Ecology and engineering intersect to make “room for floods”
Climate change is producing increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. The future will bring more frequent and intense storms and increased impacts from flooding events. This growing uncertainty necessitates alternative management strategies. We cannot continue to rely solely on structural flood-control measures; we must rethink flood management if we want to handle these changes effectively.
Last fall, I had the pleasure of meeting Sandra Postel, director of Global Water Policy and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. In her book she explores our relationship with water and how we approach working with nature to adapt to changing climates. It is a timely topic, and well worth considering—the concept of “making room for floods” struck me as important.
Restoring floodplain connectivity is an adaptive approach that can reduce flood losses and improve habitat function associated with riverine systems. In their initiative to make “room for the river”, the Netherlands has undertaken numerous projects to lower levees and restore floodplain areas. Similar initiatives are currently underway in various regions in the U.S. as well.
These initiatives require integrating ecology and engineering. This integration becomes increasingly necessary in the face of climate change. An approach called eco-engineering decision scaling (EEDS) can be employed to assess risks and system vulnerability through the lenses of both ecology and engineering. Historically, engineering solutions are developed and evaluated based on cost and benefit, and environmental impacts are considered last. In the EEDS approach, both engineering and ecological benefits are quantified and compared simultaneously from the onset of project development.
Defining and quantifying ecological benefits are challenging, especially in the case of floodplains where the economic value is hidden. The EEDS approach is a bottom-up risk assessment that uses stakeholders to define and drive the process to compare economic, engineering and ecological vulnerabilities. It allows for a more accurate evaluation of trade-offs between engineering design elements and ecological factors. An eco-engineering approach to addressing our water infrastructure needs can help us obtain the economic and ecological benefits needed to sustain ourselves in the face of a changing climate.
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