New Study Looks at Link between L.A. Infrastructure Fails and Flood Risks

The study also notes that a disproportionate affect of the flooding falls on low-income workers
280

A study published in Nature Sustainability on Monday is shedding new light on flood risks facing Los Angeles, particularly in lower-income and disadvantaged communities.

The study, led by Dr. Brett Sanders at UC Irvine, also explores the implications of underestimating flood risks at an institutional level, reporting that between 197,000 and 874,000 people (and $36 billion to $108 billion in property) are exposed to flooding risks that far exceed federally defined floodplains. 

According to the study, the difference in the government’s risk assessment vs. the study’s can be explained by Los Angeles’ ailing water infrastructure. Utilizing lidar technology to create 3-D maps, Sanders and fellow researchers were able to examine the capacity of the city’s infrastructure to respond to severe storming. The result, Sanders told the New York Times, indicated the importance of considering how infrastructure might perform when it is in less than perfect shape—and indeed, Los Angeles flood channels are suffering from sediment and vegetation-clogged flood channels. 

The risk is actually more than an order of magnitude bigger than what FEMA said it was,” Sanders stated. 

Though we may think of Mother Nature as one of the great democratizing forces—weather affects everyone, after all—the study also highlights the ways in which such flooding would leave neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles uniquely affected.

The greatest risks are borne disproportionately by Black and disadvantaged populations,” the study notes. “Such inequities are probably reinforced by the challenges and costs of navigating the numerous federal and state agencies and local governments that provide resources for flood protection, which may be a substantial barrier to less affluent or marginalized communities.” This risk is also disproportionate to the movie-star Malibu coast beach houses that make up the widespread view of California flood hazard, according to UC Davis earth scientist Nicholas Pinter, the Times reports. 

These climate-related equity considerations are especially ominous considering the increasing awareness of and concern about flooding in California. In a region that already has to reckon with earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides, a warming climate has also led scientists to consider the possibility of water-related superstorms. This includes a potential ARkStorm—an unprecedented deluge of rain with catastrophic implications for Los Angeles infrastructure. 

The study also echoes a separate 2020 study that identifies the impact rising sea levels and coastal flooding could have on affordable housing. The 2020 study notes that the number of California affordable housing units in danger of flooding is expected to increase 40 percent by 2050. And with historically fewer resources to cope with the impact of such conditions, lower income communities and communities of color are left especially vulnerable. 

In the face of disparities like these, Sanders’ study underscores the importance of reevaluating the infrastructure’s preparedness for flooding.

Improved risk awareness is crucial for protecting lives and livelihoods,” the study found, “and for planning and designing cost-effective and equitable flood adaptation measures.”


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign for our newsletters today