The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replaces a Council Bluffs, Iowa, pump station to pre-flood risk levels in 2012. A recently revoked 2015 flood management standard would have required the project to consider future flood risk. ©U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2012.
The United States is on track to build roads, bridges, and other infrastructure more quickly—although less resiliently—thanks to an executive order signed by Donald Trump last week.
Trump unveiled the order, which he promoted as an effort to streamline permitting for federal infrastructure projects, at a news conference that was largely diverted to an off-topic conversation about where to place blame in a recent white nationalist rally that turned deadly.
While infrastructure concerns might seem less provocative by comparison, one element of the order—a single line revoking the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard—did plenty to rile those that work to mitigate losses caused by the impacts of extreme weather.
“It is as if common sense was thrown out the window and the taxpayers are going to be footing the bill through disaster assistance when new infrastructure gets built and subsequently flooded,” Chad Berginnis, Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said in a statement on the group’s website. "Flooding in the nation is getting worse, flood losses are rising, and it appears the current administration is content to do nothing."
Those sentiments we’re echoed by a number of other key players, from engineers to flood-concerned nonprofits to environmental groups, and even conservative research institutes. While many of the groups regularly champion efforts to strengthen and upgrade infrastructure, they can’t get onboard with the unwise spending that could accompany the loss of the standard.
“What this order will do is ensure that we will waste more taxpayer money because federal agencies will no longer have to consider long-term flood risks to federally funded infrastructure projects,” Jessica Grannis, of the Georgetown Climate Center, told the Associated Press.
The Flood Risk Mitigation Standard was a far-sighted attempt by the Obama administration to protect federal assets from impacts of increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change. It required those using federal money for building projects—especially critical facilities like hospitals, fire stations, water supply plants, and the like—to address future flood risk in one of three ways: by applying the best climate-informed science available, by building a set amount of freeboard above FEMA’s one percent flood level, or building above the so-called 500-year floodplain.
Rolling back the standard would mean that such projects can be built based on historical flood risk data, without the need to consider projected risk that incorporates the impacts of climate change, which the president has called a hoax.
“This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities, federal employees, and families at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
Not all guarantees of safety have been lost, though. The order still allows states to mandate stricter standards if they choose. A number of states such as New York and Wisconsin, as well as local governments such as Nashville, Tennessee, already have robust freeboard requirements.
Still there could be problems in places that have a significant flood risk coupled with a lack of political will to institute such standards. In Louisiana, for instance, a state representative applauded the president’s actions, even as New Orleans was grappling with the failure of a pump system that keeps the city from flooding.
“We had more than our share of tragedy down here with the water, but we already have problems meeting requirements,” Rep. Ralph Abraham told New York Times. “The new plan would make it so costly for my Louisiana residents.”
There’s disagreement about whether adhering to the Flood Risk Management Standard makes infrastructure projects unaffordable, however that’s not the only aspect of the Trump order that’s contested. Experts also find fault in the idea that it’s arduous permitting requirements that keep infrastructure from being built.
“[The] assertion that regulations, not funding, are the real problem in infrastructure ignores the true infrastructure challenges we face,” wrote Laura Hale in a June analysis for the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Infrastructure Report Card.
Hale cites a 2012 Congressional Research Service report that lists local and state factors, funding levels, local opposition, and changes in project scope as the main reasons for delay.
For better or for worse, the long-term cost of removing the standard will be seen eventually—and likely for the worse, according to former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate.
“You are underwriting risk that we could have prevented or significantly reduced by adding 12 inches to the foundation of a building or structure paid for with your tax dollars,” Fugate told BuzzFeed. “This is them basically telling you spin. We’re already facing significant flooding and related damages every year, whether you believe in climate change or not.”