New FEMA flood rules could help agriculture and environment

New FEMA flood rules required for salmon protection could create environmental markets for farmers that end up helping farm businesses and protecting farmland from development.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversees a National Flood Insurance Program that underwrites some 5.7 million insurance policies covering $1.2 trillion in property values in flood-prone areas nationwide.

But FEMA is changing its rules for who is eligible to get that insurance.

The theory of the National Flood Insurance program is sound. Established communities located in vulnerable floodplains can get Federal flood insurance guarantees for their residents so their town can continue to exist and grow. But to get those guarantees, the community must establish development rules that reduce flooding and protect the environment. Local citizens get flood insurance. And the rules diminish future flooding.

FEMA, however, has tended to guarantee the insurance, without paying much attention to protecting the floodplains from damaging development. The result has been increased flooding, property damage, and insurance losses (paid for by you and me), and greater damage to the environment. FEMA is now under court order to require rules that provide greater protection against flooding and against the damage floods cause to salmon habitat. This is now producing new FEMA-required constraints on building construction in flood plains – a matter that is, needless to say, highly controversial in the affected communities. (See, e.g., a recent Associated Press article by Phuong Le: “FEMA Drafts Building Rules That Lessen Harm to Salmon,” published in the Seattle Times, 8/7/10.)

One feature of these new rules is that they will require developers to mitigate for the flood impacts of new construction in flood plain areas. This could produce a new source of funding that can pay farmers to improve streamside fish habitat, to manage their drainage systems so they accept more floodwater without damaging their farming, and potentially to keep their land in working agriculture and out of future flood-aggravating development.

The resulting new environmental market for flood mitigation could be a boon to some farmers who make their living farming in flood prone watersheds.

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