President Obama's plan to safeguard the nation from increasing flood risk due to climate change was quietly green-lighted by Congress last month in the 2016 omnibus budget bill.
It marks one of the only actions Congress took on global warming in all of 2015, and it came as a surprise considering the longstanding opposition from Republicans. And it is a critical one, several policy experts said. It will impact billions of dollars of federally funded construction projects across the country, from highways and bridges to hospitals and housing complexes, at a time when flooding in the U.S. is getting worse every year because of climate change.
"The policy illustrates the awareness that we should not build things that are vulnerable to flooding now or in the future," said Rob Moore, a policy analyst and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Water and Climate Team. "That may not seem like a revolutionary idea, but unfortunately it is. We have a long history of building things that easily get soggy."
Obama's plan, executive order No. 13690, mandates that all federally funded projects located in a floodplain be built higher and stronger than previously required. It is the first update to the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard since the policy was created 38 years ago. It applies to both new construction and rebuilding following a disaster.
Under the old standards, enacted by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, buildings in the floodplain had to be elevated to the 100-year flood level. Under Obama's executive order, buildings must now be elevated 2 or 3 feet above the 100-year flood level (the higher standard is for "critical" infrastructure, like hospitals), or at the 500-year flood level. A third option is for federal agencies to analyze future climate change scenarios and build according to those projections, such as for sea level rise or expected heavier rain events.
Flooding accounts for approximately 85 percent of all disaster declarations in the U.S. and caused more than $260 billion in damages between 1980 and 2013. There were three billion-dollar-plus flooding disasters in 2015, and thousands of homes and businesses along the Mississippi River and its tributaries rang in the New Year under water after unusual heavy winter rains.
"Recent flood events are putting more attention on this very matter," said Roy Wright, who leads disaster risk-reduction efforts for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We need to build higher and stronger than we used to."
Scientists say the problem will only get worse with climate change as seas rise and warm temperatures fuel stronger rain events. Heavy rainstorms and flooding that historically happened once in 20 years are forecast to occur as frequently as every 5 to 15 years by the second half of this century, according to the National Climate Assessment.
The new flood risk standard "is something that makes sense from a climate change point of view, but it is also something that makes sense no matter what," said Eli Lehrer, an expert on flood policy and insurance and president of the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C. "The idea that taxpayer money should be used to build things that will almost certainly be washed away is stupid."
Protecting Americans from flood risk has typically been a nonpartisan issue, said Moore. Stricter building codes safeguard federal investments and save taxpayer money. "It is a win-win for both sides," he said.
But that changed when Obama issued an executive order updating the policy last January, policy experts said.
"Suddenly, because the update had the words 'climate' and 'change' in it, it became a partisan issue," Moore said.
Eight Republican Senators, all from states that are among the most flood-prone in the nation, such as Texas and Louisiana, wrote a letter to Obama questioning the legality of the new restrictions.
Two of the signees were Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Roy Blunt of Missouri, chairman and a member of the Senate appropriations committee, respectively. "The federal government should work for the American people—not the other way around," Blunt said in July. "The Obama Administration's order overreaches into flood risk negotiations between Missouri's small businesses, local governments, and private property owners, impacting projects receiving federal funding in the floodplain."
Within months of the letter, budget riders made it into to three appropriation bills, including the Department of Homeland Security, defunding the new flood risk standard. "None of the funds made available by this or any other Act may be used to implement, administer, carry out, modify, revise, or enforce Executive Order 13690," the bills said.
"As so many things go right now in this hyper-partisan atmosphere, it feels like flood risk policy got caught up in that," said Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "But the arguments for supporting this should really appeal to everyone across the board. This is using taxpayer money wisely, protecting investments that won't get washed away in 10 years. It frustrates me to no end when we see these big floods and we see places like nursing homes or low-income housing get flooded. That should never be the case."
After the first riders appeared, environmental groups and flood policy experts began meeting with politicians from both parties to explain the standard and its benefits.
In December, buried on page 605 of the 2016 omnibus bill, Congress approved the program—albeit in a roundabout way. The omnibus rider starts by saying no federal funds can be used to implement the standard, but then adds the qualifier statement "other than for—", and lists nearly all of the activities in Executive Order 13690.
"It was a pleasant surprise, quite frankly, that the rider came out in the way that it did in the omnibus, essentially saying it can be implemented," said Berginnis.
Environmental groups and policy experts are unsure exactly who to thank for the switch.
"The fact that a left-wing Democratic president was pursuing the standard as part of a broader climate agenda full of executive overreach made it all the more attractive for Republicans to oppose it," said Lehrer. "But the standards are a very rare piece of common sense."
Now that the standard has funding, government agencies will develop guidelines for implementing the new policy, which could take another six months to a year.
Policy experts said local officials across the country, particularly in coastal states, have already been requiring stricter building standards for flood zones. And the federal government did a sort of trial run of the new standard when it required structures damaged by Hurricane Sandy to be lifted higher off the ground.
Floodplain managers, local officials, developers and policy experts "have learned over the last 40 years that building to just the 100-year flood level is not adequate," said Berginnis. "They are increasingly comfortable with building to 500-year standard and looking at future risk. This is actually the federal government catching up."