Oregon lawsuit over federal flood-insurance program says rules put people, fish at risk

Conservation groups in Oregon are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency over its flood-insurance program, which they say puts fish, orcas and people at risk.

The lawsuit, filed late last week, claims that FEMA encourages floodplain development in Oregon’s high-hazard areas by allowing property owners to buy affordable insurance to protect their homes from flood damage in those areas. The construction in flood plains, in turn, harms natural floodplain functions and destroys the habitat of threatened and endangered species, including 15 salmon species and salmon-dependent orcas, the suit says.

The lawsuit comes 14 years after conservation groups in Oregon first filed a legal action seeking to reform the federal flood-insurance program. FEMA and the plaintiffs, some of the same ones bringing the new lawsuit, settled the first one. As part of that settlement, the federal agency agreed to consult with NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to determine how FEMA’s program was harming fish.

In 2016, NOAA Fisheries announced that FEMA’s flood-insurance program was jeopardizing the continued existence of salmon and other species that depend on salmon for food. It said FEMA must update standards to reduce the impact of floodplain development on the impacted species.

NOAA Fisheries told FEMA to create floodplain maps that more accurately identify where flood risks are and where they’re expected in the future, limit the types of development allowed in both floodways and channel migration zones, track floodplain development and tighten requirements for development in floodplains.

Many cities and counties in Oregon are vehemently opposed to any new rules from FEMA because they don’t want to make development in floodplains significantly more difficult and costly.

Portland is the only city thus far that has worked to tighten its floodplain development requirements, even before FEMA updates its rules – but environmental groups have said Portland’s proposal is stocked with loopholes, exemptions and delays.

Conservation groups say FEMA has dragged its feet for years on the NOAA Fisheries recommendations. The agency received a three-year extension from Congress on implementing them, but is still far from achieving the requested reforms to the flood insurance program, said Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.

FEMA published an implementation plan two years ago and plans to conduct an environmental review this year, with new rules to be rolled out in 2025. Communities will have to fully implement the rules by 2027. The agency declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Sallinger said the implementation plan does not meet NOAA Fisheries’ recommendations. FEMA, he said, is “years away from fulfilling its obligations.”

– Gosia Wozniacka; [email protected]; @gosiawozniacka

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