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Award Recognizes Key Players in Floodplain Management

On September 3, River Partners received the Floodplain Management Association’s Award for Excellence during the FMA annual conference in San Diego. The award was given to River Partners for its efforts in restoring habitat and ecosystem functions in California’s floodplains. The FMA also presented its Award for Excellence to the Army Corps of Engineers for its work after Hurricane Katrina.

Historically, River Partners and the Army Corps of Engineers have taken very different approaches to managing floodplains.

In its ten years of existence, River Partners has sought to return floodplains to their natural and beneficial functions that range from supporting endangered species to storing and conveying floodwaters. It has planted one million trees and bushes and in the process has provided a number of ecosystem and human services such as flood risk reduction, groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, habitat for numerous species, and the filtering of agricultural runoff.

In dealing with floods and floodplains, the Army Corps of Engineers has historically focused on structural approaches such as levees, flood walls, and concrete-bottomed channels. This narrow focus is often criticized as leading to increased flood damage downstream and resulting in the loss of critical wetlands and the destruction of natural systems. However, there is a recent shift in the Corps’ focus.

Thanks to new legislation in response to this criticism and the Corps’ own adoption of its “Environmental Operating Principles”, environmental stewardship and sustainability have emerged as key issues for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Passed by Congress, the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 imposes strict new mitigation requirements for the Corps’ civil works projects and makes environmental protection, restoration and mitigation central components of national policy on flood control and water resources project planning. Specifically, the Act declares, in part, that it is U.S. policy that all water resource projects 1) seek to avoid the unwise use of floodplains and flood-prone areas and 2) protect and restore the functions of, and mitigate unavoidable damage to, natural systems.

Maintaining and enhancing the ecological integrity of floodplains is especially important in an era of climate change when increased floods and droughts are anticipated. Floodplains act as natural sponges and basins that absorb storm surges. They help minimize the impacts of drought by recharging groundwater supplies and filtering pollutants. In addition, floodplains provide critical habitat for fish and wildlife and create valuable recreational opportunities.

Currently the Army Corps of Engineers is revising their Principles and Guidelines to incorporate the policies set forth in the new Act. We look forward to their success in this endeavor and their “Environmental Operating Principles.”

The above article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the River Partners Journal.