Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Improving Future Flood Control Efforts

We know that the planning process for Louisiana flood control failed badly:

a. The engineering analysis badly underestimated the potential for a large hurricane to hit the city. I’ll leave to others the question of whether this was just a mistake. But at least, there should have been a margin of safety to allow for uncertainty about the size of the risk.

b. At the urging of OMB and CEQ, the White House demanded that the Corps implement only 10% of the recommended funding for the Coast 2050 plan.

c. Wetlands destruction continued despite laws designed to protect them.

d. The government has completely ignored the risk that climate change might pose to the Gulf Coast.

Here are some of the things that need to be done.

Integrating Flood Control and Wetlands Planning

It is well-known that Louisiana’s coastal barriers and wetlands provide natural buffers against hurricane surges, although it is impossible to know the extent to which they might have deflected harm from any one storm. Mangrove forests played a similar role in protecting some areas of Asia from the tsunami. Moreover, the Berkeley/NSF engineering team investigating the failure of the New Orleans levees discovered that levees protected by nearby wetlands fared much better. USACE is also involved in wetlands preservation and restoration efforts. However, those efforts have proceeded in isolation from its flood control mission. The two need to be integrated.

Another reason to integrate these missions is that flood control projects often raise environmental concerns. These need to be addressed in a comprehensive way during the planning process, not merely deferred until a separate environmental review process.

Using GIS to Aid Planning

Our society better integration of its flood control and environmental planning. Some of the changes involves are obviously organizational, but technology may be able to help as well. promises to create a “globe inside your PC.” Current technology would allow the more modest goal of putting key watersheds like Southern Louisiana “inside your PC.” Consider what it would be like to have instant access to everything we know about the Louisiana wetlands and flood control system. We can already begin to see the outlines of such an information system, which would provide “one-stop shopping” for all environmental information. Current and historic information about urban development, water flows, animal and plant populations, soils, levees, potential storm surges and ecosystem characteristics would be available through a single interface. Rather than consideration of environmental impacts being shunted off to a special reporting process, it would be an on-going, publicly accessible process.

It was a major step for environmental awareness when people were able for the first time to see the globe from space. It would be another major step if they could see grasp the regional environmental as a whole, zooming in to inspect local environmental conditions and back out again to see larger trends. Humans are visual animals, and we can only fully appreciate that which we can see.

A GIS system of this kind would make it much easier for planners, policymakers, and the public to see the interrelationships between planning decisions, flood control structures, and wetlands development (or restoration). Although the technology may seem futuristic, it is well within reach.

Some more planning ideas next time.


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