Federal projects like roads and wastewater plants will be built at least 2 feet higher in the future to protect them against worsening floods that stem in part from climate change, under an order signed by President Obama on Friday.
Called the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, the rule will be used by federal agencies overseeing new infrastructure projects in sectors as diverse as transportation, energy, housing and water supply. Existing structures and facilities that undergo significant repair are also required to be built higher.
The executive order is in response to growing flood losses driven by expanding real estate development along the coasts and "impacts like rising sea levels, intensified storms, and heavy downpours [that] are contributing to an increased risk of flooding," the White House said.
It arrives in an era of massive losses from inundation, including more than $65 billion being spent to rebuild from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and as the nation's current flood standard, meant to protect property during a 100-year storm, is being increasingly tested.
Friday's order gives federal agencies three options for strengthening that existing benchmark: They can build 2 feet above the 100-year flood standard (and 3 feet for hospitals), or build to the 500-year flood level, or build to a height that's determined by "actionable climate science."
Supporters say the burden -- and cost -- of the rule will likely be minimal, because hundreds of municipalities and states are already requiring similar building standards. Opponents disagree, however, and criticized Obama for imposing expensive requirements on taxpayers.
"It's important that the nation address the fact that conditions are changing around us," said Gerald Galloway, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland and an expert on federal flood policy. "And when you have federal money being invested in recovery or ... in the floodplain the best available science and information should be used to determine at what level they should be constructed."
He said it's unlikely that the order will result in the widespread elevation of a major highway during routine maintenance or repair. But it would apply to a new bridge. He also noted its potential reach in low-lying coastal regions. If a new road is being constructed, or an existing one is being significantly repaired after a hurricane, the standard could be used to raise it for many miles based on its low elevation.
Discouraging coastal construction?
Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said similar standards are already being used in states like Florida, Delaware, New York and elsewhere. He said that many municipalities and states are eager for a stronger federal standard that dovetails with their local rules.
"I don't think it's a major shift," he said of Obama's order. "But I think it will be integrating climate and long-term resilience into every dollar of public investment that we're making."
Others, like Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, have long said that the federal government promotes development in dangerous places by offering cheap flood insurance and unconditional disaster aid. The standard marks a change, he said.
"For too long, our society has encouraged people to live in areas prone to natural hazards, especially flood," Nutter said in a statement. "The President's Climate Action Plan, and in particular, the new flood standard, will help stem the tide of rising property loss and increased risk to our citizens."
Friday's announcement builds on an order by Obama after Superstorm Sandy, when he required federal agencies to build 1 foot above the 100-year level. Various states, like New York and New Jersey, also required homeowners to rebuild to higher levels.
Obama's new standard was a product of the president's State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which submitted a report last year with hundreds of recommendations. The panel was composed largely of Democratic governors, mayors and other local officials; there were also several Republican members.
Attacked by some Republicans
Now each federal agency will design and implement the standard after a period of public comment, including listening sessions.
Some Republicans oppose the new standard, saying the increased costs of construction could outweigh the administration's perceived risks of climate change. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose state leads the nation in lost land from sea-level rise and subsidence, wrote a letter to Obama early last week in which he said that the world's worst flooding events "predate" widespread use of fossil fuels.
"I understand your efforts to provide these standards are another 'give' to your far-left environmental base, which views your climate policy efforts as a way to scare the public into expanding the federal government's role in the lives of all Americans," Vitter wrote.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is working on a large piece of legislation to fund transportation projects as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, believes that the standard could raise costs at all levels of government. One result, his office said, could be higher flood insurance rates.
"This is another example of the Obama Administration's overreach," Inhofe said in a statement to ClimateWire.
The administration says the standard won't be applied to the National Flood Insurance Program, which will continue to use the 100-year flood standard as the minimum requirement for its 5 million customers. The standard released last week requires federal agencies to build their projects at least 2 feet above that mark.
Supporters believe the standard will be widely accepted, including among conservatives who have sometimes questioned the appropriateness of spending huge amounts of money after a natural disaster.
"This should be one of the least controversial executive orders the president has ever released," said Rachel Cleetus, an economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement. "Why would the federal government build or repair buildings in ways that continue to put communities at risk?"
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