Floodplains: A cost-effective complement to flood management

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst On November 2, the Ecological Society of America sponsored a congressional briefing entitled “Using Science to Improve Flood Management.” Featured speakers were Emily Stanley (University of Wisconsin, Madison, Center for Limnology) and Jeff Opperman (Senior Freshwater Scientist, The Nature Conservancy, Ohio Field Office).  The briefing drew 40 attendees, including congressional staff and representatives of federal agencies, NGOs and private organizations. The speakers highlighted the multiple benefits—both ecological and economical—of increased investment in floodplains and their role in lessening the severity of floods. Stanley’s presentation touched on the many benefits floodplains have on flood attenuation, water quality, fish production, agriculture, aquaculture, groundwater recharge and maintaining ecosystem biodiversity. A striking visual showed that fish caught in a floodplain were remarkably larger than those of the same age, but from the main river channel. Stanley’s presentation also illuminated the potential cost savings and increased efficiency that would incur through more reliance on floodplains than on aging infrastructure, such as levees. Her presentation noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is estimating $750 million to $1.3 billion in damage to flood control structures alone for the Missouri River after the 2011 flooding, in addition to its annual operation/maintenance cost of $130 million. In his presentation, Opperman highlighted the detriments of flood control efforts that focus primarily on increasing infrastructural investment, the ‘levees only’ approach. He noted that despite massive investments in flood control infrastructure, flood-related damages continue to rise. He also referenced the Yolo Bypass in Sacramento, California as a prime example of an effective working floodplain. Opperman highlighted improvements in flood management along the Mississippi River since the flood of 1927. He contrasted the failed 1927 ‘levees only’ approach that managed the river in fragments with current efforts that manage the river as an entire system, relying more on the river’s floodplains natural ability to convey and store floodwater. While the death toll from the 1927 flood was at least in the  hundreds, and potentially thousands,, the 2011 Mississippi flood incurred no human deaths;  no land flooded that was not intended to be flooded. The Army Corps of Engineers’ post-1927 approach in managing the Mississippi River as a system is embodied in the formation of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. The project coordinates Corps activities, such as levee and infrastructure construction and maintenance with management of “floodways,” areas of historic floodplain that can be reconnected to the river during high flood events, relieving pressure on levees. Opperman contends this management technique proved critical in 2011 and likely provided significant cost savings for communities along the Mississippi. According to the Federal Emergency...

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ESA Policy News: October 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: SENATE RELEASES INTERIOR SPENDING BILL On Oct. 14, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies released is funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. In total, the bill provides $29.3 billion for programs funded by the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other environmental agencies, slightly less than the $29.5 billion approved for FY 2011. The House bill includes $27.5 billion in funding for FY 2012. The bill includes $10.27 billion for the Interior Department in FY 2012, down from the $10.56 billion enacted in FY 2011. EPA would receive $8.62 billion, down from the $8.68 billion enacted in FY 2011. The House bill includes $9.9 billion for Interior and $7.1 billion for EPA. For the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the bill provides $1.08 billion in funding for FY 2012, less than the $1.11 billion provided in FY 2011. The House bill provides approximately $919.22 million for BLM. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) would receive $1.47 billion for FY 2012, less than the $1.5 billion allocated in FY 2011. The House bill provides $1.1 billion for FWS. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) would be funded at $1.06 billion for FY 2012, less than the $1.08 billion in funding it received in FY 2011. The House bill includes $1.05 billion for USGS. For the U.S. Forest Service, the bill includes $4.56 billion for FY 2012, less than the $4.69 billion allocated in FY 2012. The House bill provides $4.5 billion for the Forest Service. Click here for additional information on the Senate Interior bill or view the House Interior bill here. ENDANGERED SPECIES: JUDGE THROWS OUT INTERIOR RULE LIMITING POLAR BEAR PROTECTIONS On Oct. 17, a federal judge struck down a George W. Bush administration rule that barred the use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gasses. The ruling concerned a rule issued by the U.S. Department of Interior in 2008 that said the polar bear’s designation as threatened in 2008 could not be used as a backdoor way to control greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The rule was subsequently upheld by the Obama administration. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to carry out an environmental review to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But, importantly, he upheld FWS’s decision that the Endangered Species Act was not the appropriate vehicle to regulate greenhouse gases. The Center for Biological Diversity,...

