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Originally published April 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 28, 2009 at 12:59 AM

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Feds: New floodplain rules to go unenforced

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which provides insurance to those who build in flood plains if they meet baseline rules to reduce risk, offered to adopt improved guidelines for building in flood plains. But none of the more than 120 local governments who oversee development in Puget Sound would be required to follow those guidelines.

Seattle Times environment reporter

When a federal judge ruled five years ago that building in Puget Sound flood plains helped drive orcas, chinook and chum salmon toward extinction, federal officials agreed to make development in flood-prone areas more fish friendly.

But the latest attempts to transform a program that makes such building possible instead has frustrated scientists, confused Puget Sound advocates, annoyed builders and convinced environmentalists that little is changing.

Scientists and environmentalists have complained for years that filling or building in flood plains near rivers from the Nisqually to the Stillaguamish can destroy the stream-side channels that fish flee to when trying to escape rushing floodwaters. Constructing streets and parking lots in flood-prone areas also increases the amount of pollution that drains into salmon-bearing streams after heavy rains.

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which provides insurance to those who build in flood plains if they meet baseline rules to reduce risk, offered to adopt improved guidelines for building in flood plains. But none of the more than 120 local governments who oversee development in Puget Sound would be required to follow those guidelines.

FEMA officials insist that's the best the agency can do without changing its federal rules, and "there's strong concern that there be some consistency across the nation," said Mark Carey, the director of floodplain mitigation for the Pacific Northwest. "We think we're offering viable alternatives."

Critics argued that the agency had spent years negotiating quietly with federal biologists at the National Marine Fisheries Service to come up with tougher standards, and had even agreed to some, but now wants to adopt a more nuanced position.

"It's too soon to say I'm outraged, but I'm a little miffed," said Steve Landino, who oversees such issues for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We thought we had agreed to certain language already. Apparently we hadn't."

At issue is precisely how much responsibility FEMA is willing to take for development in flood plains. While local governments typically offer permits for building, they can proceed only if FEMA is willing to provide insurance. Increasingly, the agency faces scrutiny from environmentalists, who say FEMA's program ultimately encourages building in places where it harms endangered species.

Around Puget Sound, for example, just in the first few years after chinook were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, FEMA provided 26,000 new flood-insurance policies for structures within the fish's habitat.

When similar issues were raised about floodplain development's impacts to key deer in Florida, FEMA spent years in and out of court fighting over how to change its program.

"Debate just like this went on in Florida for decades," said David St. John, with the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency overseeing the cleanup of Puget Sound. "We don't want that. We can't afford that."

Even the former director of FEMA's floodplain program in the Northwest expressed dismay that the agency has been unwilling to take more dramatic steps.

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"Something needs to change, and FEMA appears to be reluctant to want to do that," said Carl Cook, the retired former head of the Northwest's flood-insurance program. "People wanted to see some real change, but it's not happening."

In the meantime, the building industry is equally frustrated, complaining that until the issue is settled, builders can't plan for the future.

"This intergovernmental squabbling is troubling to our industry," said Mike Pattison, with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. "I feel like throwing up my hands and saying, 'Just tell us what you want and make it simple to understand.' "

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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