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Issues Of The Environment: Prioritizing Urban Planning In Combatting Impacts Of Climate Change

University of Michigan
Taubman College

Climate change has brought more frequent incidents of heavy rains and flooding.  Old and poorly maintained infrastructure is at risk as water levels rise, and we saw that play out in Midland where two dams broke and forced evacuation of 11,000 people.  On "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair catches up with U of M professor of urban and regional planning Dr. Richard Norton.  Together they explore what to consider about the aging dams in Michigan and how proper development planning in the future can serve as a measure of flood prevention. 


  • Dam failures in Midland, Michigan are a warning that Michigan’s stormwater management infrastructure is not prepared to handle increases in precipitation, heavy rains, and flooding.  


  • The federal government offered a stark message in its national climate assessment in 2018, cautioning that aging and deteriorating dams and levees “represent an increasing hazard when exposed to extreme or, in some cases, even moderate rainfall.”  The report noted that heavy rainfalls led to widespread dam or levee failures in 2005, 2015, 2016, and 2017.  “The national exposure to this risk,” the report said, “has not yet been fully assessed.” (Source: *directly quoted*  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/opinion/michigan-edenville-dam.html


  • FEMA has outlined a risk assessment and mitigation strategy for preventing catastrophic failures of aging dams, but national experts in urban planning warn that current spending to rehabilitate dams in Great Lakes states lags far behind what is needed to keep people safe.  According to the New York Times, “If we consider dams in the eight-state Great Lakes region older than 60 years (most have a design life of 50 years) that are in counties with a population larger than 500,000, 317 dams are classified as having a high potential for hazard in a failure.  The chances of one or more of these dams experiencing a 500- or 1,000-year flooding event in a year would be 47 percent and 27 percent — which strikes us as pretty high.  The Great Lakes region exhibits approximately 10-year cycles of rainfall and is currently near record high levels.  Extreme rainfalls are happening much more frequently in the region than in the past 100 years.  What is being done to prepare for potential flooding and dam failures?  The state and the federal government have multiple offices that assess dam safety.  What we lack is an overall strategy to fix the problem and the requisite financial resources.  Rehabilitating dams with high hazard potential will cost an estimated $3 billion for federal impoundments and another $19 billion for nonfederal ones — a cost that vastly exceeds current spending.” 


  • FEMA reports that spending on prevention is far less costly than paying for a disaster.  “History shows that hazard mitigation planning and the implementation of risk reduction activities can significantly reduce the physical, financial, and emotional losses caused by disasters.” (FEMA - Local Hazard Mitigation Planning Fact Sheet.pdf)

Dr. Richard K. Norton 

Richard K. Norton is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.  He also holds a joint appointment as a professor in the Program in the Environment at U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.  Norton teaches and conducts research in the areas of planning law, sustainable development, land use and environmental planning, and coastal area management.  His most recent research has focused on the challenges of managing shorelands along the Laurentian Great Lakes.  He contributes actively to public service through community-engaged research and teaching, and by serving on the planning law committee of the Michigan Association of Planning (MAP).  In that role, he has taken the lead in preparing draft legislation for the Michigan Legislature to reform the state's planning and zoning enabling laws.  He also has written friend-of-the-court appellate briefs to the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court on behalf of the American Planning Association and MAP regarding planning and zoning disputes in the state.  Dr, Norton also serves as Chair of the Board of the Huron River Watershed Council. Prior to completing his graduate studies, Norton worked in professional practice as a consulting environmental policy analyst and planner in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

He earned his Ph.D. in city and regional planning and his JD at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, along with master’s degrees in public policy studies and environmental management from Duke University. (Source: *directly quoted* https://taubmancollege.umich.edu/faculty/directory/richard-norton)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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