Columnists

Indiana lawmakers Gear Up for Debate Over Bill to Repeal Certain Floodplain Requirements

By Casey Smith

Property owners and environmental advocates are clashing over an Indiana bill that would repeal a requirement for local administrators to use the latest statewide floodplain maps when deciding new construction projects.

Authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, the bill seeks to nix a provision in current state law that requires floodplain administrators to use the “best floodplain mapping data available” when reviewing an application for a construction permit in or near a floodplain.

Hoosier property owners complain that the newest floodplain maps adopted by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are more restrictive than those from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many who spoke before lawmakers said they were never notified of the floodplain map changes that went into effect in 2022 and are now faced with costly requirements for building projects on their property.

Leising additionally contends that lawmakers were “unaware” that they approved the DNR-supported provision last year that requires the new statewide floodplain maps to be used.

But environmental groups point to increases in extreme rain events that lead to greater flooding. Some who spoke against the bill said they are concerned the bill could increase the risks and potential damage that could be caused by future flooding — especially after state lawmakers removed wetlands protections in a previous legislative session.

“None of us want to see anybody build where they’re going to be flooded. But I don’t want to see people’s property devalued,” Leising said in a committee hearing last week. “Whether (the DNR maps) are good or bad, whether we need to be more protective than the federal maps, that’s a whole other issue. But I do know that we are getting a lot of concerns expressed from folks throughout our districts.”

The bill advanced from the Senate Natural Resources Committee last week and now heads to the full Senate for further consideration.

If passed, the change would take effect July 1.

How the floodplain maps work

A floodplain is the area next to a stream or river that is at risk for flooding at least once per 100 years or more.

Resulting floodplain maps are often made by calculating rainfall, topography, and hydraulic analysis, which evaluates the capacity of a stream or other water body.

FEMA has published maps for many of Indiana’s floodplains, but not for all of them.

To cover the rest of the state, the DNR maintains floodplain maps for an additional 18,500 miles of Indiana streams. The state agency combined its maps with those created by FEMA to produce the Best Available Flood Hazard Area map.

Environmental advocates maintain that the DNR map is the best resource for identifying flood-prone areas. Currently, local floodplain administrators are charged with using it to reduce construction in the floodplain so rivers and streams can spread out, as needed. That keeps flood waters from flowing as fast or rising as high, which also reduces erosion.

Climate change analyses are increasingly predicting that flooding will become a major concern for American cities. Annual rainfall has increased by 15% since 1895, a trend that is anticipated to continue — and possibly accelerate, according to Purdue’s Climate Change Impacts Assessment.

Hoosiers give mixed testimony on current DNR floodplain maps

Dozens testified before the Senate committee last week.

Caitlin Smith, representing the DNR, said the agency is neutral on the bill. She maintained that current state law “codifies what local floodplain administrators should be following” as required by federal code, as well as state and local ordinances.

Still, Smith defended the current Indiana law. She said the state’s floodplain requirements — while “more restrictive” than FEMA’s — result in cost savings for 450 Indiana communities that purchase flood insurance.]

The Indiana Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management (INAFSM) urged lawmakers to let the Indiana Drainage Task Force work through the issue before making changes to the Flood Control Act.

“Let us get more information to address some of these questions and concerns,” said Kerry Daily, INAFSM’s legislative chair. “Let’s see what other states are doing and what they have done with this type of situation.”

Multiple property owners who supported the bill said the state’s current floodplain maps restrict construction on their land, like the building of garages and bridges.

That included Melanie Caldwell, who lives with her husband in rural Union County. The couple testified in support of Leising’s bill, saying that they’ve been kept from building a small bridge over a stream on their property.

“Why are we involved in this? We live in rural Indiana …. It’s just unfathomable,” Caldwell said of current restrictions.

The Indiana Builders Association and the Indianapolis Association of Realtors were among the groups that lobbied in support of the measure. The Indiana Farm Bureau is neutral on the bill.

But Jill Hoffman, executive director for the White River Alliance, pushed back on the idea to revert back to the FEMA maps alone.

The federal maps are dated and incomplete, she said, noting that “we know a lot more about the potential risks we’re facing” because updated DNR maps cover streams that FEMA has never documented before.

“Today’s flooding isn’t yesterday’s flooding, so maps can’t be stagnant. We need to recognize what it means — and what these maps mean — and what it means to have sustainable water management,” Hoffman said. “Being stagnant about how we manage floodplains is going to leave us at great risk going forward. As I look across the landscape, I can’t see one other state, county, municipality, town or anybody that’s working to rollback flood protections.”

The trend nationally is to increase flood protections because of the changing environment, Hoffman continued. Allowing Hoosier floodplain administrators to use the updated DNR maps “provides them with a really important tool,” she said.

Dr. Indra Frank, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s director of environmental health and water policy, added that even if the bill is passed, language in the Indiana Flood Control Act that requires floodways to stay open so they can “convey flow” will remain. That means it will still be illegal to build in the floodplain without a permit from the DNR.

If local permit decisions are made with just the federal maps, more buildings are likely to be built in flood-prone areas, leading to flooded buildings and less healthy rivers and streams, Frank said.

“The language that this bill would repeal helps to ensure that fewer properties are built in flood prone areas in the future,” Frank said. “And that means fewer families in the future wind up with these just heartbreaking situations.”

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