FEMA Turning Blind Eye to NFIP's Influence on Land Use (2)

Minot Airmen aid community affected by flood | US Air Force

FEMA recently published for public comment a draft Nationwide Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (NPEIS) to evaluate the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) environmental and social impacts. In preparing the draft NPEIS, FEMA had a prime opportunity to assess the NFIP’s influence over land use in flood-prone communities and any corresponding environmental impacts, and to present potential modifications to the NFIP to mitigate any adverse impacts. Unfortunately, FEMA fell well short of the mark by failing to adequately evaluate the NFIP’s indirect effects on the human environment, such as whether aspects of the NFIP induce floodplain development. Further, the modifications proposed in the draft NPEIS are insufficient to improve the financial soundness of the NFIP, limit impacts to endangered species, and to protect people and property from increasing flood risks nationwide,

Instead, FEMA’s draft NPEIS reads more like an abdication of responsibility than a well-balanced and reasoned environmental impacts assessment. As discussed in “FEMA Turning Blind Eye to NFIP's Influence on Land Use (Pt. 1),” FEMA narrowly interprets the concept of land use authority to find that it lacks the authority to direct development in floodplains and along coastlines. This tact excuses the agency from acting to mitigate any potentially adverse impacts associated with the program and from ensuring the NFIP is reducing current and future flood risk.  

These shortcomings are why NRDC, American Rivers, and Defenders of Wildlife have filed a comment letter (PDF iconarnrdcdefenders_nfip_dnpeis_comments.pdf) challenging FEMA on its preparation of the draft NPEIS. The NFIP is a far reaching federal program that has implications for land use development, endangered species protections, and preparing for the impacts of climate change. In contrast, FEMA’s draft NPEIS leads one to conclude the NFIP is not a useful mechanism for sustainably managing our nation’s floodplains and countering the increasing threat of major flood disasters.

The NFIP, Floodplain Development, & Increasing Flood Risks

While the NFIP can be a useful tool for protecting against future flood disasters, the program is not without controversy. When Congress created the program in 1968, it fully intended for the NFIP to reduce the nation’s financial exposure to flood disasters through the availability of federally-subsidized flood insurance and by explicitly establishing minimum land use standards that would encourage the “constriction” of development in the floodplains.  

Whether the NFIP “constricts” floodplain development or, conversely, encourages floodplain development to occur has been a central question concerning the program’s success. In certain circumstances, the NFIP has been found to restrict risky developments in floodplains, however, a in others it likely enables it to occur. Either way, the NFIP influences how floodplain development occurs.

FEMA lost several lawsuits alleging the NFIP’s implementation adversely impacts endangered species by encouraging floodplain development. These lawsuits have required FEMA to consult with other Federal agencies to develop mitigation plans. For example, courts have found that the availability of federally-backed flood insurance likely encouraged development in endangered Key Deer habitat in the Florida Keys. 

Further, climate change is exacerbating flood risk for most of the United States. The National Climate Assessment asserts the heaviest rainfalls are becoming heavier and more frequent, which are being paralleled by an increase in floods. Sea levels are also projected to rise exponentially over the course of the century. By 2100, oceans could rise as high as 9.8 feet along the East Coast of the United States compared to levels in 2000. Therefore, ensuring the NFIP is not contradicting its stated purpose by unintentionally encouraging development is crucial. Otherwise, the US will be ill-equipped for a future of more extreme floods.

Shortcomings of FEMA’s Draft NPEIS

One major problem is that FEMA failed to adequately evaluate whether the implementation of the NFIP influences floodplain development, including inducing growth.

FEMA firmly asserts that the NFIP does not encourage floodplain development. As such, FEMA concludes there are no related environmental impacts, including to endangered species, from implementing the NFIP.

However, FEMA completely ignores strong evidence to the contrary.  For example, the agency glosses over a FEMA-commissioned study which found the provision of federally-subsidized flood insurance creates an incentive for development in floodplains by reducing barriers to such development. According to the study, “[a]lmost eighty percent of the respondents with potential investments in community property development stated that they would not finance or develop floodplain property if federal flood insurance were unavailable.” In addition, court cases in Florida, Washington, and Oregon have found the implementation of the NFIP may encourage floodplain development to occur, which has corresponding impacts on endangered species.

FEMA must take this evidence into account in their effects analysis. If aspects of the NFIP are encouraging floodplain development, then program must be reformed to ensure the program is promoting sustainable floodplain management, avoiding adversely impacting endangered species, and reducing current and future flood risk.

Regrettably, FEMA compounded this error by stating the agency lacked the authority to proscribe the type of development that may occur in a floodplain. (see here). As stated above, these shortcomings in the draft NPEIS, taken together, greatly hamper the agency’s ability to protect flood-prone communities.  

FEMA’s Must Not Finalize the Draft NPEIS

FEMA’s blind spot on the issue hinders the agency’s ability to take future action.  FEMA must go back and reassess the NFIP’s impacts to ensure the agency has adequately accounted for all reasonably foreseeable environmental and social outcomes. Further, FEMA must accurately portray its influence on floodplain management.  Failure to correct the draft NPEIS’ errors puts the nation at a disadvantage in protecting itself from current and future flood risk.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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