Water Has No Bounds: Regional Councils Take the Lead on Flood Planning

According to the National Resources Defense Council, flooding throughout the country will continue to be intensified by sea level rise and extreme weather. In fact, the nation’s floodplains are expected to grow an average of 45% by the year 2100. 500-year and 100-year floods are now occurring more often than expected, leaving communities everywhere at risk for major economic and public safety concerns. As local officials grapple with these new trends, many are looking regionally to tackle this widespread problem.

Whether flooding takes place on the gulf coast, the urban streets of Pittsburgh, or a small town along the Missouri River, communities across the U.S. must develop ways to handle the aftermath of flooding. Flooding does not start and stop at jurisdictional boundaries. This is evident from previous years’ hurricanes, flash floods up and down the east coast, and the recent flooding devastation that urban and rural communities in the Midwest are still recovering from. The Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) is helping local officials in Nebraska and Iowa coordinate resources in the aftermath of the Missouri River flooding. The region is focused on recovering and reestablishing what has been damaged and lost in the region’s worst flooding event in history. MAPA is hopeful to one day establish a committee dedicated to providing information to local officials, reduce redundancies across governing bodies, and coordinate planning efforts in both states. The increased frequency of these climate-related flooding events is causing many regional leaders to seek new and inventive solutions to mitigate this problem.

Many of NARC’s members are acting as regional partners to combat major flooding through a complex consortium of stormwater user fees and taxes, green infrastructure, zoning regulations, long-term stormwater designs, and flood risk mapping tools.

Risk Mapping Tools

Hazard and risk mapping are extremely valuable in times of crisis and disaster management. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) provides its region with a zip zone map so residents know what evacuation zone they’re in. This includes state-supported evacuation routes with identified resources such as fuel and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers. These mapping and zoning resources, coupled with the HGAC regional plan, improve the quality of life for Texans. In HGAC’s Our Great Region 2040 plan, they highlighted the necessity for structural solutions – including dikes, flood gates, and drainage improvements – to protect key assets, but their cost means this approach must be carefully targeted. HGAC’s Regional Flood Management Committee also addresses these issues to effectively manage the floodplain and provide coordination among all parties involved to ensure the entire watershed is protected. Tools like these help ensure cooperation and coordination takes place within a region in the event of a major flood.

Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and other elements and practices to restore some of the natural processes required to manage water and create healthier urban environments. Both urban and rural communities are using green infrastructure to reduce and treat stormwater at its source while delivering environmental, social, and economic benefits to their areas. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is developing a regional green strategy by providing the region with a Great Lakes Green Streets Guidebook,which provides a sampling of projects throughout the region utilizing green infrastructure techniques. Another tool SEMCOG uses in their regional strategy is the Wisconsin Green Infrastructure Guide – an audit of local codes and ordinances that often create a barrier to green infrastructure projects. SEMCOG is also working on an asset management project that will coordinate projects across jurisdictional boundaries and planning sectors in a cohesive and cost-saving manner.

Stormwater Taxes and Fees

Stormwater fees are another tool regions are using to better prepare for flooding. In Pennsylvania, for example, several municipalities are in the process of implementing local stormwater ordinances. Stormwater fees and authorities are especially important for municipalities that operate municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s), because they allow local and regional areas to charge system users and generate funds to help pay for upgrades and future improvement projects. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) produces a  Forces of Change Exploratory Scenario Reportsdocument listing stormwater fees as a primary proactive strategy to protect communities from flooding and harmful pollution. This is produced by the Water Resource Center (WRC), first formulated in 2013 to address water-related concerns in the region. In addition to stormwater fees, 518 of the 548 municipalities in the SPC region are a part of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and three municipalities (Upper St. Clair, Etna, and Shafer) in Allegheny County have opted into Community Rating Systems (CRS) to manage activities that exceed minimum NFIP requirements.

Over the past decade more flooding in the United States is occurring in the Mississippi River Valley, Midwest, and Northeast, while domestic coastal flooding has doubled in a matter of decades. Advanced preparation can save communities time and money and protect citizens. Regional strategies are critical to establish emergency and disaster preparation to minimize flood impacts.

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