Climate Resilience on the High Plains

For those who think only in terms of the politics of red and blue states, the conference I attended March 30-31 in Lincoln, Nebraska, may seem like a paradox, if not an oxymoron. It is neither. It is a matter of looking beyond labels to facts and common sense, and ultimately toward solutions to shared problems. The problem with climate change is that the subject has been politicized into federal policy paralysis. But the scope for local and even state action is wider than it seems.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Public Policy Center with support from the High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) sponsored the conference on “Utilizing Climate Science to Inform Local Planning and Enhance Resilience.” I spoke first on the opening panel. The sponsors have been working with communities across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. Planners, floodplain managers, and civil engineers from eleven municipalities in those states participated, along with UNL staff, climatologists, the Nebraska emergency manager, and myself.

My job was to provide a national perspective on the subject from a national professional organization, representing the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. I talked about two projects we are conducting with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Building Coastal Resilience through Capital Improvements Planning” and “Incorporating Local Climate Science to Help Communities Plan for Climate Extremes.” I made light of the fact that there was not a single coastal community among the four states of the region, but I added that the lessons from the first project are still relevant because every community plans for capital improvements, which generally constitute the biggest investments they make in their future. Capital improvements cover long-term expenditures for transportation and waste and wastewater infrastructure as well as other facilities potentially affected by climate change. In the Midwest and High Plains, instead of sea level rise, communities are watching a rise in the number and severity of extreme events on both ends of the precipitation curve—in other words, both prolonged drought and more intense rainfall. Drought taxes water supply while heavy rainstorms tax local capacity to manage stormwater. Both may require costly improvements to address vulnerabilities.

This park is part of the new urban amenity created for Lincoln residents.

I simply set the stage, however, for an increasingly deep dive over two days into the realities facing the communities represented at the workshop. Such input was an essential point of the conference. Different professionals speak differently about the problem; if planners or local elected officials are to interpret climate data in a way that makes sense politically and makes for better local policy, it is important for, say, climate scientists to understand how their data are being understood. There must also be effective information conduits to the general public, which is often confused by overly technical presentations. Moreover, what matters most is not the same for every group of listeners.

Glenn Johnson explains some of the planning of Antelope Valley.

Some of the challenges, as well as the successes, were clear from presentations by two speakers who followed me to talk about the situation in Lincoln. Glenn Johnson is retired from the Lower South Platte Natural Resources District. Steve Owen is with the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department and spoke about the challenges related to water supply and quality, as well as flooding. At the end of the conference, we spent three hours touring Lincoln’s Antelope Valley project, an interesting combination of using a weir (small dam) and landscaping tools to create adequate water storage to reduce flooding in the downtown area. This had the interesting impact of removing some land from the floodplain and sparking redevelopment in what are now some of Lincoln’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods. At the same time, the project through creative urban

Now you know what a weir looks like (if you didn’t already). Photo courtesy of UNL.

design has allowed the city to create new urban park space and trails that enhance the urban experience for residents. Responding to climate and flooding challenges need not subtract from a city’s overall prospects; it can help enhance its attractiveness to both citizens and developers. The result is that good planning has helped make Lincoln a more interesting city than it might otherwise have been. That is a message worth considering amid all the political hubbub over climate change. We can create opportunity, but we must also embrace the reality. My guess is that this is why the other ten cities were present.

Jim Schwab

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

Jim Schwab

 

Petition the White House on Climate Change

I was made aware yesterday of a new petition on the White House website concerning climate change. The White House website has long contained a mechanism by which citizens can initiate an online petition on an issue of concern and then seek support from others to bring that issue to the concern of the President and his staff. To get a formal response from the White House, the petition must attract at least 100,000 signatures in 30 days. The clock is already ticking. Because petitions have a word limit, the statement is brief and to the point:

  1. Reinstate the President’s Climate Action Plan and double down on your commitment to ensuring the U.S. is the leader in combating climate change.
  2. Allow the EPA to do their job and protect the waters, air, and people of the United States. This includes allowing them to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. Use climate change as a lens when making decisions for our country. Don’t pit economic development against environmental protection – that is a false dichotomy.

