More federal regulation is not the answer to flooding

More federal regulation is not the answer to flooding
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During the Great Flood of 1927, Will Rogers, America’s cowboy humorist wired from Baton Rouge, “I have flew over more water today than Lindbergh did, only this had housetops sticking out of it." Rogers could have been describing the tragic outcomes of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma or Maria.

Going forward, we can reduce flood damages through planning and investment or try to regulate our way to a better future. 

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After the 1927 flood, the nation chose planning and investment to build a mighty flood protection system along the Lower Mississippi River. This project has prevented $800 billion of flood damages with a return of $54 for each dollar invested

 

During the 20th Century, we built public works for flood management, we elevated houses, local governments acted to adopt building codes and we made affordable flood insurance available. We have not always done a perfect job and now, in many places, we’re reeling from decades of flood infrastructure neglect and incentives that don’t promote wise decisions. Estimated water resources spending levels of $70 per person in the mid-1930s have fallen to $11.50 per person.

Flood hazard mitigation and protection projects have advanced our well-being. FEMA hazard mitigation yields an average return of $4 for each dollar invested. Corps of Engineers’ flood projects generate an average return of $7.90 for each dollar invested.

During Hurricane Harvey’s devastating four-day, trillion gallon rainfall in Houston, the recently completed Sims Bayou Flood Project stood tall to protect some 1,330 homes that were flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

Just when we so sorely need renewed investment, some would turn their backs on this history. They urge the revival of President Obama’s 2015 Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) as if an arbitrary set of specs dictating three-foot height increases for all new bridges, for example, could do the hard work of governments to facilitate economic flood protection. 

A regulatory standard is one way to pursue flood damage reduction and might be useful if it met certain criteria, such as a foundation in widely accepted science, a set of clear targets that can be reliably estimated, confidence that meeting the standard will produce greater benefits than the cost imposed, and an appropriate regulatory role. But the FFRMS, built upon fragmented and obsolete data, failed to meet these criteria. 

A FEMA-appointed advisory council reported in December 2015 “the uncertainty of flood predictions … is generally greater than 40 percent in the United States.” And during the previous administration, senior representatives of 14 Federal agencies recommended that President Obama proceed with the FFRMS even after acknowledging the following in an April 2014 decision document:

“...current uncertainties exist in flood probability determinations due to limitations in the length of the hydrologic data record and, at present, there are significant uncertainties in climate science that limit the ability to provide actionable predictions of riverine, and to a lesser extent, coastal flood impacts over time.” 

These uncertainties formed the basis of the unwieldy 2015 Federal flood standard that mandated regulatory actions by 30 Federal departments and agencies

Despite repeated requests from numerous Members of Congress and impacted stateslocalities and private stakeholders, the executive branch issued the FFRMS without evaluating its costs or benefits. Agencies then compounded matters by issuing implementation regulations that failed to demonstrate economic outcomes. 

Further, the heavy-handed regulatory burden of the FFRMS has been underreported. Here’s why: the now-revoked 2015 flood standard continued an executive order by President Carter to regulate private and non-Federal activities in arbitrarily-expanded floodplains. Agencies were directed to apply nebulous floodplain requirements in federal planning, licensing and regulatory permitting actions, and these Carter-era instructions remain codified in agency regulations.

It isn’t possible or desirable to relocate up to one-half of the nation's population and wealth because of storm vulnerability and we do not possess the wherewithal to build higher and stronger everywhere. But where higher, stronger or “elsewhere” are clearly justified and within our means, then we should collaboratively pursue such measures. 

Our history shows us the way to the future. Flood protection projects have prevented more than $1.5 trillion in national flood losses since the 1920s. Our forbearers would never have dreamed of foisting unknowable “resiliency” mandates onto public and private investment using data and standards that may be off by 40 percent or more.

Generations of Americans made the sacrifice to better protect communities, families and businesses from the ravages of floods. Let’s follow their lead and invest to reduce future flood damages. 

Dan Delich co-founded the Floodplain Alliance for Insurance Reform and worked previously as a Congressional staffer and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analyst.

Larry J. Prather is an independent consultant and was assistant director of Civil Works, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.