Local government and climate change: Assess your community’s flood resilience

With rainfall intensification predicted in the Midwest, a new checklist guides communities in developing policies and standards to improve flood resilience.

Four categories of approaches to enhance resilience to future floods. Photo Credit: Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. l MSU Extension
Four categories of approaches to enhance resilience to future floods. Photo Credit: Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. l MSU Extension

“Extreme rainfall events and flooding have increased during the last century, and these trends are expected to continue, causing erosion, declining water quality, and negative impacts on transportation, agriculture, human health, and infrastructure.”

So reads Key Message 5 for the Midwest region in The Third National Climate Assessment. Fortunately, municipal planners can take action now to prepare for increased rainfall and flooding resulting from climate change. Planners in Vermont are doing just that following the flooding in 2011 from Hurricane Irene and have prepared a Flood Resilience Checklist to guide their work. The checklist assesses a community’s readiness in the areas of land use planning, zoning and hazard mitigation planning related to flooding. It assesses tools and techniques applicable to four different areas of a community:

River CorridorsConserve land and discourage development

The primary focus of flood resilience along river corridors is to discourage development and conserve land and wetlands. The checklist examines whether a community has implemented non-regulatory strategies to conserve land, and worked with large landowners like farmers and forestland owners to implement management practices to mitigate flooding. Further, the checklist asks whether various development standards have been adopted, such as conservation zoning or farmland protection zoning.

Vulnerable SettlementsProtect people, buildings and facilities

The Flood Resilience Checklist details that the community master plan should include information from existing hazard mitigation plans in order to identify developed areas that are likely to be flooded. Then, to reduce flood risk in this area of a community, the checklist tests for specific development regulations and policies, including zoning standards such as overlay districts for floodplains, creation of new flood storage capacity through redevelopment and relocation or renovation of threatened structures where possible.

Safer AreasPlan for new development

With vulnerable locations identified as areas where future development should be carefully regulated, the checklists also reviews for master plan provisions and development regulations that encourage development in areas with lower flood risk. Favorable provisions include Smart Growth policies that encourage compact, walkable neighborhoods with a variety of land uses and housing types that result in a smaller development ‘footprint’ in the watershed. Also, questions test for regulatory changes, including form-based codes and capital improvement plans that help implement and fund Smart Growth strategies for more compact development in safer areas of the community.

The Whole WatershedManage stormwater

Throughout the entire watershed, communities are encouraged to work across municipal lines to coordinate efforts to manage stormwater and retain and expand green infrastructure. In particular, the checklist identifies stormwater utilities as effective means of funding stormwater programs. Green infrastructure initiatives that retain networks of undeveloped land and wetlands in natural states throughout the community are also a top priority according to the checklist.

Of course, completing the Flood Resilience Checklist is only the first step in improving community resilience to flooding. Individual elements in the checklist marked ‘No’ must be addressed in order to improve resiliency. A companion resource – Planning for Flood Recovery and Long-Term Resilience in Vermont – provides a number of policy options and resources for communities to utilize when implementing measures for greater flood resilience.

It is important to point out that while the Flood Resilience Checklist and the companion Planning for Flood Recovery resource were prepared in response to a flood disaster in Vermont, the documents are readily transferable to other state and local governments. The individual elements and chapters in both documents are general enough that they can be applied to state and municipal laws and operations across the nation. In Michigan, contact a Michigan State University Extension land use educator for assistance in how to get started to improve your community’s flood resilience.

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