I have discussed numerous times on this blog why climate change is a serious issue facing this nation’s future, how it affects our vulnerability and undermines our resilience to natural hazards, and the scientific basis for understanding that climate change is a real phenomenon significantly influenced by human activities. While President Trump seems to deny this reality, what he has not offered so far is any scientific evidence to support his assertions. I would go so far as to say he has offered little more than tweets and campaign slogans. It is time to get serious; far, far too much is at stake for the future of both the U.S. and the world to continue in this vein.

If you wish to sign on to the petition, just go to https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-us-worlds-leader-combating-climate-change, and enter your name and a valid, current e-mail address. We may not get the response we desire, but we can at least make our voices heard.

Jim Schwab

Connecting Hazard Science and Planning Down Under

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Nearly nine years ago, when I was invited to accept a three-week visiting fellowship in New Zealand with the Centre for Advanced Engineering in New Zealand (CAENZ) at the University of Canterbury, people began to ask me why the New Zealanders were so interested in me or the work of our Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. My response was to ask another question: “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?”

The overwhelming majority of inquirers would say yes, and I would follow up by asking whether they were aware that the entire trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Most were, though not all. “Look at the landscape in those films,” I would say, adding that “it ought to come to you” after doing so. Later, I wrote an article for Planning, APA’s monthly magazine, about the experience, titling it “A Landscape of Hazards.” New Zealand almost literally has it all: earthquake faults, active volcanoes, coastal storms, landslides, flash floods, and even occasional wildfires. One day, back in the states, I even learned that a small tornado had struck in Auckland. There were very good reasons CAENZ spent enough money to bring me there to consult on national hazards policy and land use.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

One serious consequence of the visit, which included my doing seven lectures and seminars around the country during that time, was that I established a number of valuable and lasting professional relationships, some of which are occasionally rekindled by meeting Kiwi researchers at conferences in the U.S. since then. One was a young researcher, Wendy Saunders, at GNS Science, who recently sent me a copy of a new report she co-authored for this crown research center, released in November. “The Role of Science in Land Use Planning: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities to Improve Practice” made me realize that a common problem in U.S. planning, the introduction of scientific information related to natural hazards, is not much different halfway around the world, even under a rather different planning framework than ours.

Indeed, one other benefit of the trip was that, not only did they learn from me about the complexities and idiosyncrasies of land-use planning in the United States, but I learned a great deal about their system as well, and it broadened my perspective on how planning is practiced around the world. Things are somewhat simpler in this small nation of 4.2 million people on two islands that together are somewhat smaller than California. That led to an interesting comment from one gentleman to another in the front row of a modest crowd at the Christchurch regional council following one of my presentations. “We’re about the size of a small state over there,” he mused. Yes, I thought, we are two sovereign nations, but vastly different in size, with systems calibrated to very different needs as a result.

In the New Zealand context, the result is a system, based on 1989 reforms, in which there is no “state” layer of government between the national government in Wellington and local government at the municipal level. Under the nation’s Resource Management Act, however, a series of regional councils does provide oversight of environmental policy and reviews local decisions for compliance. Those regions are basically based on watershed boundaries, which may seem like nirvana to some bioregionalists in the U.S., but they entail their own political challenges. No system is perfect.

The challenge the GNS Science report addresses, in fact, is that of properly introducing natural hazards science into land-use policy at the local level, which is not an easy task even in New Zealand, where such hazards seem abundant and omnipresent. The report includes a case study of GNS’s own experience in intervening in a plan change in Hutt City, near Wellington on the North Island, where a major earthquake fault straddles and affects much urban development. The problem of how to introduce issues like climate and hazard mitigation into the planning process is one we have pondered repeatedly at the Hazards Planning Center at APA, precisely because that is our mission. As the GNS report notes, while local planners may complain that science is often presented In ways that lack translation into a local context, with no straightforward means of resolving conflicts between experts, scientists nonetheless “are often frustrated by the lack of uptake of their science in land use planning decisions.” Maybe Kiwis and Yankees, at least in this respect, have far more in common than we realize.

