How nature is taming policy: a watershed approach to flood risk management

Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX)

This post is part of a series

The rich culture, delicious cuisine, festivals, and abundant natural beauty make it so easy to fall in love with Louisiana - but, being on the frontlines of climate change for the past decades, it’s also a risky place to love.

Whether by inland rivers, stormwater, or coastal storm surge, Louisiana is facing increased risk from both the magnitude and frequency of flood events. Dubbed the Great Flood of 2016, Louisiana experienced two historic rain events that impacted 56 of Louisiana's 64 parishes and highlighted statewide vulnerabilities and exposed the lack of water and land management. More than 145,000 rental and owner-occupied homes across the state were flooded–an estimated $10 billion in damages. These historic flooding events exposed deficiencies in floodplain management approaches at all levels of government. 

In an effort to address these deficiencies, the state received $1.2 billion through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. This initiative aims to mitigate flood risk statewide by managing water at the watershed scale through modeling, regional capacity building and coordination, and workforce development over the next 10 years. This watershed approach uses the watershed’s ecological boundaries rather than political boundaries as geography for decision making. This is a significant change from the jurisdictional approach to water management  in the U.S. and in Governor Edwards’ words: “It's harder. It requires more work. It’s politically risky, but it is the right thing to do.” And here is why:

It’s Harder

Every parish and municipality has its own set of identity, culture, economic drivers, and development regulations (or lack thereof). For instance, the City Parish of Lafayette is closely working with its rural communities in the Acadiana region to make water management decisions together. Making development decisions that have long-term community benefits is much more difficult when environmental, social, and economic conditions are in flux - within, across, and between parishes and municipalities (not to mention the broader state and national contexts). These changing conditions are disrupting the jurisdictional approach to managing risks, planning for land use, and using natural resources wisely. Our communities have been impacted by flooding so many times that we are constantly in recovery mode and barely able, if not completely unable, to assess the shortcomings of our standard operating procedures and embrace a watershed approach. Implementing this new approach requires data to make informed decisions, dedicated staff and leaders to implement these decisions, and a paradigm shift related to how we live in a watershed with high flood risk.

It Requires More Work

A watershed approach to managing flood risk requires a robust, data-driven model to inform land and water management needs at scale. This first requires building consensus on the expectations, purpose, and use of the model. It also requires that we build the local and state capacity to collect the data, operate and maintain the models, communicate the model outputs, and drive cross-jurisdictional and -agency decision making based on the model’s outputs. It then requires that parishes prioritize the watershed boundary over the political one to manage land use and implement water management practices. Don’t be fooled by this short paragraph on the enormity of the tasks. 

It’s Politically Risky

Like flooding itself, watersheds do not follow jurisdictional or political boundaries. But the jurisdictional and political boundaries are where land use decisions that impact flood risk get made: Where to develop what and how. It is also where recovery funding – an economy in itself – is received and spent. Sometimes neighbors are friends, sometimes foes, but competition for resource allocation complicates everything. Taking a watershed approach requires collaboration and coordination between political entities in a common watershed and consensus on the best path forward to reduce flood risk, share available resources, and consider upstream and downstream impacts on neighbors. This means advocating for resources, even when those resources are distributed unevenly. Meaning, some will “get more than others,” in the short-term, but this resource allocation will ultimately be for the common good and the long-term benefit of the watershed and its communities.

It’s The Right Thing To Do

When it comes to dealing with climate change in Louisiana, we need to recognize that our communities, our health, our economy, and our overall future is at stake. In a state with nearly 18% of its population living in poverty, we cannot afford repetitive flooding of properties. The choices that we make today about how we invest in our people and places will determine the viability of our communities tomorrow. In a state where the most at-risk people are most often the most vulnerable, a watershed approach has the potential to reduce their risk of damages and losses from flooding. Beyond protecting residents, a watershed approach also has the potential to conserve and preserve natural resources and habitats. By implementing best practices such as Nature Based Solutions, it also takes cost-effective advantage of ecosystem services. 


To secure a more resilient future, it is essential that the value of Louisiana’s water is recognized from multiple perspectives, including economic, social, and environmental, with an understanding how watershed and floodplain management can mitigate risks in light of evolving  environmental and economic conditions. A successful watershed-based approach to flood risk management requires a clear delineation of responsibilities, as well as cooperation and coordination between entities at the state, local, and regional levels. If we continue to take the business as usual approach, we will continue to incur severe and sometimes catastrophic damages and losses to economies, communities, and natural resources. The time to make these changes is when the climate and economies are changing. Meaning, the time is now.

About CPEX

CPEX is a non-profit planning organization that works with communities throughout Louisiana to build more resilient, livable places where future generations can live, work, and thrive. We provide planning tools, expertise, and services at multiple scales, from neighborhoods to state government, to facilitate a holistic dialogue about quality of life and opportunity in Louisiana’s diverse, culturally-rich communities.