The White House is crafting an executive order aimed at toughening federal policies restricting the construction of dams, levees, roads and other structures in flood-prone areas.
A draft executive order obtained by E&E would toughen a 1977 directive by President Carter that was seen then as a landmark step establishing a federal leadership role in floodplain management.
But since devastating Midwest floods in 1993, disaster-management experts have been calling for a revision of federal floodplain policies, saying agencies have failed to consistently comply with rules written in the wake of Carter's order.
"You still go out and find post offices being built in floodplains," said Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "Where's the cheapest land? It's in the high-hazard area."
President Obama's draft order would direct agencies to use non-structural approaches -- typically, building codes, planning laws and eduction campaigns -- to manage floodplains and protect public safety, wetlands and other natural resources, rather than build levees and dams.
The order would also bar federal agencies from supporting "critical" facilities -- such as hospitals, police stations, power plants or evacuation centers -- in 500-year floodplains, unless no alternative exists.
If the government decides to proceed with a project in a 100-year floodplain, the draft order would mandate federal consultations with state, tribal and local governments. If those governments have more restrictive development rules, federal agencies are to comply with them.
"The whole principle is that the federal government should be a leader and avoiding putting more property at risk," said Gerald Galloway, a civil engineering professor at the University of Maryland who helped prepare a floodplain-management study for President Clinton. "It's important to know that the president really thinks this is important. And an executive order signifies the relative priority of the president."
Executive orders guide federal agencies in developing regulations and hold no sway over state or local rules that allow building in flood-prone but less expensive lands. But experts say federal money is a powerful motivator, and state and local governments often accept stricter regulations to qualify for funds.
Industry groups appeared wary of the draft order, concerned that it might discount the economic value of water-resource projects.
"It seems to me the objective here is really to limit any sort of structural use of the floodplains," said Amy Larson, president of the National Waterways Conference. "You really need to have a balance. My concern is there won't be a balance anymore."
Christine Glunz, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the draft executive order is still being reviewed, and that CEQ is focusing first on a separate effort to rewrite guidelines for federal water projects (Greenwire, July 14).
"This is just a draft executive order, so deliberations are still under way," Glunz said. "It is too early to project what a final executive order would address, but it is considering more protection for floodplains when considering facilities and structures."
Meanwhile, agencies and departments that stand to be affected by the draft order -- notably, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- are watching the White House's work closely.
Said Deborah Ingram, director of FEMA's risk reduction division, "We still have a lot of flooding going on in the country, and I think there is just an interest in revisiting that and re-establishing that the federal government does pay attention to it."
"We're looking to clean up some of the language and make it a little more streamlined," she added. "After 30 years, different people have interpreted things in different ways."
Click here to read the draft executive order.