On Tuesday, President Joe Biden toured the devastation from Hurricane Ida in New York and New Jersey, speaking about the dire effects of climate change witnessed by everyone there: “The threat is here. It’s not going to get any better. The question is: Can it get worse?” Across the world, the answer seems to be yes: Extreme heat that’s been strengthened by a warming planet continues to sap up needed water, fueling droughts, while the atmosphere spits this water back out in the form of supercharged, fatal storms. This leaves our water systems and weather patterns highly unbalanced, which will lead to further—and yes, worse—damage in the future.
But could we somehow even it out again, perhaps by using the floods themselves to fix the things they break? Could we, say, corral the waters that flooded Tennessee farms, New York City subway tracks, and Californian forests and dump them on the parched land that’s fueling the Caldor and Dixie fires?
A similar idea was proposed as a drought solution back in the 1960s: If the U.S. constructed a series of interconnected and targeted water-transfer pipelines and dams across North America, Western areas facing water shortages could regain a steady supply and avoid future droughts. But a few major problems hobbled this project: The amount of tunneling would have upturned more than 30 billion cubic yards of land, leaving behind horrible environmental effects. The estimated cost soared up to $200 billion—which, in today’s dollars, would surpass the price tag of Congress’ current infrastructure package. And the amount of construction time required would have spanned multiple decades.
It’s not that massive water transfer projects themselves are unworkable. The lengthy California Aqueduct moves water from the wetter northern areas of the state toward the much drier SoCal, covering hundreds of miles. But even intrastate water projects require plenty of coordination and local considerations. For instance, California’s Los Angeles Aqueduct has successfully provided water from the distant Owens River for L.A.’s residents, but this has also come at a steep cost to the community that lives around the river. And with the state’s water sources quickly running low, these aqueducts can only depend for so long on the mountain snowpacks, rivers, and dams that feed them.
This is why, for years now, researchers and lawmakers have been looking into ways for individual state and local governments to use floodwaters to replenish their depleted water sources, power renewable energy, and cool down overheated cities. Their goals aren’t just to weaponize one of our most frequent and horrifying climate shocks for good, but also to leverage it toward bolstering flood- and climate-protection efforts.
Two studies out of California provide instructive examples. One, from 2018, calls for integrating the state’s flood protection efforts with those for the conservation and treatment of groundwater. Pulling together both processes could allow the state to use floods as a regular refill source for the aquifers that grow crops, store excess water, and cultivate natural environments like wetlands. The other study, from this April, proposes that using floodwaters to recharge water supplies for farming and drinking could also reduce risks of future disasters. Such efforts would require close coordination between different regulatory authorities, as well as local townships and landowners—and anyone who’s interacted with bureaucracies at any level knows how monumental this challenge can be. But it’s something we should be doing, regardless: Sanitation overseers should work more closely with weather scientists, who should work with drinking water regulators, who should work with wetland preservers, who should work with farmers who watch over irrigation networks. As belabored as this is, cooperation between these water workers could ultimately lead to more efficient water use and distribution across sectors, which could prevent future droughts from hitting agricultural areas, quench dried lands that are fueling wildfires, and help restore natural landscapes across the state that are more resilient to storms. California may not be able to collect another state’s rains to put out its wildfires, but it could use the floods that hit one region to reduce the potential for blazes in another.
It’s worth noting we have the building blocks for this kind of collaboration already in place—and in use. New York City’s recent floods renewed longtime calls by scientists for “Sponge City” infrastructure, which includes amenities like “green roofs, underground stormwater basins, permeable pavements, and bioretention facilities,” according to City & State. These would help urban areas weather torrential rains while using flood- and rainwater that’s stored to then absorb carbon from the air and reduce the temperatures of heated surfaces. Many of these amenities already exist in cities such as New Orleans, Virginia Beach, the District of Columbia, and Boston, the latter of which proudly touts its effective green infrastructure as the result of partnerships between more than five separate city agencies.
What’s lacking now is the scale. Sustainable infrastructure desperately needs to be expanded in the future, whether through financial incentives or subsidized construction, and if this happens from city to city, it can provide blueprints for other places looking for ways to combine flood- and climate-protection efforts. It’s not likely that even a fully greened town could stave off all the effects of record-setting hurricanes like Ida, but even a modest amount of this type of infrastructure can go a long way. There’s a recent example with the summer rains in China, which fell especially hard on the city of Zhengzhou, a pioneer of Sponge City development. While the metropolis still faced damage and death from the unprecedented rains, the amount of destruction was far lower than what could have been: Green investments ensured that 125 areas within the city had their flood risks entirely eliminated, saving them from the bulk of the impact. Closer to home, scientists and officials have agreed that New Orleans’ investments in water protection along with wetland restoration and surfaces that absorb and hold water saved the city from another Katrina-level disaster during the recent hurricanes.
There are still challenges ahead. To accurately capture and weather floods, our storm prediction programs must become more precise as hurricanes and rainfall become more erratic. As NASA warned in a 2015 report, we’re lacking in knowledge of how much more environmental disaster our dams, levees, sea walls, and energy facilities can stand. There’s little doubt, however, that our current flood-prevention and water-management programs are insufficient, suffering from age and underinvestment. Meanwhile, much of the recent disasters in the South and the East Coast stemmed not from brimming seas, but from poorly maintained apartments, shoddy infrastructure, and overflowing sewers, all ill-equipped to handle heavier-than-expected rains.
We could see some fixes here if the infrastructure and budget reconciliation legislation provide a significant amount of funds earmarked for water management projects. But therein also lies the problem: tying together all the disparate things “water infrastructure” consists of, encompassing wastewater treatment and recycling, river-managing reservoirs, stormwater controls, and much more besides—and then making sure those funds expedite collaborative efforts between water managers. Could we use terrifying floodwaters for good? By all means, the capacity and ability to do so is there. As usual, it just now depends on the political and popular will to take the risks and try it.