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Agency scientific data pivotal in hurricane monitoring efforts

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst When a hurricane strikes, United States federal agency scientists and engineers are among the first on the scene. Such was the case recently, when Hurricane Irene made its way through the East Coast of the United States. For most residents of the Washington, DC region, the impact was little different than that of a severe thunderstorm. Patios and parking lots were scattered with branches and leaves. A few less sturdy trees fell, all from the pressure of the heavy winds. Hundreds of thousands were left without power in the DC area as were millions more along the east coast. The first pre-emptive warning signs of a hurricane are detected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service’s hydrology program, which monitors water levels in our nation’s waterways and issues forecasts and warnings to alert surrounding communities of incoming natural disasters. A major component of the hydrology program is a network of 13 River Forecast Centers around the country. These centers provide hydrologic information to meteorologists, policy-makers and water resource managers to inform response efforts in their local communities. These disaster response efforts are coordinated at the federal level by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In advance of Hurricane Irene, United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists deployed sensors along the eastern seaboard to detect “storm surges,” increases in ocean water levels generated at sea by extreme storms that can have devastating coastal impacts. In total, over 260 emergency sensors that measure storm surge were installed in critical areas from North Carolina to Maine. The data that the sensors produce will help define the depth and duration of overland storm-surge, as well as the time of its arrival and retreat. The storm surge sensors were installed on bridges, piers and other structures likely to weather the impact of a hurricane. Data collected by the sensors will ultimately be used to assess storm damage from winds and flooding, develop better land use and building codes, improve computer modeling used to forecast floods as well as improve public safety protocols. USGS scientists are also assessing landslide potential for areas where Hurricane Irene dumped significant rain. While much media attention focuses on impacts to coastal areas, inland flooding from rivers and streams has taken a major toll, particularly in parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey. According to NOAA, more than 60 percent of U.S. hurricane deaths from 1970-1999 occurred inland, with more than half of tropical hurricane deaths related to freshwater flooding. Information on flood management activities within USGS can be found in a recent EcoTone post. The...

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How federal investment in flood management can save money

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Is your neighborhood capable of weathering a flood? Would you still be able to drink tap water after such an event? Are the levees, dams, bridges and storm drains in your town capable of coping with a potential flood? The United States Geological Survey (USGS)–at least for the time being– has the federal resources, investment and capability to answer these questions for our nation’s communities. On April 15, USGS sponsored a briefing entitled “2011 – The Year of the Flood?”  This briefing highlighted the many flood management benefits of the USGS streamgaging program. The speakers—including Brian McCallum, Assistant Director of the USGS Georgia Water Science Center, Tom Graziano, Chief  Hydrologic Services Division of the NOAA National Weather Service, and Brian Hurt, a former City Engineer in Findlay, Ohio—discussed the many benefits of maintaining up-to-date information on surface water data. The USGS operates and maintains a nationwide streamgaging network of about 7,000 gages. The network is supported by funding through the USGS’s Cooperative Water Program, the USGS National Streamflow Information Program, other federal environmental agencies and roughly 800 state and local funding partners. Its users include a multitude of local, state and federal agencies, industry, educational institutions, non-governmental organizations and even individual citizens. The economic benefits and cost savings of adequate federal investment in streamgaging technologies is substantial.  A study from the National Hydrologic Warning Council estimated the value of hydrologic forecasts at $1.6 billion annually, and that report attributed $1.02 billion in savings to successful forecasting for reservoir operation. If three to five percent of this total is attributed to the gage network that provides that necessary data for forecasting, the benefit is $30-$50 million annually. The Army Corps of Engineers presents an annual report to Congress, with detailed information on flood damages prevented by Corps projects. The average annual flood damage prevented by Corps projects between 1983-2002 is $23.2 billion. Nearly 20,000 communities across the nation participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, which is designed to provide an alternative to disaster assistance to reduce the costs of repairing infrastructural damage caused by floods. During Friday’s briefing, Brian Hurt pointed out that methods that allow earlier flood warnings to residents allows them to preemptively secure valuables and consequently allow savings of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the National Flood Insurance Program. Concurrently, the National Weather Service (NWS) uses USGS streamgaging data in its flood warning program. The data reported from the NWS flood warning program provides critical lead-time ahead of impending natural disasters for emergency response agencies, and consequently citizens, to take pre-emptive measures for minimizing the...