Inevitably, because there are no simple solutions that fit all cases, the report concludes that incorporating natural hazards science in land-use decision making is a “complex process influenced by numerous social levers and networks.” In the Hutt City case, economic development was paramount, but natural hazards took their place on the stage in part as a result of GNS Science’s intervention, a lesson to scientific researchers that it is important for them to find their voice even if local elected officials and policy makers may not absorb all the subtleties of scientific conclusions. It is not always a matter of scientists being poor communicators. Sometimes public officials must be better listeners. Scientists must be willing to learn more about the planning process, but planners must learn more about the nuances of scientific assessments. Public safety with regard to natural hazards risks is not a matter of stopping all development, but of using scientific knowledge wisely to make development better. We must all become better at reaching across disciplinary boundaries to reduce misunderstanding and misinformation and to receive information vital to making better decisions. The importance of this became very clear to me less than three years after my visit, when Christchurch, the home of CAENZ, was shaken by significant earthquakes from which the city is still recovering.

 

Jim Schwab

Climate Change as a Security Threat

It was the end of yet another trip to Washington, D.C. I generally find myself in the nation’s capital between three to five times per year, all depending on project needs, meeting invitations, and other factors mostly relevant to my work for the American Planning Association. I don’t even remember now which trip it was or what I was doing, just that when it was all over, I found my way as usual to Reagan National Airport to fly home. It was early evening, and I had left enough time for dinner at Legal Sea Foods, one of my favorite restaurants. They just happen to have an outlet in the main hall before you go through security into one of the concourses.

I was sitting at the bar, an easy place to have a good seafood dinner alone with a beer, but soon found myself next to another gentleman. Being a compulsive extrovert at heart, I introduced myself, and we were soon engaged in a conversation about what we both did. I explained my work on planning for natural hazards and learned that he was a career Navy officer. Relating to my obvious interest in coastal hazards, he informed me that he had worked on some Pacific island bases and had taken note over time of the rise in sea level that posed long-term problems for those naval facilities. I was already well aware the Department of Defense has been paying close attention to climate change as a possible source of concern for national security, in part but not solely because of its impact on military facilities and capabilities.

The conversation eventually drifted to the politics of climate change and the disconnect between many Republican conservatives’ skepticism about climate science and the more objective and cautious position of the Defense Department. He observed, as I recall, that he preferred science to ideology and then delivered his unintended punch line: “I used to be a Republican, but they’re making a Democrat out of me.” I chuckled with him, and the conversation continued.

As I thought about it later, however, I considered it sad if he felt forced to abandon his Republican roots. It may sound attractive to most Democrats to attract such a man to their ranks, but I also think it is important that some voice for climate sanity and allegiance to scientific evidence retain its voice in the Republican party. It will be a bad day for this nation when such people feel there is no room for their voice in Republican circles because it is already sad enough that climate change is viewed by many as a matter of ideology instead of scientific inquiry. There is also no question, skeptics aside, that the evidence overwhelmingly indicates human influences on a changing climate and a need to prepare for effective adaptation to changes already underway and largely inevitable.

I mention all this as a way of introducing readers to a briefing book for the change in administrations, prepared before it was clear who would become the next president. The Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), chaired by the Center for Climate and Security in partnership with George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, produced the briefing book and released it in September. CSAG consists of a number of energy and climate experts in addition to numerous prominent retired military officers and officials.

Numerous such briefing books will find their way to the transition team for incoming President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Exactly which get read and when, and how many cabinet choices may be made before that happens, is anyone’s guess. A cynical or doubtful view can be had by considering both Trump’s past comments to the effect that climate change is a hoax and the views of some of the people surrounding him. A more positive view may be gleaned from the fact that his views on many such topics seem less than solid. It also remains to be seen how serious he may be about reading briefing books, given a reputed lack of interest in reading, but it is hard to imagine how long any president can avoid confronting the briefing materials that will come his way. The fact that the advice is coming from military experts may weigh more heavily than warnings from environmentalists or even scientists. Right now, it is just hard to know. Trump is almost surely one of the least predictable incoming presidents of modern times. But if he were ultimately to take climate science seriously—admittedly a big if—his administration could almost become transformative on the issue by bringing many of his supporters with him.

