New Challenges for Urban Areas Facing Flood Risks

Article excerpt

Introduction  I. Urban Areas Face Increased Flood Risks  II. Flood Control Policy: Local or Federal Responsibility?        A. The Transition from Local to National Control        B. The Retreating Federal Role  III. Local Government Options        A. Passive/Reactive Options        B. Proactive Options           1. Prohibit Risky Flood Management           2. Regional Flood Management Program              Participation           3. Risk-Based Integrated Flood Management  IV. Evaluation of Flood Management Case Studies      A. Background--Case Study Areas         1. Fargo, North Dakota-Moorhead, Minnesota         2. Cedar Rapids, Iowa          3. Sacramento, California      B. Evaluation of Case Studies         1. Considering Climate Change Data         2. Regional Collaboration and Ecosystem            Restoration         3. Nonstructural Approaches         4. Structural Solutions and Federal Government            Involvement Conclusion 

A flood doesn't exist except in our memory banks. It's a temporal event. It is not the river and it's not the land. It's neither here nor there. (1)


Hurricane Sandy has delivered another painful reminder that urban areas need to find new ways to confront the increasingly difficult task of flood preparation. A flood occurs "when water runoff from the land exceeds the capacity of the stream channel." (2) Excepting the Inner Mountain West and Southern California, a map of vulnerable flood areas picks up almost all major urban areas in the United States. (3) Between 1929 and 2003, urban floods in the United States caused an estimated $171 billion in property damage. (4) Floods have caused the most losses of any natural disaster in the United States. (5) Billions of dollars have been invested in flood prevention structures. But, as "first responders" in the battle to prevent and respond to flood damage, local governments will see urban flood damages rise for four primary reasons. First, federal flood control policy over eighty years has created the illusion that infrastructure and post-disaster relief can provide maximum protection from flood damages. (6) Second, more cost-effective avoidance strategies, such as less intensive flood plain development and restoration, have been undermined by the federal flood insurance program, which has encouraged intense development in river and coastal flood plains instead of redirecting it to less vulnerable areas. (7) Third, global climate change is projected to produce more intense flood and coastal storm surge events. (8) Fourth, damage prevention responsibility is being de facto devolved to local governments as the federal government and the states, with notable exceptions, are investing less of the scant, available dollars in flood infrastructure construction. (9)

This Article examines the challenges and opportunities that urban areas face in developing effective flood control strategies in light of climate change and decreasing federal and state flood control expenditures. (10) The evolution of flood control policy and law in the United States reveals a gradual shift in thinking from the concept of "maximum protection," provided largely by the federal government, toward the notion that flood damage must be viewed as a risk that can be minimized, but not totally avoided. These risks can be managed at the local and regional level under the principles of integrated flood plain management (IFPM). Integrated flood plain management uses a combination of structural measures, flood management to produce less intensive flood plain development, and flood plain restoration to reconnect rivers to their flood plains to take advantage of the landscape's ability to retard the spread of water. (11) While the United States has not developed comprehensive or mandatory requirements regarding flood management or the use of IFPM, the European Union's Floods Directive requires its member states to develop risk-based flood management. …


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