Portland Considers New Floodplain Resilience Plan in Response to Lawsuit

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

In November of 2021, the City of Portland released a draft Floodplain Resilience Plan “to reduce the impacts of future flooding and the degradation of floodplain habitat for endangered and threatened fish species.” The plan is a direct result of a lawsuit brought by Bird Alliance of Oregon and other conservation groups against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Bird Alliance of Oregon v. FEMA) in 2011.

Willamette River 1996 Flood overhead photo

One of the biggest threats to the safety of our communities and the health of our environment is ongoing destruction and development of floodplains. Floodplains are areas adjacent to rivers and streams that are subject to periodic flooding. They clean and cool our water, provide valuable fish and wildlife habitat, and protect our communities from flooding. In an age of climate change, protecting floodplains is all the more important. Unfortunately, cities across the metro region and Oregon continue to develop them at an alarming rate. To make matters worse, that floodplain development is able to occur specifically because the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA, provides low-cost, taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance to communities to develop their floodplains.

In 2011, Bird Alliance of Oregon, represented by Earthrise Law Center, sued FEMA, arguing that NFIP violated the Federal Endangered Species Act by harming federally listed salmon that depended on those floodplains for survival. As a result of this lawsuit, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined in 2016 that in fact Bird Alliance of Oregon et al. were correct and the NFIP program was jeopardizing the continued existence of salmon and steelhead as well resident killer whales that depend on salmon for survival. In order to remain eligible for the NFIP program, communities across Oregon with salmon-bearing streams must update their local codes to ensure that floodplain development avoids, minimizes, or mitigates any harm to salmon or steelhead.

Due to foot-dragging at the behest of development interests by FEMA, the State of Oregon, and local jurisdictions, it has taken more than a decade since the lawsuit was initiated to move to action, but as deadlines for compliance approach, movement is finally occurring. Portland is the first community out of the gate.

The proposed Floodplain Resilience Plan requires Portland to do several important things:

  • Map and apply new development and building requirements for the floodplain along the Willamette River and areas flooded in 1996
  • Ensure all floodplains in the project area are within an environmental or river overlay zone
  • Increase mitigation ratios for trees removed when floodplains are developed to avoid loss of habitat function
  • Increase mitigation ratios for balanced cut and fill when floodplains are developed to prevent loss of habitat function and flood capacity
  • Apply additional requirements within 170 feet of ordinary high water to increase habitat near rivers and streams
  • Create habitat mitigation banks to compensate for loss of habitat function if floodplains are developed

With more than 125 miles of rivers and streams located within Portland, this plan represents a major step forward for natural resource protection, climate resilience, and community safety in Portland. It is also likely to set the standard for communities throughout the state. The plan is expected to go to the Planning and Sustainability Commission in the spring and City Council in the summer of 2022. The North Reach (Portland Harbor) is not included and will be addressed subsequent to adoption of this plan. We will need strong support from the community to ensure that adoption occurs. We expect development interests that have long been able to rely on taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance to bail them out when they build in flood-prone areas to put up a storm of opposition as they have been doing for more than a decade. However, this plan is common sense—it will not prevent floodplain development altogether, but it will reduce unwise floodplain development as well as ensure that impacts are mitigated when construction does take place.

For more information contact Bird Alliance of Oregon Conservation Director Bob Sallinger at bsallinger@birdallianceoregon.org.