As for the briefing book, “Recommended Policies and Practices for Addressing the Security Risks of a Changing Climate,” it is worth understanding its purposes, and what it does and does not do. It is not itself a scientific document. Instead, it is a consensus-based set of recommendations from the many people listed as advisors. It details specific actions the incoming administration is advised to take in areas of defense, foreign policy, homeland security, intelligence, and energy, often urging that positions responsible for monitoring and counseling on actions to address climate change be elevated to a higher status in their respective agencies and in the White House.

For example, one area that receives repeated attention throughout the document is a melting Arctic Ocean, which introduces a number of national security questions ranging from the opening of a previously frozen seaway to oceangoing traffic to issues related to the extraction of natural resources from its fragile environment. These are no small issues and demand urgent attention. A sobering but fascinating view of those changes was offered five years ago by geographer Laurence C. Smith of the University of California-Los Angeles, in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future.

The briefing book also takes the approach, already widely under consideration in the Pentagon, that climate change can potentially spawn serious international conflicts over scarce resources as a result of drought, extreme precipitation, and sea level rise, which are already inducing migration from affected areas. The ultimate question for the new Trump administration may be whether it is worth the price to the nation to ignore such potential sources of national and international instability. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon those with an intimate understanding of these issues to continue to advocate the truth as they know it—because climate change will not cease simply because some people refuse to believe in it. Climate change is not a matter of faith. It should be treated as a matter of scientific evidence and investigation.

Jim Schwab

Tools for Stronger Communities

dscf2307What makes a community stronger and more resilient in the face of severe weather threats and disasters? Clearly, preparation, awareness of existing and potential problems, and a willingness to confront harsh realities and solve problems are among the answers. Can we bottle any of that for those communities still trying to find the keys to resilience? Perhaps not, but we can share many of the success stories some communities have produced and hope that the knowledge is disseminated.

One agency with which I have worked at the federal level that seems to understand the value of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, both business and nonprofit, in achieving this dissemination of critical knowledge is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the American Planning Association (APA), we have worked with them through the Digital Coast Partnership, advancing the use of geospatial technology to improve coastal planning and coastal resource management, but also on water and climate issues. I personally participated on behalf of APA in a cooperative effort to assist NOAA in creating its Climate Resilience Toolkit, which aims to give communities and private sector stakeholders some of the tools and information they need to address issues of resilience in the face of climate change and extreme weather events.

More recently, I was very pleased to be part of an effort to add to the toolkit a Built Environment topic, or sub-toolkit. The Built Environment section aims to show that, “Cities and towns are vulnerable to sea level rise, heavy downpours, and extreme heat. Cooperative efforts of local government agencies and the private sector can promote adaptation by integrating physical resilience, social resilience, and nature-based solutions.”

A team of us, composed of people from federal agencies, academia, and national organizations, labored for months in contributing specific topics and material to the toolkit to ensure that it covered the most essential points and provided the most useful references to additional sources of information. I am especially happy to have recently completed the Planning and Land Use topic, after it survived the routine vetting by colleagues to ensure accuracy and effective message delivery. It was the last piece added, but I was very happy to put my own small stamp on the overall toolkit site.

The site is not intended to answer all questions; no site can. It is a window into the key issues, with additional resources, and a chance to reach those busy public officials and decision makers who do not have time to read entire tomes on issues like disaster recovery or transit resilience. It is more like a series of briefing papers for those looking for cogent ideas to address some of the most chronic, stress-inducing challenges community leaders face. The Built Environment is one of eleven major sections of the overall toolkit, each of which has a series of topics. For example, a section on Coasts includes several major topic areas such as sea level rise, coastal erosion, and tsunami, each with its own explanation and resources. It is an easily navigated one-stop source of information. The Climate Resilience Toolkit also includes case studies and an index of related tools.

Rummage around. You may find yourself still rummaging an hour later.

It is possible to wonder, and I am sure a few people are wondering, what the fate of such sites will be in a new administration that is highly skeptical of climate change. I don’t know the answer to that, but NOAA has been with us as a federal scientific agency for a long time, and I suspect it has a long future ahead of us. The agency includes the National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and coastal management responsibilities. It is well-known as an employer of thousands of scientists, and its current administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, is both a geologist and former astronaut. She, however, will soon be gone, and it remains to be seen who will take her place.

