Fixing FEMA’s Flood Management Problem

Tillamook County is a flood-prone community. In just four years (1996-2000), the county suffered $60 million in damages.
Image courtesy of NOAA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an opportunity to fix known problems with their flood insurance program that can improve protections for floodplain communities and endangered wildlife. On April 14, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released an important new assessment for the state of Oregon that concluded FEMA’s implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has led to unsafe floodplain development that harms 17 of state’s endangered species including salmon and resident Orca. The official assessment, known as a Biological Opinion or BiOp, includes recommended actions FEMA would need to take to protect the endangered species and their habitats. These actions would also improve public safety, reduce the risk of costly flood events and increase the resiliency of floodplain communities against the impacts of climate change.

Floodplains are a vital public and natural resource

Floodplains are lands along a river, stream, or shoreline that are periodically inundated by water. While risky for development, floodplains provide many public benefits, including safely storing flood waters, improving water quality, and recharging groundwater aquifers that provide water supplies during drier years. They also provide habitat for fish and wildlife, which are a backbone of the state’s tourism and commercial fisheries industries. Fertile floodplain soils support farming and healthy agricultural economies. However, development in floodplains undermines these benefits and puts people, homes, businesses, and infrastructure in harm’s way during floods.

Oregon’s floodplain development is dangerous and costly

The NFIP identifies 251 communities in Oregon as flood-prone, one or more of which have experienced damaging floods in 43 of the last 57 years. More than a quarter of policies located in the Special Flood Hazard Area have had claims. Over the past 60 years, Oregon has suffered 18 flood events that have been declared as major disasters. Since 1978, Oregon floods have resulted in 5,232 flood insurance claims that have paid out over $91 million and cost millions more in federal assistance funds to communities to repair local infrastructure. These risks and costs are expected to increase as climate change exacerbates flooding in Oregon.

FEMA’s flood insurance program is failing to discourage unsafe floodplain development

The primary objective of the NFIP is to encourage state and local governments to limit development in areas prone to flooding and to reduce the costs of flood damages. The BiOp concluded, however, that FEMA’s implementation of the NFIP in Oregon has actually contributed to floodplain development in high risk areas. Unfortunately, this is likely the case in many parts of the country given the amount of coastal and inland floodplain development that has continued to occur since the NFIP was created in 1968. In fact, the program is $23 billion in debt due to the rising cost of flood insurance claims. The NFIP is clearly in need of reform to achieve its intended purpose and the BiOp is an opportunity for FEMA to implement urgent and necessary changes. 

Salmon on the Salmon River, Oregon.
Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

FEMA is required to protect endangered species

Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires all federal agencies to consult with either NMFS or the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding potential impacts of their actions on endangered species. If either NMFS or FWS determines that an agency’s actions threaten the survival of a listed species, they issue a “jeopardy” opinion and provide recommended actions the agency should take to ensure that endangered species and their habitat are protected.

In response to the jeopardy opinion, FEMA has the option to implement NMFS’s six recommended actions (also called reasonable and prudent alternatives or RPA), or a different set of actions, as long as they achieve the same protective standards. However, NMFS recommendations should be implemented as they are based on extensive research and almost a decade of working with FEMA to address the identified problems. Either way, FEMA must change their implementation of the NFIP to protect floodplain habitat and discourage development in high risk areas. This is good news for wildlife, floodplain communities and taxpayers.

NMFS’s six recommended actions:

