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RFF Home > Centers > CMEW > Using Natural Infrastructure to Build Resilience to Climate Change

Using Natural Infrastructure to Build Resilience to Climate Change

Floods accounted for more lives lost and more property damage than any other natural disaster in the United States during the 20th century. Most climate models predict that the frequency and severity of flooding will worsen, and flooding can affect every region, whether coastal or inland, urban or rural. To build resilience in the face of flood risk, many communities in the United States are focusing on changing local land use in the floodplain—in particular, investing in strategically placed “natural infrastructure”—to provide a buffer against climate-induced increases in flooding. But while natural infrastructure is appealing, many questions remain for effective implementation.

RFF researchers are working to address these questions:

  • How much land should be protected and which parcels should be targeted, particularly in a future world with more extreme precipitation events?
  • To what extent can changing land use achieve other benefits, such as protected habitats, improved water quality, and enhanced recreational opportunities?
  • How do communities balance flood protection with the other benefits—and costs—of natural infrastructure?
  • What climate adaptation policy tools do local governments have at their disposal for bringing about this land use change?

Research Highlights

The Role of Land Use in Adaptation to Increased Precipitation and Flooding: A Case Study in Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River Basin

In this RFF discussion paper, RFF’s Carolyn Kousky, Sheila Olmstead, Margaret Walls, and Molly Macauley assessed the benefits and costs of open space preservation in the East River Watershed of Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River Basin. They found that while the costs of a watershed-scale preservation policy would likely exceed the flood damage mitigation benefits, strategically preserving high-benefit, low-cost land parcels could actually generate net benefits. The analysis demonstrates how any flood-prone community can use the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazus model to estimate the flood damage reduction benefits of natural infrastructure, compare them to the costs, and target investments to design cost-effective nonstructural flood damage mitigation policies. This research was also published in Environmental Science and Technology.




The Meramec Greenway and Reducing Flood Damages in St. Louis County

St. Louis County, Missouri, is located in the triangle formed by the Missouri, Mississippi, and Meramec Rivers and 16 percent of the county's land is in the 100-year floodplain. RFF's Margaret Walls and Carolyn Kousky, along with a team of hydrologists, are conducting a two-year benefit-cost analysis of the role of floodplain conservation efforts in mitigating flood damages in the county.

The project has three components:

  1. a retrospective analysis of the costs and benefits of the Meramec Greenway in reducing flood damages and providing recreational and other benefits;
  2. an assessment of the resilience benefits of the Meramec Greenway in a world with climate change; and
  3. a prospective analysis of the role of strategically placed natural infrastructure in the county for mitigating increased flood risks from climate change.

An overview of the research project was presented at the Ninth Symposium on Policy and Socio-Economic Research at the American Meteorological Society annual meetings in February 2014.

The project is funded under a grant from the NOAA Climate Program Office, Climate and Societal Interactions Division, Sectoral Applications Research Program. It is also featured as a case study in NOAA’s US Climate Resilience Toolkit, a guide developed to help communities and businesses “through the process of planning and implementing resilience-building projects.”



​The Benefits of Coastal Protected Areas and Their Role in Climate Adaptation

Natural lands in coastal areas—including beaches, dunes, wetlands, and forests—provide valuable ecosystem services such as reducing storm surge, storing floodwater, regulating temperatures, and improving water quality. With changes in climate, these services will become even more valuable, yet also face increased risks from erosion, saltwater intrusion, inundation, and changing storm patterns. RFF’s Rebecca Epanchin-Niell, Carolyn Kousky, and Margaret Walls are creating a spatial inventory of protected lands in coastal areas along the US eastern seaboard, analyzing the institutional structures governing those lands and their ability to incorporate climate adaptation, identifying the range of ecosystem services provided by those lands, and cataloging the potential threats to these lands from climate change. The goal of this project is to provide a comprehensive and realistic inventory of benefits from, and threats to, protected natural lands in coastal areas.

RFF’s Margaret Walls presented initial findings at a November 2014 conference, Restore America’s Estuaries 7th National Summit on Coastal and Estuarine Restoration and 24th Biennual Meeting of the Coastal Society.