This is climate change – American rivers

A man's pit overflows with sewage contaminated with rainwater in Centerville, Illinois
A manhole overflowing with stormwater contaminated with sewage water in Centerville, Illinois

Last week’s rainfall events set record numbers for many communities in Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Virginia. At least 35 people were killed, and search and rescue efforts were underway after up to 10 inches of rain fell in Kentucky and Virginia, causing deadly flooding in the Appalachian streams. Cahokia Heights, Illinois, in the St. Louis metro area, received 9 inches of rain in the 24-hour period from July 25 to 26. Days after the rain fell, residents were still reporting 9-10 feet of water in their homes and sewage-contaminated water gushing from the shared sewage system. Flood-affected families clean flood-damaged homes and struggle to realize that record-breaking floods have wiped out everything for some.

While these events are extreme – they occur frequently and the costs associated with extreme events will continue to rise. In 2020, the United States experienced an average annual loss of $32 billion from floods, and that cost could rise by as much as $41 billion by 2050, according to a study published in the journal Nature. These numbers may be staggering, but the impact of the floods on the lives of people experiencing poverty and racism is even more significant. Natural disasters exacerbate existing inequalities such as housing and food insecurity. People of lower wealth are forced to spend limited assets on clean-up and recovery expenses, and this is exacerbated as structural and individual racism causes disaster aid to finally be distributed to blacks and other communities of color. And often – once people can clean their homes and businesses, another flood wipes them out.

We must break this cycle.

Roads flooded in Cahokia Heights in Centerville, Illinois
Roads flooded in Cahokia Heights in Centerville, Illinois

This week, American Rivers called on the Biden administration to take emergency climate action to support healthy rivers. With the state responding to catastrophic floods, here are three steps the administration can take to support vulnerable communities nationwide:

  1. Helping people find safety: Management should ask FEMA and HUD to better integrate affordable housing programs with floodplain management to meet the housing needs of people who need to move to safer land. The lack of affordable and flexible housing continues to be a major barrier for families looking to move away from flood-prone areas. The need for climate-resistant and affordable housing is critical to frontline communities as they recover from and prepare for severe weather.
  2. Sending resources to at-risk communities: Management can help nations improve flood management, both by reducing flood damage—particularly to disadvantaged communities—and protecting and restoring natural floodplains. We must narrow the gap in the availability of FEMA resources for low-income and color communities, which often do not have the municipal staff required to be eligible for pre-disaster mitigation programs.
  3. River Protection and Restoration: The administration should establish a National Floodplain Protection and Restoration Program to better use federal floodplain management programs to protect and restore the nation’s floodplains as carbon sinks and reduce flood damage. The initiative should set national targets for floodplain protection and restoration, coordinate floodplain data collection, create tools for mapping and prioritization, and equitably distribute flood-resistance funding to states.

As a nation, we need a fundamental shift in how we manage our floodplains if we are to help communities increase their resilience to floods. For decades, we have developed our rivers and floodplains as if the next flood were a possibility rather than an inevitable. It will rain, rivers will overflow, and our water infrastructure is insufficient. The safest and most economical thing we can do as a nation is give our rivers and streams the space they need to accommodate extreme flooding and precipitation events and use our rivers and streams as robust, equitable, and cost-effective climate solutions.

Submerged basement at Cahokia Heights in Centerville, Illinois
Submerged basement at Cahokia Heights in Centerville, Illinois

When we protect and restore natural floodplains, we not only ensure that communities are not at risk of flooding, but we allow rivers to trap carbon as sediment deposits in floodplains, filter pollutants and recharge groundwater supplies, and provide fish and wildlife with the habitats in which they live. Need to grow, reproduce and thrive. This will require all federal agencies to do their part to effectively utilize their programs to protect our existing natural plains and restore and reconnect damaged floodplains. This year, American Rivers will encourage federal agencies to take the following actions:

  • The Army Corps should reform project planning guidelines to ensure that each water project protects and restores floodplain benefits and values, and that nature-based solutions are prioritized as potential first, not last.
  • As FEMA updates its land use management rules under the National Flood Insurance Program, it must raise the level of floodplain protection and restoration as a priority, and work to support community efforts to restore its streams and rivers.
  • The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s flood mitigation programs must become a permanent, annually-funded program that allows farmers to restore and use their non-productive, flood-prone land for its intended purpose – to safely move floodwaters downstream.

These actions must begin now. We can’t wait. The climate is changing, and it will only get worse.

#climate #change #American #rivers

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