New Climate Change Standard Can Help Restore Rivers


Culvert failure | Tom Maguire MA DEPCulvert failure | Tom Maguire MA DEP

Last week the Obama Administration followed through with another promise from the President’s Climate Action Plan– to require federal agencies to update their flood risk reduction standards to increase resilience to climate change. By establishing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard the Administration will not only make sure that infrastructure built with taxpayer dollars can keep people safe during big floods, but it will also encourage the use of floodplains and wetlands to buffer the impacts of storms- great news for rivers across the country!

President Obama established the Standard by amending Executive Order 11988, Floodplain Management. EO 11988 says that federal agencies should avoid building in the floodplain but if they have to, tells them how to do it safely while recognizing the value of natural floodplains. When implemented correctly EO 11988 should be a strong tool for protection and restoration of rivers.

The amendments make EO 11988 an even stronger river protection tool by stating that if an agency is going to build in the floodplain “where possible, an agency shall use natural systems, ecosystem processes, and nature-based approaches when developing alternatives for consideration.” This is a big step forward- rather than just try to avoid harm by not building in floodplains, it means that agencies should seek opportunities to mimic or restore natural systems when they must take an action in a floodplain.

The major change that the floodplain management world is talking about is the establishment of a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, a “flexible framework to increase resilience against flooding and help preserve the natural values of floodplains.” Federal agencies will use the new standard to figure out the extent and depth of the floodplain when they site, design and construct infrastructure. To provide flexibility, agencies can use one of three options when determining the extent of the floodplain:

  • Use data and methods informed by best-available, actionable climate science;
  • Two feet above the 100-year (1% annual chance) flood elevation for standard projects, and three feet above for critical buildings like hospitals and evacuation centers; or
  • The 500-year (0.2% annual chance) flood elevation.

This is a big shift because previously the default standard was the 100-yr floodplain. Now, agencies will use more accurate data that reflects the specific location, or build with a cushion of safety they did not have to use previously.

So what does this mean for rivers? It means that washed out road-stream crossings will have to be rebuilt to accommodate larger floods; levees will be stronger, or preferably, built further from the river banks to allow more room for flood water; watersheds will be protected to reduce runoff; and better data will be used when agencies decide where and what to build in the floodplain.

There will be a 60 day comment period and listening sessions will be held in cities across the U.S to allow the public to weigh in on the new standard. After public comments have been compiled each agency will develop guidance to implement the new Standard within their agency. Join us in telling President Obama how important floodplains are to healthy rivers by submitting comments or attending a public listening session.

2 Responses to “New Climate Change Standard Can Help Restore Rivers”

Suzie Reilly

Nature as in its natural state is exceptional engineering. By restoring flood plains we restore the balance of nature.

Gary Weaver

I’m glad these plans are in the works. I live in Douglas County Colorado and was on the Planning Commission there for 3 years, They think nothing of building on floodplains and even below earthen dams. Using the 100 year flood theory which, with climate change factored in made that theory antiquated. This county and its gov’t are deniers so it made it easy to zone floodplains for development. I suggested that floodplains should be used only for grazing of cattle.