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CMEW  >  Our Work > Valuation, Data, and Methods > Creating Resilience to Climate Change: Cost-Effective Land Conservation in the Floodplain

Creating Resilience to Climate Change: Cost-Effective Land Conservation in the Floodplain

Project Summary

Creating Resilience to Climate Change: Cost-Effective Land Conservation in the Floodplain Floods accounted for more lives lost and more property damage than any other natural disaster in the United States during the 20th century. Most climate models predict the frequency and severity of flooding to worsen, and in a recent Natural Resource Council study of the likely effects of a changing climate on the nation, flooding is almost unique as an impact that will affect every region, whether coastal or inland, urban or rural.

To build resilience in the face of flood risk, many communities in the United States are focusing on changing local land use—in particular, investing in strategically placed “green infrastructure”—to provide a buffer against climate-induced increases in flooding. But while the green infrastructure approach is appealing, many questions remain for effective implementation. How much land should be protected and which parcels should be targeted, particularly in a future world with more extreme precipitation events? To what extent can changing land use achieve other benefits, such as protecting habitat, improving water quality, and enhancing recreational opportunities? How do communities balance flood protection with the other benefits—and costs—of green infrastructure? And what climate adaptation policy tools do local governments have at their disposal for bringing this land use change about?

RFF experts Carolyn Kousky and Margaret Walls are addressing these questions in a two-year study, funded under a grant from the Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office. Their study area is St. Louis County, Missouri, a community that is located in the triangle formed by the Missouri, Mississippi, and Meramec Rivers. Fully one-third of the county’s land is in the 100-year floodplain. They will collaborate with two researchers from Southern Illinois University’s geology department, Nicholas Pinter and Jonathan Remo, both of whom are experts in flood hydrology. They also have local partners in Great Rivers Greenway, the metropolitan park district in the St. Louis area; East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the regional planning agency; the Association of State Floodplain Managers; and the National Recreation and Parks Association.

The project has three parts: (1) a retrospective analysis of the costs and benefits of the Meramec Greenway in reducing flood damages and providing recreational and other benefits; (2) an assessment of projected changes in future flood damages in St. Louis County as a result of climate change; and (3) a prospective analysis of the role of strategically-placed green infrastructure in the floodplains in the county for mitigating increased flood risks from climate change. The study will also investigate the potential for transferring development from flood-prone areas to other areas in the county.

The project will be the first to combine in-depth economic analysis of land use and flood/hydrology modeling under climate projections, but it builds on a smaller scale study RFF researchers carried out under the auspices of the NOAA Coastal Services Center’s Digital Coast Partnership in 2011. The project period is September 2012 to September 2014. For more information, email Margaret Walls at or Carolyn Kousky at