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Guest Editorial: Floodplain Planning for a Successful, Resilient Future

Sen. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman is a member of the Montana State Senate, representing District 33. Sharon Brodie, also of Bozeman, is the president of the Four Corners Foundation and co-founder of the Gallatin Water Trust

This May we heaved a collective sigh of relief as our snowpack and rainfall finally reached and then exceeded average levels. However, that unseasonably late accumulation of unusually heavy early summer rains pounded high mountain snowpack, causing rapid melting. Torrents of water rushed into streams and rivers. As our waterways rose, floodplains did their jobs by spreading water across valley floors, slowing the torrents, and allowing water to travel through the watershed.

The devastating part of a flooding event isn’t the marvel of our rivers and streams and how they stretch to hold and direct floodwaters; instead, the devastation is that as our communities have grown near these waterways, we’ve increasingly encroached on the very floodplains designed to save us. Many Montana families and businesses had as much as 7 or 8 feet of standing water in their homes and places of work — and some lost their homes and belongings entirely.

From wildfires one year to flash floods the next, we have seen and will continue to see climate change affect our communities and homes. We must find ways to adapt and live with those effects. We must alter how we think about “50-, 100-, and 500-year floods” and reconsider how – or if – we should build hospitals, homes, businesses, and other critical infrastructure within floodplains. We can and must co-exist with our natural infrastructure. That may mean that we keep out of its way.

Montana’s Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act presents a locally based opportunity to be proactive. The “310 Law” requires a permit from the Conservation District (CD) for any construction that affects a perennial stream. For example, bank armoring is often used to prevent flooding and erosion during high water. Though effective for individual landowners, inappropriate armoring blocks the river’s access to its historic floodplains and, quite literally, pushes the problem downstream. Conservation districts can, and should, deny permits if a proposed project interferes with floodplains or causes negative downstream impacts.

In the Legislature, bills have been proposed to reinforce the importance of functioning river corridors. Limiting development in floodplains is an affordable and common sense approach to protecting our communities, yet it has proven politically unpopular to those whose goals are short term monetary gain rather than long-term community safety. The cost to repair this year’s flood damage is expected to reach $29 million, but losses in addition to economic losses will be substantially higher. Ask your state legislators to pass sensible, cost effective river corridor protection laws.

At the federal level, Congress is working to pass the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act. WRDA passed the House in early June and has moved to the floor of the Senate. The updated Act would require the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the benefits of using natural approaches for solving water related infrastructure problems. A key example is using wetlands to filter polluted runoff and serve as buffers for flood waters. Please contact our federal delegation and urge them to pass this important legislation.

Rulemaking and legislation aren’t very exciting topics. Still, it’s vital that we encourage our local, state, and federal decision makers to advance policies to shape resilient — and safe — communities and landscapes that respect our floodplains in the wake of a changing climate and the unfortunate impacts to our communities that come with it.

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