In August 2007, the area experienced its biggest flood ever. The Kickapoo River didn’t recede for over a week, but Soldiers Grove escaped serious damage.
Communities in the Great Plains are also reaping the benefits of sustainable flood management. After Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., experienced a disastrous flood in 1997, the towns worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a flood protection strategy featuring space to give the Red River room to expand.
Grand Forks relocated 1,100 of the most affected homes and businesses out of low-lying neighborhoods using $171 million in HUD Community Development Block Grants. The Corps redesigned levees around the area, setting them back 300 feet to put less stress on weak riverside soils and to reduce flood levels by reconnecting the river with its floodplain, creating a greenway in the process.
The 2,200-acre greenway has produced considerable flood insurance savings and provides open space for year-round recreation with campgrounds, golf courses, hiking trails and fishing access points. The greenway and structural features of the flood control plan will provide the two cities with 210-year flood protection at an estimated cost of $416 million. And in 2005, Grand Forks predicted direct profits of $630,000 and indirect earnings of $16 million from greenway-related events. Across the river, East Grand Forks projected that 2005 tourism in the greenway would increase sales tax revenues by almost 30 percent to over $60 million.
Boulder, Colo., is another great example of a community that values protecting wetlands as part of flood control and, according to their Web site, seeks to accommodate floods, not control them. Additionally, property values increased $5.4 million due to a recently built greenbelt on a floodplain, generating $5 million a year in new tax revenue, approximately one-third of the greenbelt’s cost.
We can protect ourselves and reap the benefits of sustainable flood control by
1. Protecting and restoring wetlands and floodplains. Communities can protect themselves by restoring and using nature’s capacity to reduce the size and power of floods. We should stop further wetland and stream destruction and restore what’s been lost or damaged.
2. Reassessing the risks of existing flood control structures. Many dams and levee systems are in a state of disrepair, increasing the risk of floods. Repairing and maintaining levees and dams are costly and long-term commitments—obligations that many communities are challenged to meet. Following disaster declarations, FEMA should prioritize emergency funding for cost-effective and sustainable nonstructural alternatives to channel works, levees and dam repair.
3. Going beyond the status quo. Revamping national flood programs will help us to avoid escalating flood vulnerability to people, private property and public infrastructure. For example, late last year the National Marine Fisheries Service found that the FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, which will be up for reauthorization this fall, has enabled floodplains to be affected in ways that don’t protect people or the environment. Activities like levee construction and placing fill in floodplains has increased flood intensity, harmed water quality and destroyed critical fish habitat.
The benefits that healthy wetlands and rivers offer to communities in terms of flood protection, clean water, wildlife and recreation are clear. Our elected officials should place new emphasis on the restoration of natural flood protection as the most cost-effective way of safeguarding lives and property, as well as ensuring the health of our rivers and the fish and wildlife that depend on them.
It can be painful, particularly in times of budget shortfalls, to take land off the tax roles and preserve it as wetlands or open space. It’s also difficult to say no to federal agencies that might promise communities engineering solutions paid for with federal dollars. But, by making the smart choices today, local elected officials can save billions of dollars—and tens of thousands of families from tragedy —tomorrow.