Coast and Floodplain Protection and Restoration
Floodplains are some of the most valuable ecosystems on earth. Typically located next to rivers, streams and coasts, they are nature's best defense against destructive floods. Floodplains provide essential habitat for wildlife, improve water quality, and protect human communities.
However, floodplains are often considered prime building locations, and rarely receive the protection they deserve.
Instead, federal flood insurance policies actually encourage development of these key habitats.
As climate change leads to larger and more severe storms, rivers will need more room to flow. Protecting and restoring floodplains is essential if we hope to protect public safety, maintain water quality, and restore imperiled fish and wildlife in the future.
Building in Floodplains--Bad for Wildlife, Bad for People
Development along river corridors has significantly altered floodplain functions, leading to:
- More frequent and severe floods.
- Extensive loss of fish and wildlife habitat.
- Greater risk to water supplies.
Spotlight: Species at Risk from Floodplain Development
In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service ruled that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program was pushing Puget Sound orcas and salmon toward extinction by encouraging development in floodplains. More >>
The two-foot-tall Key deer is an endangered species that lives in a very small region of the Florida Keys. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that federal flood insurance issued by FEMA was encouraging development and jeopardizing their habitat. More >>
In July 2010, NWF initiated a lawsuit against FEMA for issuing flood insurance throughout Florida without consulting with the expert agency over impacts to endangered sea turtles. More >>
Stopping Harmful Development in Floodplains
How floodplains are developed is largely determined by FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. Although FEMA's insurance program is supposed to guide development away from flood hazard areas, the program actually encourages and subsidizes dangerous floodplain development.
NWF is working to strengthen floodplain protections at the local, state and federal levels to stop allowing harmful new development in critical flood hazard areas.
Taking FEMA to Court
Through successful legal actions, National Wildlife Federation is forcing FEMA to protect endangered species while it provides flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program:
Orca and Salmon in Puget Sound - In 2004, a federal district court in Seattle agreed with National Wildlife Federation and found that FEMA's flood insurance program encouraged floodplain development and harmed salmon already threatened with extinction. He ordered FEMA to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act. NMFS issued a biological opinion in September 2008 finding that the National Flood Insurance Program is pushing orcas and several runs of salmon towards extinction, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. As a result, FEMA must now include habitat protections in its floodplain management requirements, which will help reduce risks to fish, wildlife and people. Learn more about NWF's work protecting wildlife and floodplains in Puget Sound >>
Salmon and Steelhead in Oregon - NWF and others filed a similar case against FEMA for issuing flood insurance throughout Oregon without consulting with the expert agency over impacts to threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. FEMA is now consulting with NMFS and promises to include salmon habitat protections soon.
Sea Turtles in Florida - In July 2010, NWF initiated a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act against FEMA for issuing flood insurance throughout Florida without consulting with the expert agency over impacts to endangered sea turtles. In January of 2011, NWF reached a settlement with FEMA where FEMA agreed to initiate consultation proceedings with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS to ensure that sea turtles are protected from the impacts of floodplain development induced by FEMA.
Key Deer in Florida - Culminating years of litigation and several important legal victories, in 2010, NWF settled a law suit that ensures that measures are in place to protect 8 threatened and endangered species, including the endangered key deer, from the harmful impacts of floodplain development spurred by FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program.
Endangered Species in Missouri - NWF sent FEMA a 60-day notice of intent to sue for issuing flood insurance throughout Missouri without consulting with the expert agency over impacts to the interior least tern and pallid sturgeon.
Restoring Floodplains and Fixing Past Mistakes
While preventing harmful development in floodplains is essential, it will not do enough to establish health floodplains. To recover imperiled fish and wildlife and protect communities from flooding, we also have to fix the many problems that have resulted from more than a hundred years of development, dikes, levees, and dams.
National Wildlife Federation is working to solve complex floodplain management problems by collaborating with federal, state and local governments to fix past mistakes and harmful policies. These solutions build on knowledge gained from our collective experience in floodplain management and ecosystem restoration.
More about floodplain restoration strategies >>
Protecting Coastal Habitat in the Florida Keys
National Wildlife Federation and our affiliate, Florida Wildlife Federation, have won four ground-breaking Endangered Species Act victories in our 15 year campaign to protect coastal habitats throughout the Florida Keys.
- In 1994, the U.S. District Court in Miami found that federal flood insurance in the Florida Keys was fueling development in the habitat of the endangered Key deer. The judge ruled that FEMA was required under the Endangered Species Act to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and develop a plan to prevent the flood insurance program from jeopardizing the species.
- In 1997, FWS found that federal flood insurance was jeopardizing the existence of the Key deer and seven other animals and plants. FEMA and FWS came up with a proposed plan to remedy this problem - FWS would offer technical assistance to landowners.
- In March 2005, the court ruled that such voluntary measures did nothing to remove the jeopardy caused by flood insurance, because it allowed flood insurance to continue to promote new development in endangered species habitat unabated.
- In September 2005, NWF won an injunction barring FEMA from issuing flood insurance for new development in the habitats of the eight species until the agencies develops a new plan for protecting the species. The injunction applies to any new structures on undeveloped habitat lands in the Florida Keys. In April 2008, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court rulings.
Protecting Floodplains in Puget Sound
In 2004, a federal district court in Seattle agreed with National Wildlife Federation and found that FEMA's flood insurance program encouraged floodplain development and harmed salmon already threatened with extinction. He ordered FEMA to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS") to ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
The consultation concluded in September 2008, when NMFS issued its biological opinion finding that the National Flood Insurance Program is pushing orcas and several runs of salmon towards extinction, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. This biological opinion is expected to trigger significant improvements in the development codes applicable in cities and counties across Puget Sound, which will help reduce risks to people and wildlife. Without implementing the changes called for by NMFS, these cities and counties could lose eligibility for federal flood insurance. NWF will be carefully scrutinizing how FEMA chooses to respond to this biological opinion to ensure that damaging floodplain development does not continue to be subsidized under this federal insurance program.