Brett Cole Photo

Report: Strategic Land Protection Curbs Damages Caused by Climate-Related Flooding

NEW YORK, NY (Jan. 28, 2021)—The Open Space Institute (OSI) today unveiled a new report urging increased efforts among policymakers and the land trust community to harness strategic land protection to mitigate destructive floods nationwide. The findings are intended to highlight the role that land conservation can play in protecting communities, infrastructure, and lives, as flood events become more frequent and destructive as a result of climate change.

The report (a two-page summary is here) showcases a range of scientific and funding opportunities to accelerate the pace of land protection. Also contained in the report are recommendations for land trust practitioners; state, regional, and local government leaders; and others, on the education, planning, and outreach that land trusts need to effectively advance this work.

As the climate changes, coastal areas and inland communities are at risk of serious flood impacts. A 2021 study from Stanford University found that a third of the financial damage caused by flooding in the U.S. over the past three decades — almost $75 billion — can be attributed to excess precipitation caused by climate change. As this problem worsens, some communities are seeking a powerful and cost-effective solution in safeguarding land.

“As extreme weather events caused by climate change are becoming more severe and more frequent, local officials and land trusts are uniquely positioned to play leadership roles in utilizing targeted land protection to defend against flooding destruction in the communities where they live and work,” said Kim Elliman, OSI’s president and CEO. “OSI’s report provides an invaluable path forward for these community leaders to take active steps to prevent and curb the devastating effects of storm-related flooding."

One of the most effective ways to reduce flood impacts to communities is to retain the floodplain forests and wetlands that provide natural defenses against floods. Conservation safeguards the land’s ability to slow and temper flood waters, directs development away from flood-prone areas, and helps to avert future damage. Such protection also has a high return on investment, saving an average of five dollars in avoided flood damage for every dollar spent, according a study by The Nature Conservancy.

Beyond flood mitigation, preserving floodplain lands also maintains water quality by capturing pollution, provides landscape connectivity that facilitates species migration, and stores a significant amount of atmospheric carbon.
Image Credit: Brett Cole

For example, in 2011 high levels of protected forests and wetlands upstream of Middlebury, Vermont, were credited with dissipating nearly half the volume of flow that hit the community from Tropical Storm Irene, whose floods had devastated other communities throughout the region. University of Vermont researchers estimate that these intact natural lands reduced flood damages in Middlebury by as much as 90 percent, saving the town $1.8 million.

Beyond flood mitigation, preserving floodplain lands also maintains water quality by capturing pollution, provides landscape connectivity that facilitates species migration, and stores a significant amount of atmospheric carbon. On an individual level, floodplain protection also promotes recreation, supports local economies, and enhances community health and wellbeing.

With more than 1,000 land trusts across the country, many of these organizations possess relevant skills, from transactional expertise; to experience with ecological restoration, planning, and land management; and capacity for long-term stewardship. All of these abilities make them valued partners in advancing land-based approaches to flood hazard mitigation.

“This authoritative report from Open Space Institutes shines a light on the important role that land trusts will need to play to lessen community impacts from climate change, and presents effective guidance for implementation, engagement and collaboration,” said Kelly Watkinson, Land and Climate Program Manager at the Land Trust Alliance. “We thank the Open Space Institute for their leadership within the land trust community, and their dedication to mobilizing land protection to protect communities and save lives.”

On the ground, OSI is also helping to further the conservation of floodplains through its Catalyst grants. For example, one OSI Catalyst grant to smart growth advocate New Jersey Future helped Medford, NJ, enroll in a voluntary incentive program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), called the Community Rating System (CRS) — which rewards communities for taking proactive steps to increase flood resilience, with discounts for homeowners on federal flood insurance.

OSI’s work to facilitate land trust response to flooding is supported by the Jane’s Trust Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.

In its addition its work on floodplain protection, OSI through its Resilient Landscapes Initiative (RLI) has also disseminated science and resources to help land trusts assemble vast networks of “climate-resilient” lands. These places will be more likely to harbor sensitive plants and animals, even as the climate changes. Through the RLI Catalyst program, OSI also integrated climate science into more than 40 conservation plans by land trusts and public-private partnerships, and disseminated training materials and case studies to more than 1,300 practitioners.

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