Sea Level Rise, Growing Flood Risks, and the Need for a Strong Federal Flood Risk Management Standard

, Policy Director and Lead Economist, Climate & Energy | May 5, 2015, 12:12 pm EDT
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On January 30, 2015, President Obama issued an executive order to strengthen the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) and create an extensive stakeholder process for implementing it. Tomorrow is the comment deadline for the implementation guidelines proposed by FEMA and UCS has weighed in with support for a strong FFRMS.

Science-based flood risk management standards

Under the new standard, when federal agencies build or rebuild in flood-prone areas, they must use more protective design standards to guard against flood risks. Agencies will have the flexibility to choose among three approaches:

  • Use the best-available climate science.
  • Build two feet above the 100-year (1 percent annual chance) flood elevation for standard projects and three feet above for critical buildings like hospitals and evacuation centers.
  • Build to the 500-year (0.2 percent annual chance) flood elevation.

(It’s important to note that these standards will not affect flood insurance rates under the National Flood Insurance Program and they do not regulate private development.)

We’ve voiced our overall support for these protective standards, and recommended that adhering to the best available climate science information, when possible, is the most effective way to ensure the standards remain protective as flood risks increase over time as a result of sea level rise and other factors. This is especially true for long-lived infrastructure.

It’s critical that the standard stay strong, and tied to science and common sense in decision making, as it is implemented by the relevant federal agencies.

To help adapt to sea level rise, Naval Station Norfolk is undertaking significant investments.

To help adapt to sea level rise, Naval Station Norfolk is undertaking significant investments. Photo: CNIC

Growing flood risks, largely because of sea level rise and increasing development

According to the 2014 Third National Climate Assessment, climate change and other factors may increase the risks of flooding in many U.S. regions. For example, the report says that “The risks from future floods are significant, given expanded development in coastal areas and floodplains, unabated urbanization, land-use changes, and human-induced climate change.”

Global sea level rose roughly eight inches from 1880 to 2009, with global warming as the main driver. Sea level rise is also accelerating, nearly doubling in recent years. The East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. are experiencing some of the highest and fastest rates of relative sea level rise globally, in part due to additional local factors like land subsidence, groundwater withdrawals, and changing ocean currents.

As UCS’ Encroaching Tides report pointed out, flooding during high tides is now common in many places on the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S., and is projected to worsen as sea level rises. In addition, rising seas are also contributing to worsening flood risks and damage from storm surge, and increasing coastal erosion. Simultaneously, growing development in the floodplain is increasing exposure to flood damages. Hurricane Sandy showed how devastating storm surge in a densely developed area can be. It is estimated that the storm caused $165 billion in damages and 159 deaths, damaged 650,000 homes and left 8.5 million customers without power.

Building resilient communities nationwide, spending taxpayer dollars wisely

A strong flood risk management standard can help communities in floodplains become more resilient. In fact, according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers, many communities have “freeboard” standards that meet or exceed the FFRMS. “Freeboard” is the height required, above base flood elevation, for the lowest level of a structure, and is used to provide a margin of safety to account for the many factors that contribute to flooding. At least 42 cities, towns and counties have already adopted a standard of 3 feet of freeboard, at least 190 have adopted a 2-foot freeboard standard and about 300 have adopted a freeboard standard consistent with the FFRMS. These include a number of communities in New Jersey, such as Avalon, Hoboken (in the V zone), Somers Point, and Monmouth Beach. Adopting strong, harmonized standards nationwide would boost protection across the floodplain.

We also recommended that special attention be paid to equity considerations in the implementation of the Executive Order. In particular, the implementation should not result in any undue burden on communities of color or low-income communities, and agencies should prioritize funding for building resilience in these communities that are often on the frontlines of climate impacts.

A robust process of stakeholder engagement

The strengthened FFRMS is informed by recommendations from the 2013 Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Taskforce and the President’s State, Local, and Tribal Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, and an extensive interagency consultative process. It is now going through a robust stakeholder engagement and comment process. After this, an interagency group (the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group or MitFLG) will revise the draft Implementing Guidelines, and provide recommendations to the Water Resources Council (WRC). Once the WRC issues amended Guidelines, agencies can work on implementing the standard.

We commend the inclusive and rigorous stakeholder process, and look forward to an efficient way to get to the implementation phase when improved decision-making can begin. Communities are already facing growing flood risks and delay is costly.

Smart risk management and smart economics

It’s bad policy to build in ways that perpetuate our risk of flooding and to sink taxpayer dollars into risky rebuilding efforts. Federal funds should instead be spent on making coastal communities more resilient to sea level rise and coastal flooding. We need to manage our risks and our dollars smartly – and a strong FFRMS is a step in the right direction.

