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Development Near Salmon-Bearing Streams Gets New Restrictions

April 18, 2016

Building in flood zones is about to get harder across much of Oregon, due to new federal recommendations. 

The government published the recommendations, called a biological opinion, in response to a lawsuit from environmental groups. The Audubon Society of Portland, National Wildlife Federation, Northwest Environmental Defense Center and Association of Northwest Steelheaders had argued that federal flood insurance was encouraging development detrimental to threatened salmon.

Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the agency recommends FEMA make several efforts to change the flood insurance program.

“The first effort is a mapping effort," Stelle said. "The second effort is development standards to try to steer development out of harm’s way, in order to protect those most important habitat functions for salmon and steelhead.”  

The Biological Opinion does not directly ban development in flood plains along salmon-bearing waterways. But there is a "no net loss" policy, requiring that developers or property owners mitigate any lost salmon habitat with new habitat.

FEMA said that 251 Oregon communities have flood plain areas along salmon-bearing rivers and streams out of 271 communities with flood plains. Affected areas are up and down the coast, throughout the Willamette Valley, east to the Idaho border and into much of central Oregon.

Some Oregon communities and leaders have expressed concern about the effect rules could have on property owners and potential development near salmon-bearing streams.

FEMA's regional branch chief for Floodplain Management & Insurance, John Graves said that his agency will work with the state of Oregon and local governments on implementation, including new maps and how rules may work on the ground.

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio garnered support in the US House for legislation potentially blocking FEMA from following the recommendations.

“For over a year and a half, I have worked with local officials and directly engaged with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop a bureaucratic overreach ... that could supersede Oregon’s land-use laws and prohibit development on tens of thousands of acres across the state," DeFazio said in a statement supporting the FEMA amendment. "We can protect our endangered species without dictating unworkable solutions for communities in flood prone areas."

Environmental groups have signaled their support of the biological opinion, and optimism that the changes to flood insurance could improve recovery efforts for threatened salmon and steelhead.

“It has been a long time coming, but we are very pleased that the National Marine Fisheries Service has outlined sensible improvements to FEMA’s flood insurance program to help recover listed salmon and steelhead,” said Bob Sallinger Conservation Director for the Audubon Society of Portland, one of the environmental groups to file the lawsuit in 2009.

The two agencies at the center of the changes — NOAA and FEMA — do not see eye-to-eye on all aspects of what about the federal flood insurance program should change. As NOAA regional administrator Will Stelle explained on a conference call with reporters, the two agencies differ in at least two areas.

One is where edge areas, what he called "erosion zones," are concerned. NOAA believes those areas should be included in FEMA's new mapping efforts. FEMA has said those areas are not within flood zones and should be treated differently. The other difference of opinion relates to map revisions that property owners can request, if, for instance, they're filling in an area. Stelle and John Graves with FEMA said the two agencies agreed to discuss those situations on a case-by-case basis.

FEMA and NOAA have been down this road before, in response to a similar lawsuit in the Puget Sound area, and implementation ran into some difficulty on the ground. How the recommendations will play out on the ground is on the minds of environmental groups.

“Now it is time move forward and ensure that FEMA works with Oregon’s state and local governments to manage floodplain development in ways that protect salmon and make our communities more resilient in the face of increasing threats from extreme weather events,” said Andrew Hawley, staff attorney for the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.


Areas facing new restrictions for development in flood plains along salmon-bearing waterways are the bluish, purple and brown regions on the map. Flood plains in the southeastern (green) section of Oregon do not have threatened salmon and steelhead, and are not affected. 

From National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Biological Opinion, April 2016.

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