AWRA Water Blog

Coping With Floods ~ What’s in a Name

President’s Column

by C. Mark Dunning, AWRA President

March 2014 Water Resources IMPACTFloods continue to be the most destructive and costly natural disasters in the United States (U.S.). Coping with these disasters is a vast and complex topic that a short article can’t do justice to. Rather, I want to focus on a single point: the way that our response to flooding has been framed (i.e., our coping strategies, provides a window into the evolution of our thinking about flooding as well as the basic assumptions we employ about appropriate ways of addressing flooding challenges).

Historic Strategies
Possibly the most common coping strategy for dealing with flooding has been to seek to control floods. For example, after several devastating floods in the early years of the 20th Century, Congress authorized flood control works to be planned and constructed (1917, 1928, 1936).

To me, the operative word in these authorizations was control, as if through engineering works the devastation of floods could be tamed. In fact, control of floods has been partially achieved, and the record of the large levees, floodwalls, and upstream reservoirs that have been constructed is noteworthy, returning, so the Corps of Engineers tells us, more than seven dollars in flood damage prevention benefits for every dollar invested. Many of the reservoir projects authorized in flood control legislation had multiple purposes, such as hydropower, recreation and water supply, that provided valuable social and economic benefits to regions.

But, even with flood control structures in place, flood damages on a national scale continued to rise. Development was occurring in more flood-prone areas that did not have flood protection, and even in protected areas increased upstream development changed downstream hydrographs such that runoff from  storms that once would have been contained resulted in flooding. With this reality, flood control as a term regarding the coping strategy being employed probably seemed overreaching, and a new term began to be widely employed: ­ flood damage reduction. This more accurate term described what was happening with the application of structural flood prevention measures within a specified range of protection (e.g., 100-year, Standard Project Flood, etc.).

Current Strategies
As these changes in thinking about coping with floods were occurring, a new concept was also being promoted: ­ floodplain management. This new term was based on the simple observation: floodplains flood. This coping strategy focuses on keeping damageable property and infrastructure out of floodplains as much as possible through floodplain regulation, relocation of flood-prone structures, and raising structures out of the floodplain.

Today, two additional concepts have joined the array of coping strategies: flood risk management and integrated water resources management.

Flood Risk Management
As Don Riley noted in last month’s IMPACT (pdf) (Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 15-16), a risk management coping strategy for floods involves focusing on public safety through promoting an informed and educated public that is aware of flood risks and shares in the responsibility for managing risks through many different means, and is aware that some level of residual risk from flooding always remains.

A significant institutional innovation in supporting sound floodplain management and flood risk management has been the creation of the Silver Jackets, inter-agency partnerships of federal and state agencies. Their mission is to facilitate the planning and implementation of measures to reduce risks associated with flooding by leveraging resources, enhancing collaboration across agencies, and facilitating a life-cycle approach to flood risk reduction strategies.

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)
Integrated water resources management (IWRM), meanwhile, embraces concepts of balanced, sustainable development and achieving multiple objectives at watershed scales. In this coping strategy, flooding problems are addressed as part of a multi-objective resource management strategy developed through a collaborative process involving multiple stakeholders and multiple agencies.

For example such a coping strategy might approach flooding within the context of a multi-objective plan that includes:

  • structural flood protection such as setback levees and floodwalls providing a specified level of protection;
  • various nonstructural measures such as flood-proofing and enhanced emergency management and evacuation procedures;
  • creation of green space, natural river corridors, and recreational areas and trails to enhance environ- mental quality and quality of life;
  • integration of transportation planning and infrastructure revitalization to work with flood protection measures and support environmental quality improvements; and
  • creation of inter-agency partnerships and extensive stakeholder participation to create the vision and plan, and to carry it out.

So, coping strategies for responding to flooding challenges have evolved over the years from primarily single-purpose, structurally-based approaches seeking to control floods, to the current more integrated resource management strategies that emphasize managing risk and achieving multiple purposes in a sustainable fashion.

AWRA is actively supporting the application of IWRM as a primary coping strategy for addressing flood problems, through the following:

AWRA members also receive webinars free and get substantial discounts on attendance at AWRA conferences. If you are not a member, ­ join! It’s easy:  go to the AWRA website  and follow the instructions.

C. Mark Dunning is AWRA President and a senior planner and project manager for CDM Smith, Fairfax, VA. Email:

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