are recognizing the power of nature to protect people, roads, and buildings from the harmful effects of flooding.
Communities across New York are recognizing the power of nature to protect people, roads, and buildings from the harmful effects of flooding. © Mat Levine / TNC


Southern Tier Communities Get Flood Smart

Nine municipalities along the Cohocton River proactively prepare for flooding

As communities across New York cope with challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis, many are recognizing the importance of communication and coordination across municipalities. These strategies are also critical to being prepared for another challenge facing many parts of the state: flooding. 

The Nature Conservancy uses the power of nature to fight climate change, prevent flooding, and help ensure that people and nature can thrive long into the future. Flooding is one of the most costly and common of disasters in the nation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2019 was the second wettest year on record in the U.S., with historic flooding fueled by warmer weather. In Steuben County, flash flooding is a major problem, with an estimated $1.1 million in damage to public property in the last five years alone

But nine communities situated along the Cohocton River are on the path to greater safety in the face of increased flooding thanks in part to the Flood Smart Communities initiative led by The Nature Conservancy, the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board, Steuben County and the University at Buffalo. The project was made possible through grants from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund, Corning Incorporated Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes. 

“Through this process we developed a shared plan that allows neighboring communities to tackle local flooding problems together,” said Tim Marshall, Director of Steuben County Emergency Services. 

Following a two-year effort to develop a Flood Smart approach for Cohocton River communities, the team has released the Cohocton River Flood Smart Action Plan, a tool and network that allows communities to best utilize their limited resources to protect people, roads, and buildings. 

Their goal was to reduce each community’s vulnerability to flooding by making sure municipalities have emergency response plans and can share equipment and resources as needed; identify areas that can be safely developed and those that cannot; and educating municipal officials, residents and business owners on the ways they can increase community safety from the growing threats of climate change.

Through a series of meetings and workshops, town officials, emergency personnel and land use managers identified local areas that flood, the places that are at risk, and community resources vital to preventing and responding to floods. Together, the towns 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. 

The plan includes a guidebook with a community profile for each municipality and a toolkit of resources.  It also includes an online map that helps municipalities identify vulnerable areas.  These data will help code enforcement officers and planning boards make key decisions around everything from zoning to land protection.

“This project allowed us to customize outreach materials and training to the issues and needs of the Cohocton River communities, setting us up for a more secure future,” said Janet Thigpen, flood mitigation specialist with the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board.

Ron Smith, supervisor for the Town of Bath, added: “The Flood Smart process got us thinking together about ways to solve shared challenges. It helps rural communities strengthen their local capacity and learn from each other.”

This spring and summer, towns will implement the plan and begin using its products in their decision making.  In addition, The Nature Conservancy will work with Steuben County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Town of Cohocton to upgrade two culverts (underground openings that allow water to flow) that are currently too small, impeding the movement of fish and causing flooding on the local road, with grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“When it comes to flooding, the role that nature can play in reducing risk is often overlooked,” said Stevie Adams, freshwater specialist with The Nature Conservancy. “As we anticipate a future with a lot more water, one of the best ways to prepare is by protecting and restoring natural areas. Connecting people is also essential. Communities can’t reduce their vulnerability without working together.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.