Policy Reforms That Save Money and Prepare Communities for Climate Change

Weathering Change

The recent Mississippi River floods have shown us how profoundly vulnerable we are to extreme weather. The record rains have drowned crops, inundated homes, and ground economic activity to a halt in many places. They’ve created agonizing choices that involve choosing which homes will be ruined and which will be saved.

This is a situation caused partly by crazy weather and partly by the way we’ve built our communities and attempted to manage floods in the past. It’s a situation that we’ll have to deal with more and more in the future as a changing climate brings changing precipitation patterns and bigger floods and droughts.

Today, American Rivers is releasing a new report, Weathering Change, with a detailed set of recommendations for how we can reduce our vulnerability to these types of disasters. By doing a better job of managing water here and now, we can stay safe no matter what the future holds.

Preparing for the future

The ongoing floods along the Mississippi have affected many people’s lives, but they also are part of a trend toward more extreme weather. They raise some troubling questions: What if this type of event becomes the norm, rather than a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence? Will we be able to avoid continuous economic disruptions and loss of life? Can we afford to maintain levees to protect these places and rebuild communities when those defenses fail?

No one knows exactly what climate change will bring in every place, but we do know that there will very likely be a greater likelihood of extreme weather at both ends of the spectrum – from floods to droughts – that will make it more difficult to ensure public safety and a secure supply of clean water in future years. This is especially worrying because we have a long history of pushing the limits of what’s safe, even in the less volatile climate that we’ve experienced for the past several hundred years. We’ve built in vulnerable places and wasted water with little concern for the problems that might result. We’ve also degraded and destroyed the natural systems such as forests, wetlands, and floodplains that manage water for free. In this context, even a slight increase in the frequency and severity of floods and droughts could have big consequences.

What’s worse, many of our federal policies continue to encourage the type of dangerous behavior that got us into this mess in the first place. Flood insurance encourages people to continue building and rebuilding in vulnerable areas. Planning for federal infrastructure projects fail to consider whether the systems being built will function 10, 20, or 30 years in the future. Subsidized water rates encourage wasteful water use in western states increasingly plagued by drought. As a result we’re wasting money and leaving ourselves little margin for error.

Fortunately, we know how to manage our water more sustainably and prepare for the future. We can protect and restore the wetlands, forests, and rivers that slow floods and provide clean water. We can use water more efficiently at home, in factories, and on farms. And we can install green roofs, rain gardens, and green streets in our cities to decrease polluted runoff, improve air quality, and lower temperatures. Cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Portland, and New York are already embracing these cost-effective, 21st century solutions to save money and address immediate problems they face. These cities are demonstrating that to survive and thrive in an era of more volatile and extreme weather, we must invest in the solutions that do the most good for the least amount of money.

The report [www.AmericanRivers.org/WeatheringChange] that we’re releasing today provides a roadmap toward a more secure future based on these innovative and cost-effective water management strategies. It shows how the federal government can redirect existing resources away from wasteful practices that undermine our ability to respond to climate change and toward policies that make communities and wildlife safer and better prepared for an uncertain future.

A short description of the ten policy areas we focus on are listed below. You can view the full report here [www.AmericanRivers.org/WeatheringChange].

  1. National Flood Insurance Program: Change flood insurance rates and maps to ensure they reflect risk and discourage construction and reconstruction in vulnerable area.
  2. Farm Policy: Reward farmers for being responsible stewards of land and water resources and encourage better flood management practices on agricultural lands
  3. Bureau of Reclamation: Develop comprehensive water management plans for Reclamation projects to create greater flexibility and improve the health of rivers 
  4. Energy Policy: Integrate water management and energy planning and ensure that energy and water are being used as efficiently as possible
  5. Clean Water Act: Restore protections to wetlands and streams and improve implementation and enforcement of protections for all waters
  6. Water Resources Development Policy: Reform the principles that guide construction of federal water infrastructure projects to minimize damages to rivers, wetlands, and floodplains and prioritize more cost-effective, flexible projects
  7. Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Funding: Reform funding criteria to ensure that funded projects embrace green infrastructure and can adapt to changing conditions
  8. National Forest Management: Diversify Forest Service management practices to prioritize effective water management
  9. Transportation Policy: Ensure that funded projects minimize impacts on surrounding water resources and wildlife populations
  10. Wildlife Management: Better coordinate federal actions and invest in climate change planning to help maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations