By Tim Palmer, author of Seek Higher Ground: The Natural Solution to Our Urgent Flooding Crisis

As the water rose during the most damaging flood in American history up to that time, I happened to be living at ground-zero of the storm. My house was narrowly spared, but neighbors suffered deeply. Stranded in an Appalachian valley of northcentral Pennsylvania, I helped in the emergency response. As soon as the water subsided enough for local roads to open, I returned to my job as county planner. I faced the challenging task of figuring out what should be done differently to not just recover from the current disaster but also to avoid the next one. In the aftermath I saw how dams had failed to contain the flood crest, how levees had ruptured when we needed them the most, and how post-flood relief was costly, inadequate, and useless in coping with the floods of the future. There had to be a better way.

After fifty years of engagement in flooding, and after writing many books about rivers and river conservation, I found that the floods of the future are going to be higher, more intense, and longer lasting. Our flood control efforts are failing and we need solutions that can truly curb the damage and also benefit rivers and the vital life they contain. My new book, Seek Higher Ground is a story of how we develop our landscape, of river health and well-being, and of the warming climate that poses ominous forecasts for increased flooding.

High-water problems have periodically floated to the top of public agendas ever since the Flood Control Act of 1936, which unleashed a fifty-year frenzy of dam building on virtually every major river in America. Seeing the futility of relying solely on dams and levees, Congress in 1973 bolstered a latent national flood insurance program with incentives for local governments to qualify their residents for subsidized flood insurance provided the communities also zone lowlands to limit new development in hazardous areas. Yet, by having taxpayers shoulder the risks of flooding, the insurance subsidy ironically provides the incentive to build and linger in the danger zone. The entire program has become a vivid illustration of the law of unintended consequences.

Our flood control efforts are failing and we need solutions that can truly curb the damage and also benefit rivers and the vital life they contain.

Tim Palmer

Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent building dams to stop floods from occurring, constructing levees to keep floods away from homes, and insuring and subsidizing people to rebuild in the aftermath. But relatively little has been spent to protect floodplains as open space, and comparatively little has been invested to help people relocate away from deadly hazards. Analyzing the numbers, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that every $1.70 our government spends helping people move away from flood hazards has been matched with $100 helping people stay in the danger zone by paying for relief, rebuilding, and subsidized insurance. The Council’s Rob Moore succinctly summed this up: “A lot more is spent helping people stay in harm’s way than is being spent to help them move out of harm’s way.” For many who await the next rise of high water, getting out of the way is the only path to a better future.

The challenge to public policy here goes beyond pragmatic issues of spending, and into the realm of river conservation with goals of healthy streams in mind. Floods are necessary phenomena that shape streams with essential pools and riffles. Floods recharge groundwater that half our population depends upon for drinking supplies, that nourish riparian corridors as the most important habitats to wildlife, and that create conditions needed for fish to survive and spawn. Rivers need floods and nature needs floodplains.

Rivers need floods and nature needs floodplains.

Tim Palmer

Our approaches to flood damages have not worked, and now the floods are getting worse. High water is becoming more intense, frequent, and widespread. The US Global Change Research Program forecast that precipitation will increase up to 40 percent across much of the country. Virtually all reliable sources report that flooding will grow as the planet’s climate warms. It has to—every 1 degree rise in atmospheric temperature allows the sky to hold 4 percent more water, and it all comes back down as rain or snow.

But there is hope, and a long list of sensible approaches have succeeded in denting the armor of this problem. The metro government of Nashville has sustained a floodplain management and relocation program for decades and succeeded in halting development on high hazard floodplains while helping 400 home owners move to safer terrain. Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, sponsor similar initiatives. Lycoming County, Pennsylvania succeeded in getting all fifty-two of its local municipalities to enact floodplain zoning, and then launched a buy-out program that helps people move to drier ground. Napa, California transformed a conventional proposal for higher levees to a plan that expanded acreage dedicated to flooding and that sequestered new parklands along the river. The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership strives to protect recreational greenways along hundreds of miles of the East Coast’s largest waterway.

Rivers make the news when they flood people’s homes, but that’s the bad news. The good news is that floodplains can be protected and restored. The rise of water can be beautiful provided we’re not living in the path of the greater floods to come.