Learning how to meld environmental justice with flood risk management

USACE, San Francisco District
Published April 12, 2022
Updated: April 12, 2022
Photo of a flooded town with black text over it

Bridging the Equity Gap Graphic

The San Francisco District Flood Risk Management Program is partnering with experts, external agency staff, academics and other practitioners with a story to tell to help its personnel and others learn how to integrate equity and environmental justice into their work affecting historically marginalized or overburdened communities.

“In our district Flood Risk Management Program, we are taking a holistic approach to environmental justice. First, we are learning how our work intersects with issues of environmental justice and inequity, then we are identifying how we can change our work to center environmental justice and build more equitable outcomes—especially for communities that have been historically left behind,” said Jessica Ludy, San Francisco District flood risk program manager and environmental justice coordinator. “Our webinar series, ‘Bridging the Equity Gap: Flood Resilience for the Whole Community,’ helps us all learn about the issues.”

Last year Ludy heard a phrase from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District colleague, Alex Hoxsie, that she now uses to explain a complex issue.

“There’s an ‘equity gap’ that refers to the disparity between those who more or less do okay before, during and after disasters and receive sufficient federal investment, and those who face barriers before, during and after disasters, and do not receive the benefits of federal agency programs.”

She added that the people most affected by this gap are, more often than not, people from minority and low-income communities.

“This includes racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, people in the LGBTQIA+ community, the very young, the very old and others.”

The ‘Bridging the Equity Gap’ webinar series has held six webinars to date.  Since the first one in August 2021, the series has introduced environmental justice, equity and flood risk management, then touched on communicating risk to socially vulnerable populations; the impact of floods on wealth inequality in the U.S.; and disability justice and flood risk management. Some of the topics for future webinars include equity in relocation and buyout programs; metrics, quantification, and alternatives to the benefit cost analysis; and tribal perspectives, traditional practice and flood resilience.

“We see the district’s role as acting within our existing authorities to bring people together and get resources to communities, as well as to begin to really understand what our communities need,” Ludy said. “Then our role becomes both educating ourselves -- USACE staff -- and educating the greater flood risk management community on these issues.”

The district and the state of California Department of Water Resources have begun jointly delivering trainings and other webinars to under-resourced communities to increase their knowledge of Corps’ programs and to build their capacity to work together. On a smaller scale, the district is partnering with the City of Marin City, the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, and with environmental justice educational organizations like the Oakland Shoreline Leadership Academy and the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.

USACE’s National Silver Jackets Program Manager Ellen Berggren also is deeply involved in the webinars and other parts of the district’s burgeoning environmental justice initiative, as her program helps fund it.

 “They are helping to meet the goals of the National Flood Risk Management Program and also help us inform our internal and external audiences about social inequality in flood risk,” said Berggren.

Alev Bilginsoy, interdisciplinary planner in the Flood Risk Management Program and Ludy’s co-planner on the webinars, said, “Folks are really engaged in the chat during the webinars, sharing resources, personal experiences and responding to each other’s questions. There is a sense of community -- a collective of people crowdsourcing and crosspollinating ideas so we can all do better.”

Roughly 2,000 people have attended the webinars so far, and they’ve been posted to the District’s YouTube page for even more views: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtorbnDT7-OTuO0NXAaYWsVWK1CBjosoJ.  The next one will be announced in the upcoming months.

“People love them, and for my co-worker Alev and me, it’s the favorite day of each month,” Ludy said.  “We learn a lot every time, and we get emails, text messages, and thank yous from folks saying they can already apply the takeaways from these webinars to their work.”

She added that some personnel of California’s Floodplain Management Association asked if the team could help them identify and offer future trainings for the floodplain management community, and they’ve been approached by university professors to give presentations to their students.

“There have been many people working to advance environmental justice in flood and resilience work, and even more people interested in learning how to deliver environmental justice to all communities,” Ludy said. “These webinars remind me that we are part of something much bigger.”

District Commander Lt. Col. Kevin Arnett thinks focusing more on environmental justice in our project planning is the way ahead.

“Beyond our federal commitment, we have an absolute moral imperative to broadly and urgently implement the tenants of Environmental Justice into everything we do as an organization,” he said.  “I’m absolutely committed to this initiative, and I’m especially excited in the direction we are headed.”

Bilginsoy said she was moved by the positive response they have received from practitioners inside and outside of the Corps since starting the series. “The engaged and growing webinar series audience affirms there is an enthusiasm for learning and discourse about environmental justice and equity in our field.”

She and Ludy suggested that watching the webinars to learn about these issues is a great start for anyone interested in understanding what community members need from a flood risk management program.