Protecting Puget Sound's Floodplains


Floodplains are crucial to the environmental health and public safety of Puget Sound. They are essential for the recovery of declining salmon and orca, and they help keep people safe from dangerous floodwaters.

However, rampant development in floodplains has harmed Puget Sound and its residents. Local, state and federal policies that allow and even subsidize dangerous development in floodplains only serve to put people in harm's way, destroy critical habitat and cost taxpayers millions.

National Wildlife Federation is working to protect and restore these floodplains by overhauling the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program Endangers Salmon and Orca

You may not expect to see "flood insurance" on the list of threats posed to salmon and orca in the Pacific Northwest. But it's a big one.

Floodplains are crucial habitat for salmon, influencing their health, growth and survival. This makes it very important to ensure that development standards in those areas prevent further harm to floodplain habitat.

Unfortunately, FEMA doesn't include habitat protection standards as part of its National Flood Insurance Program. In fact, the NFIP actually encourages development within floodplains.

NWF Takes FEMA to Court Over Flood Insurance Program


Development in floodplains puts people, wildlife and communities at risk. In the end, we all pay for it. Since 1990, the costs of flooding in Western Washington have been severe.

In 2003, National Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit against FEMA arguing that the National Flood Insurance Program is contributing to the extinction of salmon and orca in Puget Sound and therefore in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Our legal victory led to the National Marine Fisheries Service issuing a "Biological Opinion" (also known as a BiOp) forcing FEMA to strengthen NFIP standards to prevent harm to critical habitat.

National Marine Fisheries Service scientists found that, "Development within the floodplain results in stream channelization, habitat instability, vegetation removal, and point and nonpoint source pollution all of which contribute to degraded salmon habitat."

By approving flood insurance for structures in floodplain areas, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the program is jeopardizing the survival of Puget Sound Chinook and steelhead, as well as Hood Canal summer-run chum salmon.

Because Chinook salmon are the primary food source for Puget Sound orca, the NFIP also jeopardizes their survival.

On September 22, 2011, the deadline for BiOp implementation passed, and it became clear that FEMA had failed to take the steps necessary to prevent harm to critical floodplain habitat.

Consequently, in December 2011, NWF filed a second lawsuit against FEMA for continuing to violate the Endangered Species Act by implementing the National Flood Insurance Program in Puget Sound without making required changes to protect salmon habitat. A hearing in the case is expected in late summer, 2013.

How FEMA must fix its Flood Insurance Program

The Biological Opinion mandates that FEMA make specific changes to its insurance program to prevent further harm to salmon by September 2011.

These common-sense changes include:

  • Improving the accuracy of floodplain maps. This includes incorporating future conditions such as climate change in floodplain delineations.

  • Incorporating salmon habitat protections into eligibility requirements to qualify for flood insurance.

  • Creating incentives for habitat protection through the Community Rating System (CRS) .

  • Improving the habitat value of levees.

  • Monitoring floodplain development more closely and mitigating any harm to salmon habitat allowed by the flood insurance program.

The Biological Opinion provides an opportunity to transform protection of river, lake and marine shorelines, and to begin restoring damaged floodplain habitat. It also provides FEMA and local governments with the opportunity to prevent dangerous and costly development in flood hazard areas.

Cost of Flooding to Western Washington

More than 28,000 structures have been built in floodplains since the National Flood Insurance Program has supposedly been guiding development away from flood-prone areas. Since 1990, the costs of flooding in Western Washington have been have been disastrous and costly for all of us:

  • Puget Sound has experienced 15 federally declared flood disasters.

  • 58 lives have been lost due to floods.

  • More than $1.37 billion in flood damages have been paid by taxpayers.

  • Levees failed or overtopped in ten of the past 15 flood disasters, costing $125 million in repairs to more than 200 sites.

  • 833 homes in the Puget Sound Area have flooded repeatedly (three times or more), and cost taxpayers $71 million in insurance claims.

  • Interstate 5 has been closed four times costing more than $181 million in losses.

  • In a single 1990 flood, more than 600 cattle died in Snohomish and King Counties. In a 2003 flood, more than 300 farm animals perished.

These statistics reveal a harsh reality. If we continue to allow development in flood hazard areas, people's health, livelihoods and homes will continue to be put at risk, public infrastructure will continue to be lost or damaged, and taxpayers will foot the bill to rebuild in the same risky places.

What We Do to Protect the Puget Sound>>

Global Warming Amplifies Flooding in Pacific Northwest

Floodplains are being developed in Puget Sound at an alarming rate despite the well documented importance of protecting and restoring these areas for the protection of critically endangered species as well as human health.

The Pacific Regional Center is working to significantly increase protection and restoration of floodplain areas to enhance salmon and riparian habitat, improve water quality in Puget Sound, and accommodate increased stormwater resulting from climate change. These changes will have the added benefit of reducing the costs of flood damage, and getting people out of harm's way.

Campaign in Brief

  • The Problem:
    The Federal Emergency Management Agency has encouraged building in floodplains through their poor implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program. This puts people at risk, exacerbates habitat destruction, and costs taxpayers billions of dollars in repeat flood damage claims.
  • Our Goals:
    National Wildlife Federation (NWF) seeks to ensure that FEMA lives up to their responsibilities to protect the public from devastating floods, and to protect floodplain habitat so that endangered salmon and orca will have a chance to thrive.

Storms are becoming more extreme and more common. Because warmer air holds more moisture and more precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow, climate change is causing increasingly severe storms that lead to larger and more costly floods.

Puget Sound has already experienced increases in the frequency and intensity of storms due to climate change:

  • An intense rainfall event that used to occur once every 50 years now occurs on average every 8.4 years.

  • The four highest daily precipitation totals observed in Seattle since 1949 occurred in the last five years.

  • In January 2009, four Puget Sound rivers hit record flood levels.

University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group (CIG) predicts flooding will get even worse in Puget Sound as the climate warms. Projections suggest that flood frequencies are most likely to increase, especially in:

  • Puget Sound

  • Southwest Washington

  • Low elevations east of Cascades

One study for Seattle City Light suggests that some parts of the Skagit River will experience a 30% increase in Flood Frequency over the next 50 years.

This trend is similar across the country (see map). A recent FEMA study projects that the extent of flood-prone lands in the US is expected to grow up to 45% due to heavier storms and rising sea levels.

Nationally, current average annual flood costs are approximately $2.35 billion. By the end of this century, climate change could cause an 8-fold increase in those costs -- to as much as $19 billion per year.

As climate change brings increasingly severe storms, floodplain protection and restoration will become even more important to protect people and habitat. NWF is working to support climate resilient communities throughout Puget Sound and the nation.

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