News Article

Floodplain, water management experts outline best practices to address flooding challenges

Date:Feb 19, 2019

Just as floodwaters know no boundaries, neither should the rules governing them.

That's according to the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, a statewide effort established to address weaknesses in the state's approach to floodplain management. The group hosted a summit Tuesday that brought together experts in the water management and floodplain fields to share lessons they've learned from tackling flooding in areas of the country where it has had catastrophic effects.

The importance of cooperation among smaller governments in the state was one major lesson talked about at the summit, titled "Building the Foundation: Sharing Lessons Learned & Addressing Challenges Specific to Louisiana."

"This is an issue that needs to be looked at from the bigger picture and bring bigger players together," said Ceil Strauss, the state floodplain manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Strauss was the first featured speaker to give a presentation at the summit. She talked about the Twin Cities super storm that struck Minnesota in July 1987 and what the state did correctly in responding to the crisis: securing state funding, enabling legislation that established water management districts, establishing authority for flood control and wetlands management and enabling regional bodies to participate in water management in a cooperative manner.

During the summit, held in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's LITE Center Theater, Strauss addressed an auditorium of state elected officials, engineers, floodplain managers, data experts, members of academia and the general public.

Strauss focused on four categories:

  1. Forward thinking. Minnesota was fortunate, she said, because its leaders more than a century ago planned for a time when the city would have a booming population and took into account what that population would need, such as public parks and infrastructure. They wrote development codes that would limit the amount of devastation from flooding, keeping infrastructure inland and parks around lakes so that mostly natural land would be destroyed from floods rather than structures.
  2. Enforcing higher standards. The state more strictly enforced regulations in the 1930s, she said. There was some controversy over what water basins were public and what the Department of Conservation would regulate, she said. Using state allocations of money, the city of Minneapolis acquired buildings in flood-prone areas and got rid of them.
  3. State and local flood risk reduction efforts. Starting in the '70s, the state began passing conservation acts, floodplain management acts and shoreland management acts that prepared rules for counties, unincorporated areas and cities, she said. It also emphasized the need for large flood control structures, such as levies and ring dikes.
  4. Watershed planning. The state established a Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy and in 2012 passed a plan that defined watershed planning at state levels rather than just county levels.

Strauss' work with watershed planning in Minnesota reflected an approach that has not yet been achieved in Louisiana, though it appears to be what the Louisiana Watershed Initiative strives for.

Jamie Huffman and Kristen Hilferty, Senior Research Fellows with the Tulane Law School Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, discussed similarities and differences between Minnesota's and Louisiana's water resource issues and considered potential commonalities in legislative structures between them.

Huffman and Hilferty have studied legislative systems enabling flood prevention and water quality conservation. Both stressed the need for data collection in crafting laws around water regulation.

"In both states, you need to know what it is you're regulating," Huffman said. "You need to know how much water you're planning for regulation."

Studies done from data collection would be effective in educating the public and demonstrating why something like setting up a new utility to address flooding challenges would be a good thing, said Hilferty, a New Orleans native who attended LSU.

Others featured at the summit were:

  • Ataul Hannan, director of planning for the Harris County flood control district in Texas
  • Kevin Houck, watershed and flood protection section chief on the Colorado Water Conservation Board
  • Tim Katers, planning manager at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs
  • Ehab Meselhe, a professor in the Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering at Tulane University
  • Monique Boulet, chief executive officer of the Acadiana Planning Commission.

According to the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, the historic rain events in 2016 produced trillions of gallons of rainwater and impacted 56 of Louisiana's 64 parishes, affecting areas that were once considered to have low flood risks. The resulting floodwaters devastated more than 145,000 homes across the state, according to FEMA verified loss data.

The floods caused more than $10 billion in damage, and recovery efforts are ongoing more than two years later.

The events exposed key deficiencies in the state's approach to floodplain management and community planning across all levels of government, the initiative says.

Louisiana's legislature in 2017 directed state agencies to start establishing a coordinated statewide model for watershed-based floodplain management. Since then, six strategic areas have been identified:

  • Data, which will be used in each watershed that are used for land use, policy decision-making and project evaluation.
  • Engagement from stakeholders
  • Standards
  • Funding
  • Capability and capacity
  • Integrated planning.

Lafayette Parish has had four official Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMS), according to its website. The maps depict the potential for flooding and are the basis for establishing building requirements and flood insurance rates, the website says.

The most recent FIRM updated by FEMA for the Lafayette Parish went into effect Dec. 21. They are available online here and here.