Changing Course: Why protecting floodplains is good for people and wildlife

03-28-2013 // Dan Siemann
Changing Course Report Cover

Home to over four million people and a rich diversity of fish and wildlife, Puget Sound is the economic and ecological hub of Washington State. Although quality of life continues to attract people to the region, important indicators suggest our current development path may not be sustainable. The health of Puget Sound’s ecosystem is under threat, iconic salmon and orca populations are a fraction of their previous levels, and the region is increasingly devastated by costly floods. Loss of floodplains plays a key role in all of this.

Download the full report: Changing Course: Why protecting floodplains is good for people and wildlife (pdf)

The importance of floodplains is rising in prominence. Many scientific assessments suggest that protecting and restoring floodplains is one of the most important things we can do to recover imperiled salmon1 and reduce our risk of devastating floods. In 2008 the National Marine Fisheries Service came to a similar conclusion when it issued a Biological Opinion assessing the impacts of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) on declining salmon populations. The results confirmed that floodplain development supported by the NFIP was contributing to the demise of salmon and orca, and if left unchanged, those iconic species would decline to extinction. Protecting floodplains from further harm was their primary remedy.

As this report demonstrates, salmon and orca are not the only ones who suffer the costs of unwise floodplain development. Thousands of Puget Sound residents have been flooded from their homes, scores of communities have been ravaged by floods, and taxpayers end up paying the costs to rebuild, in some cases multiple times in the same unwise location. Protecting and restoring floodplains is essential if we hope to restore salmon and orca, recover Puget Sound, and protect public safety. The NFIP Biological Opinion establishes the minimum requirements necessary toward achieving those outcomes.

Unfortunately, most of the changes required of FEMA’s flood insurance program remain unfulfilled. A key recommendation of this report is that FEMA must revise the NFIP to fully implement the requirements of the NFIP Biological Opinion. Yet it is not just FEMA that must change its approach to floodplain management. To protect public safety, local jurisdictions and the state must also act to protect and restore floodplains.

Until now, Puget Sound has not had a meaningful tally of floodplain development and its costs. This report is intended to address that gap and to shed light on how much of our floodplains have been lost to development, how much that has cost us in human, financial, and ecological terms, and what can be done about it. We hope this report generates greater consideration of how to live with our rivers and how to understand the value that our floodplains provide.

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