By: Anna Steel
(Who knew there could be a title composed purely of acronyms, abbreviations, and symbols!)
Conservation science necessitates understanding of public policy as well as scientific research. Here I wander through the implications of the National Flood Insurance Program for floodplain habitats, and demonstrate the obnoxious nature of acronyms.
One of the keys to good conservation science is understanding how research and scientific evidence are used to create or reform public policy. This requires conservation scientists to be versed not only in the scientific process but the policies (and their acronyms) that influence conservation goals. So this post will attempt to provide an overview of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP; acronym #1), how it incentivizes habitat conversion, and how the Endangered Species Act (ESA, #2) has been used in an attempt to force reform.
Today’s blog take-homes (i.e.: a roadmap for the following thoughts)
First, what is the NFIP? In a nutshell, any residence or business that is located in a high flood risk area, classified as the 100 year floodplain or the area predicted to have a 1% chance of flooding every year, must have flood insurance to obtain a federal loan. The original and honorable intention of the program was to increase flood safety and reduce disaster relief spending by the government. However, private insurance companies quickly determined that it is very (economically) dangerous to live in a floodplain and therefore set policy premiums extremely high, as free markets do. Thus, in 1968, to help owners who were already living in floodplains (oops!) congress created the NFIP, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, #3), to provide affordable insurance for these folks. Without getting into much detail about the program itself, I’ll just say that because the actuarial basis was a little shaky, as of Dec 2014 FEMA owed the federal bank over $23 billion. Much of this is due to major storms like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy - in the year of Katrina, NFIP added $19 billion to its debt. These economic points were highlighted by the media coverage that occurred after hurricane Sandy, but have also been noticed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO, #4) when it classified NFIP as a high risk program [http://www.gao.gov/highrisk/national_flood_insurance/why_did_study ] in 2006. Take home point: Government insurance for floodplain development has become costly for taxpayers.
Before I go any farther, I want to note that this blog was inspired by a great talk given at UC Davis by Monty Schmitt, a senior scientist for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC, #5). His talk, and this post, focus not on the questionable economic nature of NFIP but rather on the impact this policy has on fish and wildlife. By subsidizing the risk of living in a floodplain, NFIP has paradoxically encouraged floodplain development over the last fifty years. This has had wide-reaching effects on the environmental health of floodplains. From an ecological perspective, floodplains are a vital element of many ecosystems. When they are covered in water (i.e.: when the plain is flooded), they provide refuge and food resources for fish, birds, amphibians, and bugs. Not all floodplains flood every year, and when they do they only provide temporary habitat. Yet there are numerous species which have evolved to use these ephemeral areas for reproduction and rearing of offspring - in California 53 separate species are listed as floodplain-dependent. In addition to forming tangible habitat, floodplains help recharge groundwater and transport nutrients into rivers and estuaries. Alternatively, if they are heavily developed and transformed to impervious surfaces (roads, parking lots, driveways, roofs, etc.), they increase the rate at which rainwater flows into rivers, thus exacerbating flooding downstream, and they become very effective at transporting pollutants into local waterways. By providing insurance to mitigate the high risk of building on floodplains, NFIP has encouraged the continued development of these areas which are already heavily altered ‒ California only has 4-5% of its historic floodplains still intact. Take home point: Building in floodplains results in the loss or damage to important habitat/ecosystem processes.
Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA, back to #2), any federal program that may harm listed species must undergo a consultation, under Section 7 if you’re a policy wonks and care about that sort of thing, with either the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS #6) or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA #7). This consultation is intended to determine if the project places listed species in jeopardy of extinction. If it does, this consultation results in what is called a ‘jeopardy opinion’, causing FWS or NOAA to write a Biological Opinion (BiOp, #8) that includes specification of Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives (RPAs #9) to the proposed project. To summarize: under the ESA a project by a federal agency (say, NFIP by FEMA) is not allowed to harm listed species (say, one of the many listed Pacific salmon populations). This potential for harm is evaluated by FWS or NOAA and any reasonable alternatives they suggest must be followed by said federal agency (e.g., FEMA). Whew.
So how does this relate the ESA to NFIP? While the program was intended to provide insurance for mistakes of the past, it is somehow still subsidizing the ongoing and dangerous development in flood-prone areas. After nearly thirty years of these policies, in 1994 FEMA and FWS were sued by environmental organizations for not following the explicit ESA requirements I just outlined. In that year, a lawsuit was filed in Florida to stop floodplain development that was threatening habitat of the critically endangered Key deer. A similar conflict arose in 2004 between FEMA and NOAA in Puget Sound, Washington, to protect listed salmon runs. The resulting biological opinion issued for Puget Sound in 2008 made very strict recommendations for alternatives to the current approach to issuing federal flood insurance. Possibly the most influential element of the opinion was a statement that required any development in the 100 year floodplain to be mitigated elsewhere, and that the development itself must meet low-impact standards to reduce problems of run-off and pollution. While the on-the-ground changes resulting from the Washington case have been underwhelming (another 2014 lawsuit tried to enforce the alternative strategies but they were deemed too broad to be enforced in spirit), there are other lawsuits and/or jeopardy opinions pending in Oregon (OR, #10), California (CA, #11), Arizona (AZ, #12), and New Mexico (AZ, #13) which are closely watching the outcomes from Washington in order to avoid the same pitfalls. Additionally, in 2017 the NFIP program will be up for renewal by Congress, allowing the opportunity to reform many of the elements which encourage destructive development in floodplains and increase the tax-payer liability for flood risks. Take home point: Policy fixes are possible! (but are they likely?)
As conservation scientists, we must understand the conflict between human development pressures and sensitive habitats they threaten. In some situations it may seem impossible to move entire towns or cities out of floodplains (e.g.: New Orleans). But there are still undeveloped floodplains, often near urban centers that are looking to expand. In these situations the reform of current policy, either through congressional action (is there any action from them anymore?) or through the requirements in the ESA, will be invaluable. So stay well versed, and pay attention to where you decide to build or buy a home. Don’t live in a floodplain! Nor use unnecessary acronyms.
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