Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): flood resilience

Our Nation’s wetlands are at risk. So is our ability to manage flooding.

Following the Sackett v. EPA Supreme Court decision in May 2023, millions of acres of wetlands across the U.S. lost critical federal protections they once had under the Clean Water Act. The affected wetlands – which include those that do not have a continuous surface water connection to another federally protected body of water, like streams, lakes or an ocean – are now potentially at risk of loss and degradation. Also at risk could be the multitude of benefits provided by wetlands, which support clean drinking water, habitat for fish and wildlife, human health and well-being, contribute to economic activity and reduce damages from flooding. 

Photo credit: Sara Cottle

Why are these wetlands at risk? 

When the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of federally protected waters, state governments gained control over the regulation and protection of a large portion of wetlands. Unfortunately, many states lack the capacity or political will to regulate the use of wetlands and effectively enforce protective standards. 

Further, economic incentives for the protection of wetlands are misaligned. Private landowners and developers often have limited financial incentive to preserve wetlands because the benefits they derive from protection of these ecosystems do not reflect the total benefits that wetlands provide to society. While conversion of wetlands for housing development or agricultural production may be highly profitable for landowners, it also creates social and environmental costs that may exceed private benefits of conversion. 

Historically, the costs of regulation to private landowners have been well represented in public decision-making processes, but the social benefits of wetland protection have been omitted or underestimated. To ensure efficient protection of wetlands, it is critical that policymakers comprehensively evaluate both the social benefits and private costs of wetlands regulation. 

What are the benefits of protecting wetlands? 

In advocating for wetland protection, it is critical that the full range of benefits from wetlands is accurately quantified and valued. Such benefits include drinking water purification, flood risk reduction, habitat to support fish and wildlife, recreation and carbon storage – all of which become more important with increasing climate impacts. 

As climate change increases the severity and frequency of flooding, the capacity for wetlands to buffer people and property from flood damage becomes ever more valuable. Compared to traditional forms of grey infrastructure (e.g., dams, levees, seawalls), wetlands can be less expensive to maintain and more resilient to catastrophic flood events.  

What is the value of flood mitigation benefits provided by wetlands? 

In recent years, several studies have made important advancements in quantifying the economic value of wetlands for flood mitigation. Many of these studies employ hydrodynamic models which simulate how wetlands can reduce storm surge and the impacts of inland flood inundation. 

Based on this approach, Narayan et al. (2017) found that the loss of all coastal wetlands in the Northeastern U.S. (beyond losses prior to 2011) would have increased damages from Hurricane Sandy by $625 million. Similarly, Zaid Al-Attabi et al. (2023) estimated that the total loss of wetlands in Galveston Bay, TX would have increased damages from Hurricane Ike by $934 million. Importantly, these studies note that the effects of wetlands on flood damages depend on storm characteristics, local topography, landscape features and the presence and location of physical assets exposed to flood risk. 

A lady in a red coat stands in the middle of a puddle on the streets of Breezy Point after Sandy

These analyses provide important tools for simulating the impacts of alternative scenarios with and without wetlands. However, there have been few studies that test the effects of wetland loss on flood damage based on empirical evidence. Plus, more work is needed to understand the flood risk reduction benefits of non-tidal wetlands, which are more likely to be impacted by the Sackett v. EPA ruling.  

To address this gap, Taylor and Druckenmiller (2022) identified the effect of observed changes in wetland area on the value of flood insurance claims using econometric causal inference methods. Across the U.S., they found that a hectare (roughly the size of 2.5 football fields) of wetland lost between 2001 and 2016 cost the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) an average of $1,840 annually and over $8,000 annually in developed areas.  

What are the next steps? 

Researchers at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and UNC Chapel Hill are collaborating to better understand the flood risk reduction benefits of wetlands and how they are distributed across demographic and socioeconomic groups. Using observed NFIP claims data identified at the level of individual street addresses, this approach allows for a more accurate identification of when, where and for whom wetlands are most valuable. This study is being piloted in the Neuse River Basin in North Carolina with the intention to scale to other areas across the nation.  

In addition to motivating greater state and federal protection, quantifying the value of wetland ecosystem services is important for designing financial incentives and prioritizing areas for protection and restoration. For instance, one potential application could provide incentives for wetland protection or restoration by offering discounts on flood insurance premiums that correspond with the value of flood mitigation associated with upstream wetlands. Another potential application could provide conservation organizations and floodplain managers with additional information to help prioritize investments in restoration and protection.  