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ESA Policy News: March 11

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: COMMITTEE MEMBERS, SCIENTISTS DISCUSS CLIMATE CHANGE, EPA REGS The House Energy and Commerce Energy and Power Subcommittee met Tuesday, March 8, 2011 to examine climate science. The hearing served as a precursor to the mark-up of H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act, a bill to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) asserted that the overall issue is not whether or not one considers climate change to be a serious problem, but whether EPA’s regulatory efforts present a wise solution. Whitfield maintained that the Upton bill was not a response to climate science, but a way to eliminate an unsound strategy for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. “One need not be a skeptic of global warming to be a skeptic of EPA’s regulatory agenda,” he said. Full committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) was quick to note that the hearing focus on climate science was at the insistence of committee Democrats. Waxman asserted the Upton bill would remove the administration’s main tools to address one of the most critical problems facing the world today. “If my doctor told me I had cancer, I wouldn’t scour the country to find someone to tell me that I don’t need to worry about it,” Waxman said. Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Rush (D-IL) said that 95 percent of scientists and scientific organizations worldwide have reached a consensus that man-made greenhouse gases are substantially contributing to climate change. Rush highlighted what he viewed as the many benefits of mitigating climate change, including “energy independence, sustainability, cleaner air and water, and a healthier populace.” While the witnesses included several scientists who supported the consensus view that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are a central driver of the adverse impacts of climate change, two of the witnesses, Dr. John Cristy of the University of Alabama and Dr. Donald Roberts of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, were ardent climate skeptics. APPROPRIATIONS: SENATE REJECTS PARTISAN LONG-TERM SPENDING PROPOSALS On March 9, the Senate rejected two continuing resolutions (CRs) to fund the government through Sept. 30, 2011, the end of the current fiscal year. H.R. 1, the House-passed CR, which would cut $61 billion in funding from FY 2010, failed by a vote of 44-56 with no support from Democrats. Additionally, three members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus voted against the bill: Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT). Senate Democrats put forward an amendment in the nature of a substitute...

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TNT and plants: shrubs as toxin detectors

Photo courtesy of Julie Naumann. If you’ve been to many national forests, chances are you’ve seen signs like the one to the left: walk on this field and a land mine might explode. In her talk this morning at the ESA Annual Meting, Julie Naumann of the U.S. Army Corps of engineers explained that even if they don’t explode, these buried capsules of TNT and other explosives are bad news for plants. Land mine capsules aren’t made to withstand weathering, and as a result, TNT powder can leach out of buried mines and into the soil. Naumann wanted to know what effects this leaching had on plant physiology. She raised individuals of common wax myrtle, a shrub that grows freely on land mine fields in coastal Virginia, and exposed their soil to a range of TNT concentrations. Not surprisingly, the plants showed significant signs of stress, including closing of stomates – tiny holes that act like plant nostrils — and reduced photosynthesis. The stressed-out plants didn’t just keel over and die, though.  All of the plants except for the ones exposed to the highest TNT concentration recovered their stomatal conductance, or the passage of gases and water through the plants’ stomates. “A lot of the TNT is stored in the plants’ leaves,” said Naumann. “There, it’s metabolized into less toxic compounds.” So, if the plants can suck up toxins in the soil, get sick for awhile, but then recover, could we use them as toxin filters in areas where soils are contaminated – in scientific terms, phytoremediation?  In this case, Naumann doesn’t think so. She points out that you can’t just walk out onto a mine field to plant and water vegetation, and that doing so repeatedly by helicopter would be prohibitively expensive. But she does think that the plants could be good indicators of other toxins. “Plants could be a useful tool for detecting anthropogenic stresses in soil,” she...

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