Local Leaders Call for U.S. Help to Deal With Climate Change

Photographer: Marianna Massey/Getty Images

People survey the damge to portions of the railway below Scenic Highway after part of the highway collapsed following heavy rains and flash flooding on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Florida. Close

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Photographer: Marianna Massey/Getty Images

People survey the damge to portions of the railway below Scenic Highway after part of the highway collapsed following heavy rains and flash flooding on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Florida.

Bloomberg BNA — Local leaders who are members of a White House advisory panel are calling for better coordination across the federal government and reforms to federal funding programs and policies to help them deal with increased threats of flooding, hurricanes and other impacts associated with climate change.

Des Moines, Iowa, Mayor Frank Cownie (D), who was host to the group's latest meeting, said improved communication between federal agencies is needed to help communities react “in the throes of an event,” such as a flood. In Iowa, flooding events are a concern because they can lead to soil erosion and threaten water quality, Cownie told Bloomberg BNA May 15.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is often the first agency to show up after such an event, but other agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, also should get involved to monitor how and where water is accumulating during a flood, he said.

“Maximizing access” to all of these agencies early on could help local leaders more quickly react to flooding events and build in resilience to prepare for future events.

“It's our impression that there needs to be improved communication, not only from the federal, state and local levels for how to react in the throes of an event but also in the planning process,” Cownie said.

Part of Task Force

Cownie is part of a task force of governors, mayors, county officials and tribal leaders that has been asked to develop recommendations for how to reform federal policies and programs to better serve communities' resiliency needs. Their recommendations are due to the president by this fall.

Cownie said the task force discussions, which ran May 13-14, also touched on how to fund local resiliency efforts.

“Often the best thoughts that we have in local government need to be approved, appropriated and funded,” he said. Cownie said task force members explored where those resources would come from and whether resiliency could be embedded into existing federal funding programs.

Federal programs for upgrading water management systems, for example, should allow for more flexibility and innovation in how funds are spent by local governments to deal with climate impacts, according to recommendations from a national preparedness campaign called Resilient Communities for America.

Agreement Signatories

Many of the local officials on the task force, including Cownie, are signatories to the Resilient Communities for America agreement, which launched in June and now includes more than 165 officials from 36 states and the District of Columbia.

The group outlined nine recommendations for how federal programs can be modernized to best support resilient communities in a report submitted to the climate task force May 14.

Vicki Bennett, sustainability division director for Salt Lake City, said another issue that came up during the task force meeting was the need to incorporate climate change considerations into existing federal policies, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Bennett, who attended the meeting with Ralph Becker, mayor of Salt Lake City and a task force member, said climate change isn't formally included in NEPA evaluations, which would be required for a road project near a river or any sort of change in a watershed that could affect the city's water supply.

“In the mountains above Salt Lake City, as the temperature rises, we're seeing that we're going to have a reduced water flow and actually lose our natural snowmelt” which acts as a reservoir for the city, Bennett told Bloomberg BNA. So NEPA evaluations for projects that could affect runoff also should take into account the potential loss of snowmelt in the future, she said.

‘Scalable' Strategies

The task force will meet once more, likely in July, before it readies its recommendations for the federal government. Part of that work will mean prioritizing which recommendations are the most actionable, replicable and affordable, Cownie said.

The recommendations also should be “scalable” across different parts of the U.S., he said.

“Some of the strategies designed for Hoboken [N.J.] might not work in Des Moines,” while other strategies “might work for all of us,” Cownie said. “Those kinds of strategies will be a higher priority.”

Becker said “one of the real benefits” coming out of the recently released National Climate Assessment and the work of the task force is that communities now have much more detailed information on climate impacts at the local level, which will help with resilience planning.

“Depending on where we live, the effects are really different,” Becker told Bloomberg BNA. But “when it comes to resilience and adapting, we all were discussing how we change our infrastructure to provide for changing conditions,” whether that's flooding, droughts or reduced snowpack, he said.

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