Local Flood Resilience Efforts Get Boost From States

Massachusetts, Rhode Island show how collaboration, funding, and support can yield results

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Local Flood Resilience Efforts Get Boost From States
Three workers, wearing waders or high boots, stand on the muddy banks of the brook. A yellow piece of construction machinery sits on the opposite bank.
In Pepperell, Massachusetts, workers remove a dam and replace failing culverts on Sucker Brook, an ecologically critical cold-water fishery, to improve water quality, reduce public safety hazards, and address flood risks.
Tim McDaniels Squan-a-Tissit Chapter of Trout Unlimited

Almost every day, a U.S. community is affected by flooding. In fact, according to a recent Pew analysis of data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a flood happens somewhere in the country on eight out of every 10 days, and experts expect the threat to worsen with climate change. In response, state governments are working to help local governments get ahead of the next disaster.

Throughout the country, local governments have limited staff capacity, budgets, and flood resilience expertise, all of which create a persistent barrier to planning and investment in disaster preparedness and projects that mitigate risk.  

A growing number of states are meeting this challenge with programs that advise, fund, and offer staff support to community and regional initiatives on flood risks and planning. At a virtual meeting in March of Pew’s State Resilience Planning Group, participants discussed approaches that states have taken to cultivate community-led planning for flood impacts, and how those experiences can inform how other state programs manage current and future climate impacts. Officials from Massachusetts and Rhode Island were featured speakers on the call and shared their success stories.

Kara Runsten, director of the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program in Massachusetts, explained that the program offers grants to support local efforts to identify climate hazards and community engagement for residents to share concerns and inform solutions. Following these steps, communities are eligible for grants that support resilience projects that advance nature-based solutions, equitable outcomes and environmental justice, and build community capacity to adapt to climate impacts.

Out of Massachusetts’ 351 municipalities, 349 have received a planning grant through the MVP—a participation rate of 99%. Since its launch in 2017, the program has awarded more than 300 implementation grants and invested more than $100 million in community projects to increase climate resilience and preparedness.

Runsten told participants that one of MVP’s keys to success are six regional coordinators who proactively engage with communities, connect local leaders with other state resources, and support local resilience planning and project development efforts. Those coordinators “are an invaluable part of our program, and for anyone setting up any kind of program like this I would recommend that approach,” she said.

In western Massachusetts, MVP action grants support regional projects to inventory and assess culverts—which can contribute to flooding if they are outdated or in disrepair—and initiate projects, such as stream restoration, that enhance natural flood protection. Projects rely on community engagement, including with environmental justice and community-based organizations, and offer educational opportunities for youth crews and leadership programs.

In Rhode Island, guided by the Resilient Rhody plan, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank started the Municipal Resilience Program (MRP) in 2018 to host community workshops, provide action grants for shovel-ready projects, and help municipalities secure financing to implement the state’s first comprehensive plan to combat climate impacts.

 Four men in open collared shirts sit at a table looking at an easel with a chart. They are wearing name tags and one of the men, in a green shirt, is gesturing at the chart. Standing next to the chart is a woman in a dark blouse who is listening to the man. In the background, a half dozen other people are gathered around another table also in discussion.
The Municipal Resilience Program, managed by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, hosts community workshops to identify local hazards and vulnerabilities, and develop strategies to increase community capacity to address flood risk and avoid expensive disaster recovery.
The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island

Speaking on the call, Kimberly Korioth from the Infrastructure Bank explained: “The MRP has invested $7.5 million in action grants toward priority climate resilience projects across Rhode Island, and the program has catalyzed an additional $6 million of investment in resilience projects across the state.” These included watershed restoration and improved stormwater management projects identified in local MRP workshops. And in November, Rhode Island voters approved a bond question that will provide an additional $16 million to Rhode Island cities and towns for the completion of resilience projects identified through MRP workshops.

Watershed restoration at Bristol Golf Course, in Bristol, Rhode Island, is one such project. To improve the natural flow of water through the course, an MRP action grant supported stream restoration and vegetated buffers to limit and filter stormwater runoff that can pollute the Warren River, Bristol Harbor, and Narragansett Bay.

A pair of women volunteers wearing t-shirts and visors crouch in the grass as they plant milkweed against a backdrop of green trees and a bright blue sky.
Two volunteers plant milkweed near a pond at the Bristol Golf Course in Rhode Island. The plantings absorb stormwater runoff and pollutants, which helps improve water quality.
Courtesy of East Bay Media Group

Although community support and technical assistance programs in both states have prompted local planning and resilience action, Massachusetts and Rhode Island’s work continues. Both states’ programs are improving technical assistance to help communities bridge the gap from developing local plans to design, implementation, and maintenance of flood projects. Based on the success of hiring a pilot regional resilience coordinator, the Infrastructure Bank seeks to expand the number of coordinators to support community efforts, including identifying funding opportunities.

Both programs also have developed training for city staff to build long-term local capacity. MVP will pilot a training for community leaders on resilience best practices, equity, and environmental justice as part of its update to the planning grant program. Following the trainings and new engagement with community members, Massachusetts local leaders will revisit their existing plans to evaluate next steps and priorities. Communities will implement small-scale projects with the goal of demonstrating success and kick-starting further local action and investment.

Several meeting participants discussed opportunities for state officials to learn about local vulnerabilities and residents’ concerns through community resilience programs. People living in areas affected by flooding have knowledge and insight that help experts develop effective, flood-ready projects. Participants agreed that it’s important for state and local officials to work together to engage marginalized and underserved residents, who are often disproportionately affected by flooding, in policy and planning decisions. New federal and state funding for resilience planning is becoming available to address local needs, but continued support and collaboration across levels of government is necessary for communities to effectively access and use these resources to prepare for the climate and disasters of the future.

Kristiane Huber works on local and state-level resilience policy and planning for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.

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