Mid-morning tomorrow, I’ll be attending a meeting in the office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., to debate be “educated about” the senator’s bill to exempt his state from requirements that it follow federal laws about preserving floodplains. Although I come to this with an open mind, I seriously doubt that there’s any way that the senator’s bill–or anything like it–could ever be a wise public policy. And it’s particularly bad for the National Flood Insurance Program.

Some background first: the Hoeven bill, S. 2039, would let North Dakota–and that state alone–build new permanent levees on land the federal government acquired through a program (the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program) that includes the express condition that the land be preserved as an open space, natural floodplain.  That’s why we at R Street have joined with groups like National Wildlife Federation and ConservAmerica to fight it.

We’ve made some progress. Yesterday afternoon, Hoeven’s bill was pulled from the House of Representatives’ suspension calendar. That said, Hoeven and his staff have promised to educate people about the bill and bring it up again. There are at least four reasons why I don’t think that they’ll be able to convince me:

First, the bill is not the right solution to the problem Hoeven and company claim to have identified. A few North Dakota communities apparently built temporary levees in areas that were flooding far more often than expected and were required to dismantle them yearly even though the areas could be expected to flood again. As a result, Hoeven had specific exemptions placed in the recently passed flood insurance reform bill to allow those areas to keep the levees. If there are more particular areas where Hoeven or anyone else can prove that the current rules don’t work, then they should work within the regulatory process or write specific exemptions into law. Changing national policy for a whole state is a silly way to solve a very limited problem that impacts only a few communities. If the national policy really is bad, then it’s a good case for a national solution. But Hoeven isn’t proposing that either.

Second, governments at all levels have already wasted too much money building levees. For most of the past century, structural flood mitigation–a.k.a, levees–has been the nation’s principle strategy in dealing with rising water. The problem is that levees simply relocate water rather than absorbing it. Unlike floodplains left in their natural states, they don’t necessarily reduce the net number of human-inhabited areas that get flooded. This means more NFIP claims downriver from North Dakota if that state can build levees in front of preserved floodplains. Leaving floodplains alone costs nothing, whereas building levees requires spending tax money. As a conservative, I simply prefer leaving things alone rather than getting the government involved.

Third, despite claims to the contrary, the Hoeven proposal does involve spending federal money. Lots of it, in fact. While the current bill requires the state to spend its own money on actual levee construction, the federal government will have already paid for what’s arguably the most expensive part of the levee (buying the land to build it on) and then, through the Army Corps of Engineers, will potentially be on the hook for maintaining it. Hoeven’s bill will take North Dakota off the hook for repaying the money that was already spent to buy that land and convert it to open spaces. It’s not cost-free.

Finally, levees, by definition, will induce new development behind them and taxpayers will end up on the hook for NFIP polices on this development. Quite simply, there’s no reason to build a levee unless one wants to develop behind it. Under the flood insurance bill the president signed earlier this month, these property owners may not necessarily pay risk-based rates since FEMA still won’t take the “residual risk” faced by properties behind flood control structures into account. Thus, the bill assures that we’ll increase the total number of subsidized NFIP policies in North Dakota.

The bottom line: Hoeven’s bill is a bad idea that perverts an existing federal program, wastes tax money, increases flooding, and would result in millions of dollars in additional NFIP claims.

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