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FEMA Mapping Devastates Rural Communities

Not only in California, but throughout the nation, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has launched an effort to remap all floodplains, requiring many who have never had to carry flood insurance, to now do so. It comes as no surprise to many who live in the Central Valley of California, that we are at risk of flooding. Most rural agricultural communities lack the population base to be able to repair their communities levees to state and federal standards.

The FEMA Map Modernization Program, and the location of rural agricultural communities that are commonly located near waterways, makes it difficult for sparsely populated towns and cities to raise the money needed to obtain FEMA’s 100-year levee certification criteria. On the contrast, urban areas with large populations have undertaken huge levee improvement projects to allow them to continue to develop and meet nearly 200-year flood protection levels.

The current remapping program is a lose-lose for rural ag communities and many of these areas won’t see huge growth in the next 20-30 years. When the FEMA maps are adopted and all levees are decertified in the next few years, local government will be prohibited from issuing building permits to those with a federally backed mortgage that are required to buy federal flood insurance. Residential requirements are so strict, that even if your house burns down you cannot rebuild unless you elevate the structure to the determined base flood evaluation (BFE), which in many places throughout the valley is over 10 feet. House remodeling and expansion is just as prohibitive.

The major impacts of these new requirements will hit not only homeowners, but cripple rural communities economic growth potential. While commercial structures will not have to be elevated about the BFE, they will have to floodproof the structure, which can be very expensive.

The FEMA regulations are only one part of the problem. Flood legislation passed by the California Legislature in 2006 added additional regulations to urban and rural communities located within the 100-year floodplain. The regulations mirror the FEMA standards, but they also require the State of California and the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to create a new plan for flood management that must be updated every 5-years. The first step in this process was a descriptive document of all the flood control facilities in the state, which was completed early last year. The other effort, currently underway by DWR, is the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. This massive effort, which started over a year ago, requires DWR to work with regional and topic work groups to gain stakeholder input. The plan must be completed and submitted to the Central Valley Flood Protection Board in January 2012.

There is a lot being done to lobby Congress to get out ahead of these regulations. Efforts by the Sacramento Valley Flood Control Action Workgroup, a group of levee maintaining agencies and local government officials, has been meeting and drafting policies to take back to Washington, D.C. An effort to garner support from other states facing the same issue is ongoing and is critical to the success of changing these onerous regulations.

The difficult thing to understand is that this all centers around flood insurance. The current regulations only require those communities that cannot obtain 100-year flood protection to purchase insurance. With highly populated urban areas improving their levee systems to 200-year protection, the pool of those with flood insurance will continue to shrink only leaving those in rural communities to bear the burden. It seems that now is the perfect time to look at the entire flood insurance program and fix what’s broken. ■

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