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As Waters Rise, So Must We. New Report Calls for Equitable Solutions to Urban Flooding

Katy Lackey, Senior Program Manager, US Water Alliance | July 15, 2020

Scientists tell us we have less than 10 years to avert irreversible and devastating impacts of the climate crisis. And yet, climate change is already hurling towards us with disproportionate impacts for low-income and communities of color. We see this frequently in the water sector, where climate impacts are felt first, and most often. From the record-breaking Midwestern floods of 2018 to the aftermath of Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, Maria, and Harvey, floodwaters are rising around the nation.

Flooding is the most common, costly, and deadly disaster we face. Over 30 million Americans already live in high-risk flood zones and flooding costs our nation more than $8 billion every year. Climate change is making this worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting a highly active hurricane season this year. Beyond extreme events, however, some studies estimate localized flooding events have increased more than 300 percent in recent years. Historical redlining practices and a lack of infrastructure investment have placed Black and Brown communities and low-income populations in low-lying areas and areas that flood more frequently. As our nation grapples with a changing climate, we must address these inequities. Utilities – and all water stakeholders – have a key role to play in this endeavor.

A recent report published by the US Water Alliance, Water Rising: Equitable Approaches to Urban Flooding, dives into this conversation. The report details five priority actions that water professionals and communities can take together to advance equitable flood resilience:

  1. Use data to identify risks, assets, and community vulnerabilities.
  2. Commit to ongoing and meaningful community engagement.
  3. Set a proactive vision and build strategic alignment.
  4. Fully incorporate equity into resilience planning processes.
  5. Target investments in vulnerable communities.

The report and actions are largely based on the extraordinary work of cross-sector teams in nine U.S. cities working to advance equitable and resilience solutions to flooding: Chicago (IL), Des Moines (IA), Detroit (MI), Hampton (VA), Houston (TX), Jackson (MS), Philadelphia (PA), Raleigh (NC), and Seattle (WA). Utilities, city agencies, environmental groups, and community-based organizations from these nine cities gathered for a two-day convening with the US Water Alliance and The Kresge Foundation in mid-2019. The teams visited neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding, identified flooding inequities, learned about the latest science on climate and flooding, and strategized for projects, policies, and investments that better protect all communities.

Their work – and all our work – is ongoing. It isn’t easy. While climate models have improved, the threats we face remain somewhat unpredictable. Challenges persist in scaling down data to a meaningful context for decision-making on the ground persist. Regardless, we know that solutions grounded in community efforts are the most successful. Investing in multi-benefit flood mitigation projects and co-creating policies to protect vulnerable communities are no-regret solutions. By taking the best available science hand-in-hand with community knowledge and power, we can shift the floodwaters.  

True resilience is achieved when all communities are resilient in the face of a changing climate. We hope that utilities and communities see themselves in this work and are inspired by these remarkable stories to work together. Read the full report here, and register for our webinar on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 at 11 AM PT to learn more.