SACRAMENTO — A state-funded task force is mulling solutions to farmers’ rising costs as the National Flood Insurance Program is set to be reauthorized by Congress next year.
A panel of growers, local flood control officials, state water officials and others is developing recommendations to try to offset the high premiums and new building requirements that resulted when parts of California’s Central Valley were remapped into the most severe flood zone.
Colusa County Supervisor Denise Carter, whose family’s Benden Farms mainly grows rice, said the insurance premium for structures on the ranch would be about $32,000 a year if the operation had to get a federally backed mortgage or other financing now.
“Just to put that into perspective, our liability policy on the same buildings is about $4,700 a year, so the increase is a big hit for agriculture,” Carter said during a Sept. 7 panel discussion at a flood-management conference in Sacramento. “We live with risk, and that includes farming in a floodplain.”
When water in the nearby Sacramento River and its tributaries are rising, Carter’s family has time to take motors off pumps in the flood plane and move valuable equipment to higher ground, she said.
“Flooding in our valley is typically a slow process,” she said. “Back waters are what causes flooding in our area.”
State Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake, said many farms in the valley have federally backed mortgages or financing and must pay $20,000 to $40,000 a year for insurance if they’re in a flood zone. He said some structures, such as rice dryers, can’t be flood-proofed under the rules.
“If we don’t have our processing and other things we need on the farm, we’re going to be trucking more” and increasing carbon emissions, said Gallagher, an agricultural law attorney and partner in his family’s farming business.
Farmers in flood-prone areas along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers want to reform the rate structure and building requirements so that they take into account protection provided by the current levee system and so that agricultural buildings aren’t assessed at the same rates as homes.
“We need a long-term fix,” Gallagher said. “We really need something that addresses the differences in agricultural areas.”
The discussions come as the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been working its way through re-evaluations of flood protection in the nation’s rural and agricultural areas — a lengthy process that has resulted in higher insurance costs, tighter building restrictions for new or expanded structures and changes in disaster-relief eligibility in some areas, the California Farm Bureau Federation notes.
A 2014 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office 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.
A 2013 bill by California Reps. John Garamendi, a Democrat, and Doug LaMalfa, a Republican, that would have exempted structures like barns, sheds and silos from FEMA’s new building requirements stalled in Congress.
Lawmakers did pass a bill in 2014 that partly addressed insurance rates. But Congress was hesitant to pass reforms that might benefit a certain region while unintentionally impacting flood management in other areas of the country, said Gregor Blackburn, a FEMA mitigation branch chief.
Insurance rates spiked after reforms to the debt-encumbered NFIP after Super Storm Sandy in 2012 were made to address the need for increased revenue, the state’s NFIP Agriculture Task Force explained.
Already this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., which encourages development of a private flood insurance market that can offer more pricing and coverage options.
Created in 1968, the NFIP must be reauthorized by Congress every five years.