Floodplains are crucial to the environmental health and public safety of Puget Sound. They are essential for the recovery of declining salmon and orca, and they help keep people safe from dangerous floodwaters.
However, rampant development in floodplains has harmed Puget Sound and its residents. Local, state, and federal policies that allow and even subsidize dangerous development in floodplains only serve to put people in harm's way, destroy critical habitat, and cost taxpayers millions.
The National Wildlife Federation is working to protect and restore these floodplains by overhauling the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
You may not expect to see "flood insurance" on the list of threats posed to salmon and orca in the Pacific Northwest. But it's a big one.
Floodplains are crucial habitat for salmon, influencing their health, growth and survival. This makes it very important to ensure that development standards in those areas prevent further harm to floodplain habitat.
Unfortunately, FEMA doesn't include habitat protection standards as part of its National Flood Insurance Program. In fact, the NFIP actually encourages development within floodplains.
Development in floodplains puts people, wildlife, and communities at risk. In the end, we all pay for it. Since 1990, the costs of flooding in western Washington State have been severe.
In 2003, National Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit against FEMA arguing that the National Flood Insurance Program is contributing to the extinction of salmon and orca in Puget Sound and therefore in violation of the Endangered Species Act. 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 to ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
Our legal victory led to the National Marine Fisheries Service issuing a "Biological Opinion" (also known as a BiOp) in September 2008, forcing FEMA to strengthen NFIP standards to prevent harm to critical habitat.
National Marine Fisheries Service scientists found, "Development within the floodplain results in stream channelization, habitat instability, vegetation removal, and point and nonpoint source pollution all of which contribute to degraded salmon habitat."
By approving flood insurance for structures in floodplain areas, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the program is jeopardizing the survival of Puget Sound Chinook and steelhead, as well as Hood Canal summer-run chum salmon. Because Chinook salmon are the primary food source for Puget Sound orca, the NFIP also jeopardizes their survival.
The Biological Opinion mandates that FEMA make specific changes to its insurance program to prevent further harm to salmon.
These common-sense changes include:
The Biological Opinion provides an opportunity to transform protection of river, lake and marine shorelines, and to begin restoring damaged floodplain habitat. It also provides FEMA and local governments with the opportunity to prevent dangerous and costly development in flood hazard areas.
More than 28,000 structures have been built in floodplains since the National Flood Insurance Program has supposedly been guiding development away from flood-prone areas. Since 1990, the costs of flooding in Western Washington have been have been disastrous and costly for all of us:
These statistics reveal a harsh reality. If we continue to allow development in flood hazard areas, people's health, livelihoods and homes will continue to be put at risk, public infrastructure will continue to be lost or damaged, and taxpayers will foot the bill to rebuild in the same risky places.
Floodplains are being developed in Puget Sound at an alarming rate despite the well documented importance of protecting and restoring these areas for the protection of critically endangered species as well as human health.
The Northern Rockies, Prairies, and Pacific Regional Center is working to significantly increase protection and restoration of floodplain areas to enhance salmon and riparian habitat, improve water quality in Puget Sound, and accommodate increased stormwater resulting from climate change. These changes will have the added benefit of reducing the costs of flood damage, and getting people out of harm's way.
Campaign in Brief
Storms are becoming more extreme and more common. Because warmer air holds more moisture and more precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow, climate change is causing increasingly severe storms that lead to larger and more costly floods.
Puget Sound has already experienced increases in the frequency and intensity of storms due to climate change:
University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group (CIG) predicts flooding will get even worse in Puget Sound as the climate warms. Projections suggest that flood frequencies are most likely to increase, especially in:
One study for Seattle City Light suggests that some parts of the Skagit River will experience a 30% increase in Flood Frequency over the next 50 years.
This trend is similar across the country (see map). A recent FEMA study projects that the extent of flood-prone lands in the US is expected to grow up to 45 percent due to heavier storms and rising sea levels.
Nationally, current average annual flood costs are approximately $2.35 billion. By the end of this century, climate change could cause an eight-fold increase in those costs—to as much as $19 billion per year.
As climate change brings increasingly severe storms, floodplain protection and restoration will become even more important to protect people and habitat. The National Wildlife Federation is working to support climate resilient communities throughout Puget Sound and the nation.
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