Making New York's Communities More Resilient to Flooding
Did you know? Forty percent of small businesses that close when damaged by flooding never reopen.
Flooding is a major and persistent problem in New York — and not just where you’d expect it. Nationwide, a third of flooded properties lie outside of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's official mapped floodplains. In some parts of the country this number is as high 70-90 percent. In order to help those at risk, we need to understand where and why floods most often occur and come up with solutions that are tailor-made for the people they are serving.
Flowing water does not recognize political boundaries—so municipalities should work across borders to develop solutions to flooding. That’s one of the key ideas behind The Nature Conservancy’s Flood Smart Communities program. To pilot the concept, The Nature Conservancy spent nearly three years mapping floodplains in three towns—Hilton, Greece and Parma—that regularly experience flooding, assessing where they are vulnerable, and evaluating where nature is helping out. With that information in hand, our Flood Smart team has helped demonstrate the urgency of flooding to elected officials and is working with the municipalities to help them address their priorities.
This work is already yielding results. In December 2017, the Conservancy secured a $25,000 award from New York Sea Grant to complete a conceptual design for restoring an eroding section of Salmon Creek and reconnecting it to its floodplain—a project that could divert the stream away from important resources for the community, including an apartment complex, a power line that serves half of the village, and a sewer line. Our partners, the Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council and the University of Buffalo, are also helping the communities establish floodplain protection overlay districts—a landuse planning tool that will help limit development in areas prone to flooding and protect wetlands that help absorb water during storms.
Now that our Flood Smart Communities program is up and running, The Nature Conservancy is focused on expanding the program’s reach, and is working with the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning & Development Board, Steuben County and the University of Buffalo to help towns along the Cohocton River identify the best ways to prevent flooding in their communities. At a recent workshop in Bath, nearly 50 attendees discussed everything from residents who are particularly at-risk, to facilities that can serve as emergency shelters, to roads and bridges that provide vital connections during crises, to wetlands that play a critical role in protecting communities. The group then identified four shared priorities across the entire reach of the Cohocton: improving local land-use laws; protecting public infrastructure like levees, roads, bridges and water systems; coordinating emergency response; and protecting and better managing wetlands, floodplains, and storm water.
Every community is different. That’s why the Flood Smart Communities strategy lets the needs and priorities of the people at risk dictate the solutions it creates. In Monroe County, for example, the towns involved in the initial pilot have decided to focus on protecting natural infrastructure—like wetlands and floodplains—and strengthening intermunicipal communication. In future projects, other towns may decide to employ engineered solutions like rain gardens or bio-swales.
Nature Unites Us
“The priorities and approaches are often different, but everywhere we work, our Flood Smart Communities project is showing us that when it comes to flood safety, connections are key,” Adams says. “Communities can’t reduce their vulnerability without working together, and they can’t do it without investing in nature.”