7 Reasons Why You Should Care About Floodplains
Our connection to water is essential. People love to live near water and to look out on oceans, rivers, and lakes. Waterways provide drinking water, recreation, irrigation, fishing, and transportation that support communities. They are so integral a part of our daily lives it is easy to forget that they can do a lot of damage during storms and floods. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the eastern United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, killing 160 people in the US and causing 65 billion dollars’ worth of damage. In New York and New Jersey, some of the hardest hit areas, homes that were thought to be at low flood risk were damaged by the deluge. Closer to home, the Willamette Valley Flood of 1996 cost $500 million and displaced 3,000 people throughout the Pacific Northwest.
What Are Floodplains?
These events highlight the importance of floodplains, land around bodies of water that takes on excess water in times of flood and when managed wisely, can help to reduce the risk of damage when storms or snowmelt overwhelm the banks. In other words, when Mother Nature gets dramatic, floodplains go to work.
Why Are Floodplains Important?
So why should you care about floodplains? There are many reasons, but we’ve narrowed it to 7:
Challenges to Smart Floodplain Management
1. Clean water
Rivers carry sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants, especially when they are running high and fast after a storm. A healthy floodplain gives water space to spread out and slow down. This keeps water cleaner, protecting local drinking water, recreation, and aquatic species like fish. Shading of streams by floodplain vegetation also helps to regulate water temperature.
Floodplains are rich and biologically diverse environments that can support an abundance of plants, birds, and other species on land and in the water. For example, Chinook Salmon (pictured to the left) rely on floodplains during the freshwater phase of their life cycle.
3. Flood storage
Floodplains take on and store excess water in times of flood, releasing it slowly overland and into groundwater. The flood storage capacity of floodplains means that there is less likelihood that floodwater will end up in your basement. Floodplains do not eliminate all risk of property damage, but when they are managed wisely, they can definitely help.
|Floodplains can act as recharge areas for groundwater. Photo courtesy of the COMET Program at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).
4. Groundwater recharge
Rainwater travels deep into the ground of a floodplain to replenish groundwater supply. Groundwater travels slowly into rivers, lakes, and wetlands, regulating the availability of water during drier periods, when people, plants, and animals need it most.
Floodplains have rich, fertile soils that have made them attractive to farmers for generations. Some level of sustainable agricultural practices are considered to be compatible with managing floodplains to support key floodplain functions.
It’s no coincidence that some of our nation’s largest and most productive transportation centers are located in floodplains. Some rivers and lakes can support shipping and the flat, rock-free land lends itself readily to road and railroad development, and is conveniently located close to agricultural land.
Floodplains provide numerous recreational opportunities, including lakes, rivers, hiking trails, and spaces to see thriving wildlife. In addition, the long history of settlement in floodplains as people have been drawn to the fertile land and abundant resources create a shared culture and sense of place in these locations.
A functioning floodplain is important for the health of the surrounding ecosystem, as well as for the economic and cultural activities that rely on it. A rapidly-changing policy and physical environment, however, makes management of floodplain resources in an effective and integrated way a daunting challenge for many US communities. Flood frequency and severity is expected to increase in much of the US, yet cities face strong pressure to realize the economic and development value of floodplain areas. Litigation on the National Flood Insurance Program, changing municipal stormwater rules, and projected impacts of climate change are all pushing planners to think about increasing resiliency and reducing risk to people and property. Many towns have small or even volunteer planning commissions and limited budgets to navigate this complexity.
A Path Forward
Better information on flood risk from hydrological modeling, and new(ish) approaches such as Low Impact Development strategies and green infrastructure techniques are providing communities with tools to limit flood damage while maintaining valuable floodplain functions. Programs such as The Nature Conservancy’s Floodplains By Design demonstrate how reconnecting rivers to their floodplains is a more effective solution for protecting urban infrastructure than traditional dams, dikes and levees. And mechanisms such as floodplain function mitigation banking and transfer development rights are being explored as ways to increase the flexibility communities need as they balance development and floodplain function.
Where to Next?
At Willamette Partnership, we are starting some exciting work around floodplains, convening a diverse group of stakeholders to develop a vision for smart floodplain management and tools to support its implementation in communities throughout Oregon. Along with our partners, we recognize that smart floodplain management is good for the environment, and good for the communities that live, depend, and work on floodplains You can find out more about how we are working with stakeholders and communities to meet these challenges here.