House of Representatives Passes Bipartisan Bill; Will Improve the Environment

That headline might come as a shock to anyone who’s been paying close attention to the goings on in Congress these days. But I’m happy to report that the House of Representatives actually broke their streak of attacks on the environment this week when they passed H.R. 1309, The Flood Insurance Reform Act by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 406-22.

As communities and the environment are reeling from record breaking flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, we commend the bipartisan effort of the House to enact badly needed reforms to safeguard communities, invest taxpayer dollars wisely, and protect the environment.

However, it’s definitely not a perfect bill.  We will be looking to the Senate to fix some of the remaining issues.   Nonetheless, the House bill is a step in the right direction to protect our vitally important floodplains and wetlands, improve public safety and protect the federal taxpayers. Now, I know a wonky issue like flood insurance can make people’s eyes glaze over, but here are a few ways this bill is good for communities and their rivers:

Less destruction of floodplains and wetlands

We all know that wetlands and floodplains help slow flood waters, provide clean water and wildlife habitat and that developing these areas can destroy these benefits. Well, the 40-year old National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) actually encourages development in the floodplain because it offers lower insurance rates than a private market would. The federal taxpayers end up subsidizing development that destroys floodplains and puts people at risk. H.R. 1309 will phase out these subsidies and result in less destruction to floodplains and wetlands.

Improve flood maps and risk awareness

FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency charged with running the NFIP) uses flood maps to determine where the greatest risk of flooding is and who needs insurance. H.R. 1309 will improve those flood maps, making them as accurate as possible so they best communicate flood risk. These maps will reflect future conditions such as increased development or sea level rise and they’ll help FEMA give communities credit for improving their resilience to flooding by restoring wetlands or designating greenspace. Such efforts will bring multiple benefits including clean water and providing wildlife habitat.

Unfortunately, several amendments that would do more harm than good were adopted. One amendment would prevent FEMA from including “residual” risk areas on maps. These are the areas behind levees and below dams that are at risk of catastrophic flooding if and when a structure fails. As we see time and time again, dams and levees can and will fail. Sadly, it is all too common that citizens living behind and below these structures are unaware that they are at risk of flooding.  Hopefully the Senate will fix this issue.

Improves mitigation

The Natural Hazards Review found that FEMA’s flood mitigation programs can have $5 in benefit for every $1 spent on mitigation. H.R. 1309 will vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of FEMA’s mitigation programs. It will make it easier for communities to work with FEMA to buyout properties that are flooded repeatedly and create greenspace instead. And it will allow FEMA to pursue a community-based flood insurance option that would inspire communities to engage in mitigation efforts. 

We’re grateful that Representatives Judy Biggert and Maxine Waters were able to reach across the aisle and work together to pass a reform bill that so many members could support. We will be working with the Senate to ask them to follow their lead and to produce an even stronger flood insurance reform bill.

1.    Rose, A. et al. 2007. Benefit-Cost Analysis of FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grants. Natural Hazards Review 8, 97.