Biden Reinstates Obama-Era Federal Flood Protection Standard

In a sweeping Executive Order issued on the first day, President Biden reinstated the Obama-era Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. This flood protection standard had required federally funded infrastructure, like public housing, hospitals, fire stations, and water treatment plants, to be built with a higher margin of safety against extreme floods and sea level rise.

Former President Trump had revoked the flood protection standard just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017.

As the seas rise and rainstorms become more extreme, the reinstatement of the flood protection standard will help to protect lives, lower disaster costs, and save taxpayer dollars by ensuring public infrastructure is built to withstand the climate of the future.

The Benefit of the Flood Protection Standard

Designing infrastructure based on expected future conditions can reduce exposure and vulnerability. Current building standards require designing according to past climate conditions, assuming that they will continue into the future. Climate change is the wrench thrown into the gears of that approach, making the nation’s aging infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to damage from flooding and other natural hazards. The Obama administration sought to address this problem by issuing the flood protection standard.

Now that the standard is reinstated, federal agencies must use more protective siting and design requirements for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding, such as affordable housing, emergency response facilities, and water and wastewater systems. Federally funded projects again will be required to be located outside of low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding whenever practicable, or, when not practicable, they must be built to be more resilient against predicted flood conditions, including the impacts from sea level rise.

Agencies will have the flexibility to select one of the following three approaches for establishing the flood elevation and corresponding horizontal flood hazard area to be used in siting, design, and construction of federally funded projects:

  • Climate-Informed Science Approach: Under this option, a federal agency will determine future flood conditions, based on the best available climate science data, and elevate or flood-proof new or substantially reconstructed structures above that future flood level;
  • Freeboard Value Approach: If a federal agency selects this approach, new or substantially damaged structures and facilities funded by the agency will be required to be elevated or flood-proofed a minimum of two feet for standard projects or a minimum of three feet for critical projects above the 100-year flood level; or the
  • 500-Year Elevation Approach: A federal agency selecting this approach will be required to elevate or flood-proof new or substantially damaged structures to the 500-year flood level (a flood with a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in any given year).

Forward-Looking Leadership

Flooding is already the nation’s most common natural hazard. In the past two decades, Americans have suffered multiple catastrophic flooding and severe storm events, resulting in billions of dollars of damages. And the federal government foots a significant amount of the bill when flood-related disasters strike.

Between 1998 and 2014, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spent $48.6 billion in the wake of floods and coastal storms to repair or replace public buildings ($12.6 billion), public utilities ($7.4 billion), roads and bridges ($5.5 billion), and water-control facilities like levees, dams, and pumps ($1 billion), with the remainder spent on clean-up and emergency actions. These dollar amounts represent only a fraction of the total the federal government spends to help Americans recover from flood disasters.

Heavier rains, intensifying coastal storms, and rising seas—the impacts of climate change—all serve to make flooding more frequent and severe. Reinstating the flood protection standard will better protect people and property and will ease the federal government’s growing financial exposure by ensuring federally financed infrastructure is better prepared for and adapted to flooding exacerbated by climate change. 

President Biden’s forward-looking decision is acknowledgement that building to the climate of the past is no longer tenable.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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