This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In the United States, dozens of cities will continue to provide water services to households that had been scheduled to be disconnected. That’s in response to the public health implications of the coronavirus outbreak. Health officials say that frequent hand washing is a first line of defense against the virus, which the World Health Organization has classified as a global pandemic. The movement to suspend water shutoffs gained momentum last week when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined the mayor of Detroit and the head of the city’s water department to announce a plan to reconnect water service to households whose water had been shut off because of overdue bills. Detroit residents without water can pay $25 to restore water service and $25 a month to keep their water running for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak. The state of Michigan will cover the costs for the first 30 days. After that, residents will be responsible for payments. The response in Michigan led Democrats in Congress to call on other cities to follow suit, which appears to be happening. As of Saturday morning, more than 75 cities said they would suspend water shutoffs during the coronavirus emergency. That’s according to a list maintained by the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. Those cities include metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix, as well as smaller cities such as Monroe, Louisiana.
The U.S. government is telling cities to evict people from flood-prone homes using the power of eminent domain, according to the New York Times. Eminent domain allows governments to take private property and provide financial compensation to the owner as long as the seizure is in the public interest. In this case, if cities do not comply with the federal government’s instructions, they will lose a chance at funding that could help protect against climate change. The decision placed upon cities is part of an initiative by the Army Corps of Engineers to minimize the number of people living in flood zones. Buyouts of flood-prone properties used to be voluntary, but the Army Corps started to order the use of eminent domain in 2015. Invoking eminent domain is a highly controversial approach that has cities weighing the costs and benefits of forcing residents to leave their homes. Miami-Dade has refused to participate, but Nashville has started sending letters to residents in the flood zone that they must accept buyouts. Nashville and Army Corps officials have not set a timeline for people to move.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, government authorities said they will double their spending on flood defenses in the next spending cycle. The BBC reports that 5.2 billion pounds will be available when the next spending cycle begins in April 2021. The announcement was in response to recent flooding events that pummeled parts of the UK. February was the wettest month on record in the country, which has rainfall measurements dating back to 1862. Three consecutive severe storms flooded more than 3,000 homes and damaged existing flood defenses. The budget announcement includes 120 million pounds to repair those damages.
Flood prevention is also the focus of Circle of Blue’s feature story this week. We report on efforts in one California community along San Francisco Bay to control flooding and prepare for rising seas.
Foster CIty is 20 miles south of San Francisco. It’s partially encircled by six miles of mounded rock and earth. These levees are meant to keep waves, tides, and flood waters from harming about 17,000 parcels of land there and in the neighboring community of San Mateo. Those earthen embankments, however, are not protective enough. Not for floods today and not for floods of the future, considering recent federal flood zone mapping and the threat of rising sea levels. To prepare, Foster City is in the process of raising its levees by 1 to 7 feet.
In 2018, residents voted to tax themselves in order to pay for the estimated $90 million upgrade. Foster city has 35,000 residents. When the levee-raising project breaks ground later this year, it will vault to the forefront of the San Francisco Bay area’s urban efforts to adapt to rising waters. In recent years, flood control has soared as a political priority, as an important way to safeguard the region’s costly real estate, high-volume rail and highway corridors, and millions of people. The shift is marked by a number of factors: regional collaborations between state agencies, cities, and counties, the revival of an Assembly select committee on sea-level rise, and the willingness to levy new taxes like those in Foster City.
Foster City was forced to act after the Federal Emergency Management Agency reviewed recent Bay Area flood maps. The maps incorporate better data on tides and water levels in the bay. The analysis that informed the maps found that Foster City and other municipalities have higher flood risks than previously thought. Those changes, which FEMA notified the city about in 2014, had consequences. Unless it acted to reduce the risk, all of Foster City would have been placed in the flood zone, and property owners with federally backed mortgages would have to buy flood insurance for the first time.
The new flood maps represented an enormous shift for Foster City, but city officials said it was based on sound reasoning. Norm Dorais is the public works director for Foster City. He told Circle of Blue “We didn’t fight FEMA.” Instead, the city got to work. Officials asked FEMA to temporarily exclude the city from the flood zone while levee improvements were designed and funding secured.
Because FEMA would not accept indefinite delay, there was no time to wait for federal assistance. A bond measure that was put to voters in 2018 passed with more than 80 percent support. It was in voters’ financial interest to do so. The city estimates that annual flood insurance payments would cost the average household $2,000 to $3,000. Parcel taxes to repay the bond will be about a tenth of that amount.
Dorais said that the heights of the extended levees are based on two factors. One is FEMA’s new flood maps, which show the risk of a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring today. The levees, at a minimum, had to provide that amount of protection. The other factor is sea-level rise, which will affect the bay as well as the ocean. Above the protection mandated by FEMA, the city accounted for 2 feet of sea-level rise in planning the levee height.
Individual levee segments will vary in height depending on wave action in the bay. Choppier waters require higher walls. Dorais told Circle of Blue that the city chose the 2-foot sea-level rise measure based on a 2018 guidance document from a state agency, the California Ocean Protection Council. That document estimates that there is a one-in-200 chance that water levels in San Francisco Bay rise more than 1.9 feet by 2050.
The levee project was designed with those numbers in mind. But then the guidance changed. The Ocean Protection Council approved a new planning document on February 26, some six weeks after Foster City received its final permit for its levee project. The council now says that its target is to plan for 3.5 feet of sea-level rise by 2050.
Dorais acknowledged that it’s a challenge for cities to finalize major decisions when sea-level projections are changing. He said “We obviously can’t be continuously revising our design.” Because of uncertainty about future sea-level rise, Foster City was required to file an adaptation plan for post-2050. Dorais said those plans will include actions to further reduce flood risks, and they will be reviewed and revised every five years.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which depends on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.