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  • J Prather

    Dr Cleetus,

    Thanks for acknowledging the linkage to Federal approvals, permits and license — although you seem somewhat reluctant to affirm strongly what’s obvious. Anyone who needs a Federal permit or approval will have to meet the FFRMS.

    Of course, a floodplain occupant sitting passively in an old home that does not meet the new FFRMS should not expect the black helicopters to land with an order to raise the structure. Developers can with private money develop in the floodplain.

    These are not the cases of concern. Most homeowners may one day wish to sell their homes to a new owner who depends on a Federal loan guarantee. Can you cite a source or authority that the new FFRMS won’t be invoked to condition such a sale with Federal loan backing? The same would apply to private developers who wanted to sell new homes to people who wanted to finance their purchases with a Federally guaranteed loan. Can you cite sources or authorities that these private actions won’t be affect by the new FFRMS?

    The public involvement process is certainly much less than robust when the FFRMS was imposed without any public involvement, and all public involvement was deferred to the implementing guidelines of the agencies. Even the regulatory review parameter known as the “cost of carbon” had a much broader vetting and comment process. No, the vetting here was NOT robust.

    I fail to understand that the standard is justified ipso facto without cost-benefit analysis (CBA) or regulatory review as you suggest. There is a new wave against CBA out there which is saying, “Oh, we don’t need a CBA. Those CBA’s are shortsighted.” So we have a new crowd who wants to trade alleged shortsightedness (that can and should be addressed) for blindness — even to the the effects we can easily assess and consider. What kind of policy or science is that? Imagine that some competent authority directed the Corps of Engineers to always recommend a 500-year levee when addressing a flooding problem and without regard for CBA or evaluation of alternatives. The outrage would be deafening. Rightly so. Yet the FFRMS has been directed on much the same kind of premise. As an economist, you should be appalled. I certainly am.

    I note the subtitle of the blog is “a blog on independent science and practical solutions.” Surely both would incorporate a “minimal consequentialism” as Armatya Sen his fundamental paper on cost-benefit analysis. I am left to wonder where the lines are between “sound science” and everything else. Concerned scientist should be supporting CBA and a sufficient array of alternatives.

    Kind regards,

  • J Prather

    I erred in one regard. The 404(b)(1) guidelines don’t mention EO 11988. But it is still the case that all Corps permits are subject to the conditions of EO 11988 and hence the FFRMS under the amending EO. It is simply NOT TRUE that the new FFRMS is without effect on private persons. Where is that fairy tale coming from? A Corps permit could be denied or conditioned due to application of EO 11988. That makes the FFRMS a clear “extender” of the scope of current regulations.

    So for the record I want to clarify that the requirement to consider EO 11988 in Wetlands dredge and fill permits as well as other other Corps permits (e.g. Section 10, R&HA 1899) is at

    33 CFR 320.4 – General policies for evaluating permit applications


    under subparagraph (l) where the following language may be read:

    “In accordance with the requirements of Executive Order 11988, district engineers, as part of their public interest review, should avoid to the extent practicable, long and short term significant adverse impacts associated with the occupancy and modification of floodplains, as well as the direct and indirect support of floodplain development whenever there is a practicable alternative. For those activities which in the public interest must occur in or impact upon floodplains, the district engineer shall ensure, to the maximum extent practicable, that the impacts of potential flooding on human health, safety, and welfare are minimized, the risks of flood losses are minimized, and, whenever practicable the natural and beneficial values served by floodplains are restored and preserved.”

    • rachelcleetus

      Hello Mr. Prather, thank you very much for your comment and for sharing your perspective on this important issue.

      As I said in response to Dan’s comment below, private homeowners and developers are not subject to meeting one of the 3 approaches outlines in the FFRMS, although federal permitting etc. actions could be interpreted to fall under the EO.

      Here’s how every tax paying citizen is affected by this EO: it will help ensure that your taxpayer dollars are spent more wisely, in light of worsening flood risks.

      There is going to be a robust stakeholder engagement process as individual agencies develop their plans to implement the EO (after the Guidelines are finalized).

      As you say, the FFRMS is only one part of building resilience in the floodplain. Communities will need more help and resources in helping to adapt to sea level rise and worsening flood risks. We need a coordinated national policy response, informed by good science, good economics and risk management strategies, and local stakeholder engagement. What we’ve got to stop doing is simply operating in a business as usual manner that is only exposing more people and property to risks.

  • J Prather

    Dr. Cleetus,

    I want to join Mr. Delich in emphasizing that EO 11988 has long applied to all Federal actions and extends to private activities. You will find references to 11988 in documents like 404b(1) guidelines. In fact all Federal actions are required to reference the decision process in 11988 where a floodplain is involved. The FFRMS and EO 13690 are mere extensions of EO 11988. So the regulation of private activity in floodplains that we have had on the books since the Carter Administration now incorporates the Federal Flood Management Standard. The confusion of your post in saying that private actions are excluded from the FFRMS appears to be shared widely in the commentary, blogs and trade press reports on the FFRMS. I hope you will join in a effort to clarify the coverage as INCLUDING all Federal actions and hence any private action that requires a Federal approval, permit or license.

