FEMA, Floodplains and Fish: Why the National Flood Insurance Program must protect floodplains to improve public safety and safeguard endangered species

Chehalis Flood.jpg

2007 Chehalis Flood, Washington State Department of Ecology

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is mostly viewed as a way of providing assistance to property owners to rebuild in the wake of a flood. But the program has always been intended to do more. Established in 1968, the goal of the program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was to reduce the risk of flooding to life and property by discouraging new development in areas susceptible to flooding. However, in many ways, the NFIP has actually done the opposite by providing subsidized flood insurance and other incentives that arguably encourage people to live in floodplains. So while the NFIP has helped many people recover from devastating floods, it has also failed to discourage floodplain development, putting more people in harm's way.

This not only endangers people, but also wildlife. The NFIP's development-inducing effects have led to the destruction of floodplain habitat for endangered species, increasing the possibility of extinction. Changing the tide to reduce the cost of flood damages, increase public safety and safeguard wildlife will require changes to the NFIP to protect and maximize the benefits of undeveloped floodplains.

What is a floodplain and why does it matter to people and wildlife?

Floodplains are lands along a river or shoreline that are periodically inundated. When a house is built on a floodplain, the likelihood for flooding depends on how close it is to the edge of the water in both distance and elevation - the further up and away from the water's edge a house is, the less likely it will be flooded each year. For the purpose of establishing insurance and floodplain management requirements, the NFIP targets those homes and business that are in "regulatory" or "100-year" floodplain that has a 1% risk of flooding each year. From the perspective of fish, birds and other animals, the mix of aquatic and terrestrial environments associated with floodplain creates rich habitat conditions that wildlife have evolved to take advantage of and need in order to survive. For example, floodplains provide a vitally important source of food and rearing habitat to help young salmon grow on their way out to sea.

How has the NFIP encouraged floodplain development?

Unfortunately a program intended to discourage development in high-risk flood zones has done the opposite. Because the NFIP subsidizes flood insurance rates and therefore masks the true cost of living in a flood-prone area, it incentivizes people to buy properties and develop on floodplains. Furthermore, flood insurance is a requirement of federally-backed mortgages for properties in the 100-year floodplain. Because private flood insurance largely ceased to exist when the NFIP provided subsidized rates, the NFIP has become the only way to get insurance and meet the insurance requirement. Efforts to avoid the NFIP insurance requirement have led to building levees and filling in floodplains to technically "remove" properties from the regulatory floodplain. While this might reduce flood risk to properties, levees and fill effectively sever floodplains from rivers and degrade or eliminate habitat. Additionally, the construction of levees to protect a few properties often spurs new development. While the NFIP includes land use and development requirements that help to reduce risk of flood damages, the fact that the program is insolvent with $24 billion in debt is clear evidence that the program is not working.

The benefits of undeveloped floodplains:

  • Flood reduction - A saturated acre of natural floodplain can store 330,000 gallons of flood waters in the ground. By providing more room to convey floodwaters, floodplains can also act as a form of surface storage and provide a place to safely store flood flows.
  • Flood protection - Riverine and coastal and floodplains act as a buffer against the powerful forces of flood flows, storm surges and waves.
  • Water quality- Floodplains act as a natural filter for rivers and potential drinking water supplies by removing pollutants including those related to storm runoff.
  • Water supply - Allowing floodplains to inundate helps recharge groundwater aquifers that can provide water supplies during dryer times. Giving rivers more room to convey flood flows increases the ability to operate reservoirs for greater water supplies.
  • Wildlife habitat - In the Pacific Northwest, more that 80% of all wildlife depend on riparian and wetland floodplains areas at some point in their lives to survive.
  • Open space and recreation - Especially in urban landscapes, undeveloped floodplains can serve the need for public parks and recreational areas.
  • Preservation of valuable agricultural lands - Floodplains often have nutrient-rich soils that are great for farming. Preserving floodplains in the form of flood-compatible agriculture can prevent the loss of valuable farm lands to development pressures.

What we can and need to do - now:

1. Revise the NFIP floodplain management requirements. Revise criteria that communities must meet in order to participate in the NFIP to protect floodplain habitats and include limitations on new development in high flood hazard areas.

2. Revise flood maps to support wise land use management. Flood maps should depict hazardous channel erosion zones as well as floodplain areas that provide critical habitat for a listed species. The maps should also reflect actual flood risks, including those associated with future conditions. Continued land use development and climate change are both likely to increase the frequency and size of future flood events.

3. Increase incentivizes for communities to protect floodplains. As part of the Community Rating System (which discounts flood insurance premiums for communities going beyond the minimum requirements), FEMA should provide additional incentives for implementing local measures that protect undeveloped floodplains and wildlife habitat. The city of Portland earned a 25% discount on their premiums due to their efforts to restore the natural functions of floodplains, improve storm water management and dedicate floodplains as parks and open space.

4. Require risk-based pricing and eliminate price subsidies. The NFIP premiums should reflect a property's flood risk as well as the true cost of the program, rather than act as an incentive to develop in the floodplain and create a system in which taxpayers living outside of flood zones pay for those who choose to live inside them. One major factor in the cost of the NFIP is the impact of properties that have repeat flood damage claims. These properties should be addressed by more aggressive buyout programs. NRDC has proposed a program that would provide low cost insurance for low-to-moderate income home owners who live in high-risk areas in exchange for agreeing to be bought out at fair market price if their property is substantially damaged in a flood.

5. Reevaluate the environmental impacts of the NFIP. In 2012, FEMA began a reevaluation of the impacts of the NFIP as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As part of the assessment, FEMA should include modifications to the NFIP to protect floodplain habitat for listed species, flood mapping protocols that include future conditions including those related to climate change.

6. Adopt NFIP reforms as part of the 2017 federal reauthorization. Every five years the NFIP must be reauthorized by the federal government to continue providing flood insurance. The 2017 reauthorization is an opportunity to make the sweeping changes that are needed to fix the NFIP in order to improve public safety, reduce the national exposure to flood damages , and protect the environment.

About the Authors

Monty Schmitt

Senior Scientist and Project Manager, San Joaquin River Restoration Project, Water program

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