Habitat vs. development? Valley cities join in wildlife vs. FEMA case to freeze flood insurance

Without flood insurance, how would cities along the Snoqualmie River grow and change?

That's the question behind Snoqualmie and North Bend's involvement in a federal case between the National Wildlife Federation and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Last month, the two Upper Valley cities were granted permission to join as intervening parties with 14 other Puget Sound municipalities in an ongoing legal dispute between the Wildlife Federation, a private nonprofit, and FEMA, over the federal agency's National Flood Insurance Program, which provides policies for property owners in floodplains.

Filing in the Seattle-based U.S. District Court for Washington's Western District, the federation seeks to stop FEMA from issuing any new flood insurance policies, arguing that development in watersheds harms wildlife and violates the Endangered Species Act.

Local city officials are fighting the injunction, arguing it cuts off economic lifeblood for river cities.

"Basically, it would be devastating," said Snoqualmie City Attorney Pat Anderson. Without collateral, he says homeowners couldn't sell, purchasers couldn't buy and developers couldn't build.

"This community operates on the availability of flood insurance," Anderson said. "We have a big stake in seeing that FEMA's ability to issue policies isn't taken away."

Snoqualmie and North Bend joins 14 other cities, including Kent, Renton, Federal Way, Auburn, and Sultan, in hiring Issaquah attorney Bob Sterbank to represent their interests. Sterbank will call on experts to testify in the case. Oral arguments begin in late March.

Policy mismatch?

In recent years, the National Wildlife Federation has sued in Washington, Oregon and Florida, pushing for reforms in FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. The federation says global warming is increasing the intensity of storms and floods, threatening America's coasts and floodplains.

"Even as our coasts and floodplains become riskier environments, FEMA is subsidizing and otherwise encouraging high-risk and damaging development on these vulnerable areas," NWF's website states. "There is no starker example of a mismatch between well-documented risks… and public policy."

According to NWF, In 2004, a federal district court in Seattle agreed with the federation that FEMA's flood insurance program encouraged floodplain development and harmed salmon already threatened with extinction. The judge ordered FEMA to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

That consultation concluded in 2008, when the fisheries service issued an opinion finding that the National Flood Insurance Program is pushing orcas and several runs of salmon toward extinction.

"NWF will be carefully scrutinizing how FEMA chooses to respond… to ensure that damaging floodplain development does not continue to be subsidized under this program," the federation's website states.

Anderson criticizes Fisheries' biological opinion, saying it is a blanket approach.

"It portrayed all the floodplains as though they were pristine wilderness," Anderson said. "It absolutely disregards the fact that floodplains are already covered by urbanized development."

Besides their existing comprehensive and shoreline plans, North Bend and Snoqualmie also happen to be above an enormous natural salmon barrier,  270-foot Snoqualmie Falls.

"There is no habitat in Snoqualmie," Anderson said.


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