By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – There is nothing new about hurricanes. Benjamin Franklin charted the flow of the Gulf Stream in the 1780s, mapping the fast-moving “river” of warm water that sweeps up from Florida, travels swiftly across the Atlantic to Europe and regathers speed in warm waters off the west coast of Africa. Then and now, the Gulf Steam contributes to the formation and intensity of hurricanes.
Nor are wildfires a recent phenomenon. The biggest wildfire in California history in terms of square miles scorched took place in the late 1880s, long before it became the nation’s most populous state.
What’s new is that a combination of inattention to science, human behavior and poor public policy is making things a lot worse before and after such disasters strike.
The sprawling city of Houston is flood-prone. It is situated on a low-lying coastal plain and built on soil that doesn’t drain well. Over time, much of the region’s wetlands have been lost – about 30 percent between 1992 and 2010 alone – and replaced with impervious surfaces. It shouldn’t be surprising that huge amounts of rain such as what was dumped by Hurricane Harvey would result in massive loss of property and even lives.
The victims of Harvey in Houston and elsewhere aren’t to be blamed, of course. Blame should be reserved for public policies that have made a naturally flood-prone city more so. The nation’s fourth-largest city does not have a zoning code. It has a storm water system one expert described as “not designed for anything much stronger than a heavy afternoon thunderstorm.” Developers routinely build homes in 100-year floodplains.
And yet, aid will pour into Houston in the forms of grants, tax breaks and federal incentives that likely won’t compel local and state officials there to change anything.
In California, out-of-control wildfires in northern California have killed more than 30 people and spanned at least 265 square miles. Such fires have natural causes, including lightning, but it’s more often humans who provide the spark. When fires break out, they tend to spread by consuming fuel along the way – underbrush not removed, dry crops and vegetation, forests not thinned by controlled cuts or burns, and buildings in fire-prone areas. In California, the federal Environmental Protection Agency itself is at least partially to blame, refusing to allow more prescribed fires near developed areas.
“The EPA is ignoring the fact that prescribed fires emit far less pollutants than wildfires,” said Brent Haglund, chief executive officer and chief science officer for the Sand County Foundation in Madison. “The pollutants released in a wildfire, especially when it reaches dwellings and other development, will curl your hair.”
As with hurricane-stricken areas in the Gulf Coast and Florida, federal aid in California may not come attached with strings designed to lessen the severity of wildfires when they inevitably occur.
What’s the lesson for Wisconsin? There are low-lying areas that are flood-prone and drought could turn its forests into tinderboxes, but a more recent example involves resource management and the fight over high-capacity wells in central Wisconsin.
A Dane County judge ruled Oct. 11 that the state Department of Natural Resources must consider the cumulative effects of high-capacity wells, most often tapped to water crops, on nearby lakes, streams, rivers and other wells. The judge cited the state’s Public Trust Doctrine and a 7-0 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in a similar case. Her ruling essentially trumped a legal opinion by Wisconsin’s attorney general, which said the DNR lacks the authority to place conditions on developers of high-capacity wells.
There is ample precedence to be found, as well, in longstanding Texas law governing groundwater use. In 1904, the Texas Supreme Court ruled people can drill wells on their own property at “free will and pleasure” – unless it captures someone else’s water, at which point it is essentially theft. The creation of Texas groundwater conservation districts a few decades later has allowed science and public policy to meet, compelling competing local interests to talk first and sue later.
“When there is an earnest desire to get the incentives right and to align them with public policy, people will turn to scientific tools to help solve problems,” Haglund said.
Natural disasters will happen, with or without climate change. The trick is understanding how to mitigate the effects of those disasters before and after they happen.