SACRAMENTO — A U.S. senator and two congressmen from California are urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ease requirements for farmers building or improving agricultural structures in floodplains.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Reps. John Garamendi, a Democrat, and Doug LaMalfa, a Republican, noted in a letter July 29 that FEMA flood insurance guidelines require producers to either elevate new structures or leave large openings to let water flow through.
In deep floodplains in places like the Sacramento Valley, such rules are unworkable because farmers would have to build 15 feet off the ground or create openings large enough to expose crops to pests and pathogens, the lawmakers wrote in the letter to FEMA director Craig Fugate.
“Given that agriculture is an effective use of deep floodplains and that agricultural structures serve very different purposes than residential structures, we hope your agency will quickly move to provide reasonable options for farmers to mitigate flood risk while building structures suitable for farming purposes,” they wrote.
The lawmakers complained that the rules under the National Flood Insurance Program are so inflexible that some California producers have been forced “to forego plans to construct important agricultural structures in floodplains currently used for producing crops or livestock.”
The letter accompanied a report from the U.S. Government Accounting Office that found California farmers adversely affected by the building requirements had to work around outdated FEMA guidelines that don’t address the challenges of operating in deep floodplains or reflect industry changes, a summary of the report explained.
When asked to comment, FEMA’s media office referred to a statement by Department of Homeland Security liaison office director Jim Crumpacker in the report itself. Crumpacker said he concurred with the GAO’s recommendation that the agency update its guidelines to reflect recent farming developments and structural needs in deep floodplains.
The agency “recognizes that agricultural land is a good use of the floodplain, and that changes in the agricultural industry and the diversity of structures that support agriculture are important to recognize in future guidance,” Crumpacker said in the statement.
He added FEMA is “working to determine the best approach” for updating the pass-through requirement, which the agency refers to as “wet floodproofing.” He said it is “to be determined” when this will be done.
The report and lawmakers’ letter comes as Garamendi and LaMalfa have proposed H.R. 3315, which would exempt structures like barns, sheds and silos from requirements they say effectively prohibit construction in areas prone to flooding.
Garamendi, whose district includes 200 miles of the Sacramento River, has called for a delay in impending flood insurance rate hikes caused by new flood risk maps produced by FEMA. The new maps increased designated flood hazard areas by nearly 80 percent in Sutter County and more than 66 percent in Yolo County, according to the GAO report.
In 2012, Garamendi proposed a bill that would have enabled farmers to obtain subsidized flood insurance on existing and new agricultural structures in areas protected by weakened levees, but that bill died in committee.
Summary of GAO report on National Flood Insurance Program: www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-583