By Marisa Escudero, Water Resources Manager, National Wildlife Federation
Winter 2016 has been a wet one for many of our WPNetwork Members.
Major flooding on the Mississippi River and its tributaries prompted flood warnings for parts of Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. At least 22 deaths over several days in Missouri and Illinois were blamed on flooding. In Missouri, at least eleven levees breached or failed, adding to the flooding and destruction.
One tragic example occurred in the southwestern tip of Illinois, where more than 500 people living behind the Len Small levee, which protects Olive Branch, Hodges Park, Unity and other rural homes, were urged to move to higher ground after the Mississippi began pouring over the Len Small levee.
Just a few weeks later, the East Coast was hit with a historic blizzard that caused severe coastal flooding along the Delaware and New Jersey coastlines. Record flooding was observed in at least four locations along the Delaware (Lewes) and New Jersey coasts (Great Channel at Stone Harbor, Cape May Harbor, Delaware Bay at Cape May).
The National Weather Service issued coastal flood warnings for the Atlantic coast from the Outer Banks of North Carolina all the way to Long Island, as well as the New York and Connecticut shores of Long Island Sound.
This is not the first time that extreme weather changes have threatened people and wildlife. Flooding has cost the U.S. economy an estimated $260 billion over the past 30 years. And these figures barely scratch the surface of the damages done to wildlife and our water resources. The risks have continued to grow as the impacts of climate change increase. Preventing the detrimental effects of flooding from federally funded projects was addressed by Congress last December with what was essentially the first update in 38 years to the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard.
The efforts to update the standard began in early 2015 with President Obama’s executive order No. 13690, mandating all federally funded projects located in a floodplain be built higher and stronger than the previously required 100-year flood level. Buildings would now be elevated 2 or 3 feet above the 100-year flood level or at the 500-year flood level. The mandate would apply to both new construction and rebuilding of federally funded projects following a disaster. Billions of dollars of federally funded construction projects would be subject to the new standard at a time when flooding in the U.S. is getting worse every year because of climate change.
“This is using taxpayer money wisely, protecting investments that won’t get washed away in 10 years. It frustrates me to no end when we see these big floods and we see places like nursing homes or low-income housing get flooded. That should never be the case.” ~ Chad Berginnis, Executive Director, Association of State Floodplain Managers.
Despite the obvious need to update the Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, many fought back.
The states of Texas and Louisiana publicly questioned the legality of the standard.
Congress began attaching budget riders to three appropriations bills, preventing funding for the new standard. The chance at updating a standard that had not seen any advances in almost four decades began to look grim. In what should have been a unified goal, “[s]uddenly, because the update had the words ‘climate’ and ‘change’ in it, it became a partisan issue.” ~ Robert Moore, policy analyst and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water and Climate Team.
WPNetwork members may recall sign-on requests last summer followed by an in-depth presentation by Joel Scata, attorney at NRDC at our 2015 Annual Meeting. Many of you had the opportunity to speak directly with Hill Staff to explain the need for these standards and benefits. We were not alone in this endeavor! Environmental groups and flood policy experts also met with politicians from both parties to explain the standard and its benefits.
In what could only be described as a DC-ism, Congress approved funding for the program.
Hidden on page 605 of the 2016 omnibus bill, Congress approved the program but in a way that really makes one read the fine print. The omnibus rider began with language stating no federal funds could be used to implement the standard, followed by a qualifier statement “other than for—”, and lists nearly all of the activities in Executive Order 13690. With funding on the way, the next step will be for government agencies to develop guidelines to implement the new policy, which could take another six months to a year.
We are confident that our WPNetwork Members are curious about the language choice when reading the words “nearly all.” Just what federally funded projects will fall under the exemption? And what oversight will be provided while the guidelines are developed throughout 2016? We here at the WPNetwork are equally as skeptical and will continue monitoring this very important issue for our members.
Stay tuned! WPNetwork will continue watching Congress and will be back with more news on this very important topic!