Risky Business: Flood Managers Reconsider Risk and How to Talk About It

Apr 27, 2011 | News & Views, What's New

Flood risk is a slippery notion. To the everyday Joe, it might be a matter of whether his property runs a chance of flooding. (Or, if last year’s floodplain remapping flap is any indication, whether or not he has to pay flood insurance.) To city planners, it could be an arbitrary boundary that thwarts or encourages development. To banks, it might be a simple equation, risk = probability x consequence.

“But if that’s risk, then where does all the other stuff fit in?” Doug Plasencia of the Association of State Floodplain Managers Foundation asked a room full of Colorado flood experts last week. “This flood risk concept is really amorphous right now.”

That issue, among others, was on the table when about 70 practitioners and academics from different disciplines gathered at the Natural Hazards Center for the Colorado Flood Risk Symposium. The April 14 symposium was an offshoot of the third Gilbert F. White National Flood Policy Forum.

The GFW Forums are held every three years to examine nationwide issues of floodplain and watershed management and determine strategies for solving them. The first forum, in 2004, looked at whether the one percent annual chance of flood standard is sufficient to reduce flood loss. The 2007 Forum discussed “Floodplain Management 2050,” which focused on managing floodplains in the face of population changes, funding shortages, housing demands, and other issues.

The March 2010 Flood Risk Management Forum (watch it here) is where the assembled experts concluded that the concept of flood risk could use some firming. Among the actions suggested for getting a grip on what flood risk means were developing a definition for both risk and floodplain management, developing local risk management indicators, creating a model for setting and measuring goals locally, and learning how to communicate risk so that people act.

With those goals in mind, and wanting a deeper understanding of local issues, the ASPFM Foundation hit the highway looking for feedback, first at a symposium hosted by the Indiana Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management, and then at the Colorado event, hosted by the Colorado Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers.

“Ultimately, what it comes down to is what is happening at the state, local, and regional level,” ASPFM Policy and Partnerships Manager Sam Riley Medlock said at the Colorado meeting. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

The group spent the day discussing strategies for improving local flood risk comprehension and management, including some current homegrown innovations, such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s bold move to improve flood resilience and planning for the high spring flood risk caused by last September’s Fourmile Canyon fire.

The results of both states’ brainstorming will be added as an addendum to the 2010 Forum report, expected out this week. If all goes well, the collected ruminations of hundreds of professionals will move U.S. communities that much closer to safety, and that much further from risk—whatever its definition.

“We all want resilience,” Medlock said. “We’re all after people and families and communities to bounce back.”