Iraq is a country clearly in a state of transition. Iraqis have endured nearly 10 years of fierce fighting and civil war and, before that, decades of ruthless totalitarian rule. Now, as a tenuous peace settles over their land and a democratic society begins to emerge in what we know as the cradle of civilization, these resilient people are starting to turn their attention to the elements of their culture that have for centuries, offered not only survival, but quality of life. At the top of this list is water quality and quantity, which for millennia has nurtured the land where agriculture and modern civilization were born. Conflict, neglect and other problems have led to a critical shortage of clean water in Iraq.
Devoted members of the first Waterkeeper in the Middle East, the Iraqi Upper Tigris Waterkeeper, have been working closely with the Iraq Ministry of Environment to update and improve their laws, and with “environmental police” to aid in the enforcement of said laws. The central legal framework supporting water quality in Iraq focuses on preventing the dumping of waste and wastewater into common waterways. The framework uses regulatory mechanisms such as water quality standards, discharge permits, mandatory waste treatment and compulsory utilization of best available technologies very similar to those that emerged from the passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972 here in the U.S.
The CWA has helped protect the waterways of the U.S. since 1972, just shy of four decades. However, while the Iraqis look to our system of environmental protection as a shining example to emulate, members of our own government are doing the bidding of corporate polluters and trying to cripple core provisions of the CWA.
One example is the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act, also known as H.R. 2018, which has passed the House of Representatives and is now pending before the Senate. This legislation proposes to gut the CWA, jeopardizing the environmental health of waterways across the country and the communities that rely upon them. Should it become law, the bill will undermine National Water Quality Standards by—among other limitations—restricting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to revise existing water quality standards or promulgate new ones, unless the state in question concurs. Under this proposed legislation, the U.S. EPA will be prohibited from rejecting a water quality certification granted by a state. Additionally, the bill would prohibit the U.S. EPA from objecting to a state's issuance of a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit that it believes does not comply with Water Quality Standards.
Thus, if Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act becomes law, American citizens will be at the mercy of their state representatives in matters of clean water, without any federal oversight. If, or more accurately when, those officials should become influenced by corporate polluters and engage in a race-to-the-bottom, the affected residents, both in that state and in any downstream states, will have none of the protections granted by the federal government, as the U.S. EPA will have little recourse in the face of errant state lawmakers’ decisions. The CWA’s balance of state and federal oversight has helped clean up waterways for almost four decades—clearly, the only reason to dismantle the law is corporate greed. The nominal costs of keeping our water clean for swimming, drinking and fishing get in the way of stuffing a few more bills into a fat cat’s pocket.
Additionally, as we speak, there are ongoing efforts in the U.S. Senate to utilize the appropriations process to insert “riders”—a backdoor method of advancing legislation without process—to further weaken the Clean Water Act only to benefit polluters. It is truly disheartening to think that the Clean Water Act, landmark legislation that began almost 40 years ago and cleaned up the waters of the Hudson and Cuyahoga Rivers, and countless others, is now under the threat of being made obsolete by those in Congress whose duty it is to protect the citizens of this country. Perhaps we can re-learn the value of our own ideals as we watch the Iraqis begin to follow in our once sure-footed steps. Clean water should be the right of every citizen. We as a nation must stand up and demand our rights.
Take action by clicking here and asking your Senators to stand up for your basic right to swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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