Hard Realities on the Environmental Disaster Front

More than two-thirds of the continental United States was plagued by drought in 2012. (AP)

See: State of the States 2013

Hot, bone-dry and unrelenting — such were the conditions across Kansas for much of 2012. Kansans have rarely seen anything worse. That is a powerful notion in a state that was buried under the Dust Bowl eight decades ago and suffered epic droughts in the 1950s and 1980s.

Prospects for the near future don’t look much better, and state officials are well aware of the reality. “No matter how you say it, conditions are dry, and there’s no positive outlook,” says Tracy Streeter, who heads the Kansas Water Office.

Streeter’s counterparts in much of the country offer their own versions of that bleak forecast. From the slow-moving, suffocating drought that wreaked havoc on crop conditions, to quick-punching, deadly tornados and tropical storms, many states are still picking up the pieces from 2012, while debating how best to mitigate what’s on the horizon. (See Stateline infographic.)

In Kansas and Texas, that means pushing water conservation and weighing investments in infrastructure that could tap new supplies. States in the West will be looking for ways to prevent or neutralize destructive wildfires that have accompanied the hot, dry weather. Along the Hurricane-ravaged Mid-Atlantic coast, where policymakers are finally poised to get relief from Washington, questions loom about where and how to rebuild along the seashore.

But many states looking to guard against extreme and unpredictable weather are simultaneously struggling to fund basic government services. With that backdrop, states will aim to boost resilience using fewer resources.

A Devastating Year

See Stateline Infographic: Extreme Weather Exacts Heavy Toll Across States. Extreme weather was the norm in the United States in 2012, as almost every state was touched by a climate event whose economy-wide cost exceeded $1 billion.

Almost every state was touched by major natural disasters in 2012. Only Maine, Michigan, Vermont and Wisconsin were left unaffected by weather events whose cost exceeded $1 billion each, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA is still calculating the financial blows dealt by Hurricane Sandy and the near-nationwide drought, but those damages are almost certain to make 2012 one of the costliest years on record.  

With Kansas at the epicenter, the drought at its peak gripped about two-thirds of the continental U.S. It killed 123 people and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of crops and cattle, elevating food prices. It still lingers across more than half the country.

Last year was also the nation’s hottest on record, creating prime conditions for wildfires. Some 9.2 million acres — mostly in the West — were destroyed. That total includes Colorado’s Waldo Fire, which devoured some 340 homes in just four hours. Only two years in recorded history have seen more acres burned in the U.S.

Fire suppression cost some states tens of millions of dollars, exhausting what was budgeted. In Idaho, where fire tore through 1.25 million acres of land last year, federal and state agencies combined to spend about $200 million. “This impacts any governor’s budget,” says Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter. “That’s less money that I have for social services. That’s less money I have for education.”

But Sandy was the year’s deadliest disaster. Churning up the East Coast in late October, its powerful winds and rain — and the flooding that came with them — overwhelmed some of the nation’s largest population centers, killing 131 people, destroying thousands of homes and businesses and cutting off water and electricity to millions of people.

Responding to Sandy

Sandy will echo loudly in legislative chambers as East Coast state officials continue recovery efforts while considering how best to prepare for the next major storm — whenever it may come.

Calls for more cautious coastal management are hardly new. But last year’s vivid examples of what can go wrong have turned up their volume.

In Maryland, Governor Martin O’Malley last month ordered state agencies to consider sea level rise and flood risks, using updated guidelines, in all new and rebuilt state structures. The Climate Change and Coast Smart Construction Executive Order also directs state environmental regulators to work with local communities to develop new plans for development along the coast.

“As storms such as Hurricane Sandy have shown,” O’Malley said, “it is vital that we commit our resources and expertise to… taking the necessary steps to adapt to the rising sea and unpredictable weather.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has launched expert panels to study coastal infrastructure and the state’s emergency response capabilities. The panels have already offered recommendations, some of which will be costly. Among them are creating a gas reserve, constructing a depot carrying emergency provisions, creating an emergency text message alert system and training citizen first responders. Experts have also recommended that the state update its building code.