For these applications and others, building a more granular understanding of the geographic, temporal and ecological variation in the flood mitigation benefits provided by wetlands is critical. And overall, it is important that these benefits be viewed as part of a larger whole of the many instrumental and intrinsic values that wetlands provide.  

EDF is working together with scientists, economists, advocates and policymakers to better quantify, communicate and protect the breadth and value of ecosystem services provided by wetlands. This will require cutting-edge advancements in science and economics that are then translated to the public and to decision-makers in ways that are policy- and place-specific.  

 

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Advancing North Carolina’s Flood Resiliency Blueprint to combat growing storm risks

Over the past five years, North Carolina communities have endured storm after storm. From the estimated $16 billion of damage caused by the powerful forces of Hurricane Florence to excessive rainfall that engulfed mountain towns during Tropical Storm Fred to the lasting impacts from various unnamed storms, we’ve seen firsthand how flooding disasters are changing North Carolina and its communities.  

Now, more than ever, new approaches are required to address the increasing rate and severity of extreme rain events in North Carolina to safeguard communities, ecosystems and local economies. One way to reduce these risks is to build flood resilience across the state, an effort that has proven to save $6 for every $1 spent pre-disaster 

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is developing the state’s first-ever Flood Resiliency Blueprint in collaboration with numerous stakeholders, including Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), conservation partners, agricultural organizations, business representatives and local governments. And we are thrilled to celebrate the release of DEQ’s draft plan, which was presented to the General Assembly on January 23.  

At the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations Hurricane Response and Recovery subcommittee, DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser envisioned that “five years from now, other states will be looking to North Carolina because our process lets communities get back to day to day living quicker after storm events.” The Blueprint is a big step forward, resulting in a massive statewide effort dedicated to building resilient communities equipped to reduce and manage flood risk and vulnerabilities. 

Photo credit: Gene Gallin

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Sharing innovative solutions to build climate resilience in Cuban coastal communities

The sun beats hot past colonial facades and newly minted hotels in Old Havana, onto the children playing soccer across Paseo del Prado. High tides splash over the tidal wall and the taxi driver notes, over the noise of the street, that dark storm clouds line the horizon and are threatening heavy rains. Like other coastal and island regions, communities in Cuba are experiencing the disproportionate effects of climate change.   

Since 2016, Environmental Defense Fund, the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humankind and the Caribbean Agroecology Institute have partnered with local communities and organizations from Cuba as a part of the Research Initiative for the Sustainable Development of Cuba (RISDoC). RISDoC is a coalition of academics, civil society associations and representatives from international agencies who have come together to exchange innovative strategies and share lessons learned to prepare for climate impacts and spur sustainable economic growth. In addition to bringing together a range of Cuban community members, government officials and researchers, RISDoC connects experts from other regions with Cuba. This includes partners in Puerto Rico and Louisiana, regions that are experiencing more frequent and severe storms due to climate change and are working to build resilience.  

Thanks to this important initiative, RISDoC participants are building a more resilient future in Cuba. Check out a few of their key priorities: 

Photo credit: Noel López

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Transformational climate adaptation puts communities at the center. This project shows us how.

From record-setting rain in New York City to overflowing rivers in Vermont to another hurricane slamming into Florida’s coast – this year alone, we’ve seen historic neighborhoods, communities, local businesses and homes devastated by severe weather events that are becoming more intense and frequent due to climate change. Now more than ever, we need to invest in climate resilience to prepare our communities. 

Building resilience isn’t easy, but it’s possible – and the Ohio Creek Watershed project in the City of Norfolk, Virginia is a prime example. Earlier this year, city officials and community members celebrated the completion of a $112 million watershed resilience project that shows transformational climate action is possible when community members have a seat at the decision-making table.  Read More »

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Opportunities to support equitable and just housing adaptation in the floodplain

Co-authored by: Anushi Garg and Linda Shi

Anushi is the senior analyst for Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Resilient Coasts & Watersheds program in New York-New Jersey. Linda is the assistant professor for Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University.

Flooding is one of our nation’s most common, devastating and growing disasters–and the risk is deeply unequal. Years of disinvestment due to redlining and other racist land use and housing policies have put primarily Black, Indigenous, Latinx and immigrant communities at disproportionately higher risk of flooding and less able to adapt or financially recover after a flood event. Each disaster can devastate individuals and families with the fewest resources and further exacerbate these inequities

To help communities adapt, we need to expand and modify programs and policies to support the strategic relocation and adaptation of the existing housing stock, in addition to updating building codes and zoning regulations so new construction meets a higher standard of energy efficiency and resiliency. 

