Confronting Governance Challenges
The current multi-jurisdictional structure for managing flood risks is not a viable model for the future.
Flood Risk on the Columbia River
The risk of flooding on the Lower Columbia River is real. In 1948, the Vanport flood decimated what was then the state’s second-largest and most racially integrated community. The Christmas floods of 1964 are regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in state history. Since 1894, three 100-year and two 500-year flood events have been measured at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.
There is no question that the Columbia Corridor area will confront floods in the future. The only question is whether we will be ready. Levees are a crucial way to protect life and property.
What’s at Stake in the Columbia Corridor
- Portland International Airport (PDX): The transportation and shipping hub for Oregon and Southwest Washington that serves over 18 million passengers annually and carries 90 percent of all air cargo in Oregon. PDX generates $4.9 billion annually in business sales, supports 10,574 direct jobs and indirectly generates another 7,200 jobs for the Portland area.
- Regional transportation infrastructure: Three interstate highways, three state highways, two freight railroads, two TriMet MAX light-rail lines, and the Troutdale airport.
- Drinking water supply: The Columbia South Shore Well Field can produce over 100 million gallons per day of high-quality drinking water to serve 966,600 people across the region.
- Industrial land supply: The leveed area holds 18 percent of the Portland metro area’s buildable industrial lands, creating space for economic growth and helping the Portland metro area develop urban areas while protecting farm and forest lands.
- Middle-wage jobs: The leveed area is home to 47,944 jobs, over 10 percent of the jobs in Multnomah County, and generates $16 billion in annual economic activity.
- Equity: This employment base improves racial and economic equity by providing high-quality jobs adjacent to disadvantaged neighborhoods. Most workers commute from diverse neighborhoods in Northeast Portland, East Portland, and East Multnomah County.
- Homes: The Columbia Corridor managed floodplain is home to approximately 7,500 people.
- Recreation and wildlife habitat: The leveed area includes numerous parks and recreational facilities for boaters, golfers, kayakers, cyclists, walkers, birdwatchers, and auto racers. It also includes wetland habitat for many species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
Why Federal Accreditation Matters
For naturally flood-prone areas surrounded by levees, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will “accredit” the levee system if certain requirements are met. This means that the leveed area is not treated as a floodplain. Accreditation has several benefits:
- Lower-cost flood insurance: The function of levees is to reduce the likelihood of inundation. FEMA takes this into account and therefore offers lower insurance premiums in leveed areas.
- Flood insurance mandate: In designated floodplains, many landowners (including nearly all mortgage holders) are federally mandated to hold flood insurance. In areas with accredited levees, flood insurance is optional.
- Land-use restrictions: In areas designated as floodplains, zoning and building codes restrict new development and impose expensive construction standards.
- Biological Opinion: Land-use restrictions in floodplains are expected to become more stringent under a recent Biological Opinion. Areas with accredited levees remain exempt.
Challenges with the Current Governance Structure
Federal accreditation: No single agency currently has the responsibility, personnel, and institutional capability to ensure that the levee system remains accredited in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides flood insurance to properties in the managed floodplain. Four cities and Multnomah County, as jurisdictions with land-use authority, are participants in the NFIP. The drainage districts maintain the flood risk reduction system according to agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), but have no obligation to participate in the NFIP.
Benefits and burdens: The status quo does not align the benefits and burdens of flood risk management in the Columbia Corridor. The entire metro region benefits from the assets in the leveed area, but only landowners in the managed floodplain contribute to the cost of flood risk management. Locally, property tax compression causes some properties to pay less than their fair share to the drainage district, so other landowners must pay more to fill the budgetary gap. Additionally, stormwater flows into the managed floodplain from properties to the south that do not share the costs of draining stormwater.
Fragmented responsibility: Responsibility and authority for vital functions are fragmented across several jurisdictions. No single entity is responsible for managing flood risks. The current governance structure demands a high degree of inter-agency coordination, which is labor-intensive and slow – at best.
Insufficient revenue: The four drainage districts collectively have assessment revenue of $4.8 million in FY 2017. Revenues will need to approximately triple to support the system. Cost projections indicate that the districts will need revenues of between $12 million to $20 million annually over the next two decades to successfully achieve their mission. Capital costs are substantial and operational costs are also rising.
Bottom Line: the status quo is not an option
Levee Ready Columbia (LRC) was created as a temporary, ad hoc solution to an urgent challenge: maintaining accreditation. It is not a permanent institution and may not be capable of funding the infrastructure improvements needed in the short term. LRC has not been tested in the face of major costs.
In the long term, the drainage districts face chronic revenue shortfalls and have limited tax bases. Raising assessments on landowners in the managed floodplain would further exacerbate an already inequitable system and likely would not generate sufficient, sustainable revenue to maintain and invest in the system.
In short, failure to find a long-term governance and funding solution may make it impossible to continue maintaining the flood-risk infrastructure and FEMA accreditation in the Columbia Corridor.
Henry Burton, Governance Project Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org
Joel Schoening, Community Affairs Manager, email@example.com