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Environmental Groups File Suit to Halt Development in Rio Grande and San Juan River Floodplains

Environmental groups claim that uncontrolled development of floodplains along the Rio Grande and San Juan River is harming endangered fish and wildlife

Santa Fe, NM - WildEarth Guardians, the Southwest Environmental Center and the Sierra Club filed suit today in federal court in New Mexico claiming that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administration of the National Flood Insurance Program facilitates and promotes development within floodplains that harms endangered fish and wildlife.

In exchange for adopting certain minimal land-use controls cities, counties and other local governments can participate in the NFIP and thereby provide flood insurance to private property owners in those communities. The environmental groups claim that uncontrolled development of floodplains along the Rio Grande and San Juan River is harming endangered fish and wildlife including the Bald eagle, Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

FEMA, which has administered the NFIP since 1973, has almost never complied with the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act by assessing the environmental effects of providing flood insurance on river ecosystems or by ensuring that the decision to provide flood insurance does not harm endangered species.

“Floodplain development enabled by the government’s decision to provide insurance fragments and mars one of our most sensitive and valuable landscapes-the Bosque,” said John Horning, head of WildEarth Guardians’ river restoration programs. “It’s gone without environmental scrutiny for far too long,” added Horning.

According to figures provided by FEMA, more than $600 million in commercial and residential property along the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers are insured under the program. A new development in Bernalillo, called Bosque Encantado, which is along the banks of the Rio Grande in an area where no levee exists, is the latest example of environmentally damaging floodplain development. Both the Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers expressed opposition to the development.

“The National Flood Insurance Program facilitates development in the floodplain that could prevent us from doing what needs to be done to provide good, quality habitat in the river and restore the bosque,” says Richard Barish of the Sierra Club. “FEMA should be required to take into account the environmental effects of their actions, just like every other federal agency.

Over the last 25 years, the federal government has spent more than $140 billion in preparing for and recovering from floods according to a 1998 report by the National Wildlife Federation. Kevin Bixby, director of the Southwest Environmental Center believes “FEMA and the Corps of Engineers should be following the lead of their agencies elsewhere in the country, where purchasing floodplain property and protecting open space and wildlife habitat has become a priority.”

The groups believe FEMA should formally consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the effects of the program and also prepare an Environmental Impact Statement addressing the effects of the program on endangered species, water pollution, habitat fragmentation and the loss of agricultural lands.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the western United States, where much of the new urban and suburban development and growth is taking place without little to no analysis of its effects on the environment.

Read the Complaint 1/21/01 (PDF)

Read the Settlement 2/10/02 (PDF)


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