How Salmon Could Save Us from Flood Damage

Endangered species -- and the courts -- could wean us off unsustainable building practices.

See mud on tree, build higher.

This was the advice that Native Americans reportedly offered the pioneers that settled along flood-prone stretches of the Skagit River. The immigrants were of hearty stock, but they weren’t good listeners.

“They decided to ignore the Indians,” said Noel Bourasaw, editor of the Skagit River Journal.

In the late 1890s, two riverside settlements essentially floated away in the Skagit’s flood waters. But the neighboring town of Hamilton held on.

Fast forward 120 years.

Despite being repeatedly inundated by the Skagit, Hamilton’s inhabitants have kept their tenuous grip thanks in large part to the National Flood Insurance Program, which has helped residents rebuild time after time. It’s the same FEMA program that is expected this week to run out of money to pay flood insurance claims, never mind the billions of additional dollars that are needed to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Did I mention that over the years the program has borrowed $18 billion from taxpayers to settle claims nationwide?

And here’s one more reason not to love FEMA’s insurance program: federal scientists, the courts, and environmentalists agree that it harms endangered species including Northwest salmon and orcas.

Foundering in flood claims

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s insurance program was established 1968 in an attempt to make those living in flood-prone areas pay for damage to their homes and belongings through insurance premiums, rather than burdening taxpayers. The program enables builders to construct houses, businesses, and roads in areas at risk of flooding by offering insurance that would not otherwise be available through the private sector. The policy encourages municipalities to build levees and dikes and mound fill into floodplains, altering sensitive ecosystems, to protect developments.

While many floodplains are not well suited to human inhabitants, they can provide great habitat for fish and other species. As I explain in a recent story published in High Country News that I wrote for Investigate West, an independent journalism organization:

Floodplains are a sanctuary for salmon in high water. The water flows shallowly across the land, providing a calm haven with easy swimming and fewer predators. Young finger-sized fish thrive, gorging on bugs among the flooded trees and shrubs. Because floodplains are so important to salmon, long-term plans to recover the fish emphasize curtailing new development and encourage restoration of damaged areas.

The huge costs incurred by Hurricane Sandy have renewed scrutiny on the National Flood Insurance Program. Recent articles in Grist chastise the government for failing to keep the program current, which means insurance policy holders have been paying premiums that are much too low. An opinion piece in the New York Times calls for scrapping the program all together, noting that taxpayers are backing assets worth $527 billion. Keep in mind that these properties are at ever greater risk as climate change increases the likelihood of flooding from the Northwest to the Florida panhandle.

Enviros call for change

For nearly 20 years environmentalists have been calling for an overhaul of FEMA’s flood insurance program in the name of threatened and endangered deer, sea turtles, jaguar, and other wildlife.

  • In 1994, the National Wildlife Federation and others sued FEMA in Florida, claiming that the insurance program encouraged floodplain construction that was harmful to Key deer and other wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act.
  • In 2003, NWF sued the government in Washington, arguing that the same program was threatening Northwest species.
  • In 2009, NWF, Audubon Society of Portland, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders filed suit against FEMA in Oregon on behalf of salmon and steelhead.

The environmentalists have prevailed in all of these cases—and numerous similar challenges in the West.

But the fight continues because while Hamilton represents the legacy of poor construction decisions, building and rebuilding continues in flood-prone areas.

In 2011 alone, Puget Sound cities and counties approved more than 600 projects in floodplains. Environmentalists want FEMA and municipalities to curb this construction to protect species and taxpayers. They’re employing the courts and the Endangered Species Act to force them to take action.

“Salmon could end up improving public safety by preventing people from building in dangerous places,” said Dan Siemann, senior environmental policy specialist with the NWF. Changing the program could “protect people, save salmon, save money. It’s a win win win for everybody.

“This is where the environmentalists and the Tea Party come together,” Siemann quipped in an interview with me.

In Washington, NWF is in the midst of another court challenge against FEMA. After their successful suit in 2003, the group sued again in 2011 claiming the agency still hadn’t changed its ways.

Turning the battleship

FEMA officials counter that they’re making progress. This summer, the agency accepted public comment on a plan to prepare an environmental impact statement for the flood insurance program, which could include updates to better protect wildlife.

John Graves, senior National Flood Insurance Program specialist for the Northwest, says change is happening.

