An aerial view of a California river and agricultural fields.
NATURAL SOLUTIONS - Restoring estuaries can reduce flood risks. © Kiliii Yuyan

Climate Change Stories

Nature’s Potential to Help Reduce Flood Risks

Flooding is the most costly and common natural disaster in the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the cumulative cost of the 16 separate billion-dollar weather events in the U.S. in 2017 was $306.2 billion, breaking the previous record of $214.8 billion in 2005. The state of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is supported by taxpayers and is more than $20 billion in debt, exemplifies the flaws of our past and current, status-quo approaches that rely too heavily on manmade infrastructure, like dams, levees, seawalls and breakwaters, which also produce unintended, negative consequences for the environment and the benefits it provides.

It’s time to rethink the way we plan and prepare for flooding.

Director of TNC’s North America Climate Adaptation Strategy

“It’s time to rethink the way we plan and prepare for flooding,” says Anna Brown director of The Nature Conservancy’s Climate Adaptation Strategy. "Too often the role that nature can play in reducing flood risks is overlooked or undervalued. Nature-based solutions—such as reconnecting floodplains to give rivers more room during floods or restoring reefs, marshes or dunes that can protect coastal communities during storms—can also help improve water quality, provide prime wildlife habitat, enhance recreational opportunities, and produce related economic and social benefits.”

View of a flooded street with sandbags by buildings in Peoria, Illinois.
FLOOD PRONE Once the most productive inland river fishery in the US, the Illinois River, which flows past Peoria (above), is now among the most developed and prone to flood risks. © Jay Harrod / TNC

Reconnecting Our Rivers

  • Flooding has been particularly devastating in 2019, with major, and in many cases historic, floods wreaking havoc in the Mississippi River Valley—from Minnesota to Louisiana and from South Dakota to Ohio—as well as in California, North Carolina and along other rivers in the US.
  • Unfortunately, flood damages along rivers is worsening, as many of the nation’s most costly floods have occurred over the past 10 years, according to Floodlist.com

A River with More Room Demonstrates Its Value

In January 2009, Washington was drenched by a storm that also melted the winter snowpack, causing rivers west of the Cascades to flood. In and near the town of Orting, 26,000 residents were ordered to evacuate before the Puyallup River topped its levees. It was one of the largest urban evacuations in the state’s history.

Orting is located in Pierce County, which runs from the 14,410-foot peak of Mount Rainier to Puget Sound, representing one of the greatest elevation changes of any county in the nation. Its levee system, which constricted the river into a straightened channel, had been battered by floods since the 1990s, and the county could not repair the levees as quickly as they were being damaged.

After the 2009 flood, a partnership between the Conservancy and the State of Washington made drastic changes in the basin. “We got the flood control folks, who historically relied on grey, engineered infrastructure, together with the conservation folks, who relied on protecting and restoring green infrastructure, to work together to build sustainable hybrid solutions,” says Bob Carey, director of the Conservancy’s Floodplains by Design program.

The partnership helped residents move out of harm’s way by buying properties that were inside the floodplain. New levees were rebuilt farther back than the old ones, on average tripling the width of the floodplain. The results were impressive. In 2014 the river flowed at almost the same rate as the devastating 2009 flood, but with the setback levees, the town stayed dry. In addition to improving flood protection, the project restored natural habitat that promotes salmon recovery and helps generate tourism revenue.

Other examples where the Conservancy has worked with partners to demonstrate the benefits of giving rivers more room include the Mollicy Farms Unit of the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana and the Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve in Illinois. 

The Value of Nature-Based Solutions along Our Rivers

Scientific research has shown that a one-acre wetland can hold about three acre-feet of water (or 1 million gallons) during flood events, which is then released after the rains subside.

