Making Communities Safer and Building Smarter:
A Plan to Reduce Flooding Across Maryland
It’s often said that flooding is natural. Disasters are manmade.
This Memorial Day weekend, for the second time less than a 1,000 days, Ellicott City experienced a 1,000-year flood event that decimated businesses, homes, and families – resulting in the loss of innocent lives. And while the record flooding in Ellicott City has rightfully received most of the media attention, we’ve experienced flood damage in West Baltimore, Frederick County, Baltimore County, Prince George’s County, Carroll County, and other communities in just the past few weeks. And in the last five years, we’ve witnessed extreme flooding from Clear Spring (northwest of Hagerstown) and Bowling Green and Cresaptown (south of Cumberland) to repeat flooding in Wicomico and Worcester Counties—all of which are projected to worsen with more frequent extreme weather and sea-level rise, fueled by climate change.
Media reports often refer to the floodwaters that surge from the nearby waterways as “natural disasters,”—and yes, our changing climate is producing ever more frequent and intense precipitation events that cause dangerous floods in low-lying areas. However, one thing remains clear; many of the repeated floods in Ellicott City and elsewhere across Maryland are preventable, manmade disasters — caused directly by decisions to destroy natural resources and pave nearly every available surface surrounding the local watershed and build in natural floodplains. Policymaking, and a lack of forward thinking to conserve the natural floodplain functions have turned downstream communities into stormwater drains that harm local residents, small businesses, and taxpayers.
The Challenge: The incremental destruction of forests, wetlands, and natural vegitation to create parking lots, roads, and buildings has crippled our natural environment’s ability to mitigate flooding in communities across Maryland. A single acre of wetland holds between 300,000 and one million gallons of water. By comparison, an acre of impervious parking lot holds none. Every zoning decision to approve another development or road, without requiring each project manage their stormwater on site, exacerbates the likelihood of another devastating flood event like the past few weekends.
Ellicott City officials recently noted that since the 2016 flood event, “96 percent of the areas businesses were back in operation and more than 20 new businesses had again opened in the Main Street area.” How many of these locally owned small businesses will re-open a second time? How will millions of dollars in damage to the area’s public infrastructure stunt the region’s economic growth strategy? The most conservative, cost-effective approach is to plan now for the next 1,000 year flood and ensure that every community across Maryland is safer and stronger.
Solutions: We already have the scientific knowledge and engineering knowhow to significantly reduce flooding disasters. Local governments, residents, and the State of Maryland must take the following steps together towards implementing preventative mitigation strategies, rather than simply rebuilding what was lost:
- Accelerate the implementation of local watershed restoration and flood abatement plans, such as the Tiber-Hudson Watershed Plan, while strengthening such plans by bolstering recommendations calling for natural solutions to flood prevention.
- Make cost-effective investments in the restoration of our natural defenses—including wetlands, forests, vegetated stream buffers, living shorelines, and other natural systems—that reduce the volume and velocity of floodwaters. For example, Howard County’s 2018 capital budget included $1.8 million for flood remediation in Ellicott City and Valley Mede, but the county needs additional resources to protect and restore natural buffers that limit the impact of flood events.
- Incentivize municipal governments to invest in projects that reduce flood risks by providing state matching grants and low-cost financing through programs like the Water Quality Revolving Fund. Priority should be given to communities willing to dedicate local resources towards solutions and low-income communities needing additional assistance.
- Expand the capacity of manmade stormwater infrastructure (grey infrastructure), such as retention ponds and culverts.
- Reduce the total amount of impervious surfaces within watersheds, residential zones, and commercial areas by replacing paved surfaces with pervious green space, pavers, crushed stone, etc. — and encouraging the adoption of green roofs, rain gardens, and other technologies that reduce runoff.
- Provide state and local support to the relocation and resettlement of residents or businesses threatened by extreme flooding or sea-level rise.
- Leverage federal, state, local, and private funding streams to invest in infrastructure and technology that could reduce flood risks across Maryland through innovative partnerships that finance new flood prevention efforts.
- Strengthen building and zoning codes to ensure that projects are designed to be climate resilient and precluding new buildings from being constructed in floodplains. This includes using storm-resilient building materials, elevating buildings, undergrounding utility infrastructure, and requiring onsite management of stormwater runoff.
- Require that updated floodplain maps inform all land use decisions.
- Ensure lower-income and minority communities do not face disproportionate impacts from flooding and extreme weather events. Flood prevention is an issue of social and environmental justice, since too often low-income communities are hit hardest by the consequences of reckless development.
- Work with private insurance and re-insurance companies to develop a practical state-wide insurance/reinsurance scheme.
- Ensure that state government leads by example by incorporating forward-thinking stormwater management practices into all state transportation projects, at all State facilities, and through all state-funded projects. No state funds should be used in ways that exacerbate the flooding crisis.
For too long, politicians have played games with stormwater management and local communities have paid the price. We need to have an honest conversation about how we restore our natural defenses, make our communities safer, and rebuild smarter. This can no longer be a partisan issue, because floods do not differentiate between Republican and Democratic zip codes.
We must reduce the politicization of state and local efforts to prepare our communities for the increasing frequency of these events. Politics too often lead to delay. We must fix the woeful underfunding of efforts to restore our natural defenses, like forests and wetlands, and build much greater bipartisan support in Annapolis for innovative funding models to finance new stormwater systems and technology. Promises to quickly rebuild “what was lost” should not preclude conversations about how to rebuild smarter, and how to prevent these events from happening again. We can no longer afford to debate the oncoming impact of climate change on the lives of everyday Marylanders; the state must act now to improve its mitigation and adaptation capabilities.
As a low-lying coastal state, Maryland is among the most vulnerable states in the nation to climate impacts. A small number of climate deniers in Annapolis and local government must not prevent our communities from becoming more resilient to more extreme weather events. Together, state and local officials must lead an unprecedented effort to ensure every Maryland community becomes more resilient to all the potential impacts of climate change. Our state must become a national leader in mitigation and adaptation strategy, and prepare all our communities for extreme weather, rising sea-levels, and the other devastating impacts of our changing climate on vulnerable communities and ecosystems.
To prevent future catastrophes, we must commit to making our communities safer and rebuilding smarter.