The federal government’s flood insurance program that had mostly been concerned with protecting homes and businesses must now protect salmon and killer whales.
Federal fisheries experts have told the Federal Emergency Management Agency that — by underwriting thousands of flood insurance policies in Puget Sound — it encourages construction in floodplains in ways that harm federally protected species.
In response, FEMA is now drafting new building rules for about 122 communities in Puget Sound to minimize the harm to salmon and endangered whales that feed on them.
“We’re going to see less damages caused by flooding and less lives lost due to flooding and good riparian stewardship,” said John Graves, a floodplain specialist with the National Flood Insurance Program.
What FEMA is doing in Washington state is being closely watched elsewhere.
Conservation groups across the country have challenged FEMA’s flood program for harming endangered sea turtles in Florida, pallid sturgeon in Missouri, jaguars in Arizona, salmon in Oregon, and the Southwestern willow flycatcher in New Mexico.
FEMA has “a national responsibility to comply with the Endangered Species Act and not harm imperiled species by allowing and even subsidizing development in floodplain habitat areas,” said Dan Siemann, senior environmental policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.
Conservation groups say FEMA’s program allows building to occur in areas where it otherwise would not, since most private insurers won’t safeguard homes in such flood-prone areas. They say the agency sets minimum building standards, but those don’t consider impacts of development on wildlife and their habitat.
FEMA is the major underwriter of flood policies in the U.S., with about 5.7 million policies totaling $1.2 trillion in coverage.
There are 41,826 policies in force in Puget Sound, where construction reduces the floodplain’s ability to absorb and store water, filter stormwater runoff, and provide wildlife habitat, fisheries experts said.
Placing fill to elevate homes from danger, for example, destroys habitat for young fish, while dredging channels increases water flow that makes it hard for fish to swim.
In 2003, the National Wildlife Federation sued FEMA in Seattle over its failure to determine how the flood program affected endangered species.
That led the National Marine Fisheries Service to conclude in 2008 that FEMA’s activities lead to floodplain development, some of which affects salmon habitat.
As a result, Puget Sound communities will soon have to show FEMA that development projects they permit in some areas won’t harm salmon.
Not complying could mean suspension from the national flood program — participation in which allows individuals and businesses to buy insurance — though that is the final resort, FEMA’s Graves said.
Molly Lawrence, a Seattle attorney representing some builders and real estate agents in Washington, said communities were caught off-guard and have been struggling to interpret the confusing proposed rules.
“There’s no question that this is huge,” said Lawrence. “The end result of this is quite dramatic. … Not everyone is happy, and there’s bound to be more lawsuits.”
Pete Lewis, mayor of Auburn, located about 30 miles south of Seattle, said “we’ve struggled through this for the last year.”
The city approved a building moratorium after fisheries experts came out with their 2008 ruling, one of a few communities to take such action, and then waited for months for guidance from FEMA. It ended the moratorium this spring when FEMA came out with draft guidance on how communities could comply with the Endangered Species Act.
Some communities are still trying figure out what the new rules will mean.
“There’s going to be a lot of debate,” said Mark Palmer, the stormwater engineer for the city of Puyallup, about 60 miles south of Seattle. “We’re studying the ordinance, trying to figure out what’s happening.”
Speaking personally, he said, “I think they’re taking a rather blunt instrument to enforce the Endangered Species Act.”
The debate highlights a conundrum for cities and towns that have developed along Puget Sound’s many rivers and tributaries.
“How do you address a decision made 100 years ago by your forefathers to build a city in a floodplain? It’s quite a challenge,” said Mark Swartout, a natural resources program manager for Thurston County, which includes the state capital of Olympia.
“In my opinion, we shouldn’t be building in the floodplain. We need to let rivers do what they need to do,” he said.
Margaret Fleek, planning director for Burlington, a small town 65 miles north of Seattle, takes a different view.
“The idea that there will be no development in the floodplain … that’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said.
Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the National Wildlife Federation, said “nobody is asking anybody to pick up and move.”
“If the federal government is going to be subsidizing new development in the future, it’s appropriate to put some boundaries around those for the environment,” he said.
Last month, FEMA agreed to consult with fisheries experts to ensure its flood program in Oregon won’t harm salmon and steelhead after environmentalists sued last year.
In Florida, the National Wildlife Federation sued FEMA last month over sea turtles, attorney Jim Murphy said. “We want FEMA to responsibly implement the program to protect species, habit and human communities.”
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