Water Resources Management is Key to Flood Prevention
Debra S. Knopman is a RAND vice president and the director of RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment, the RAND division that is home to the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute. Her research background is in hydrology, environmental and natural resources policy, systems analysis, and public administration. From 1984 to 1992, she served as a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and from 1993 to 1995, she was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior. From 1997 to 2003, she was a member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, and chaired the Board's Site Characterization Panel. Knopman holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
What is the current state of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers? Are we back to "normal?"
Flood waters are subsiding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's latest reports, but communities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers remain at some risk as levees protecting them are still subjected to the pressure of higher than normal waters. For many of the communities that have endured flooding where river and streamflows were more than double normal levels, it will be a long time before they will be feeling "normal."
Why are we seeing this serious flooding now?
Flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers has been going on for as long as those rivers have existed. Streamflows in the spring time are usually higher than the annual average levels that residents see at other times of the year, and this year particularly so. The upper Midwest endured one huge snowstorm after another last winter. The snow that accumulates over the winter melts, and with the addition of spring rains, the excess water cannot simply be absorbed by the land. The water runs off into streams and rivers. The more we restrict the flow of water through stream and river channels by building levees and other barriers to keep water from spilling into communities along the riverbank, the more prone those areas—and those further downstream—are to flooding conditions.
Are there immediate next steps that are necessary in the wake of the flooding?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and many state agencies in the Mississippi Valley did a good job of handling the May floods. I think most experts agree that we need an even greater ability to spread flood waters into floodplains upstream to avoid having Louisiana, as the state furthest downstream at the mouth of the river, bear the brunt of all the excess (and expected) spring flows. That means working with communities all along the river to "give back to the river" some of the land that is clearly in the flood plain and that has been used for development. Strengthening flood insurance requirements for property in floodplains is another important mechanism.
What makes water resources management particularly challenging in the Gulf States?
While Alabama and Mississippi face both river flooding and flooding from storm surges from the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana has historically borne the brunt of the double threat of coastal and river flooding. After the 1927 floods, Congress gave the Corps of Engineers the authority to manage the Mississippi River as a system. Because Louisiana is at the mouth of the river, it must live with decisions made by the upstream states on how to manage river flows. It is always easier to send the water downstream than to deal with it in one's own backyard. At the same time, as Louisiana's coastal wetlands have been rapidly diminishing over the last several decades, coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding as well.
How serious is coastal wetland erosion in Louisiana?
About 1.2 million acres of Louisiana's coastal wetlands have been lost to the sea since 1932. Without changes in how our water and coastal resources are managed, by 2100, New Orleans may essentially be sitting on a peninsula, with the Gulf of Mexico just to its south and Lake Ponchartrain to its north.
What are the consequences of this land loss?
The wetlands are the first line of defense for New Orleans and other metropolitan areas from hurricane-induced flood surges; thus, wetland loss will increase flood risk, which affects not only residential and commercial properties but also navigation and energy infrastructure and important commercial fisheries and ecosystems.
Have the recent floods taught us anything new about managing water resources?
We seem to learn the same lessons each time a new flooding disaster strikes: manage the river as a whole system, not individual segments; give the floodwaters someplace to go other than downstream to the next state; accept the fact that floodplains are called floodplains for a reason.
What is the long-term plan for water resources management in the Gulf States?
The State of Louisiana is developing the Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast for submission to its legislature in 2012. This is an extensive and thorough planning process that is looking at the many variables and uncertainties that factor into choices the state and Federal government will be making over the coming decades to reduce risks from flooding, improve ecological conditions, and protect the economic assets in the region that play a vital role in our national economy. At the regional level, the governors of the Gulf States have organized themselves to think about regional water management, and at the Federal level, an interagency group is considering these issues as well. There is no one plan and there is not, as yet, a consensus on what a long-term strategy should look like.
How has RAND been helping?
RAND has developed computer-based approaches to help decisionmakers consider actions to improve the long-term management of water in light of the many uncertainties that may affect implementation plans. We describe these approaches as "decision support tools" for "robust decisionmaking," which means that we try to help decisionmakers and stakeholders understand how to develop strategies that are likely to do well under a wide range of possible future conditions regardless of changing policies, economic circumstances, demography, and climate change.
How is that work progressing?
RAND has shown the analytic framework in a proof-of-concept analysis, which has been briefed extensively in the region and in Washington. Along with leading academic and consulting partners, RAND is now assisting the State as part of a multimillion-dollar planning effort to update the Comprehensive Master Plan—scheduled to be finalized at the end of 2011. We expect this work to provide support for a scientifically based plan for addressing Louisiana's and the nation's needs for reducing risks along the coast and the on-going land-loss crisis.
See related documents:
Commercial Wind Insurance in the Gulf States: Developments Since Hurricane Katrina and Challenges Moving Forward
From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast from Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years
Full Document | Research Brief
The Lender-Placed Flood Insurance Market for Residential Properties
Technical Report | Research Brief
Managing New Orleans Flood Risk in an Uncertain Future Using Non-Structural Risk Mitigation
The National Flood Insurance Program's Market Penetration Rate: Estimates and Policy Implications
Technical Report | Research Brief
Residential Insurance on the U.S. Gulf Coast in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: A Framework for Evaluating Potential Reforms
Full Document | Research Brief
Storms Blow, But We Can Cut Losses