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Three Reasons Why New Flood Protection Standards Are a Good Idea

Peter Lehner's picture

I am the Executive Director of NRDC. The position is my second at NRDC. Beginning in 1994, I led the Clean Water Program for five years, before leaving in 1999 to serve as the head of the...

  • Member since 2018
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  • May 7, 2015

President Obama recently updated federal flood protection standards. These are the criteria government agencies use when building their own facilities, as well as when they decide whether to finance large public projects, such as train or bus terminals, electric transfer stations, or wastewater treatment plants. New, more protective flood standards are smart, and they’re necessary. Here’s why:


Flooding along the Mississipi River near Portage des Sioux, MO, June 6, 2013 (FEMA/Steven Zumwalt)

1. Hundred-Year floods are not what they used to be

A rule of thumb for flood protection is that a structure should be able to weather a 100-year flood–a flood that has a one-in-a-hundred chance of occurring in any given year. That seems sensible, but many scientific studies show that in some areas, the 100-year floods of the past are now more like 50, or 20, or even 10-year floods. Yet flood standards still rely on old, outdated projections.

One study of Hannibal, Missouri (hometown of Mark Twain), found that the supposed 100-year flood stage might more correctly be called a 10-year flood stage, based on how frequent large floods have been along the Mississippi River. That means there would be a one-in-ten chance of flooding in any given year, not a one-in-a-hundred chance. That’s a much bigger risk that towns like Hannibal need to be prepared for.

Not only do projections get today’s risks wrong, they fail to account for tomorrow’s flood risk. The amount of land that lies in riverine flood risk zones across the country is expected to increase, on average, 45 percent by 2100, largely due to climate change–this is according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) itself. If flood standards fail to take a warmer, more flood-prone future into account, more people and vital infrastructure could end up in harm’s way.

2. Floods are expensive, and taxpayers foot the bill

Between 1980 and 2014, floods cost the U.S. economy an estimated $260 billion. Iowa alone gets hit with a $1 billion flood bill every year, on average. Taxpayers nationwide end up paying the price, as states draw upon federal disaster relief funds and property owners make claims to the overdrawn National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which taps into the U.S. Treasury on a regular basis to avoid insolvency. The NFIP is currently $23 billion in debt. Truly, an ounce of prevention here can save taxpayers a pound of pain.

3. Nobody wants a flooded wastewater treatment plant

This is about protection. Flood standards should keep communities safe from rising waters as well as the power failures, water contamination, road closures, and other disruptions that flooding can cause. After Sandy, billions of gallons of untreated wastewater were released to Long Island Sound, New York Harbor, and waters across New York and New Jersey. That’s why both states moved quickly to update their flood standards for water infrastructure that was rebuilt after the storm, ensuring that these facilities would be more resilient. New Jersey even made those standards permanent.

Today, more than half the population of the United States lives in a state or local community that’s adopted similar flood protection standards. Updating federal standards is a common sense move that will protect life and property. We know flood risks are rising–it makes sense to build stronger and out of harm’s way.


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Peter Lehner's picture
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