Obama Proposes Federal Floodplain Management Update

Published January 14, 2010

The Obama administration has drafted an executive order updating the federal government’s floodplain management efforts. A broad spectrum of supporters, from environmental groups to insurance interests, see this move as possibly reducing government subsidies and saving tax dollars by making development in high-risk areas more expensive, thus reducing development and flood damage exposure.

They applaud this renewed interest in floodplain management and are urging the administration to call on state lawmakers and the public to demand better flood risk measures.

David Conrad, a senior water resources specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, supports the Obama administration’s plan to revise the 1978 executive order that established the nation’s current floodplain policy.

“Given all the lessons we have learned or should have learned from floods, and even hurricanes and storm surges, it is long overdue to update the nation’s executive order on floodplain management,” Conrad said.

Management Would Expand
The management policy established in the 1978 order requires the federal government, among other things, “to minimize the impact of floods on human safety, health and welfare, and to restore and preserve the natural and beneficial values served by floodplains and avoid direct or indirect support of floodplain development wherever there is a practicable alternative.”

The Obama administration’s proposed executive order retains these requirements and charges federal agencies with a variety of additional tasks, including efforts to promote and implement cost-effective and environmentally sound floodplain management; consider the effect climate change and anticipated future conditions might have on the extent and frequency of flooding; and avoid the short- and long-term adverse effects of occupying and modifying floodplains, according to Eli Lehrer, senior fellow and director of the Center on Risk, Regulation, and Markets at The Heartland Institute.

Some new restrictions on federal agencies are also included in the draft, Lehrer said.

“Agency regulations and procedures must also, at a minimum, require that the construction of federal facilities and federally assisted structures comply with the standards issued under the National Flood Insurance Program and the requirements of this order,” the draft states.

Floodplains Are Changing
The Wildlife Federation’s Conrad would also urge the administration to take the executive order revision farther by recognizing floodplains are more dynamic now than ever.

“The number of factors that are creating flood risks are certainly not decreasing, but often increasing, around most bodies of water,” Conrad said. “Given that reality, there are a whole lot of actions the federal government should be taking to help the public manage and reduce flood risks.”

Updating FEMA’s floodplain maps is one critically important action, he said. A major effort to update the floodplain maps has been ongoing since 2002.

“But it is a daunting task that will continue to be a major task well into the next decade. And then if we’re basing a lot of public policy on those maps, they have to continue to be kept up to date,” Conrad said.

The states also should become more involved in regulating floodplains, Conrad said.

“Land use policy is needed in the floodplains because they will flood. Flooding is the most common natural disaster, and among the most expensive,” Conrad said. “This really needs more attention at the state level. We need to get states more engaged and get the public to demand better risk measures.”

Big Floods Keep Happening
He noted that supposed 100-year floods are occurring with alarming frequency.

“We have had two 100-year floods along the Mississippi and its tributaries within 15 years of each other. The public believes if it is outside the 100-year floodplain, it has no risk. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Conrad said.

Smartersafer.org, a coalition of environmental, insurance, free market, and taxpayer groups devoted to securing the United States against extreme natural events, supports efforts to revise the executive order on floodplain management.

“It is time for the federal government to renew its commitment to managing floodplain resources in a way that reduces flood losses, keeps people out of harm’s way,” and benefits taxpayers and property owners in other ways, Smartersafer.org states in a letter to Nancy Sutley, chairperson of the Council on Environmental Quality and the principal environmental policy adviser to President Obama.

The proposed executive order specifically notes a list of “critical” actions and facilities “for which even a slight chance of flooding would be too great.”

Smartersafer calls for the draft to expand its scope. For example, that “critical” list should be broadened by specifically identifying key transportation arteries and telecommunications infrastructure.

“Likewise, the risks of flooding key national and homeland security facilities seem just as great — if not greater — than the risks of flooding in public safety facilities,” Smartersafer writes.

Dennis Kelly ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.

Internet Info

President Obama’s draft Executive Order – Floodplain Management: http://www.heartland.org/budgetandtax-news.org/article/26744