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Flood Risk Management

Not long ago, flood risk management was considered to be the work of individual communities. Within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), decisions were made at the district or division level, and USACE, frequently tasked with overseeing the infrastructure that reduced the risk of flood damage, had little interaction with other organizations that had a stake in reducing flood risks – local or state agencies, or even federal counterparts such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In 2006, USACE established the National Flood Risk Management Program (NFRMP) and named Pete Rabbon its director, specifically for the purpose of creating a more collaborative culture, and to instill a view of flood risks that better reflected USACE’s own shift in organizational emphasis from arbitrary geographical distinctions to functioning watersheds. USACE would reach out and coordinate its activities with local, state, and federal partners, and transition from a narrow focus (reducing flood damages to communities) to a broader emphasis on managing the risks of flooding within a given region.

In USACE’s new expanded approach, flood risk management is a combination of managing floodwaters, typically with structures such as levees and dams, and managing a floodplain to reduce the consequences of flooding. An important goal of the NFRMP is to manage flood risk in a “life-cycle” framework within a watershed, integrating emergency management, dam and levee safety, and planning and operations.

Within the past year, the NFRMP has achieved several collaborative milestones. In October 2009, it issued guidance to its divisions and districts about how to engage with partners to reduce flood risk – how the program will operate, what its goals are, and the activities to be performed in order to meet those goals. Several collaborative programs are already under way, such as the California Levees Roundtable, a partnership of federal, state, and local agencies formed to comprehensively address levee safety issues in the Central Valley. In February 2010, the roundtable released a preliminary framework for improving the Central Valley’s 1,600 miles of levees while protecting endangered species habitat in or near adjacent ecosystems. A comprehensive state plan is due in 2012.

Rabbon sees this type of interaction as a model for how flood risk management might work in other districts. “I’m envisioning another collaborative effort in the Seattle area, Puget Sound,” he said. He also foresees one in North Dakota, around the closed-basin drainage of Devils Lake, where a state-built flood-control outlet has created a controversy that extends across the border into Canada. “They have state and interstate water-quality issues,” Rabbon said. “They have flood issues, upstream and downstream. They’ve got agricultural issues and they actually have international water-quality issues. Somehow we need to bring all the parties together.”

Since its inception, the NFRMP has focused on partners at the state level with its Silver Jackets Program. Silver Jackets teams are continuously operating, state-led interagency collaboratives that devise life-cycle flood risk reduction strategies. “The state takes the lead in terms of the issues that are important to them,” Rabbon said. “We’ve got 18 teams assembled now and efforts are ongoing in another 27 states. It has taken off in terms of becoming a mechanism to support the state in addressing water management issues.”

The program recently demonstrated that, for particularly flood-prone regions, a broader partnership may be appropriate. In the Midwest, after a 2008 flood season that wrought serious damage throughout the region, USACE and its associates began working on a partnership that was recently formally chartered within the Mississippi Valley Division as the Regional Flood Risk Management Team, the first of its kind in the nation. Consisting of the state governments of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin, the team also includes USACE, FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the federal departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Interior, and Homeland Security. “Now we can start looking at the long-term vision for that region,” said Rabbon. “What kind of flood risk reduction they want and how they’re going to get there – not just through state or federal construction programs, but through different activities such as emergency management, planning, preparation, [and] mitigation.”

Meanwhile, the NFRMP continues to solidify partnerships at the national level, providing clear leadership for flood risk management. In June 2010, it hosted its first-ever national workshop, USACE Flood Risk Management Program Workshop in St. Paul, Minn., hosting stakeholders at the federal, state, and local levels to come together and discuss and learn about flood risk management issues.

Probably the most significant event of the past year for the NFRMP, according to Rabbon, was the establishment of the Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Task Force, a leadership-level body, co-chaired by the FEMA administrator and the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, of 12 federal agencies with a stake in flood risk management. The Task Force recently completed a draft five-year work plan, Rabbon said. “We believe this federal work plan is extremely important because it brings together the mission of the 12 agencies into a single plan. What is important from a flood risk management perspective to [the U.S]  Fish and Wildlife Service, or the U.S. Geological Survey, or the Corps of Engineers, or FEMA will be different because of our different missions.”

For the future, Rabbon said, “We want to better combine both coastal and riverine issues, to bring those programs within flood risk management. We also want to quantify flood risk both regionally and nationwide, and to identify what federal policies are working and not working, to help reduce risk nationwide.”

The NFRMP is so eager to learn and share knowledge about managing flood risks on a national level, Rabbon said, that USACE  will be hosting, in late 2010, its first international workshop on the issue, hosting participants from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Japan, and possibly China. In the meantime, the program continues to combine the expertise of its partners, looking ahead to a truly national, unified approach to flood risk management in the United States.

This article first appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Building Strong®: Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2010-2011 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...