When the Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Task Force (FIFM-TF) was first established in 1975 to develop a unified national program for floodplain management, it signaled an important realization: More than one federal agency was involved in decisions that affected the flood risks of American communities, and it was important that these agencies not unwittingly work against each other.
In 2009, when the FIFM-TF was reconvened after 15 years of inactivity, it signaled a reaffirmation of the principles that first united these agencies, as well as an evolution of the federal approach – away from the idea of isolated “flood control” measures, toward watershed-scale “flood risk reduction” activities that involve collaboration across the federal government and with stakeholders at the state and local levels.
This watershed approach was pioneered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which established its National Flood Risk Management Program in 2006 to synchronize its own programs and activities and to coordinate with partner agencies on a “life cycle” framework for flood risk management that embraces land use, dam and levee safety, planning and operations, and emergency management.
The 12-member task force, co-chaired by USACE and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has three primary goals: public safety, sustainable floodplain resources and functions, and economic vitality. After its 2009 reconvention, some of the FIFM-TF’s first activities were aimed at supporting a collaborative culture among stakeholders – including the creation of the nation’s first Regional Flood Risk Management Team, in the Mississippi Valley, and the creation of state-level Silver Jacket teams, which are now at work in more than 35 states to facilitate life cycle flood risk reduction.
It’s been a busy, productive – and revealing – first three years for the FIFM-TF, said Ray Alexander, USACE’s director of the National Flood Risk Management Program. “We’ve been discovering that we need better federal coordination,” he said. “We must get our own house aligned and in order to make it simpler for nonfederal entities to work with us. We need for local and state governments to view us as the federal government, and not as simply the Corps, FEMA, EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], or another individual agency within the federal government. And we have to provide solutions when we learn a policy in one federal agency conflicts with a policy in another.”
Aligning the Battleships
It’s not surprising that federal policies are sometimes contradictory – it happens all the time – but it’s especially eye-opening when it happens between partners who share a common purpose, such as the members of the Floodplain Management Task Force. Floodplain management was largely the purview of a handful of agencies, including USACE, until 1977, when Executive Order 11988 required all federal agencies to avoid, to the extent possible, adverse impacts associated with the occupancy and modification of floodplains. Alexander likens the coordination of all these different federal efforts to “getting battleships perfectly aligned. It’s really hard to do all of this in sync.”
One example is the government’s own varying levels of compliance with a 1982 law, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), that addresses problems associated with development in ecologically sensitive landforms providing wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and protection from storm surges. As Stephanie Bray, an environmental engineer who supports USACE’s Flood Risk Management Program, explained, the federal government attempts to reduce risk in these protected areas by prohibiting the expenditure of any federal funds. Thus, federal flood insurance should not be available in these areas, and federal funds should not contribute to the development of any infrastructure in these areas.
Since federal agency compliance with this law has varied over the years, USACE and the Task Force are trying to improve on federal compliance with the law. “Simply asking for compliance will bring to everybody’s attention, in the federal agencies, the fact that this law exists,” Bray said. “And savings will result from terminating inappropriate investing of federal dollars in CBRA zones before disasters. Further savings will be after a disaster because there should be no expectation that the federal government should restore the area to pre-disaster conditions.”