In summary

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should take a holistic approach to reduce the increasing risks of flooding due to climate change.

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By Natalie Snider

Natalie Snider is associate vice president of Climate Resilient Coasts and Watersheds at Environmental Defense Fund.

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David Lewis, Special to CalMatters

David Lewis is executive director of Save The Bay.

Our country faces a flood crisis. More people and places are at risk, with climate-induced flooding threatening widespread social, environmental and economic impacts.  

We need a holistic approach to reduce flood risk now. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has focused on building levees, spillways and hardened infrastructure to address episodic storm events. But, by focusing solely on storm surge, they leave millions exposed to chronic flooding from sea level rise, tides and extreme rainfall.

The standard operating procedures of the previous century no longer suffice. In some cases, hardened infrastructure exacerbates flood risk, harms natural resources and wildlife, and leaves the most vulnerable communities behind. 

That’s why nearly 100 organizations asked Assistant Secretary of the Army Michael Connor to usher in an era of bold, innovative action to increase flood resilience today and into the future. The Army Corps of Engineers must understand and address the comprehensive flood risks facing communities and develop holistic strategies to reduce them.

Coastal areas experience flooding from rising seas, storm surge, rainfall, and swelling rivers and streams. The corps shouldn’t develop plans and make massive investments that only address one piece of this flood risk puzzle. 

This is happening in places like San Francisco, New York City, Miami and Houston, where the corps seeks to build massive and extremely expensive seawalls and gates to address storm surge, while ignoring flood threats from sea level rise and extreme rainfall. Many of these hard solutions are expected to take decades to construct, meanwhile Americans are affected by flooding today.

The corps must instead leverage the greatest assets available using a hybrid approach that prioritizes natural solutions.

Oyster reefs, barrier islands and marshes can dampen storm surge and push back against sea level rise. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, more than 13,000 acres of restored tidal marshes are boosting natural flood protection with crucial habitat for endangered fish and wildlife. Enlightened corps policies could help triple those marshes in future decades.  

The Yolo Bypass outside Sacramento, built to reduce flooding, now is managed to provide 59,000 acres of habitat for endangered Chinook salmon and other wildlife.

On the Los Angeles River, years of citizen lawsuits stopped destructive practices and now the corps helps to remove concrete banks for natural flows and habitat.

Natural solutions are less expensive, which could save $489 billion annually according to a recent study, can be implemented more quickly, can adapt to changes over time, can create jobs and improve quality of life through cleaner water and recreational opportunities. 

Equity must also be at the center of the corps’ mission.

For too long, the corps made decisions and investments based on cost-benefit-analyses that prioritize protecting the greatest amount of people and assets for the lowest cost. This approach exacerbates inequities and creates a flood risk gap, where low wealth and under-resourced communities are left without adequate flood protection and face significant hurdles in disaster recovery. While wealthier homeowners can more easily bounce back, those lacking in generational wealth and resources experience significant, multi-generational impacts to their communities, livelihoods and wellbeing.  

The corps must rethink cost-benefit-analyses to incorporate actual and compounding impacts of floods. They must advance policies and make investments that prioritize equity and environmental justice for people who face the greatest risk and who have the greatest need. 

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicates many future flood impacts are “locked in,” meaning they will occur whether we reduce climate emissions or not. We’ve seen the result of not preparing in the form of breached levees, emergency water rescues, destroyed businesses and infrastructure, inundated roads, and communities left vacant shells with residents struggling to cope with lingering trauma and economic instability. 

We must create a more flood resilient nation by preparing for tomorrow’s flood risks today, leveraging nature as a powerful tool, and prioritizing those with the greatest needs. Federal infrastructure programs should lead this climate change culture change. 

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