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State building changes ordered to avert flood damage

Declaring that Maryland's coastal areas are increasingly at risk from a rising sea level, Gov. Martin O'Malley has ordered state agencies to weigh the growing risks of flooding in deciding where and how to construct state buildings.

"Billions of dollars of investments in public infrastructure will be threatened if the state of Maryland fails to prepare adequately for climate change," he said in Friday's executive order, which calls for avoiding low-lying sites and elevating new or reconstructed state buildings to avert flooding.

The state has about 450 facilities and 400 miles of roads and highways in low-lying areas deemed likely to experience climate-aggravated flooding over the next century. With state officials already trying to get coastal counties and municipalities to factor a rise in sea level into zoning and construction codes, O'Malley said the state "must lead by example" in taking steps to avoid or mitigate damage to taxpayer-funded structures.

The order comes a month after O'Malley wrote President Barack Obama, urging him to consider Maryland as a model for how the nation should respond to the predicted impacts of global climate change. O'Malley pushed through a law three years ago committing the state to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-warming gases 25 percent by the end of the decade.

In addition to telling state agencies to consider sea-level rise in deciding where to undertake capital projects, O'Malley directed the state Department of General Services to update its design and engineering guidelines. New or rebuilt state structures would have to be built at least 2 feet above the highest level where planners now project floodwaters could reach once a century.

Tide records show sea level has risen about a foot in the past century along Maryland's coast, but scientists say that appears to be accelerating. Four years ago, based on global projections, a state climate change commission predicted that sea level likely would increase along Maryland shorelines by 2.7 feet to 3.4 feet over the next century.

Since then, new studies and projections have been published, including a U.S. Geological Survey finding that the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Boston is a "hot spot," with sea level rising three to four times faster than the global average. The lower Eastern Shore is particularly vulnerable, but even more-developed coastal properties are at risk. Flooding from Tropical Storm Isabel nine years ago caused more than $400 million in property damage in the Baltimore area alone.

"That could cause more localized elevation of sea level along the coast here,'' said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and co-chairman of the scientific panel that advised the state climate commission. O'Malley directed the scientific panel to review its projections and update them based on the latest research.

The order extends a policy that the state has begun applying to its purchases of land for conservation, said Zoe Johnson, manager of the Department of Natural Resources' office for a sustainable future. The state is shifting, for instance, from buying low-lying tracts that are ecologically valuable but are expected to be under water or badly eroded in the next 50 years. The state is losing about 580 acres of wetlands a year to erosion and rising sea level. Instead, planners are looking to acquire inland sites that could become marshy as waters encroach.

Building to avoid flood damage adds to construction costs, Johnson acknowledged, but she said it would save money in the long run. Raising a building's elevation 2 feet has been estimated to add up to 1.5 percent to its cost, she said, but a United Nations panel estimates that every dollar spent on disaster prevention saves $4 in damage avoided.

Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network praised O'Malley's move, calling it "reassuring that the governor of one of the most vulnerable states in America to sea level rise, Maryland, is taking this sort of action." He urged the governor to follow through by extending his order to all publicly funded projects in coastal areas, including highways and port facilities.

The order does not apply to some of the state's most expensive capital projects, such as roads and bridges. But O'Malley called for a report within nine months on whether to adopt similar siting and design requirements for other infrastructure, including sewer and water systems and local projects that receive state funds.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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