Enviros Sue FEMA Over Oregon Flood Plain Development

June 29, 2009

Environmental groups sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying the agency failed to consider how its national flood insurance program affects Oregon’s federally protected salmon and steelhead.

The National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society of Portland and other groups say FEMA encourages building in flood-prone areas by providing insurance generally not available on the private market.

In providing that insurance, the lawsuit filed in federal court in Portland alleges, FEMA violated the Endangered Species Act by not consulting with federal fisheries biologists to determine whether the program is jeopardizing 15 species of salmon and steelhead in Oregon.

“We continue to build in our floodplains without adequately considering how these decisions undermine salmon recovery,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland.

Environmentalists won a similar case in 2004 involving development in Puget Sound’s floodplains. In that case, a federal judge in Seattle said FEMA had to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of protecting fish. The service issued an opinion last fall saying the flood program, as implemented in Washington, jeopardized salmon and orcas. It called for changes to development rules in floodplains.

Given the case in Washington state, FEMA should ensure its flood program isn’t harming the recovery of fish in Oregon, said Dan Rohlf, an attorney with the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, representing the groups. “Even some of the same species are involved.”

An Associated Press call and e-mail to FEMA were not immediately returned.

About 259 Oregon communities participate in FEMA’s insurance program. Most are in areas where the endangered or threatened salmon or steelhead are found.

More than 32,000 flood insurance policies, totaling more than $6.8 billion in coverage, have been issued in Oregon. New acres of floodplain continue to be developed, the groups said.

“These are areas where we shouldn’t be building in the first place,” Rohlf said. “They’re areas that are prone to flood and damage.”

The lawsuit says development has altered floodplains and naturally migrating rivers, making it harder for fish and other wildlife to survive.

The environmentalists said they hoped the lawsuit would lead to limits on floodplain development and provide stronger protections for fish.

“This issue is not just about salmon. It’s also about getting people out of harm’s way, reducing taxpayer expenses due to flood damage,” said Dan Seimann, conservation director for the National Wildlife Federation’s western region.

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Willamette Riverkeeper and Association of Northwest Steelheaders also sued FEMA.

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