Built environment needs climate-change resiliency

November 28, 2013 

Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy are devastating for those affected and wakeup calls for all of us.

Nearly all scientists agree that climate change is bringing bigger storms and more extreme weather to the world. While the political debate over climate change and what to do about it will continue, people and communities around the world and right here at home are responding to its impacts right now. We as a society must work together to protect the prosperity and future of our communities and beloved natural areas.

In Puget Sound, we know that global warming is bringing more rain, bigger and more frequent floods from our rivers, and higher seas and bigger storms surges on our shorelines. Five of the biggest floods ever recorded on the Stillaguamish River have happened in the last 10 years. Water is coming at our cities from every direction. Our roads, bridges, dams and levees are aging and at risk. We’ve had 16 federal flood disasters since 1990, and taxpayers have spent $1.4 billion to respond.

Towns such as Orting and Sedro Wooley are re-evaluating their risk of major, recurring floods and asking themselves if they’re prepared. Towns such as Stanwood will be on the front line of bigger coastal storm surges; meanwhile, the sea dikes that separate them from those storms are 50, 60, 70 years old.

The Puget Sound region is home to more than 4 million people, two-thirds of Washington’s population. This is where 70 percent of Washington’s jobs and 80 percent of Washington’s income are generated. We have a lot at stake.

The good news is that smarter planning, smarter development and smarter restoration can reduce the risk of disaster. Our aging infrastructure gives us the opportunity to redevelop in ways that enhance our natural defenses and at the same time restore and improve the quality of life we value.

We need a smart portfolio of infrastructure options, one that includes a mix of built and natural systems. Natural defenses such as floodplains, marshes, wetlands and forests have demonstrated success in reducing our risks from storms, floods and other hazards by slowing, absorbing and/or redirecting water.

The Nature Conservancy has led evidence-based reviews of the role of coastal habitats in risk reduction with key agency and academic partners. These global data demonstrate that marshes, for example, clearly play important roles in absorbing storm surge, reducing erosion and stabilizing shorelines.

If we’re thoughtful and deliberate, investments in these kinds of natural defenses right here in Washington can reduce risk to people and enable job growth and prosperity, while at the same time improving Puget Sound’s water quality, making better habitat for marine life such as salmon and shellfish, and creating open space and recreational opportunities.

We’re taking important steps in that direction. Last spring, the state Legislature recognized the growing threat and the need to be smart about how public resources can address it. They appropriated $50 million for coordinated investment in groundbreaking flood-risk and restoration projects in the floodplains of Puget Sound’s major rivers. The Legislature has laid the foundation for building more resilient communities by funding these multiple benefits projects that will reduce flood risk to people and property and provide salmon habitat and other community benefits. Over the next year, local officials and legislators will be working to establish a long term program to invest in projects that will make our communities safer and ensure the health of our rivers. They’ll need strong public support in the face of those who still contend climate change isn’t a concern.

Climate change is here. We see its impact around the world, and in our own backyards. Those impacts will only increase. The time is now to use our best science and our most innovative thinking to take advantage of natural defenses, reduce the risk of disaster and ensure that future generations can enjoy safety, natural beauty and economic prosperity.

Michael S. Stevens is the Washington state director for The Nature Conservancy. He may be reached at mstevens@tnc.org.

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