WASHINGTON — America’s coastal communities are threatened by storms and hurricanes more than ever, but the law regulating development on coastal wetlands — and determining which areas cannot get federal flood insurance — is outdated, experts told a House subcommittee Tuesday.
In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Audubon Society and local governments in Florida agreed that the 1990 revision of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act hurts certain residential areas that cannot get federal flood insurance.
The law, which was first passed in 1982 and updated in 1990, prohibits federal funding to so-called “System Units” — areas that include coastal barriers that are essential to preventing flooding and erosion. It also designates “Otherwise Protected Areas,” which are only prohibited from receiving federal flood insurance.
The problem is that the two types of areas were drawn based on mapping technologies that some at the hearing called “outdated.” Some areas are overly broad and investors don’t want to invest in storm-prone communities that don’t have flood insurance. This means the areas are losing investment and other economic opportunities.
Despite these disincentives, development has continued slowly in vulnerable coastal areas. A 2007 Government Accountability Office report found that 16 percent of CBRA system units have experienced some form of development since 1982.
The maps these units are based on “were created more than 35 years ago, using what are now outdated base maps and cartographic techniques,” said Gary Frazer, a top U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official.
“Nationally the system consists of 862 geographic units that encompass 3.5 million acres of relatively undeveloped areas off the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico coasts,” he said.
The committee is considering two bills, one that would revise two system units near Panama City, Florida and one that would revise an OPA in Delaware.
Both Democrats and Republicans spoke in favor of the legislation.
Dr. Karen Hyun, who leads coastal conservation efforts for the National Audubon Society, said her group, which is normally protective of natural resources that are essential to bird migration, strongly supported what she called “appropriate changes to the CBRA system.”
“The bills are based on CBRA map revisions made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which applied statutory criteria and sought public review and comment,” said Hyun.
There have been repeated calls over the years to update the boundaries of CBRA maps based on present-day digital mapping technology. In 2007, the GAO recommended that the Fish and Wildlife Service revise the maps using digital technology, which it has done for 15 percent of maps to date. The Delaware and Florida bills discussed Tuesday were part of a pilot program launched in 2016 to implement the revised maps.