Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: In Congress reauthorization of the Farm Bill and the National Floodplain Insurance Program may hurt or help wetlands conservation

When people think about wetlands and Congress, the Clean Water Act is the legislation that comes first to mind.  Since the 2001 SWANCC Supreme Court decision, and later the 2006 Carabell/Rapanos decision there has been a great deal of discussion about which areas should or should not be subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction.  Congress is deeply divided over this topic.  There is no authorizing legislation introduced to resolve the uncertainties created by the two Supreme Court decisions although there have been riders introduced this year to prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from taking any new action to address this issue.

There are, however, two important pieces of authorizing legislation before Congress that will affect wetlands, floodplains, and human health and safety.  These are the next Farm Bill and the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program.  An earlier Compleat Wetlander post dealt with the importance of the Farm Bill and linking Conservation Compliance to Crop Insurance.  On July 20, an amendment was added on the floor of the Senate to a new Senate version of the Farm Bill that would require farmers to comply with sodbuster and swampbuster to be eligible for crop insurance. The House has yet to take up the Farm Bill and it is uncertain whether Congress will pass a new Farm Bill this year or pass an extension of the existing legislation.

Next up for the Senate is reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program. Once again, the jury is out on whether the program will be reauthorized or extended beyond its current July 31st expiration date.  National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is badly needed.  Currently the program is $18 billion in debt and federal spending on floods is rising.  In addition climate change is expected to lead to more extreme weather including floods and coastal storms. This in turn will increase the costs associated with helping individuals, communities and states recover from floods.  One problem is that flood insurance rates are too low.   They cannot cover the costs of rebuilding after floods occur so the program is in debt.  If flood losses were insured by private insurance companies rather than federal government, insurance rates in some areas would rise dramatically.

In addition people do not understand how risky it is to live in a floodplain.  They do not understand that a flood will occur and reoccur. The only question is ‘when?’

Finally, current federal floodplain policies and programs implemented through the NFIP do little to support moving people out of high hazard areas and implementing measures to substantially reduce flood risk.

It is ironic that low cost insurance makes building in risky areas more affordable.  Installing hard structures such as seawalls and levees to provide protection can actually accelerate erosion and ultimately undermine the structures put in place to provide protection.  Sound floodplain policy should encourage communities to focus new development out of harm’s way and identify workable solutions that will encourage communities to develop long term strategies to move at-risk structure away from floodprone areas.

This is why reform is needed.

Natural floodplains and natural wetlands provide flood storage, recreational opportunities, wildlife, clean water and other benefits.  Keeping and returning natural landscapes to areas subject to repeated flood events will make communities safer, reduce and eliminate the costs of replacing homes and infrastructure and support healthy, productive landscapes.

To accomplish this NFIP reform should

  1. Document and communicate true risk to people and communities in flood prone areas
  2. Provide scientifically accurate mapping of current and future risk
  3. Charge flood insurance rates that accurately reflect flood risk, and
  4. Ensure protection and restoration of floodplains and associated wetlands are supported as part of implementing the NFIP.

However, these solutions will be difficult for many communities established in areas already substantially at risk. Shorefront properties often are important contributors to the community’s tax base.  New and more accurate maps, particularly those that assess future risk, may expand the areas identified as being at risk.  For example, there has been intense discussion and debate regarding whether people living behind levees should be required to have flood insurance.

As a result it is anticipated that the reauthorization process in Congress will include the introduction of amendments that would prohibit needed reforms affecting not only the federal government, but also the ability of states and local communities to actively pursue strategies to reduce risk.

For more information about reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program and the various interest groups supporting reform visit:

FEMA National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Needed

Research & Commentary: National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization

Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program

Speak Up for Flood Insurance Reform

Statement of The Nature Conservancy Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy

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