How can we Reduce Flood Risk in our Communities?

Author: Zbigniew Grabowski

Reviewers: Stacey Archfield (USGS), James Knighton (NRE), Diane Ifkovic (CT DEEP), Chet Arnold (CLEAR), David Dickson (CLEAR)

October 2023 | Pub #EXT023

What Causes Flooding?

Flooding is a natural and cyclical phenomenon - whereby during storms water overflows onto the land from adjacent waterbodies - that humans have adapted to for millennia. Within the last several hundred years, many have come to expect that large public expenditures in flood control infrastructure can eliminate floods, an assumption that is at odds with current drivers of increasing flood risk (Tarlock 2012). These include increased development, more intense rainfall, sea level rise, and aging and inadequate infrastructure that prioritized drainage, channelization, and the illusion of total control (Davenport et al. 2021; US NCA 2018; Tarlock 2012). Ongoing development - including more roads, parking lots, buildings, and intensively managed lawns across the state – have all increased the rate and volume of rain that runs off the landscape, significantly increasing downstream flood risk (Blum et al. 2020; Parr and Wang, 2014). Development in floodplains combined with draining wet meadows and wetlands, has further reduced the landscapes ability to absorb/store flood water and has further increased exposure to downstream floods and their economic consequences (Armal et al. 2020; Wohl 2021). 

In the past, our approach to flood control has been to build dams and levees to encourage and protect floodplain development. These historical infrastructures are now aging, and many of them were only designed to function reliably for 50-100 years without major reinvestment. The average age of Connecticut’s 67 large flood control dams is 64 years old (NID 2022, ArcGIS hub 2023). The average age of Connecticut’s 25 miles of large flood control levees is likewise 62 years old (NLD 2023), and some systems, like those in the Hartford Region, are currently under study for necessary maintenance. Our current approaches also rely heavily upon the National Flood Insurance Program to provide subsidized flood insurance for flood prone properties, a program that operates at a deficit, and appears to have also contributed to increasing risk (Cutter et al. 2018). Upgrading and maintaining large built infrastructures is costly and has significant greenhouse gas emissions, requiring a balanced and transparent discussion over the diverse costs and benefits of long-term flood management options. 

“Extreme” precipitation has increased in the Northeastern United States (Huang et al. 2021). Extreme events, defined as more than six inches of rainfall over 24 hours, may be six times more likely by 2100 than today (Jong et al. 2023), and will likely cause increases in flooding events (Ivancic and Shaw 2015). 

Connecticut’s coastal zone is a global sea level rise (SLR) hotspot (Sallenger et al. 2012), with observed SLR being over half a foot in the last half century, a rate expected to double by 2050 (CT DEEP, 2023). Rising sea levels and increasing tide heights will increase the flood risk associated with hurricanes and other coastal storms (Knutson et al.. 2021). 


What can be done?

Flood risk reduction comes down to adapting infrastructure and land use to increasing flood frequency and intensity along with mitigating human impacts on climate change.  While strategies must be place specific, here we provide starting point guidance on how different stakeholders in Connecticut’s land and infrastructure can contribute to reducing floods. 


What Can Municipalities Do?

  • Flood resilience can be dramatically increased by municipalities through adopting model regulations and zoning more strictly regulating land use in flood prone areas, disconnecting impervious cover, and encouraging flood smart agriculture
  • Connecticut Public Act 21-115 enabled municipalities to create new flood prevention, climate resilience, and erosion control boards which can support interjurisdictional and watershed based planning among other measures
  • Engaging in comprehensive disaster planning and community preparedness measures through the Community Rating System can further reduce insurance rates for homeowners in your town beyond the cost savings provided by the National Flood Insurance Program
  • Zoning used to create dedicated vegetated buffers with limited or no development around streams, rivers, and coastal zones can expand recreational amenities, habitat for wildlife, and zones for floodplain agriculture. 
  • Creating flood resilient parkways, trails, and restored ecosystems can increase surrounding property values and the tax base. 
  • Removing floodplain development through buyouts supported by FEMA’s Severe Repetitive Loss program,  can further improve municipal bottom lines by eliminating the cost of maintaining infrastructure in flood prone areas, and in some cases may be the only way to reliably manage long term risk. 
  • Municipalities can also engage in watershed planning either alone or as part of watershed organizations supported by Connecticut DEEP’s watershed program
  • Zoning and building codes can also be adapted to require new development to maintain or improve upon pre-development runoff behavior as has been done in other states (Harbor 1994; Dietz 2007). 
  • Implementing/requiring Low Impact Development (LID) practices that reduce runoff & green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) practices, such as rain gardens, bioretention, pervious pavement, green roofs, etc., that encourage infiltration in new developments and as retrofits to improve infiltration capacity, reduce runoff, and help alleviate downstream burdens on undersized infrastructure. Practices can and should be designed to handle larger storms wherever possible.


How Can Homeowners Assess, Prepare for, and Reduce Their Flood Risk?

  • Homeowners can learn about their flood exposure by looking up their current and future flood risk using the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) address look up tool, Flood Factor’s analysis of local flooding not represented on FEMA’s flood maps, and CT ECO’s coastal hazards viewer
  • Individual properties can also restore coastal and streamside buffers to reduce their immediate flood risk, along with making structural improvements to existing buildings to increase their flood resilience. If these measures are inadequate, buyout programs can benefit repeat loss properties. 
  • Sign up for flood alerts if you live in a flood prone area, have a go-bag and plan for pets and all family members, along with pre-established evacuation routes. 
  • If moving from flood prone areas is not an option, purchasing flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program is a cost-effective near-term strategy for risk mitigation. NFIP insurance requires your municipality to meet FEMA’s requirements for basic flood awareness and preparedness.


The Role of Farmers and Forest Owners in Reducing Flood Risk

  • Water sensitive forest management – including terracing and roadway design -  slows and retains surface runoff, preventing erosion across the landscape, improving soil water storage capacity, and groundwater recharge (Tomczyk et al. 2016).
  • Water smart agricultural practices include flood resilient crops, restoring floodplains to serve as fish nursery habitat and marshland agriculture (like traditional systems of wetland hay, pasture, and wetland root crops). 
  • Upslope farm conservation practices, like contour tillage and terracing can slow surface runoff and improve rates of infiltration, which can also increase drought resilience.


Federal, State, and Municipal Infrastructure Agencies

  • Roads can be made more flood resilient by elevating bridges and increasing culvert sizes to handle increased peak flows, while also improving migratory fish passage (Neeson et al. 2018). 
  • Roadways can also be re-designed using complete street principles to integrate improved runoff controls while making safe corridors for pedestrians and cyclists (US FHA 2018). 
  • Larger scale green storm water infrastructure – like green roofs, rain water storage, multi-use parks, tree pits, bioswales, and systematic disconnections of impervious cover – can increase retention and infiltration of flood waters to address persistent urban flooding due to extreme precipitation, and can address river flooding as well (Junqueira et al. 2021). 
  • Critical infrastructure, including power generation, waste water treatment, and emergency response facilities, can be updated through new design features and building materials using existing federal guidance to improve flood resilience.


Closing Thoughts

Flood resilience comes from improved and evolving flood management approaches. Ultimately our ability to protect ourselves from flooding will rely on continuously updating our understanding of future climate impacts and how landscapes respond to the management strategies outlined above. 



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