Environmentalists Fight FEMA Over Puget Sound

April 3, 2012 Updated: April 3, 2012

Land development in the Puget Sound flood plains of Washington state under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood insurance program could lead to harm or the complete destruction of local fish populations, according to environmentalist groups.

The Puget Sound area has over 10,000 rivers and streams following channels carved by retreating glaciers. These rivers and streams flow from the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges and support a rich ecosystem.

Over 4 million live in the area, which includes the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. Natural resources including lumber and shellfish, and recreational areas support an economy ideal for continued development and harvesting. Many environmentalists fear over-development could lead to trouble for wildlife populations.

On March 26 the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) started legal action to stop the federal government from issuing flood insurance policies for new Puget Sound development, thereby halting new development in the flood plain areas of Puget Sound.

This follows a similar lawsuit filed by NWF in 2003 against FEMA to protect threatened fish populations, according to NWF Senior Environmental Policy Specialist Dan Siemann.

The movement to block development started with NWF attorney Jan Hasselman. Hasselman asked U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez to issue an injunction to block future development in approximately 70 river valley communities in Puget Sound.

According to NWF, they are “taking steps necessary to recover species.” NWF wants to stop FEMA from supporting more harm to the fish habitats. Last week’s hearing was a request for preliminary action.

NWF claims that FEMA’s flood insurance program for the Puget Sound area hasn’t been changed, as federal fisheries experts recommended 3 years ago. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and NWF, development in that area will harm already endangered salmon and orca populations.

“We’re requesting that the judge put a hold on new insurance until FEMA makes the changes that are necessary in order to prevent further harm to salmon and orca,” Siemann said.

According to NWF, FEMA’s flood plan will likely lead to extinction of salmon, unless FEMA changes its approach.

NMFS wants FEMA to change the way it maps flood plains and change the standards for flood plains.

“FEMA’s national flood program jeopardizes salmon and orca that rely on Chinook salmon for about 60 percent of their food source,” Siemenn said.

NMFS came to the conclusion in 2008 that FEMA’s flood insurance plan encourages destructive construction in flood plain areas. Construction in flood plains damages important fish habitats. NMFS gave FEMA a series of reforms the agency should make to refine the flood insurance program and not violate the Endangered Species Act.

NWF stands firm that FEMA was given from 2008–2011 to change and they haven’t done so.

“This situation is a federal agency contributing to the demise of an iconic species in Puget Sound—a species that’s persisted through thousands of years,” said Siemann.

Judge Martinez is expected to reach a decision in the next month. Martinez could decide to issue a full or partial injunction based on his interpretation of the situation, which could represent a full or partial victory for environmentalists.