New Federal Flood Protection Standards Will Prepare Nation for Climate Change


Three months ago the President signed an executive order that updated flood protection standards that federal agencies use when deciding where to build, how to build, and what projects should receive federal funding. The executive order established an improved margin of safety and called for agencies to evaluate how sea level rise and other climate impacts that increase future flood risk.

After ninety days of public input, which included eight listening sessions held across the country, the comment period on the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard is closing today. The Natural Resources Defense Council has submitted two letters of comment in support of the standards. One, written in conjunction with American Rivers [NRDC+AR Comment Letter.pdf] provides an in-depth analysis of the administration's proposal, the importance of updating existing federal flood management practices, and highlights the economic benefits for our country. The other letter encourages robust implementation of the standards by all federal agencies, and is signed by 60 environmental organizations from across the country [FEMA-2015-0006_Envt Organizations Joint Comment Letter.pdf].

This proposal has been hailed by organizations of all political persuasions including state floodplain managers, environmental organizations, and conservative fiscal policy watchdogs. An op-ed in by NRDC's executive director, Peter Lehner, and the president of the libertarian R Street Institute, Eli Lehrer, illustrates the broad support for updating flood protection standards.

Unfortunately, some House members have already tried to kill the updated standards before the public comment period even closed. On April 30th, Representatives Boustany (R-La.) and Abraham (R-La.) pushed through by voice vote an amendment to the FY2016 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that would prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority and many other federal agencies from applying the updated flood protection standards when designing and approving infrastructure projects. This last-second ambush is detrimental to the American public. The new standards put in place by the President's executive order have the potential to save billions of dollars in budget-busting disaster costs due to flooding; disaster costs which are increasingly borne by the federal government.

Flooding has cost the US economy an estimated $260 billion over the last 30 years. Dollar losses due to tropical storms and other flood events have tripled over the past 50 years, and currently comprise approximately half of all natural disaster losses. The federal government has assumed an increasing proportion of the financial responsibility associated with recovery after a flooding event, and as 85% of all disaster declarations are flood-related, this puts a heavy burden on the taxpayer. So it's a no-brainer why it's important to update the standards for flood protection that apply to federal projects and federal spending decisions. After all, why build something you know will be knocked down and have to be rebuilt?

Climate change will only exacerbate the United States' vulnerability to disastrous flooding, which is why ensuring the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard is implemented is crucial. Unlike its predecessor, the new standards will require federal agencies to account for future climate conditions when they are funding the construction of schools, hospitals, bridges, treatment plants, etc. that are located in a floodplain or along the coastline. As a result, federal agencies will use a more conservative estimate of flood risk when making decisions about what to build, where to build, and whether to provide federal funding to local and state projects. The result will be tax-payer funded infrastructure that is better designed, better sited, and better protected. This is the right move for the nation, particularly given that climate change is making floods more likely every day.