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We don't have the tools to understand flood risk in the Genesee-Finger Lakes region

Published on 12/20/2017

We don't have the tools to understand flood risk in the Genesee-Finger Lakes region


Jayme B. Thomann, Guest Essayist Published 10:20 a.m. ET Dec. 20, 2017


All across the state, local communities are facing flooding event after flooding event, affecting homes and businesses and furthering degrading the very natural systems – like floodplains and wetland – that help protect us from flooding. Code enforcement officers, highway superintendents, floodplain managers, and other municipal officials do their best to keep our communities safe from these natural disasters, but unfortunately, some communities do not have access to modern maps that provide vital information about where our flood risk zones, coastal erosion hazard areas, and wetlands are even located.

Over the past ten years, in my role as a Senior Planner at Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council (G/FLRPC), located in Rochester, I have led numerous planning efforts to address stormwater and floodplain management. The Council was established in 1977 to provide intermunicipal and comprehensive planning services to a nine-county region, which includes Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates Counties. As a regional agency, G/FLRPC is able to examine and coordinate water resource issues at a watershed wide level. This on the ground experience has made me acutely aware of the need for more reliable and up-to-date flood data.

For instance, of the nine counties in the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region, only one county has “modernized maps” while the remaining counties are using flood risk information that dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. As one can imagine, these maps are out-of-date.

The development that has occurred over time in these communities — such as creating impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and rooftops — have redirected the natural infiltration of precipitation and decreased groundwater, which increases the amount of water entering the drainage network. Impervious surfaces increase the volume of water running through streams during storms because water runs off pavement and rooftops so quickly. Thus, the flood zones that were mapped in the 1970s and 1980s may have shifted and moved over the past forty years; structures that are mapped as “low and moderate-risk” may now be at high-risk and vulnerable to flooding.

We need modern digital maps and need them publicly available so that communities can understand the risks they face and make informed decisions to increase resilience. We also need to provide funding so communities can reduce threats to their people, property, and infrastructure.

Of course, every community is different. That’s why local needs and the priorities of the people at-risk should to dictate the solutions. G/FLRPC works across the region with communities to develop real, actionable solutions. Flood waters do not recognize political boundaries, so we must foster partnerships across municipalities to strengthen flood management efforts and increase community safety. Organizations like the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) and its state chapter, the New York State Floodplain and Stormwater Managers Association (NYSFSMA), provide training and education on various floodplain management issues, including flood mapping and insurance.

As New York continues to wrestle with the flooding we have seen across the state, they have a great opportunity to provide the resources we need for proactive community planning and ensure that all New Yorkers have modern flood risk zones, coastal erosion hazard areas, and wetland maps to inform good decision-making at every level.

Jayme B. Thomann, AICP, CFM, is the Senior Planner at the Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council and Vice Chair of the New York State Floodplain and Stormwater Managers Association.