Remapped flood zones mean new restrictions


Issue Date: November 23, 2011
By Christine Souza
Rice farmer Tara Brocker walks through her family’s rice drying facility near Nicolaus, located in a floodplain that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has identified as no longer having 100-year flood protection. Brocker says that could have serious implications for her farm and others in the same situation.
Photo/Christine Souza

Higher insurance costs, tighter building restrictions and changes to disaster-relief elgibility could face farmers and rural residents as the Federal Emergency Management Agency remaps floodplains in California.

FEMA is working its way through the nation's rural and agricultural regions, re-evaluating areas that it says no longer have adequate protection from 100-year floods. As farmers and rural residents in California become aware of the ramifications associated with the remapping, they're proposing ways to reduce or eliminate burdensome restrictions in areas where agriculture is determined to be the best use of the floodplain.

Rice grower Tara Brocker, who lives and farms south of Nicolaus at the confluence of the Sacramento and Feather rivers, said the floodplain restrictions will likely convert agricultural communities like hers into ghost towns.

"This is going to impact rural communities throughout the nation; we just happen to be one of the first," Brocker said. "California has been identified by FEMA as the first state to be remapped, so what happens here is going to set a precedent for the rest of the nation."

Some of the first FEMA floodplain maps to be released place the majority of Sutter County in a "Special Flood Hazard Area," meaning that levees do not provide the required 100-year flood protection. As a result, Brocker said, all property owners with mortgages would be required to purchase flood insurance and face higher rates. Owners of agricultural property would have to insure every building on their land that has a mortgage, and at a substantially higher rate, she said. In addition, new construction or significant improvements to existing structures would have to meet stricter building requirements.

Rural residents in Sutter County say that level of flood certification is unattainable because it is cost prohibitive.

"I took a group of Department of Water Resources representatives to show them my family's rice dryer and said, 'If we were to try and add onto this facility or build a new facility like it, it would have to be built on a mound that is somewhere in the range of 15 feet above the ground. The county is saying that would be necessary in order to be above the base flood elevation. We can't do that and stay in business,'" Brocker said. "Nor can we flood-proof structures that store grain. For one, there has to be air flow to keep the grain from spoiling. So this, in essence, could shut us down."

Due to the FEMA regulations, Brocker said, affected landowners are restricted from making improvements that are in excess of 50 percent of a structure's value.

"We can't build new homes, shops, ag infrastructure or anything because, if it is not out of the floodplain or meeting flood-proofing standards, it won't be approved by the county," Brocker added.

Sutter County Supervisor James Gallagher, an attorney with a rice-farming background, said the FEMA process of remapping a floodplain would impact most of a county's agriculture.

"What happens is FEMA will release a draft map showing what will be in the 100-year floodplain and what will be left out. A community has approximately 90 days to provide input or data," Gallagher said. "Once they issue the final map, that is when the insurance and building restrictions go into effect."

When an area is mapped into what is called a Special Flood Hazard Area "A" zone, he said, it becomes mandatory for anyone with a federally backed mortgage or loan to purchase flood insurance.

"For a lot of farmers, they might have financing on their operation and when they get remapped, their lender will say, 'You are in an A zone now; you have to purchase flood insurance.' This can increase one's insurance costs four to six times," Gallagher said.

Colusa County farmer Tom Ellis said his county is among the next to be remapped.

"Those of us in Colusa County know that it is coming our way in the very near future. I have shop facilities and farm headquarters that will be mapped into the floodplain, and I'm sure there will be problems with my home in Grimes, as well as the whole town," Ellis said. "We're having trouble enough now fighting off the conversion of ag land to habitat and to urban sprawl, and this just makes it even harder for us if they don't give us some relief on these FEMA issues."

During discussions with local, state and federal officials about the Sutter County floodplain remapping, local residents have stressed the concept that farming offers the best and lowest-risk use of the floodplain, compared to urban or suburban development.

In California, rural areas already bear more of the risk by default, as urban and suburban areas have their levees upgraded and fortified well before rural areas do—in part because urban areas have a much greater population base from which to fund necessary upgrades.

"We believe most people will agree that agriculture makes sense as the best use for floodplains," said Elisa Noble, director of livestock, public lands and natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "However, agricultural and rural communities need to be compensated somehow for bearing this increased risk."

This is the premise of a coalition effort that is working to develop a new "agricultural zone" designation within the National Flood Insurance Program, likely to be pursued through congressional legislation.

The coalition includes a broad array of interested parties including county Farm Bureaus, county governments, flood control agencies, reclamation districts, landowners and others. The Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau has requested donations to help fund the legal expertise for the coalition effort and received contributions last week from Farm Bureaus in Colusa and Yolo counties.

"This is just the beginning of the coalition effort," Noble said. "We plan to have many more groups involved throughout the state and country, as this will eventually affect every rural landowner living in a floodplain."

She encouraged interested participants to contact her at enoble@cfbf.com.

To find out if your county has been remapped, contact the county public works department.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.