Our Most Endangered River? In the Shadow of the Capital
I was awoken today by the sound of raindrops on my windowsill. Sitting down at my desk, with the peaceful patter of water helping me to collect my thoughts and prepare for the day, I was stunned to read a report that enumerates a truth I already knew all too well.
Tuesday, American Rivers released its annual America's Most Endangered Rivers report. On the list, there are rivers under threat from natural gas development, the construction of new dams and reservoirs, mountaintop removal for coal mining and excessive water withdrawals. Looking over these threats, it is clear that what is fundamentally at risk is the quality and quantity of our freshwater—water that we can swim in, drink, and fish from—water that is there when and where we need it.
And at the top of the list this year is a river that continues to be in serious danger from pollution—a threat that is only heightened as members of Congress zealously crusade to dismantle and rollback key provisions of the Clean Water Act, the single most important piece of environmental legislation designed to protect our freshwater. The Potomac River, which flows through our nation's capital from the storied depths of our country's past, is number 1 on the list of America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2012.
In some ways, I am not surprised. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Potomac "a national disgrace" because the river was a cesspool of sewage and industrial chemicals. Yet, despite how disheartening this observation may have been, it served as a much-needed wake-up call for our country. In fact, his remark was a major catalyst—among other observations like it concerning rivers across the U.S.—for the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. And with the passage of this groundbreaking legislation, we witnessed an unprecedented resurgence of the Potomac and rivers across the country over the last few decades.
But the fight to restore our rivers clearly wasn't over. In 2010, rounding out our 17,100 mile journey across North America, I brought my Blue Legacy crew to the Potomac River to reconnect with the watershed many of us call home. Yet, the message we took back from our final expedition stop was not one of hope and optimism—but rather, a message of uncertainty and ongoing threat.
While advancements have been made to partially restore its health and preserve the integrity of its rich natural habitat, the Potomac River is still threatened on a number of fronts. In our film, Our Nation's River: A System on the Edge, we investigate the ongoing challenges the river faces, with experts including: Potomac Riverkeeper, Ed Merrifield; Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project and National Geographic Freshwater Fellow; Chuck Fox, from the EPA; and The Nature Conservancy's Stephanie Flack. From these interviews, it is clear that the river and its tributaries—and the people and communities that depend on them—are still in jeopardy, because, today, the Potomac River barely sits on the edge of recovery.
The worst part about the situation is that, in spite of what scientists and water conservationists are telling us about the delicate state of the Potomac, Congress is actively pursuing legislation that will reduce federal environmental oversight of our lakes, rivers, and streams. Outside magazine reported on some specific bills that are meant to undermine the Clean Water Act that has protected our waters for so long:
- H.R. 2018: Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011—This bill would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to preserve the authority of each State to make determinations relating to the State's water quality standards, and for other purposes. The bill, which has already passed through the House, also calls for a number of limits to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in terms of its ability to revise or introduce water quality standards for a pollutant (unless the state concurs with the EPA administrator's opinion), and also would shorten the window during which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could comment on dredge and fill permits.
- H.R. 872: The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act—This bill would amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify Congressional intent regarding the regulation of the use of pesticides in or near navigable waters, and for other purposes. The bill, which has also passed the House, would make it so parties are no longer required to seek a permit before using a pesticide, even if that pesticide could enter a waterway, as long as the pesticide is authorized for sale, distribution, or use under FIFRA.
- H.R. 4153: Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization and Improvement Act—This bill, spearheaded by Congressman Bob Goodlatte, aims to support efforts to reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But, in reality, the bill would limit what Congressman Goodlatte considers the EPA's overreaching authority by giving states, rather than the federal government, the ability to set acceptable levels of pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
So, what is there left to do? Should we throw-up our hands in the air in defeat, and let the devastation to our "nation's river" continue unabated—not to mention the hundreds of lakes, rivers and tributaries across the country which are still under threat? I am writing today to emphatically say NO! We all have a voice, and together we can make a positive difference.
Help protect America's most endangered river and rivers nationwide—tell your local government official why you care about the Potomac River, and why it is so important that the Clean Water Act is protected. But why stop there? Rivers across America need our support. All of the rivers on this list—and the hundreds that did not make it this year—represent a front line in the struggle against environmental de-regulation. Make no mistake, this water belongs to the people and the communities we live in, and we will not give up our right to protect our water without a fight. We need strong federal oversight to make sure these laws are followed.
Listening to the sound of raindrops outside my window, I am reminded of a simple, yet powerful truth. Each one of those drops has begun an incredible journey. Sliding off a leaf, it lands in a puddle on the street, and flows into the storm drain. And at the end of the pipe, it will become one with the Potomac River and eventually, as it re-enters the water cycle once again, part of each one of us. The waters of our rivers course through our veins. So, for the sake of our health, and the health of our children, it's time we did something to stop the degradation of our rivers—of the Potomac—because we never want to see our nation's river—or any of the rivers that run through our communities—on the most endangered list ever again.
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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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