According to one assessment, the dollar value of wetlands worldwide was estimated to be $14.9 trillion. (Source: Costanza et al. 1997)

Coastal Restoration and Superstorm Sandy When Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, many areas in New York and New Jersey experienced extensive damage. However, beach replenishment and dune and wetland restoration at TNC's South Cape May Meadows Preserve in N.J. helped protect homes from storm surges and flooding.

Restoring Our Coasts

  • The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, on average, hurricanes cause $28 billion in damage each year.
  • Unfortunately, Americans continue to move into harm’s way. Since 1970, 35 million more people have moved to high-risk areas along our coasts, potentially placing themselves in the direct path of devastating storm surges. (Source.)

Nature-Based Solutions Stand Strong Against Superstorm Sandy

When Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic Coast in 2012, it inflicted nearly $70 billion in damage, making it was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history until surpassed by Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017. Sandy hit New Jersey particularly hard. But while some homes in the New Jersey town of Cape May were damaged, the community fared much better than its nearby neighbors.

“The area around Cape May in particular fared very well,” said Adrianna Zito-Livingston, the Conservancy’s coastal projects coordinator in New Jersey. “We contribute that to The Nature Conservancy’s restoration work here.”

After decades of deterioration, the Conservancy restored in 2007 the South Cape May Meadows Preserve, which sits between the ocean and dozens of homes.

“There had been a lot of dune restoration and beach re-nourishment,” Zito-Livingston said. “So the beach was wide enough, the dunes tall enough, and the freshwater wetlands held enough water that we didn’t see a lot of coastal flooding, and we didn’t see any dunes wash over.”

Today the restored preserve serves as a model for the protective role of nature, while providing year-round wildlife, economic and social benefits. (Watch a related video.)

The Value of Nature-Based Solutions along Our Coasts

Recent research has shown that:

  • Coastal marshes can reduce wave energy by over 50%.
  • Mangroves can reduce the height and energy of waves by up to 66%.
  • Coastal wetlands provide storm protection valued at $23.2 billion every year in the US.
  • Coral reefs provide $1.8 billion in flood protection benefits each year.
  • Nature-based solutions are among the most cost-effective ways to protect against coast flooding. Every $1 spent to restore wetlands and reefs results in $7 of direct flood reduction benefits.
Aerial view of Cape May, with houses in foreground and salt marsh in background.
CAPE MAY Cape May National Wildlife Refuge © US Fish & Wildlife Service

The Path to a Better Future

Recommendations for Nature-Based Solutions. To harness the power of nature and help communities overcome the growing threats of floods, we should:

1.     Invest in nature-based solutions. When planning for flood protection, nature-based solutions should be considered when new or rebuilt manmade infrastructure is also considered. Disaster relief funds provide prime investment opportunities for nature-based solutions.

2.     Improve and update manmade infrastructure along our rivers and coasts. In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s dams and levees a “D” rating. With the right investments, we can use modern science to improve infrastructure in ways that work with nature, not against it.  

3.     Increase awareness. We must do a better job of increasing flood risk awareness through:

  • Using science and up-to-date climate projections to improve flood maps.
  • Requirements that disclose the history of flood insurance claims of properties to help prospective buyers better understand their flood risks.
  • Community outreach that encourages flood risk assessments and less risky development.
  • Flood-proofing of existing properties and rules that discourage further development in flood-prone areas.

4. Modernize policies. We should seek policies that provide incentives for communities to reduce flood risk and guide development away from risky areas.

  • Reform the National Flood Insurance Program. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is designed to discourage development in high flood risk areas. But in many FEMA mapped floodplains, places that could have provided natural buffers during floods have often been developed.
  • Congress and the Executive Branch should reinstate the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which creates common-sense rules to help protect communities from floods.
  • It is critical to ensure the Clean Water Act protects wetlands, waterways and natural floodplains. Presently, the Administration is proposing a significant reduction to the amount of streams and wetlands that are federally protected. The Nature Conservancy is urging the Administration to return to a science-based implementation of the Clean Water Act to ensure the protection of areas that can help reduce flood risks for communities.