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Cornell University partnered this past year to better understand the programs that support proactive retrofitting or relocating to accommodate flood risk for a range of housing types in New York City. In particular, we studied cooperative housing, which is minimally researched and often left out of most assistance programs. This research served as a pilot for EDF’s ongoing research on housing assistance programs nationally. Our research is still underway, but we are sharing our preliminary takeaways about opportunities to close the resilient housing gap Read More »

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4 opportunities for Virginia’s General Assembly to build statewide flood resilience

In recent years, flash floods have decimated homes, businesses and communities in southwest Virginia and families are still recovering and rebuilding from the damage. Research shows that investing in flood resilience saves at least $6 for every $1 spent pre-disaster, which is why it’s so important to start planning for climate impacts now. 

While many localities are taking steps to plan for current and future climate impacts, many lower-resourced, small or rural communities need additional support from statewide planning initiatives, funding programs and technical assistance to address their flood risk. Virginia leaders must continue to build flood resilience through four big initiatives. 

Beach

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It’s nearly one year since Hurricane Ian. Will Florida be ready when another storm hits?

It was just last fall when Hurricane Ian, now classified as a category 5 storm, wreaked havoc across the state of Florida. Residents braced the eye of the storm as Ian made landfall on the state’s southwestern side, and millions more watched as communities, businesses and families changed forever.  

Ian nearly decimated Sanibel, a beloved vacation spot known for its array of colorful seashells, while it uprooted trees and tore off roofs in Fort Myers. Not to mention, inland communities suffered from flooding due to excessive rainfall, power lines went down and a series of destructive tornados followed Ian’s path. Not long after, Hurricane Nicole rocked northeast Florida, washing away beaches. 

Fast forward one year and where do we stand? Ian, then Nicole, now Idalia – it’s time to ask ourselves if Florida will be ready when another big storm hits. Here at EDF, the Climate Resilient Coasts and Watersheds team is focused on building resilience in Florida and ensuring communities are prepared for the increasingly frequent and severe weather events that are predicted. In recent months, there’s been a lot of progress – but there’s still a long way to go. Let’s look at how far we’ve come, and ways leaders can further prioritize a more resilient future.  

Damage and destruction on the west coast of Florida (Naples, Matlacha, Pine Island) caused by Hurricane Ian

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Why every state needs a Chief Resilience Officer

By Makenna Cavanaugh, Federal Affairs Intern, Climate Resilient Coasts and Watersheds

Communities across the country are grappling with the whiplash of flooding and extreme storms as the frequency and severity of climate hazards reach unprecedented levels. From economic instability to safety hazards, to inequities and the destruction of entire neighborhoods, these events have proven to have devastating and lasting impacts. And one thing is made clear – we need real, robust solutions and we need them across all levels of government to protect communities and promote long-term sustainability.  

Some states have acted by establishing a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), a government position that is responsible for spearheading resilience coordination and bringing together stakeholders to build, develop and implement resilience strategies. Creating a state-level CRO helps leaders effectively plan at the state, county and municipal level and is a major step forward in protecting communities from future climate impacts. 

Currently, 21 states have an established resiliency office or position at the state level. Among them, 11 states have a CRO.  Read More »

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Climate-driven floods could displace millions of Americans. Local buyout programs could help them relocate.

By Kelly Varian, Master of Public Affairs Student at UC Berkeley

Flooding is the most frequent and costly natural disaster in the United States, causing over $30 billion in damage annually, with disproportionate effects on low-income communities. With climate change exacerbating flood risk and population growth continuing in high-risk areas, over 40 million Americans living along rivers and inland floodplains, along with 13 million more on the coasts, could see their homes inundated with water by the end of the century. 

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Prioritizing communities and nature in the nation’s largest Army Corps project in New York-New Jersey Harbor

A plan for the largest transformation of New York City’s and northern New Jersey’s waterfront since the Robert Moses era has been proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). It’s called the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Study and it was introduced to the public to address flooding and storms like Hurricane Sandy. At stake is the future of more than 84 miles of waterfront and waterways in the metropolitan region and an area that supports 16 million people.  

New York City

New York and New Jersey residents must determine if this $52 billion dollar plan aligns with the future they want. Addressing flood risks is a step in the right direction, but as it stands today, the current proposal does not reflect the priorities of many communities and environmental organizations. With the impacts of climate change already in motion, we simply cannot afford to get this wrong.  Read More »

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