A federal judge today found the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA") in violation of the Endangered Species Act because it has ignored the impacts of its activities on threatened chinook salmon in Puget Sound. The judge agreed that FEMA's flood insurance program helps fuel development and floodplain damage in some of the most sensitive and important salmon habitat in the region. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit brought by National Wildlife Federation and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"Today's ruling is a victory for salmon over stripmalls," said Jan Hasselman, attorney for National Wildlife Federation. "Federal agencies like FEMA cannot encourage the floodplain destruction that has helped pushed chinook salmon to the brink of extinction. If we want to protect the magnificent chinook for future generations, we should stop turning sensitive floodplain habitats into subdivisions and box stores."
Judge Thomas Zilly of the federal district court in Seattle agreed with the conservation groups on all of the key issues in the case: that FEMA's flood insurance program was required to comply with the Endangered Species Act and that it was having negative effects on chinook salmon in Puget Sound. The court ordered FEMA to adhere to the Endangered Species Act process—which is common for other federal activities including timber sales and dam operations—to ensure that the program is implemented in a way that doesn't interfere with salmon recovery. That process could result in sweeping changes in federal development standards for floodplain activities.
"When it comes to recovering salmon, everyone in the region needs to pull their weight," said Lea Mitchell, Washington office director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The decision ensures that FEMA will be held accountable for its actions and that flood insurance doesn't help destroy the very habitat that others are trying to save."
For example, the judge agreed that "FEMA is in effect encouraging filling" in floodplains, an activity that "is highly likely to have negative effects on habitat of listed and endangered species." Calling federal flood insurance a "prerequisite" to floodplain development, the judge ruled that FEMA's regulations and the sale of insurance "enable development in the floodplain that negatively impacts salmon." The evidence supported plaintiffs claim that development in floodplains "reduces the amount of habitat available to chinook salmon and creates additional impermeable surfaces in the floodplain that produce polluting runoff." In fact, the court pointed to documents that showed both state and federal agencies had urged FEMA to comply with the ESA, without success.
"We have a small window of opportunity to bring chinook salmon back to Puget Sound, for commercial and recreational fishermen, for the health of our ecosystems, and for our children," continued Hasselman. "The decision will ensure that FEMA does its part to ensure that sensitive floodplain habitats and the salmon that rely on them have a fighting chance."