NOAA, like the U.S. Geological Survey, is primarily a scientific agency. The fact that its mission includes a focus on climate science should not be a detriment. It should be a badge of honor, and any new administration would serve itself well by finding out what its experts have to say and why. The nation has seen some wonderful returns on its investments in fostering such expertise, and it would be foolhardy to curtail it now. The value of NOAA goes further, however, as Sullivan’s leadership in recent years has spurred the agency to seek to bridge the gap between scientific information and public policy decision making, a direction that has allowed Sullivan and many in NOAA to seek partnerships with information conduits like APA, which can effectively reach professional audiences who can multiply the dissemination capabilities of agencies like NOAA. All parties win.

It is critical not only to generate scientific knowledge but to share it with the public in plain English forums that deliver key points. That achievement is why I recommend checking out the Climate Resilience Toolkit. I’m proud to have been part of the effort.

Jim Schwab

Can You Sue the Government for Climate Change Impacts?

The American Planning Association has just posted today this article I wrote for its APA blog: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9111027/.

Jim Schwab

Engaging Preparedness for Drought

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

Drought has historically been the disaster that fails to focus our attention on its consequences until it is too late to take effective action. While other disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and most floods have a quick onset that signals trouble, and a clear end point that signals that it is time to recover and rebuild, drought has been that slow-onset event that sneaks up on whole regions and grinds on for months and years, leaving people exhausted, frustrated, and feeling powerless. Our species and life itself depend on water for survival.

Over time, our nation has responded to most types of disasters both with an overall framework for response, centered on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and with resources for specific types of disasters with operations like the National Hurricane Center. It took longer for drought to win the attention of Congress, but in 2006, Congress passed the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Act, creating an interagency entity with that name, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NIDIS was reauthorized in 2014. Its headquarters are in Boulder, Colorado.

For the last five years, I have been involved in various ways with NIDIS and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), an academic institute affiliated with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. To date, the major byproduct of that collaboration has been the publication by the American Planning Association (APA) of a Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report, Planning and Drought, released in early 2014. Both NIDIS and NDMC have helped make that report widely available among professionals and public officials engaged in preparing communities for drought. The need to engage community planners in this enterprise has been clear. Much of the Midwest was affected by drought in 2012, at the very time we were researching the report. Texas suffered from prolonged drought within the last few years, and California has yet to fully recover from a multi-year drought that drained many of its reservoirs. And while drought may seem less dangerous than violent weather or seismic disturbances, the fact is that, in the last five years alone, four drought episodes each exceeding $1 billion in damages have collectively caused nearly $50 billion in adverse economic consequences. The need to craft effective water conservation measures and to account adequately for water consumption needs in reviewing proposed development has become obvious. We need to create communities that are more resilient in the face of drought conditions.

A subgroup of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Part of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Over the past decade, NIDIS has elaborated its mission in a number of directions including this need to engage communities in preparing for drought. It was this mission that brought me to Lincoln at the end of April for the NIDIS Engaging Preparedness Communities (EPC) Working Group. This group works to bring together the advice and expertise of numerous organizations involved in drought, including not only APA, NOAA, and NDMC, but state agencies like the Colorado Water Conservation Board, tribal organizations such as the Indigenous Waters Network, and academic experts in fields like agriculture and climatology. Over ten years since the creation of NIDIS, this and other working groups have made considerable strides toward better understanding the impact of drought on communities and regions and increasing public access to information and predictions about drought in order to give them a better basis for decision making in confronting the problem. NIDIS has conducted a number of training webinars, established online portals for databases and case studies, and otherwise tried to demystify what causes drought and how states and communities can deal with it. Our job for two days in Lincoln was simply to push the ball farther uphill and to help coordinate outreach and resources, especially for communication, to make the whole program more effective over the next few years.

