In 1977, President Carter issued Executive Order 11988, which established the definition of “floodplain” as an area subject to a 1% or greater chance of flooding in any given year. President Carter issued this order in order to protect federal investments and human life from flood risk. This definition of a floodplain informs federal agencies in their use of funds, building standards, and sets benchmarks for many other programs. The currently defined floodplain has been the standard ever since 1977.
However, in January of this year, President Obama’s Administration issued Executive Order 11988, which would require federal agencies to broaden significantly the current floodplain definition. This change attempts to reflect not the historical flood data on record, but the possible increase of flooding in the future based on the Administration’s predictions of climate change patterns.
The Administration has given a choice of three new requirements for builders. Builders can make plans using data based on available climate science; or build two feet above 100-year floods estimates for most projects, but three feet above the current level for critical buildings such as hospitals and evacuation centers; or build to elevations above a 500-year floodplain. Instead of the flexibility choice normally offers, I’m concerned that these vague choices may introduce further confusion, at the expense of the American people.
According to an initial analysis by the National Association of Home Builders, a 500-year floodplain designation would increase the amount of Arkansas land in the floodplain by 20%, the second largest increase across all 50 states. Large swaths of Arkansas cities could be subject to these new rules. With Osceola, West Memphis, Marion, and Helena-West Helena bordering the Mississippi, and Batesville, Newport, Augusta, Des Arc, and Clarendon on the White River, I’m very worried about how the newly proposed standard would affect cities and towns in the First District of Arkansas.
My main concern centers on how these new rules would be adopted and implemented. As we have seen before with the proposed Waters of the U.S. Rule and The National Blue Ways System, new federal rules without clear definitions can vastly expand federal overreach. I am also concerned about the possibility of confusion between agency plans. Using the “best science” available method, different agencies, and even projects within the same agencies, could have varied interpretations with increasingly complicated and confusing results.
The scope of the new rule is also a point of concern. The Administration clearly states that this order is intended to affect only federally funded projects, but the effects could stretch even further. One interpretation could include projects financed and approved by the federal government, including: FHA and HUD housing programs, the National Flood insurance program, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act (the floodplain is identified as critical habit for many listed species).
For now, the Administration’s proposed rule change is open to public comment until May 6th. However, given the vagueness of the rule and the large percentage of the First District potentially affected, I do not believe that the May 6th deadline is enough time to allow all potential stakeholders to give their opinions. For that reason, I signed on to Congressman Rod Blum’s letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requesting an extension of the deadline for public comment. I have also signed my name to Congressman John Ratcliffe’s letter to President Obama. Ratcliffe’s letter questions the legality of the Executive Order, highlights the possible economic ramifications, and requests additional information concerning how the rules will be interpreted and implemented.
Please know that I will remain focused and diligent on this issue, which is of critical importance to many towns in our District.