With a sense of horror, the nation is watching waters rise in southeastern Texas as now-Tropical Storm Harvey spins across the Gulf Coast. While no individual storm can be attributed to climate change, scientists predict more intense storms, and the wisdom of preparing for future floods has never been clearer. And yet, less than two weeks ago, President Trump issued an executive order that rolled back a federal flood standard designed to anticipate intense flooding. Instead of investing in infrastructure to prepare for flood risks, the executive order jeopardizes future infrastructure.
One prong of President Trump's executive order "streamlining" federally-funded infrastructure reverses an Obama-era order that had wisely required federal agencies to take potential flooding into account when funding projects. Under Obama's Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, jointly developed by many federal agencies with input from a wide range of state and other stakeholders, federal agencies were to define floodplains and associated flood risks in light of the increased risks posed by climate change. Agencies could define floodplains based on the use of "climate-informed science" or could default to a couple of alternatives: They could assume the floodplain would be a couple of feet higher, or they could define the floodplain by the area impacted by a once-in-500 years flood.
Meanwhile, as President Trump is reversing Obama's climate-sensitive flood standard, the nation's scientists are revealing that the flooding in Texas is not an anomalous event. Due out in final form in 2018, the draft Fourth National Climate Assessment, prepared by scientists throughout the federal government and many additional experts, makes clear that coastal floodplains will expand with rising seas and that, in some regions of the country, increased precipitation and more intense storms will lead to higher inland flood levels.
The Assessment illustrates the risks to infrastructure:
Many cities depend on infrastructure, like water and sewage systems, roads, bridges, and power plants, that is aging and in need of repair or replacement. Rising sea levels, storm surges, … and extreme weather events will compound these issues, stressing or even overwhelming these essential services.
Sea level rise is particularly ominous. In discussing risks in the transportation sector, the Fourth Climate Assessment notes:
Sea level rise, coupled with storm surge, will continue to increase the risk of major coastal impacts on transportation infrastructure, including both temporary and permanent flooding of airports, ports and harbors, roads, rail lines, tunnels, and bridges.
The draft assessment goes on to state that responding to these severe climate change impacts "will likely require major expenditures and structural changes, especially in urban areas" and that local governments will need the federal government's help to adapt. So, just as federal scientists are predicting significantly increased flooding risks, Trump is instructing federal agencies to ignore those risks.
The president's approach is all the more frustrating because the infrastructure investments he has long trumpeted could be used to make the country more resilient. Our infrastructure needs investment badly, particularly in areas at risk of flooding, erosion, and other climate impacts. Here in the San Francisco Bay area, highways, railroad lines, airports, ports, sewage treatment plants, city streets, and high-rises all cling to the Bay, ready to be engulfed by rising water levels. The California Delta, which supplies water to much of the state – water that nurtures the nation's fruit basket – is protected by century-old earthen levees facing the twin risks of sea level rise and earthquakes.
Nationally, railroad lines and roads are often nestled by rivers, rivers that are likely to flood more often as precipitation increases in volume and intensity. Parts of the Eastern Seaboard are still recovering from Superstorm Sandy nearly five years after it struck, and the implications of higher seas and more intense storms for much of the region's infrastructure are deeply troubling. And nothing makes the Gulf Coast's vulnerability more evident than the current deluge in Texas.
As usual, those with the fewest resources will suffer the most. National news stories featured mobile home residents in Rockport who "toughed out the storm" because they didn't have the money to go elsewhere. When roads fail or public hospitals are inaccessible, the ability to cope – to find other options or opportunities – is correlated with income. Low-income households have fewer resources to both prepare for and respond to disasters. And some vulnerable populations – like the elderly – are likely to have a particularly difficult time adjusting to disruptions caused by failures in critical infrastructure.
But instead of galvanizing federal resources to reinforce and build the infrastructure we need for a more resilient America, Trump's reversal of the federal flood standard could end up undermining resiliency. It creates a missed opportunity, it could waste taxpayer dollars as new infrastructure proves inadequate in the face of increasing threats, and it could jeopardize the well-being of all who rely on well-functioning infrastructure for their homes, their jobs, and their communities.
The president's desire to "streamline" federal investments in necessary infrastructure may be understandable in theory, but the wisdom of streamlining depends upon what is being jettisoned. Careful analyses of future risks are critical to the sustainability of federal and federally funded infrastructure, and smart planning and environmental protections should not fall by the wayside as we reinvest in the nation's built environment.
Short of repealing the executive order, what can be done? Even if no longer required to consider future flood risks, federal agencies, as stewards of the public's trust and resources, do have some discretionary authority. In carrying out their environmental review responsibilities, they may still be able to use their discretion to engage in careful analysis of potential future impacts, including potential climate impacts. That analysis should allow them to develop and propose flood-resistant alternatives and could guide infrastructure funding decisions. And states and local governments continue to be important players in infrastructure development.
While no degree of preparation can guarantee safety against a hurricane like Harvey, future infrastructure investments should nonetheless enhance, not jeopardize, climate resilience.
An earlier version of this blog post appeared on CPRBlog on August 24, 2017.