  1. Community outreach. Many residents in floodplain communities are unware of their flood risk and the impacts of the NFIP. The first recommendation is for FEMA to notify these communities about the importance of the recommendations, the need to safeguard endangered salmon and Orca populations, and the added benefits of reducing future flood damages if NMFS’s recommendations are properly implemented.
  2. Interim measures. Full implementation of the recommended actions will take several years. NMFS recommends measures to be implemented immediately to reduce further impacts. These actions include establishing a buffer zone along rivers and streams to limit development to flood compatible uses and require mitigation for the loss of any habitat or capacity to safely store flood waters.
  3. Better mapping of areas vulnerable to flooding. FEMA’s flood risk maps are vitally important planning tools for floodplain communities but currently fail to provide essential information to support wise land use decisions. For example, flood risk maps do not identify highly hazardous areas that are susceptible to dangerous channel erosion. Nor do they show areas that are vulnerable to flooding in the event of a levee failure. In many cases, flood maps have not been updated for some time and no longer reflect actual flood risks. Even newer maps are based on historic data, and therefore do not show the likely future effects of continued land use development and the impacts of climate change, both of which may significantly increase the frequency and size of flood events. Because high risk flood areas often provide critical habitat for endangered species NMFS recommends FEMA revise their mapping efforts to correct deficiencies and provide the information that communities need to be safer now and in the future.
  4. Improve floodplain management criteria. FEMA’s current floodplain development standards and practices are causing negative environmental impacts and leading to unsafe development. NMFS recommends FEMA revise criteria so as to restrict development in high-hazard areas to flood compatible uses (agriculture, open space, etc.) and mitigate the impacts elsewhere in the floodplain. These recommendations will ensure that floodplain features that are critical to supporting the survival and recovery of listed species are not lost. It will also protect other beneficial functions of floodplain including the safe storage of floodwaters, improved water quality (by reducing runoff), and recharge of groundwater for water supply.
  5. Tracking progress. The lack of monitoring and data collection regarding floodplain development has contributed to creating the problems that have been identified in the assessment. In order to detect on-going problems and track forward progress, NMFS recommends FEMA develop a program to provide detailed and timely reporting on floodplain development for all NFIP communities.​
  6. Compliance and enforcement. It is well known within FEMA and the flood management community nationally, that harmful floodplain development continues to occur in violation of NFIP requirements. However, inadequate monitoring combined with insufficient resources and support for enforcement has done little to ensure compliance. In order for the NFIP to function as intended and protect critical wildlife habitat, NMFS recommends that FEMA effectively monitor compliance and promptly undertake appropriate enforcement actions if necessary. NMFS also recommends providing financial incentives to communities that adopt new land use management criteria before being required by FEMA. Enforcement protects communities and taxpayers from the floodplain development actions that increase everyone’s exposure to flood risk. 

The BiOp does not prevent development

The BiOp does not require ceasing all development in floodplains.  Restrictions would only apply to citizens and communities that voluntarily choose to adopt NFIP floodplain management criteria in exchange for receiving federally subsidized flood insurance. For those participants, only structural developments in the high-hazard zone and floodways are restricted, but flood-compatible land uses, including agriculture, open space, or habitat, are still permitted. For all other development within the floodplain regulated by the NFIP, there is a requirement to mitigate the impacts so that beneficial floodplain functions are retained in the interest of the public.

A chance to improve Oregon’s resilience against the impacts of climate change

By increasing the frequency and intensity of storm events, climate change is making flood-prone areas even more dangerous and costly. Climate change is projected to significantly increase the amount of land that floods in much of the Pacific Northwest. The BiOp will help Oregon prepare for the impacts of climate change by discouraging future development in high-risk areas and by requiring flood risk maps to show the areas that are predicted to become increasingly vulnerable.

Climate change will increase the area at risk of flooding.
Source: The Impact of Climate Change and Population Growth on the National Flood Insurance Program through 2100. AECOM, 2013

The next step is FEMA’s implementation plan

FEMA must quickly develop an implementation plan to comply with the BiOp’s requirements. To create an effective and broadly supported plan, FEMA must include not only NMFS but also stakeholders from local communities, conservation groups and state agencies. To their credit, FEMA has already provided Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD) with a grant to support their involvement. Furthermore, support from the State’s elected leaders will be needed to ensure adequate resources are provided to local communities who often do not have the expertise or funding to cope with these complex flood management challenges.

Oregon’s NFIP improvements are an opportunity for the nation

Oregon can be seen as a microcosm of the failures of the NFIP across the nation. Building in floodplains has imperiled millions of lives and communities, destroyed wildlife habitat and cost taxpayers billions of dollars in damages and insurance claims - all for the benefit of the few who stand to gain from this risky development. But Oregon can serve as a model for floodplain management by improving implementation of the NFIP to protect communities, wildlife and beneficial floodplain uses while increasing the resilience of communities to the impacts of climate change. As such, it is in the nation’s interest to support the successful implementation of the BiOp and NMFS’s recommendations in Oregon. 

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