“We’re changing the culture of floodplain management. It used to be about armoring and keeping the water away. Now we’re moving into a new culture of protecting natural, beneficial functions as well as protecting people and property. The battleship is turning.”

But here’s the kicker. Even if new construction were to be greatly limited in floodplains, or done in a way that’s more sensitive to the environment while remaining structurally sound, there remains the decades worth of existing development that stands in the path of flood waters.

Here’s the advice of the New York Times commentary for fixing the situation:

We do not underestimate the complexity and political difficulty of phasing out a popular program like national flood insurance, nor do we think the government should abandon people who are currently insured. But Congress and the president should challenge the status quo and make some tough decisions, like providing subsidies or buyouts to encourage people to move out of the most disaster-prone areas, and eliminating other government incentives that support living in high-risk areas…

But with careful planning and a gradual shift away from the coast, Americans can still enjoy the beauty and live safely, yet escape the cycle of catastrophe and response, in which so much money is expended on properties that are repeatedly flooded.

And I’ll add that the salmon, orcas, and other species sliding toward oblivion would be much obliged if floodplains were allowed to return to a more natural state.


Editor’s note: This post was updated Jan. 8, 2013 regarding where the Indians gave their warning to settlers. According to Larry Kunzler, keeper of the Skagit River History webpage, the location was a community downriver from Hamilton.

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  1. Chris Davis says:

    Nice Post Lisa. This is one of those rare issues that’s on the one hand, complex and on the other, so totally bizzare and illogical that it can’t seem to be true. And as Dan says, an issue that creates a natural bridge between the libertarians, the good government Republicans and the conservation fish heads…..there’s a tipping point out there…….

    • Lisa Stiffler says:

      Thanks, Chris, for your thoughts. FEMA seems to keep trying to get this program in order, but I think it would take strong action from elected leaders to make real change. Given the amount of money involved, we won’t be able to ignore this forever!

  2. William Robison says:

    Thank you for the article. National Flood is a program from a bygone age unintentionally allowed wholesale destruction of wetlands and riparian habitats. Originally designed to get flood plain landowners off the public dole, it became a subsidy for commercial and residential development that actually exacerbated the problem. It is time to stop new construction in flood plains altogether and begin mitigating what we all ready have. The law is also to blame. Treating surface water as a “common enemy” to be pushed off on the next property by building ditches, dikes and levees is not a solution. The ongoing filling of flood plain in the Chehalis area is a fine example of the continuation of bad policy.

  3. Joel Kawahara says:

    The other component of this issue is the certification of Levees by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has mandated levees must be open to inspection – thus free of vegetation. In many of the watersheds of the Northwest, the levees are the riparian zone and provide the only protection for salmon in the river. As I am sure you are aware, this has put the Corps in direct conflict with the Endangered Species Act reasonable and prudent alternatives that mandate trees along rivers.

    FEMA requires levees meet Army Corps of Engineers standards in order to receive flood insurance. Requiring the Corps to meet ESA requirements would initially de-certify the levees – until the Corps issues variances to the individual levee owners, a process that the Corps has not allowed to proceed in a programatic fashion ( for instance all levees maintained by King county). This issue adds to the complexity of finding solutions to the problem caused by building in flood plains.

    • Lisa Stiffler says:

      This is such a crazy issue! I remember reporting on it more than four years ago when I was at the P-I and King County was so frustrated that the Army Corps was preventing them from doing right by salmon. How discouraging that it’s not been resolved — shame on the Corps. Thanks for reminding us that this is still a problem that needs attention.

  4. David Batker says:

    Thanks Lisa for a great story!

    Part of the problem are cost/benefit analyses required by law that count the value of “built capital” like houses, cars, levees, fish plants but do not count the value of natural assets that produce fish, provide flood risk reduction (like wetlands and forests). So the floodplain is overvalued for built assets (which get washed out) and undervalued for the sustainable assets provided, like fish, drinking water and flood risk reduction. Fortunately, FEMA is on a new path to include the value of the ecosystem services provided by floodplains in their cost/benefit analysis. That justifies more relocation as opposed to building in the same place that just washed out. Earth Economics is on the forefront of assisting federal agencies change their economic analysis to include natures economic value.

    • Lisa Stiffler says:

      Thanks for the added information! Be sure to let us know as Earth Economics completes some of these analyses.

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