Much of that progress is captured in the NIDIS Progress Report, issued in January of this year. More importantly, this progress and the need to build further national capabilities to address drought resilience, captured the attention of the White House. On March 21, the White House issued a Presidential Memorandum signed by President Obama, which institutionalized the National Drought Resilience Partnership, which issued an accompanying Federal Action Plan for long-term drought resilience. This plan enhances the existing muscle of NIDIS by laying out a series of six national drought resilience goals: 1) data collection and integration; 2) communicating drought risk to critical infrastructure; 3) drought planning and capacity building; 4) coordination of federal drought activity; 5) market-based approaches for infrastructure and efficiency; and 6) innovative water use, efficiency, and technology.

Drought clearly is a complex topic in both scientific and community planning terms, one that requires the kind of coordination this plan describes in order to alleviate the economic burden on affected states and regions. With the growing impacts of climate change in coming decades, this issue can only become more challenging. We have a long way to go, and many small communities lack the analytical and technical capacities they will need. Federal and state disaster policy should be all about building capacity and channeling help where it is needed most. The institutional willingness of the federal government to at least acknowledge this need and organize to address it is certainly encouraging.

 

Jim Schwab

 

NOAA Provides Online Resources on Water

Watershed Assessment, Tracking and Environmental Results

Occasionally, I have used this blog to link to American Planning Association blog posts that I think some readers may find important. That is the case here: At the APA blog, I provide a brief introduction to a wonderful new resource for communities on a variety of water-related issues, ranging from not enough (drought), to too much (flooding), to not good enough (water quality), and other aspects and manifestations of the numerous ways in which water influences our lives and the way we build and move around. I am pleased to have played a role on behalf of APA in helping vet and shape this new resource.

What is it? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has created a Water Resources Dashboard for those needing timely information on water from a number of perspectives. Check it out. It is a great example of how a user-friendly federal agency can provide a great service to citizens and communities and raise the level of scientific awareness generally.

Photo from NOAA Water Resources Dashboard site

Jim Schwab

The Past and Future of Disaster Research and Practice

Interdisciplinary disaster studies are still relatively new, compared to long-standing fields like geology or even psychology. I spent last week (July 19-23) in Broomfield, Colorado, first at the Natural Hazards Workshop, sponsored by the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center, and then at the one-day add-on conference of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association (NHMA). The International Research Committee on Disasters Researchers Meeting took place at the same time as the NHMA gathering. The main event marked the 40th year of the Natural Hazards Workshop, launched in 1976, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), by the Natural Hazards Center’s renowned founder, Gilbert F. White, who virtually pioneered studies of flooding in the 1930s as a geographer who served in the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, later taught at the University of Chicago, and finally found his home in Boulder, where he died in 2006 at age 94. You can read a full biography of White, a true scientific pioneer, in Robert E. Hinshaw’s Living with Nature’s Extremes, published shortly after White’s death.

To mark this milestone, current NHC director Kathleen Tierney invited several of us to join a panel for the opening plenary on July 20 to discuss both retrospective and prospective views of disaster research and practice within four disciplines. I spoke about urban planning; Howard Kunreuther spoke by video on economics; Tricia Wachtendorf of the University of Delaware on sociology; and Ken Mitchell of Rutgers University on geography. In the end, of course, we all use and benefit from each other’s insights, so it was intriguing to hear the comparisons in how our fields have approached problems of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. The forum was moderated by long-time NSF program director Dennis Wenger, who previously served at Texas A&M University, where he was Founding Director and Senior Scholar of the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center.

Wenger himself had a story to tell before introducing his panel, one involving more than 800 projects funded by NSF for more than $200 million over the years his program, Infrastructure Systems Management and Extreme Events, has been in place to fund research on hazards. It has not always had that name; as Wenger humorously noted, however, its four name changes over some four decades is “not bad for NSF.” The ballroom of 500 disaster practitioners and researchers from multiple disciplines contained more than a few people whose research has benefited from those NSF grants, which have moved the field forward in numerous and remarkable ways.

The American Planning Association taped the opening plenary and has made it available on its multimedia Recovery News blog at http://blogs.planning.org/postdisaster/2015/07/28/what-next-the-past-and-future-of-disaster-practice-and-research/. The blog post includes the PowerPoint accompanying my presentation.

 

Jim Schwab