ENR.com correspondent Steven W. Setzer spoke to Gerald Galloway, Jr., professor of engineering at the University of Maryland's school of engineering, where he teaches and performs research. Galloway led the 1994 White House Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee, and he says preventing more floods requires cooperative effort between local and federal government and a comprehensive approach that includes individuals taking responsibility for the risks of living in a floodplain.
We just experienced historic flooding in the Midwest. What are your thoughts?
Major, yes. Historic, maybe not. As NOAA announced two weeks ago, there is every indication that intense rainfall events and flooding are going to increase under climate change. What is bad already may get worse in the future.
It is important for those who live near rivers to recognize the threat that they face and understand what their role is in dealing with floods.
Tell us a little more about what we learned from the 1993 floods.
We found that the division of responsibilities for floodplain management among federal, state, tribal and local governments was badly diffused and many needed actions fell through the cracks. Attention to floodplain management varied widely among and within federal, state, tribal and local governments.
We also found that we did not have a handle on where levees were in the Midwest, who owned them and what condition they were in. In 2006, a FEMA report indicated that the same problems still exist — and they continue to exist today.
We also found that many of those who were at risk did not fully understand the nature and the potential consequences of that risk; nor were they sharing fully in the fiscal implications of bearing that risk. These conditions still exist today.
After the 1993 floods, the City of Des Moines spent about $50 million in local funds and another $20 million in assorted federal funds to protect from future floods. They came out of the recent flooding relatively unscathed. Meanwhile Cedar Rapids experienced heavy flooding, with property damages expected to top $700 million. What does the Des Moines experience tell us about the future of levee protection?
Unfortunately many state and local governments see the challenge of dealing with these older structures as one for the federal government and plan to wait until the federal government comes up with the funding to support this.
Levee repairs in Des Moines, where the problem was recognized and dealt with, represents responsible action on the part of city officials to protect their citizens. The same thing can be said for the state of California where a $5 billion bond issue was passed to provide support for repairs of the badly damaged levees in the Central Valley.
What's needed to fix our national flood protection program, if that's possible?
This country lacks a national policy on floods and water resources in general. We need to get the different levels of government together to develop the policies and agree on the responsibilities. Too often states and local governments wait for the federal government to act on flood issues when in reality the process should be bottom up.
I�m impressed that some states and communities have taken it on their own to deal with the challenges they face by providing comprehensive protection for those who are already at risk in the floodplain and controlling future development so as not to add to flood problems. The comprehensive approach means matching any structural protection with non-structural activities including flood insurance, education, flood-proofing, and evacuation planning. These are measures that buy down the risk that exists in the floodplain
You recently testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. What did you tell them?
It doesn't make sense to build — or re-build a levee somewhere if it's going to cause problems upstream or downstream.
Watershed planning requires you to not only consider flood control, but also navigation, hydropower, ecosystem protection, water quality, water supply as you assess how all of the uses of water in a basin interact.
What is the bottom line?
Always waiting for someone else to act is guaranteeing disaster.