Floodplain Easements are a Wise Investment & Bring Multiple Benefits

After 10 years of cuts to agricultural conservation programs, no one is doing more with less than the NRCS.

Effective flood management requires us to use a host of tools and techniques, from improved stormwater management to floodplain ordinances that keep us from building in flood-prone places (a bad habit we’ve continued since the Great Flood of 1993, with “28,000 new homes and 6,630 acres of commercial and industrial development on land that was flooded in 1993”).  One powerful tool for flood management in agricultural communities comes from Farm Bill conservation programs.  These programs provide support for farmers to undertake stewardship practices that provide multiple benefits including flood storage, reduced soil erosion, and wildlife habitat.  

American Rivers has researched the utilization and benefits of agricultural easements in the Upper Midwest, a region which has experienced repeated severe record flooding.  In our report “The Multiple Benefits of Floodplain Easements”, we show that there was an overwhelming interest among agricultural landowners in acquiring easements for the flood-prone portions of their property. 

So what, you say?  A lot of programs have more interest than available funds.  What makes floodplain easements any different?  The difference is the tremendous savings that taxpayers receive when USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) invests in easements that provide flood storage and remove the threat of future flood damages on high-risk properties.

When we fail to invest in easements, taxpayers are hit time and time again when farmland is flooded, crops are lost, and fields or buildings are damaged in floods that are common to flood-prone areas.  Moreover, as the recent floods on the Mississippi River demonstrated so clearly, we must provide some places for floodwaters to be stored and conveyed.

It is not feasible to send endless amounts of water downstream without major consequences to communities and the environment.  Landowners with high-risk properties in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois signed up in huge numbers to receive support and assistance to break the cycle of flood damages and return flood-prone portions of their land to natural floodplain conditions that are more adapted and resilient to flooding.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, aka “stimulus”) provided additional funds to the NRCS to acquire floodplain easements from willing landowners.  The interest in the program far outstripped the availability of funds, yet the House just passed additional drastic cuts in funding for such conservation programs despite continuous cuts over the last decade and the tremendous cost-efficiency in increasing flood storage and restoring high-risk areas.

Hopefully, the House will see the error in these cuts after learning more about the value of conservation programs in this week’s scheduled audit. The figure below illustrates the cost effectiveness of purchasing all of the requested floodplain easements from Upper Mississippi River Basin states compared to the flood damages from those states.

Axing conservation programs and failing to invest in hazard mitigation may seem like a cost-savings, but that savings is very short-lived.  As the natural disasters that have already occurred in 2011 have taught us, we cannot afford to be unprepared simply because budgets are tight.  Case in point: In response to increased western flooding, USDA just announced that it will be providing $3 million in funding for conservation measures that reduce damages in flooding.

We must look at the longer-term cost horizon to understand that wise investments now, despite being difficult to afford, provide handsome savings in the future and most importantly, help our local and state governments become more resilient to disasters.  The unwise management of floodplains throughout the past 150 years was a result of short-sighted investments and feeble regulation at all levels of government.  The problem has been made abundantly clear in repeated floods over the past decade, but we must expect that it will take decades of cooperative investment, restoration and protection at all levels of government to begin setting things right. 

Why put off until tomorrow what we can start today?