Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 14, 2023

Contact:

Mary Stites, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, (503) 768-6747, mary@nedc.org
Chelsea Stewart-Fusek, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6425, cstewartfusek@biologicaldiversity.org
Bob Sallinger, Willamette Riverkeeper, (503) 380-9728, bob@willametteriverkeeper.org

Lawsuit Challenges FEMA’s Flood Insurance Program

Irresponsible Floodplain Development Imperils Salmon, Orcas, Communities

PORTLAND, Ore.— Conservation groups sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency today over its failure to adequately protect floodplain-dependent endangered orcas, salmon and other fish in its flood insurance program.

“It’s absurd and illegal that FEMA chooses to ignore commonsense flood insurance reforms designed to protect imperiled marine mammals and fish,” said Chelsea Stewart-Fusek, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Many of these animals are on the brink of extinction, yet FEMA continues to conduct business as usual at the expense of our vitally important floodplain ecosystems and the species who depend on them. We shouldn’t have to take the agency to court to protect endangered species, but that’s become the only option.”

Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, says FEMA failed to meet mandatory deadlines for complying with National Marine Fisheries Service requirements to protect threatened and endangered floodplain species that are harmed by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.

The National Flood Insurance Program provides taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance for structures in high-hazard, flood-prone areas that private insurers won’t cover in exchange for improved floodplain management. FEMA was required to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service after conservation groups filed suit in 2009 over the agency’s failure to consider how its implementation of the insurance program in Oregon harmed imperiled species.

In 2016 the Fisheries Service determined that the program jeopardized the survival and recovery of protected species through poor floodplain management and by encouraging development in floodplains. The Service called on FEMA to update chronically outdated flood maps, develop new criteria to limit floodplain development, better mitigate harm when development does occur, and improve reporting and enforcement.

“Rather than complying with the law, FEMA has chosen to stall and delay urgently needed reforms of its National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA has known since 2016 that these reforms are necessary to protect salmon and Southern Resident killer whales listed under the Endangered Species Act,” said Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for Willamette Riverkeeper. “After nearly a decade, FEMA continues to miss key deadlines and is still years away from compliance, while floodplain development that puts both people and federally listed species at unnecessary risk continues unabated and unmitigated. As the frequency and intensity of flood events increases due to climate change, FEMA’s failure to obey federal law becomes more and more egregious.”

Despite its intent, the program has led to increased development in floodplains, placed people in harm’s way, destroyed valuable habitat for endangered species and left taxpayers with a growing bill to cover flood damage. The program is $22 billion in debt, and in 2022 taxpayers paid more than $280 million in interest on that debt.

“In light of the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises, it is imperative that we protect floodplains,” said Mary Stites, attorney for the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. “Under natural conditions, these ecosystems serve as biodiversity hotspots with highly complex, functional habitat systems. Once developed, we lose the ecosystem benefits of habitat function, water-quality protection, and flood and drought mitigation. These losses exacerbate the environmental and socio-economic impacts of environmental degradation and flooding and expose frontline communities to these disasters. We have a plan that will result in effective floodplain management that protects people and species, it is time that FEMA acts on it.”

Sixteen salmonid species are imperiled by FEMA’s flood insurance program, as well as the southern eulachon — a small smelt — and the salmonid-dependent Southern Resident orcas, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Floodplains are areas along rivers, streams and shorelines that are regularly inundated with water. They are biodiversity hotspots that increase flood storage capacity and protect water quality. They also provide critical landscape resiliency in the face of more extreme flooding worsened by the human-caused climate crisis.

Southern_Resident_Killer_Whale_NOAA_FPWC_06.jpg
Photogrammetry image of an adult female Southern Resident with her calf. Credit: NOAA Fisheries. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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