Increasing Flood Risk: Is This Our Floodplain Management Policy?

As the spring floods will soon be upon us (see our related essay of the great Australian floods, “The Brisbane Floods” ), Prairie Fire turns to our flood hazard mitigation expert, Larry Buss, for his review of the often-depressing state of affairs surrounding floodplain management.

By Larry S. Buss

Flood damages and flood risk are increasing in the United States! Do you believe that? If you do not, just talk to any person who is knowledgeable about the status of flood damages and flood risk in this nation. He or she will say yes. This yes is in spite of all the money, all the effort and all the time spent over the last few decades trying to reduce or eliminate flood risk and flood damage. This nation is in its third “campaign” to reduce the undesirable effects of floods on people. First, the nation focused on flood control. When the realization finally came to some that floods could not be controlled, the nation incorporated a second campaign: flood damage reduction. That occurred in the 1970s. With this concept, some realized that if floods could not be controlled, the focus should be on reducing damages. While that had considerable merit, flood damages continued to increase and a realization emerged that floods really had other adverse effects, such as human suffering and death. Therefore a new concept arose in the past decade: reducing flood risk. Flood risk includes everything relative to the adverse effects of floods. This brought about the third and present campaign of focusing on reducing flood risk and a new term called flood risk management. In the past, the term was floodplain management. Both terms refer to making management decisions at all levels of government and at all levels of the private sector, including individuals, in regard to either making or not making flood damage reduction/flood risk reduction a priority in day-to-day decisions regarding land use of floodplains and damaging effects of floods. Whether or not flood risk/flood damage reduction in the United States is a high priority is very questionable. Before getting into that dialogue, I will provide some introductory discussion.

Floodplain management can be defined very simply as the management of the use of a floodplain either by nature or by man or by both. Flood risk management can also be defined very simply as managing the overall risk to all interests of mankind from floods. A floodplain is the normally dry land that is located within varying degrees of adjacency to a riverine, lake or coastal flood source that, at times of flooding, is used (inundated) by the flood source. A flood, defined simply, is a general inundation of a floodplain on a temporary basis by a riverine, lake or coastal flood source.

Prior to the advent of man, nature alone managed floodplains. Flood risk was not an issue. Nature’s floodplain management and subsequent floodplain land use was everything that contributed to long-term sustainability. Floodplain use by floods was essential to the well-being and total functionality of a floodplain. Natural and beneficial functions of floodplains were all that existed. With the advent of early man and during the following millenniums as man remained nomadic and used floodplains on only a temporary basis, nature’s style of floodplain management was in harmony with that of man. Flood risk was essentially nonexistent. That began to change, however, as man gradually began to shift from the nomadic lifestyle and temporary use of floodplains to ever-increasing levels of permanency. With permanency came new, and theretofore unknown, concepts—flood damage and flood risk. While some cultures of man continued to live in harmony with nature’s concept of floodplain management (even into today), many cultures of man considered floodplains as prime areas for the construction of all types and kinds of flood-damageable structures and as prime locations not only to work but also to live.

Floodplain occupancy that led to flood damage and flood risk (ultimately to life itself) brought on a new concept—living against the flood. Instead of “living with the flood” and with nature’s floodplain management, man began to construct protective devices to “remove” the flood from parts of the floodplain. That was the beginning of the “flood control” era mentioned previously that, even though in existence today, has been supplanted with other concepts/campaigns of reducing the adverse effects of floods; namely, flood damage reduction and flood risk reduction.

Today, two basic concepts of floodplain/flood risk management exist that encompass all the tools and devices that man has to deal with floods and their effects—both positive and negative. Those concepts are nonstructural flood risk reduction and structural flood risk reduction. Nonstructural measures basically are measures that change the characteristics of man’s behavior and man’s floodplain structures, allowing man and the structures to “live with the flood.” They do not change the characteristics of the flood. Such measures include but are not limited to elevation of structures, dry flood proofing, wet flood proofing, relocation of structures, acquisition and demolition of structures, flood warning, etc. Structural measures basically are measures that change the characteristics of the flood. They generally do not change the characteristics of man’s behavior and man’s floodplain structures, except to the extent that structural measures do entice man to live in and build in floodplains as if floodplains did not exist. In order words, structural measures can and many times do induce more at-risk floodplain development than that which existed prior to implementation of the structural measures, hence over the longer term increasing flood risk.