In his State of the State speech this month, Cuomo backed those ideas, and introduced a few others, including programs that would fund property owners’ storm mitigation efforts and buy out homes where residents prefer not to rebuild.

Post-Sandy New Jersey

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, where Sandy damaged or wiped away some 340,000 homes, storm response will take center stage in the 2013 legislative session. Most notably, lawmakers will weigh how quickly and carefully to rebuild along the state’s battered coastline. When it comes to development in such risky areas, New Jersey’s laws are among the most lenient in the nation. Unlike many coastal states, New Jersey allows property owners to rebuild in the same spot where they were hit.

Many lawmakers are eager for a quick rebuild that would kick-start economic activity in areas leveled by the storm and generate tax revenue for the strapped state. Hard-hit municipalities are likely to call on the state for help, particularly local governments whose budgets were drawn up using pre-Sandy home values to calculate tax revenue.

“You can’t charge somebody the same amount for a 3,000 square foot home when there’s no home there….Their incomes are going to be vastly reduced and that’s going to put more pressure on the state to help the municipalities,” Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey’s former governor, recently said on the television show New Jersey Today.

Along with the desire for a quick return to normal times in New Jersey, there is a realization that weather along the coast is becoming more extreme. Girding for hard-to-predict weather conditions will require a more deliberate process than investments in infrastructure. “Just to put it back exactly how it was makes absolutely no sense at all,” Stephen Sweeney, the state senate president, told Stateline. “It’s going to be a much different New Jersey.”

In a State of the State speech devoted largely to recovery efforts, however, Christie did not suggest any major changes to the state’s development policy. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to questions about the issue, saying in an email: “There are a host of issues that will need to be examined.”

Thirsty States: Kansas, Texas

See Stateline's 13th annual State of the States report on key issues, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between states and the federal government.

Elsewhere, the still-unfolding drought disaster is weighing on public officials’ minds. In Kansas, where river levels have hit historic lows, policymakers say they are preparing for the worst, and asking local officials and farmers to grit their teeth and do the same.

Responding to the drought in 2012, Kansas reformed its water policy, amending the state’s “use it or lose it” water law, which critics said encouraged farmers and others to waste water so they could maintain access to it. The state also expanded water banking, allowing water rights holders to sell excess resources. This year, legislators will consider whether to make further changes, while pushing regional collaboration among water systems.

A more high-profile debate will take place in Texas, whose booming population is draining its scarce water supply. There will be a flurry of water proposals this year. Joe Straus, the House speaker, has called water the most pressing issue on legislators’ crowded 2013 agenda.

Much of the talk surrounds finding money to begin implementing the state’s water plan, which calls for $53 billion in recommended infrastructure upgrades — including the construction of 20 new reservoirs — which would help Texas meet about one-quarter of its water needs over the next half century, according to state projections. In the past, water plans have gone unfunded.

One financing idea would tap the state’s $9 billion rainy day fund, a thorny issue in past sessions. Bills recently introduced in the House and Senate would use the fund to create a $2 billion revolving loan program for water projects, which would be expected to sustain itself in the long term.

Environmentalists, however, say solving the problem will require fundamental changes that go beyond simply funding the state water plan. They say the plan addresses water needs for industry and agriculture at the expense of maintaining flows that keep plant and animal ecosystems healthy. They want to emphasize conservation above tapping new sources.

“This issue is not a one-size fits all,” says Jennifer Walker, a water policy analyst for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. “You can’t just throw money at it and fix it.”

Meanwhile, governors elsewhere, particularly in the West, say they will push for better drought forecasting on a national level, while working with parched communities on the ground.

“We can’t make it rain,” Utah Governor Gary Herbert said last month at a forum in Washington, D.C., “but we can do a better job of preparing for drought conditions and mitigating the impacts of drought.”

See: State of the States 2013


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