Debate over taming water, or liberating it, rises with flood levels
Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Flood walls strained and buckled time and again last summer as extraordinary amounts of water washed across yawning Midwestern river basins. One stretch of square farm fields near Percival, Iowa, saw two inundations after separate breaks occurred in the miles-long levee built to keep the Missouri River on course.
The muddy water gouged a gash in the Iowa wall on June 30, and within hours turned miles of farmland into a submerged alluvial plain. Floodwaters poured through Percival, a small rectangle of homes and businesses encased by fields, after record rainfall forced water engineers at six major dams hundreds of miles upriver to unleash huge torrents of water in a downhill race to the Gulf of Mexico.
On its way south, the water touched hundreds of man-made structures. Big dams, fingerlike wing dikes and U-shaped chevrons hold, deflect and "train" the coursing water. Some of the rocky configurations have been used since before the Civil War.
Now, months after the nation's levees suffered damages priced around $2 billion, budget restraints and political maneuvering threaten to delay new rules that many view as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the federal focus from building concrete infrastructure to lighter-touch initiatives that absorb, not steer, water.
Such changes would be a shift away from trying to control mighty rivers to policies that seek instead to provide them with space to soak, flow and flood. And it could help prepare the nation for an uncertain future with rising temperatures that threaten to increase both flooding and drought, advocates say.
The all-important "principles and guidelines" that help four federal agencies determine which water project proposals to build or scrap were last updated in 1983. Under the guidelines, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies are not required to consider the potential impacts from climate change, like heavier downpours, when approving water projects meant to last decades.
Many flood experts are concerned that the outdated guidance, or an ineffective replacement, could prolong the nation's fixation on building big, expensive structures that could be overtopped in the future, or worse, could exacerbate flooding associated with climate change.
"These hard armoring structural devices become the project that gets built, and not always in the best interest of the nation," said Sam Riley Medlock, policy counsel at the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
Dollars flow from old rules
Current guidelines prioritize economic development as the key goal of multibillion-dollar infrastructure investments. So projects that, say, increase barge traffic or sell more water are approved over those that reduce flooding by remediating wetlands lost to development, supporters say.
Sometimes that seems to flout scientific warnings about climate change. For example, a project that is justified based on the sale of water to homes and businesses creates an incentive to use as much water as possible, according to one expert. But water supplies, especially in the West, could diminish as temperatures rise. Pumping, heating and treating water also use a large amount of electricity, resulting in greenhouse gases.
A report conducted for the Congressional Research Service in 2009 describes economic development as the guidelines' "primary objective," while environmental considerations are a "secondary constraint, rather than [having] co-equal status."
Congress required in 2007 that new guidelines be developed. Five years later, they're still being worked on, following a draft release in 2009 that was criticized by the National Academy of Sciences for lacking "clarity and consistency."
Environmental groups were some of the biggest opponents of the draft language, which warned that new projects should be considered in the context of extreme climate events. While environmentalists favored that portion of the draft, many also felt that the proposal continued to emphasize built infrastructure over "nonstructural" flood solutions.
The National Wildlife Federation fears that the draft fails to demand that agencies give more weight to environmental criteria when considering future projects like the Yazoo pumping plant. The $220 million project was designed to drain at least 67,000 acres of low-lying farm fields in Mississippi's Yazoo River Valley during periods of flooding -- even as other agencies are trying to re-establish the area's natural ability to hold floodwater.
Critics say the Yazoo project vividly portrays the pressure that agencies feel under the 1983 guidelines to stimulate economic returns. About 80 percent of the project's benefits came from expanded agriculture, at the price of reduced wetlands for migrating birds and a diminished flood control at a time when precipitation is rising, according to the NWF.
The project was vetoed by U.S. EPA under the George W. Bush administration. The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service also opposed the plan, saying it relies on "flood control and drainage policies of the past."
The White House Council on Environmental Quality went back to the drawing board after the criticism of its draft guidelines in 2009. CEQ is preparing to release its newest version in 2012, but Congress is trying to slow down its adoption by the corps.
The omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2012 that lawmakers approved before leaving for the holidays includes a paragraph barring the use of funds to implement the new standards, because they represent a "new start" program at a time of fiscal cutbacks.
"What it comes down to, it's a new start and we don't fund new starts in the bill," said a senior aide to
House Republicans on the Appropriations Committee.
Agencies to consider changing precipitation
The language barring the guidelines was inserted into the conference report as lawmakers from both chambers were finalizing the legislation. A senior lawmaker on the House committee indicated that it was the result of a lawmaker's opposition to the guidelines.
It's unclear who offered the language, but several legislators have encouraged the corps to disband environmental reclamation projects until levees damaged in last summer's flooding are repaired.
"If a single dollar is spent on habitat reclamation or restoration, that would be a colossal mismanagement of funds," Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said last month in a hearing that criticized the corps' management of upriver dams before and during the flooding.
CEQ's newest draft guidelines, yet to be seen, seek to balance future water projects' economic benefits with the rising value of natural areas, according to a CEQ spokesperson. The draft principles and guidelines, or P&G, also advise all federal agencies, not just the four that adhered to the 1983 standards, to use the "best available science" related to climate change.
"The draft P&G directs the use of historical records and climate modeling, including consideration of increased variability in patterns of precipitation and water availability, as well as changes in aquatic systems and sea level," the spokesperson said.
Several water experts interviewed for this story were not overly concerned about the funding delay that prevents the corps from implementing the standards this year. They noted that the language won't stop CEQ from developing the new guidelines, which might, potentially, be ready for use in 2013.
"It's kind of this once-in-generation opportunity," said Melissa Samet, senior water resources counsel with the National Wildlife Federation. "If [CEQ] really seize this opportunity and say we are going to change
our approach to water resources management, they could make a tremendous contribution to the health of the environment, public safety, and to increasing resiliency to climate change induced impacts. There's no question about it."
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net. 202-628-6500
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