Non-Protective Levees: The Water – And The Stakes – Are Too High


By Bob Hebert –

It should be obvious to all who have watched the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bleed money funding multiple flood recovery efforts in recent years that no equitable or effective national flood insurance program can be achieved without collecting premiums from properties subject to flooding due to inadequate levees or inadequate flood-control structures. Congress will again address this issue in the near future as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is due to be renewed for five more years. Actually, it’s overdue for renewal as the bill expired in late 2017, but it has been kicked down the road through a series of Continuing Resolutions since then. It may be tackled next year, but odds are it will continue to be extended through the election in November 2020, and depending on the election results, taken up by a lame-duck session of Congress or just punted to the new Congress taking office in 2021.

The major problem confronting Congress is that there is no sound actuarial platform supporting the federal flood insurance program, and insolvency has been avoided for many years only by using the federal printing press to fund recovery efforts. To stop these deficits, the NFIP must become actuarially sound. Both parties agree that the program must be fixed, but the issue is how to fix it. Given the debate over an appropriate fix, the reauthorization process poses a severe threat to Fort Bend property owners protected by a levee because many Congress members from both parties see all levees as non-protective and want to authorize the FEMA director to establish mandatory premiums for all property behind a levee.

Over 200,000 Fort Bend residents and 80,000 structures, conservatively valued in excess of $20 billion, sit behind levees within Fort Bend County. These levees are built on the floodplain of the Brazos River or one of its tributaries, and all structures within them are currently elevated above the 100-year flood elevation by the levees that protect them. These modern levees are recognized by FEMA as conforming to the requirements of 44 CFR 65.10, which is the 1986 federal regulation that determines whether FEMA can indicate that a property protected by a conforming levee is located above the 100-year flood elevation on its Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

Fort Bend levees are built and maintained under 44 CFR 65.10, and that puts us in a small minority among levee systems across the nation. There are over 100,000 miles of levees in the United States, and the vast majority do not meet the federal standards for a protective levee. The reauthorization risk to Fort Bend residents is that we may very well get caught up in a move to maximize revenue by declaring all levee systems non-protective. That almost happened when the last reauthorization was passed in 2012. It was avoided by an aggressive campaign over a two-year period that began by identifying allies in Congress and among our fellow recognized levee operators. Once allied, we worked to build a coalition in Congress to gain recognition of FEMA recognized levees as subject to the same regulations and premiums assessed to natural land above the 100-year flood elevation. While we weren’t successful in gaining that recognition, we did achieve a draw in an eleventh hour compromise through which all levees in the nation were excluded from mandatory, unprotected insurance rates.

With the new reauthorization, the argument to declare our levees non-protective will resurface, and we need to start working again to bring our allies together to protect against mandated, unprotected insurance rates. In a worse case situation, property owners could see flood insurance premiums well in excess of $2,500 a year, while paying taxes to their levee or utility district to sustain a FEMA recognized levee. We can’t afford to wait for a revised NFIP authorization to come before a House committee to react to negative content. The stakes are too high.

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