A coalition of environmental groups announced on Tuesday that they had reached a settlement agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under which FEMA agreed to expedite environmental reviews of the impacts of its National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) on all endangered species in California, according to a press release from Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.
In February 2020, six organizations – the Ecological Rights Foundation, Our Children’s Earth Foundation, San Diego Coastkeeper, Orange County Coastkeeper, San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper – filed a lawsuit against FEMA.
The lawsuit alleged that FEMA had violated the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to consult with wildlife agencies to ensure that the implementation of the NFIP in six counties – San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego – does not jeopardize or destroy endangered species habitat.
Previously, FEMA’s policies incentivized infilling of critical endangered species habitat. Landowners seeking to construct buildings in flood plains (i.e., low-lying areas near waterways) are required to purchase flood insurance. To exempt themselves from flood insurance requirements, landowners were able to petition FEMA for revisions of the official flood plain maps.
To move a property out of the floodplain, landowners could propose adding layers of fill to the land to artificially raise the elevation of the property. In doing so, critical endangered species habitats were sometimes destroyed. Until now, FEMA has not been required to consider the impacts that its flood insurance program has on endangered species. In Santa Barbara County alone, FEMA has implemented at least 528 revisions to the 100-year floodplain maps.
Given the substantial overlap between the 100-year floodplain and designated critical habitat for endangered species, the six organizations alleged in their lawsuit that a substantial number of map revisions has occurred within areas throughout California that are designated as critical habitat for ESA-listed species and therefore, have adversely impacted those species or critical habitats. The coalition of environmental organizations requested that FEMA conduct a Biological Evaluation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a new process that accounts for endangered species.
Under the settlement agreement, FEMA will expedite its endangered species review of the NFIP’s effect on all endangered species in California.
“This review effort should lead NMFS and USFWS to impose new species protective measures on the NFIP, a program which has had the federal government essentially subsidizing destruction of endangered species habitat with little oversight or review,” stated a press release from Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.
Christopher Sproul of Environmental Advocates served as lead counsel for the environmental groups.