WA Members: Conflicting Guidance from Federal Agencies Could Leave Communities Facing Costly Flood Insurance and Unnecessarily Vulnerable to Flooding

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Congressmen Adam Smith, Dave Reichert, Jay Inslee, and Jim McDermott urged the Army Corps of Engineers to overcome roadblocks to certifying levees across Washington. Conflicting federal laws and regulations could prevent federal accreditation of several modern, functioning levees in Washington, leaving entire communities vulnerable to increased flood insurance premiums and at risk of flooding when new levees with vegetation can’t be built because they are ineligible for Corps funding. In a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Corps’ senior civilian official, the lawmakers urged immediate action to resolve conflicting guidelines among federal agencies. At issue is a forthcoming rule change under which the Army Corps would no longer allow vegetation on levees. In Washington state, that prohibition could have serious consequences for communities that must comply with Endangered Species Act protections for certain fish species. Levee construction, certification and accreditation is a complex process that involves local authorities, the Army Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, among others.  
“It is critical that a roundtable occur without delay to address the conflicting standards and regulations in order to ensure that the levee operators can perform appropriate levee maintenance,” the members of the delegation wrote in the letter. “Municipalities in several river basins across Washington state, including the Green River Valley, are caught in the middle of conflicting guidance from the many federal agencies that have policies regarding levee regulation. This confusion may leave communities exposed to legal action or unnecessarily vulnerable to flooding. Without collaboration between all stakeholders involved, including all relevant federal agencies, communities in Washington state will continue to face difficulties getting levees certified and accredited.”
At least three modern levees in the Green River Valley lack certification or are in danger of losing it because of conflicting construction and accreditation regulations among the federal agencies involved. Three species of salmon and trout which reside in the Green River are listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As a result, levee operators in the impacted Washington river basins must comply with the ESA. In most cases, that means vegetation that provides shade to cool the water temperature must be planted on a levee. As of next September, when the new Corps policy banning vegetation on levees takes effect, the ESA and Army Corps policies on levees could be in conflict.
FEMA accreditation of levees is required before credit for the levee can be noted on flood maps. Because FEMA bases its certification on Army Corps standards, Washington state levees that continue to have shade trees may be decertified. The lack of federal certification, and consequently the lack of FEMA accreditation, may result in most of the valley becoming mapped as flood hazard area, which has detrimental impacts on local investment and economic development.