FEMA’s Flood Insurance Program Must Do a Better Job of Protecting the Environment, Federal Assessment Finds

National Flood Insurance Program is required to implement smarter floodplain management to safeguard Oregon’s salmon and communities.

PORTLAND, OR (April 14, 2016) – The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) today released a biological opinion for the state of Oregon concluding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) leads to unsafe development in floodplains that jeopardizes the state’s threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead populations. The opinion describes an alternative plan for implementing the NFIP that would protect salmon runs and the rivers they rely on, improve public safety and reduce the risk of dangerous and costly flood events.

Floodplains are lands along a river, stream, or shoreline that are periodically inundated by water. They safely store flood waters, recharge groundwater aquifers that provide back-up water supplies during droughts, improve water quality, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife that are a backbone of the state’s tourism and commercial fisheries industries. However, development in floodplains puts people, homes, businesses and infrastructure in harm’s way during floods.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) identifies 251 communities in Oregon as flood-prone.  These communities have experienced damaging floods in 43 of the last 57 years. Since 1995 there have been 12 flood-related Presidential Disaster Declarations. Since 1978, Oregon floods have resulted in 5,232 flood insurance claims that have paid out over $91 million and 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.

The opinion does not halt floodplain development, but it does require FEMA to work with cities and counties to avoid significant impacts.

“Oregon faces two big interrelated problems: the increasing risk of flooding and declining salmon populations,” said Monty Schmitt, senior scientist with Natural Resources Defense Council. “This biological opinion will help improve public safety while also protecting wild salmon runs on the brink of extinction, which are vital to the state’s commercial and recreational fisheries. It’s a win-win for Oregonians as a whole.”

“Healthy watersheds need a range of flows, including occasional high flows,” said John DeVoe, Executive Director of WaterWatch of Oregon.  “A responsible flood insurance program should allow for this natural river function and not encourage development that sets up a conflict between private property and healthy rivers.”

“The Biological Opinion will help Oregon communities chart a path towards healthier rivers, safer communities, and smarter development,” said Michael Garrity, Director of Rivers of Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin for American Rivers. “It will not only protect the salmon runs critical for Oregon’s natural and economic health, but also the livelihoods and safety of people for whom the NFIP development guidelines have steered to unsteady ground.”

“Oregonians see healthy floodplains and rivers as a key part of building vibrant, resilient communities,” said Sara O’Brien, Director of Strategy at Willamette Partnership. “This opinion is a good first step toward a smarter approach that keeps people safe and rivers healthy. We hope that FEMA will engage affected communities and stakeholders to develop an implementation plan that helps make that vision a reality.” 

"What these new environmental rules mostly do is to keep us from unwise development in dangerous places," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), a coast-wide commercial fishing industry trade association. "Production of salmon, Dungeness crab and many other valuable seafood species depends on healthy coastal and riverine floodplains as nurseries. Protection of floodplains for these purposes also not only safeguards fishing industry jobs but also preserves a major source of fish and other seafood for people."

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