Weathering Change: Policy Reforms that Cost Less and Make Communities Safer

Weathering Change:
Policy Reforms that Cost Less and Make Communities Safer

Confronting Change

Larger and more frequent floods. More severe droughts. Shrinking snowpack and dwindling water supplies. Increased water pollution. Communities nationwide are already feeling the impacts of climate change. We don’t know exactly what the “new normal” will look like in every corner of the country, but when it comes to managing water resources and ensuring public health and safety, we know that the past is no guide for the future. Communities large and small, urban and rural, are all facing greater uncertainty and volatility, which translates to greater risk.

We are poorly equipped to deal with the challenges climate change is bringing because of how we have managed land and water in the past. We have built houses and planted crops right up to the river’s edge, causing stubborn pollution problems and leaving ourselves vulnerable to floods. We have wasted water as if it were an infinite resource. We have filled in wetlands and leveled forests that control floods and provide clean water for free. We rely on expensive built infrastructure that consistently fails, has little capacity to adjust to changing conditions, and is designed to serve one narrow purpose. In short, we have embraced the most expensive and least effective options when building communities, managing landscapes, designing infrastructure, and using water supplies. Many of these practices never made much sense, but in an era of scarce resources and growing volatility, they are even more problematic.

Fortunately, we know how to spend our money more responsibly by planning for the future and building in flexibility that will help us deal with changing conditions. 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. By adopting these approaches, we can save money, solve existing problems, and prepare for the future.

Bringing Federal Policy into the 21st Century

Many federal policies still encourage the same backward-looking water management approaches that didn’t work in the past and are even less suited to the future. Federal funding and policies reward wasteful water use and support destructive, inflexible infrastructure projects, while important programs that would help save water or preserve valuable wetlands and floodplains fall woefully short of what is needed. There is a widespread failure to plan for and address the changing conditions we know are coming. Too many federal policies are moving us in the wrong direction and making communities and wildlife more vulnerable.

The following ten reforms are some of the best ways we can change outdated federal policies and embrace a forward-looking approach to water management. They represent proactive steps Congress and the Executive Branch can take to address climate change.

  1. National Flood Insurance Program: Change flood insurance rates and maps to ensure they reflect risk and discourage construction and reconstruction in vulnerable areas
  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

Report written by Will Hewes and Andrew Fahlund, American Rivers.
Funding for this report was provided by the Kresge Foundation.