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Trump Administration Revokes Federal Flood Risk Management Standard


September 29, 2017

Trump Administration Revokes Federal Flood Risk Management Standard

As part of an initiative to streamline the process for approving infrastructure projects, President Donald Trump rolled back certain construction requirements applicable to federally-funded projects located in flood-prone areas. While the policy reversal was just one line of the Executive Order, it generated headlines because it came just days before Hurricane Harvey left most of Houston underwater.

Trump Administration Revokes Obama Administration's Federal Flood Risk Management Standard

Photo courtesy of Jasper van der Meij (Unsplash.com)

Federal Flood Risk Management Standard Under President Obama

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order requiring that construction in floodplains be built to withstand 100-year flooding. In the decades that have followed, flooding has become more common. From August 2015 to August 2016, there were eight 500-year flood events recorded by the National Weather Service. There were six 1,000-year floods in the United States between 2010 and 2014.

Following the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy, President Barak Obama sought to raise the bar for federally-funded projects in flood-prone areas. Established in 2015, the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) was intended to address increased flood risks due to sea level rise and increased rainfall caused by climate change.

The FFRMS allowed federal agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Federal Emergency Management Agency, to select one of three approaches for establishing the flood elevation and hazard area they use in siting, design, and construction. They could:

  • Use data and methods informed by best-available, actionable climate science;
  • Build two feet above the 100-year (1%-annual-chance) flood elevation for standard projects, and three feet above for critical buildings like hospitals and evacuation centers; or
  • Build to the 500-year (0.2%-annual-chance) flood elevation.

President Trump’s Executive Order

On August 15, 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order, entitled, “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure.” The Executive Order expressly revoked the FFRMS established by President Obama in 2015.

Promising to speed up permitting of federal infrastructure projects, the Executive Order also establishes the “One Federal Decision” mandate. It provides that each major infrastructure project must have a lead Federal agency, which will be responsible for navigating the project through the Federal environmental review and authorization process, including the identification of a primary Federal point of contact at each Federal agency. The Order also requires that all decisions on federal permits be made within 90 days. Federal agencies must also work toward a two-year goal to process environmental reviews for major projects.

Supporters of the executive order argue that costly regulations pose a bigger threat than rising sea levels. According to the White House, Obama’s standards “were developed without sufficient analysis as to the economic impacts associated with its ultimate implementation.” 

Meanwhile, critics, which include environmentalists, planners, and flood-plain managers, contend that lowering the standards for building in flood-prone areas will be costlier in the long run. “This executive order is not fiscally conservative,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL-R), said in a statement. “It’s irresponsible, and it will lead to taxpayer dollars being wasted on projects that may not be built to endure the flooding we are already seeing and know is only going to get worse.”

Notably, the new Executive Order does not prohibit state and local agencies from using more stringent standards if they choose to do so. Given the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, it would not be surprising if state lawmakers move to enact regulations that incorporate sea level rise and other impacts of climate change into flood zone planning and permitting.

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Dan McKillop, at 201-806-3364.

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