I posed the following question earlier in this article, “Is a high priority placed on flood risk/flood damage reduction and flood risk/ floodplain management?” I think the facts show that flood risk and flood damage reduction and flood risk and floodplain management are really relegated to a very low priority when it comes to using and living in this nation’s floodplains. The following are a few examples that demonstrate that fact.

  • * National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)—While the NFIP, which was enacted in 1968, strengthened in 1973 and amended by Congress subsequently since that time, was originally envisioned as leading to substantial reduction of flood risk by 2011, has the opposite occurred? Has it really induced flood risk and increased flood damage? Has the NFIP been too politicized to be effective at making flood risk reduction a high priority? The concept that a floodplain is only that landmass subject to the 100-year flood comes from the NFIP. Basically the entire nation has adhered to the concept that if land use is in the 100-year floodplain, floodplain regulation and flood insurance apply. If the land use is outside the 100-year floodplain, no floodplain regulation and no flood insurance are required, meaning “build as if a floodplain did not exist.”
  • * Executive Order 11988—This executive order (EO), entitled “Floodplain Management,” was issued by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. If you read it, I think you will agree that it was very forward thinking, and many, if not all, of its concepts are very applicable today. The problem is, how many agencies REALLY adhere to its principles of sound floodplain management in making land-use decisions? How many agencies REALLY provide sound leadership in floodplain management? An argument can be made for “not many, if any.”
  • * Levees—When levees are constructed, ask yourself if flood risk and flood damage reduction are really the driving priorities. Some may say “yes,” but on examination, it is really often not the case. Many levees have been built. Many people want more levees to be built and to be rebuilt especially now with the national emphasis on levee safety. Many communities want levees to do two things only: (1) eliminate the requirement for flood insurance and (2) eliminate the requirement for floodplain regulation. They are not really interested in flood risk reduction. Just read the newspapers regarding the issues that surface when a levee is de-accredited for purposes of the NFIP. The issue is not true flood risk; it is flood insurance risk and floodplain regulation risk. It is “get that levee reaccredited for the NFIP” so I can live in, work in and build in that floodplain as if a floodplain does not exist. It is about local economics based on floodplain development, not flood risk. It is based on the theorem “privatize and localize the gains, socialize and federalize the loss.”
  • * Politics—Ask yourself the basic question, “Does politics place a high priority on land-use decisions that focus on really reducing flood risk?” I would like to answer with a yes, but the real answer is generally no. Political rhetoric abounds, especially during and after floods, to “rebuild smarter” and more “flood-wise,” but that lasts only as long as it does not get in the way of “rebuilding local economics.” The latter gets the votes.
  • * Sharing the Challenge—Do you recall the 1993 Midwest floods? Prior to 2008, many thought and wanted to believe that that magnitude of flooding could not occur again in those same areas. The floods of 2008 in eastern Iowa, western Illinois, southern Wisconsin and eastern Missouri vividly pointed out the fallacy of that thinking. After the 1993 floods, a post-flood task force called the “Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee” was assigned the duty of delineating the causes of the 1993 floods, evaluating the performance of floodplain management practices and programs in place at that time, and making recommendations on needed changes to policy, practice and programs that would “achieve risk reduction, economic efficiency, and environmental enhancement in the floodplain and related watersheds.” Their report was called “Sharing the Challenge: Floodplain Management into the 21st Century.” The report contained many recommendations for reducing flood risk and flood damage into the future. Guess how many have been implemented? Very few have been implemented because many are too “politically hard” to achieve unless flood risk and flood damage reduction are really a high priority in the United States, which they are not.

In summary, I have just touched on many topics for future discussion that deal with flood risk and floodplain management. I fully realize that many of the measures that have been placed in this country to reduce flood risk and flood damages really have achieved great benefit, especially short term. Right here in the Iowa/Nebraska area, we can look at the Missouri River, which has essentially been flood free in relative terms since the 1950s, when the dams, channels and levees were considered complete. We can also think of floodplain development that has been purchased and removed, and we can think of homes that have been elevated. However, we must also think of areas downstream from or behind flood control works like dams and levees respectively that have experienced an explosion of new development because the NFIP floodplain (100-year flood) was removed. This allowed land-use decision makers to place local short-term economics ahead of longer-term flood risk management. Unfortunately those floodplains will someday be used again by flood sources. When, not if, that occurs, we will find the flood risk in many areas greatly increased due to those decisions. So I ask you to really, really think about what I have said in this article. Then ask yourself the question that I posed in the article title, “Increasing Flood Risk: Is This Our Floodplain Management Policy?”


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