Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, June 28, 2023

Contact:

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

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Oregon’s Salmon, Orcas From Irresponsible Floodplain Development

FEMA Flood Insurance Program Imperils Wildlife, Endangers Communities

PORTLAND, Ore.— Conservation groups filed a formal notice of their intent to sue the Federal Emergency Management Agency over its failure to protect floodplain-dependent imperiled salmonids and orcas in Oregon that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“FEMA has been harming Oregon’s most iconic wildlife and endangering people for years by ignoring recommendations to make common-sense changes to its flood insurance program,” said Chelsea Stewart-Fusek, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Wetlands and other floodplain habitats reduce flooding and provide some of our most important ecosystem services. It’s mind boggling that FEMA continues to allow dangerous development in natural floodplains and it’s costing taxpayers billions.”

FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program provides taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance for structures in high-hazard, flood-prone areas that private insurers won’t cover. The program, created by the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, is intended to provide federal flood insurance and reduce loss of life and property to floods by improving floodplain management.

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 an ever-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.

“These reforms are long overdue. FEMA has known since 2016 that these reforms are necessary to comply with the Endangered Species Act,” said Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for Willamette Riverkeeper. “Nearly a decade later, FEMA has missed key deadlines and is still years away from compliance and 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.”

FEMA was forced to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service after conservation groups filed suit in 2009 over the agency’s failure to consider how the program harmed imperiled species in Oregon. In 2016 the Service determined that FEMA’s implementation of the program in Oregon jeopardized the survival and recovery of protected species through poor floodplain management and by encouraging development in floodplains. These types of decisions, called “jeopardy decisions,” are rare and speak to the seriousness of the harm to imperiled species.

The Service’s biological opinion recommended several changes to the program to comply with the Endangered Species Act, but FEMA has failed to make them. These changes include updating flood maps, developing new criteria to limit floodplain development and more fully mitigate harm when development does occur, and improving reporting and enforcement. FEMA’s failure to meet mandatory deadlines for compliance is at the heart of today’s notice.

“NMFS articulated a clear path forward that is mutually beneficial to species and communities,” said Mary Stites, attorney at the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. “It is critical that FEMA follow that path. We should not be incentivizing floodplain development that harms ecosystems, nor should we be subsidizing development that exposes communities to severe flooding events. Implementation of NMFS’ recommended measures is crucial to protect these species and to promote equitable climate resiliency.”

Sixteen salmonid species are imperiled by the flood insurance program, as well as the southern eulachon — a small smelt — and the salmonid-dependent Southern Resident orca.

Floodplains are areas along rivers, streams and shorelines that are regularly inundated with water. They provide important fish and wildlife habitat, increase flood storage capacity and protect water quality. They also provide critical landscape resiliency in the face of more extreme flooding exacerbated by the climate crisis.

The coalition includes the Center for Biological Diversity, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Willamette Riverkeeper and The Conservation Angler.

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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