New Climate Resilience Opportunities for River Communities

Culvert Failure | Tom Maguire, MA DEPCulvert Failure | Tom Maguire, MA DEP

President Obama made some big announcements this week about actions the Administration is taking to help communities and states prepare for the impacts of climate change. These steps aren’t going to stop climate change or prevent all flood damages, but they are a huge step in the right direction to help communities live with their changing rivers and coasts. Rather than continue our current approach- spend billions of dollars recovering and rebuilding back the same way after catastrophic storms and floods- the Administration has identified some ways to encourage communities to proactively protect themselves from flood damage before the next flood hits.

The even better news is that many of the actions announced this week could support investments that protect and restore rivers. Many of the same infrastructure investments that improve community resilience to climate change are the same actions that can improve river health and restore habitat. Under these programs and initiatives many river communities have the opportunity to pursue projects that will provide multiple benefits to their communities. Here are some of the exciting opportunities for river communities discussed in President Obama’s climate preparedness announcement:

  • A National Disaster Resilience Competition, similar to the successful Rebuild by Design competition following Hurricane Sandy, will make $1 billion available for communities who experienced a Presidentially Declared Major disaster in 2011, 2012, or 2013 to create and implement plans that make them more resilient to extreme weather. This means that river communities with flooding challenges in recent years will have a chance to redesign themselves to become more resilient to future floods.
  • Establishment of a Mitigation Integration Task Force at FEMA that is charged with implementing a Mitigation Integration Pilot Program by the end of August. This pilot will attempt to break the disaster-rebuild cycle by identifying projects where mitigation can prevent future flood losses. Many river restoration projects including dam removal, culvert upgrades, floodplain reconnection, etc, improve community resilience while also providing environmental benefits. Hopefully these types of projects will be showcased as pilot projects.
  • A FEMA guidance to include climate change in State Hazard Mitigation Plans. This upcoming action has the potential to drive climate adaptation across the United States. Hazard Mitigation Plans help states identify what actions will be taken after a disaster hits and states are required to have a plan in place to be eligible for many forms of disaster assistance. Currently states are not required to consider climate change impacts like sea level rise or increased risk of flooding. By identifying ways to adapt to climate change in these plans- such as upgrading culverts, removing dams, relocating homes and businesses to higher ground- states and communities can make sure they’re ready to take action when rebuilding after the next disaster.
  • Establishment of a new Green Infrastructure Collaborative between federal agencies. EPA has been the go-to federal agency for using green infrastructure to manage stormwater, reduce urban water pollution, and reduce urban flooding. Now the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Defense and Energy have all committed to collaborate with EPA and pursue specific green infrastructure actions from technical assistance to applying green infrastructure on federal lands to integrating green infrastructure into projects and grants. Hopefully this is a major step forward to prioritizing green infrastructure for federal investments.
  • Finally, the U.S. Geologic Survey is launching the 3-D Elevation Program to improve mapping data used by federal agencies. This program will collect Lidar mapping data to help improve flood maps, water resources management, farming, and for many other uses. This launch comes the same week as FEMA’s announcement of the membership of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council which is charged with making sure Flood Insurance Rate Maps use the best available data to guide floodplain management decisions and determine flood insurance rates.

There’s still a lot more that can be done to shift disaster spending from recovery and rebuilding to protection before a flood, but this is a big step in the right direction. These announcements present some exciting opportunities for communities to invest in river restoration and protection that will improve their resilience to future storms and floods. We applaud the Obama Administration for taking these actions and look forward to seeing these climate adaptation steps implemented in communities across the country.