As Our Climate Changes, What Can Be Done about Flood Risk?

Flooding is the most common and most costly natural disaster in the United States, and the toll it takes is only expected to grow over the coming years. Rising sea levels, more powerful hurricanes, and more intense rainfall—all worsening thanks to climate change—will displace people from their homes and put increasing strain on the systems we use to address these A flooded streetrisks. One of the most important such systems is the National Flood Insurance Program (“NFIP”), which has been in debt to the U.S. Treasury since 2005 and is perpetually derided as “broken.” It seems obvious that a big part of the solution to the problems ailing the NFIP (and to our problem of flood risk more generally) is to move people away from flood-prone areas, and yet the policy reforms intended to address these issues have prove extremely difficult for Congress to enact. In a new paper recently published in the Colorado Law Review, I offer some theories as to why.

A key obstacle to seemingly enlightened policy reform, I argue, is our country’s deep-seated hostility to paternalistic interventions. Drawing on the philosophical literature on paternalism, I note the key features that make such laws objectionable to many people: they seek to override individuals’ judgments about what is best for them. Even when such decisions appear to be flawed (like the choice to live in a flood-prone area, for example), they often depend on value judgments, and it is therefore hard to say that a different choice would be objectively rational. It is impossible, for instance, to weigh the emotional value of a home or neighborhood against the expected future costs of flooding in a way that produces an objectively optimal course of action, in the same way there is no objectively correct way to eat, given the emotional and cultural significance of food.

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Interdisciplinary Research in Stormwater Management

When it rains or snows, the resulting runoff can collect pollutants including salts, fertilizers, chemicals, oils, and sediment, among other things. These contaminants have the potential to impair surface water and groundwater that receive the runoff. Communities in the United States face growing Stormwater flowing to a gratechallenges to effective stormwater management as a result of aging infrastructure, increasing urbanization, changing climate, and shrinking budgets, among other factors.  These changes have increasingly stressed existing “static” stormwater management systems, such as pipe networks and ponds, that are intended simply to convey storm flows to nearby receiving waters without regard to overall system conditions.

Dealing with these stressors requires innovative and resilient solutions such as real time control (RTC) or “dynamic” stormwater management systems.  RTC systems are typically automated or semi-automated and involve the use of sophisticated dynamic models to operate stormwater controls in real time, such as modifying setpoints to open and close valves, or routing storm water differently under particular system conditions.  The goal of an RTC system is to continuously regulate the flow in the various branches of a network based on real-time information related to system capacity and weather conditions, thus reducing the magnitude of outflows during storms and relieving other stresses on the system.

During a recent grant-funded project, an interdisciplinary team of Marquette law faculty, engineering faculty, and students from both disciplines studied dozens of examples involving RTC implementation in the United States and abroad.  We also examined the literature detailing institutional barriers to RTC innovation.  And we reviewed numerous legal decisions related to municipal liability for stormwater management (or mismanagement). Finally, we suggested a variety of strategies to combat these institutional and legal barriers to smooth the transition to RTC systems.

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What Lakefront Reveals About the Public Trust Doctrine, Standing to Enforce Public Rights, and Possession in Property Law


As summer began, one of my colleagues introduced readers of this blog to Tom Merrill’s and my new book, Lakefront: Public Trust and Private Rights in Chicago (Cornell University Press 2021). The book explores how Chicago, a city known for commerce, came to have such a splendid public waterfront—its most treasured asset. Tom and I worked on the book for more than 20 years, but apparently we had more that we wanted to say. So, over the past couple of months, we gratefully accepted invitations from three national law blogs to present some reflections based on Lakefront. These posts, though drawing on, are not excerpts from the book, and each of the three series has a strong thematic element or substantive focus.

1. Volokh Conspiracy—The Public Trust Doctrine. Our first series of guest posts, appearing at The Volokh Conspiracy this past June, focused on the public trust doctrine, both in its original American conception (on the Chicago lakefront) and in its development (also there) over more than a century. We explained also that the preservation of Grant Park as an open space, in downtown Chicago, had nothing to do with the public trust doctrine, but stemmed from the public dedication doctrine. Having previously collected these posts, I include the link to that collection and thus to that series, for the sake of completeness here.

2. The Faculty Lounge—Standing to Enforce Public Rights. Our second series last month (July) at The Faculty Lounge concerned standing to enforce public rights. We began by explaining that standing in the law is nearly always discussed in terms of the Supreme Court’s doctrine governing who may sue in federal court consistently with Article III of the Constitution—and that this is unfortunate. For a wider array of standing rules comes into the picture when one considers common-law doctrines governing who may sue to enforce public rights—making Lakefront, which unpacks a century and a half of controversies over various such rights, a valuable resource.

Here is a sort of table of contents for the future reader:

We concluded by urging something of an intermediate rule, given the concerns that we identified in the cases of the most restrictive standing rule (viz., underenforcement of public rights) and the least restrictive standing rule (overenforcement).

3. PrawfsBlawg—Possession vs. Ownership in Property. The third series appeared earlier this month at PrawfsBlawg. Its focus was the role of possession in property. We framed the central question thus: “In particular, the book documents a number of episodes in the history of Chicago (its lakefront, that is) in which someone either was in possession of some resource but had no clear right of ownership or, by contrast, had a fairly clear legal right of ownership but lacked possession. Who was more likely to prevail: the possessor without ownership, or the owner without possession?”

Here is the table of contents, if you will, to this third five-part series:

With respect to the substance of this series, suffice it to say here that, at least on the Chicago lakefront, courts have been reluctant to interfere with possession—and further, in its absence, often have been reluctant to uphold seemingly strong legal claims of property rights. There is, necessarily, much history along the way, including versions of the stories of Cap’n Streeter and of how Jean Baptiste DuSable Lake Shore Drive (as Lake Shore Drive was renamed this summer) came to be—and why it stops where it does.

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To be sure, my summer was largely spent in administrative work, but I continue very much to believe in the usefulness of blog posts to foster intelligent discussion and engender learning about the law, as I suggested in one additional post that I smuggled into The Faculty Lounge. I hope for a great academic year to come on this blog.

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