    By virtue of its applicability to regulations, the FFRMS is in fact an extension of many existing Federal regulations. Yet the promulgation has proceeded without the application of the same vetting process that would apply to these affected regulation not being extended in scope by the FFRMS (i.e. the Administrative Procedures Act). So in essence what we have in the FFRMS is an extension/amendment of a plethora of Federal regulations without public involvement required in the APA. By the same logic, the FFRMS, as an extender of many Federal regulations, should be subject to the enlightened Executive Orders related to regulatory review and supervision of the Office of Information and Regulatory Review dating to the Reagan and Clinton Administration and refined by the current Administration. The requirement for a cost-benefit analysis should be adhered to.

    The promulgation of this standard is beset with lack of transparency and administrative procedure. It is small wonder that the measure has vocal and powerful critics in Congress. While I favor rationalization of flood plain occupancy by getting the incentives right (internalizing the costs of flood plain occupancy), the FFRMS is a blunt instrument. As an economist I would hope you would at least address the role of appropriate incentives reflecting individual choice and geographic variations rather than a one-size-fits-all standard like the one here.There are clearly better ways to achieve rational floodplain occupancy than this method.


    Larry Prather

  • Dan Delich

    Dr. Cleetus,

    Hello, and thank you for writing about EO 13690 and the FFRM Standard. I’m worried about atmospheric GHG concentrations and know firsthand that the UCS has worked for many years to address the climate change challenge. I’m troubled though about the process used to formulate the President’s January 30 directive.

    Respectfully, what is the basis for this two-part statement, lifted from the top portion of your May 5 blog entry?

    “(It’s important to note that these standards will not affect flood insurance rates under the National Flood Insurance Program and they do not regulate private development.)”

    Given FEMA’s authority under the 1968 Flood Insurance Act to identify (and change) areas of special flood hazard (“SFHAs”) that set the mark for flood insurance rates, community requirements, and mapping, how can that definitive statement be guaranteed beyond today?

    The second part of the statement appears to be factually inaccurate. Pages 2 and 3 of the FFRM Standard state plainly that, “FFRMS applies to all Federal Actions, as described in section 1 of EO 11988.” Section 1, clause 3 of EO 11988 defines Federal Actions to include the Federal activity of “(3) conducting Federal activities and programs affecting land use, including but not limited to, water and related land use resource planning, regulating, and licensing.” Regulatory permitting of “private development” is affected by EO 11988, EO 13690 and the FFRM Standard. We can and should debate the merits of wholly private investment activity being covered by EO 13690/FFRMS, but they are covered.

    Finally, how do we know that the three new vertical elevations and lateral floodplain expansion “approaches” selected for us by the MitFLG (without any public stakeholder inclusiveness whatsoever) are appropriate and justified? Especially given their applicability to wholly private activity? Are the benefits, or net benefits, self-evident?



    • rachelcleetus

      Hello Dan, thank you very much for your comment and for your concern about the impacts of climate change.

      NFIP rates are set using FEMA’s flood risk maps, and this EO does not change those maps. Of course, the maps will and should be updated as flood risks change but that is a separate process from the implementation of this EO. For example, a Technical Mapping Advisory Council is currently working on some recommendations to FEMA, including recommendations on how to incorporate the impacts of climate change, and other factors that affect future flood risks, into the flood risk maps.

      You are right to point out that permitting actions could be interpreted to be subject to this EO. However, homeowners and private developers would not be directly subject to the 3 approaches outlined in the FFRMS. Private developers can continue to build in flood plains.

      All of this has been clearly spelled out by FEMA in its listening sessions related to the FFRMS. See, for example:

      When the guidelines are finalized, individual agencies will be updating their procedure and policies and will create further opportunities for public engagement specific to those agency actions.

      As for why the EO is justified: it is simply commonsense that the federal government would want to incorporate a known and worsening risk in preparing for future floods, as well as ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

      • Dan Delich

        Thank you for this forum, Dr. Cleetus. EO 13690 and the FFRM Standard are interpreted by many, including senior MitFLG (FEMA) spokespersons, to apply to wholly private activities through the federal regulatory permitting process. The underlying documents speak for themselves. I do hope that FEMA and the TMAC rely on more than just “common sense” and ephemeral listening session PowerPoint slides when it comes to incorporating known and unknown impacts into flood insurance rate maps. I think we both can agree that there is far too much at stake. Good day