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Is Texas Doing Enough to Regulate Floodplain Development?

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

The deadly flooding that hit central Texas this week struck in one of the most rapidly growing parts of the county. And it’s reignited a debate over whether the state is doing enough to regulate development in floodplains.

Professor Nicolas Pinter teaches environmental science at Southern Illinois University.  He says a big study back in the late ‘90s put Texas at number two in the country in number of properties that have flooded repeatedly and the number of properties that have received repeated flood insurance payouts. And Texas is second to Florida in flood insurance, with just over 681,000 policies to Florida's 2.1 million, according to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The reason for that's simple: Texas gets a lot of floods.

“The other thing is that probably that means people [are] building in the wrong place,” Pinter says.

Every state has different rules when it comes to building on floodplains. They’re based on standards set by the NFIP. Experts consider those standards to be the bare minimum for safety.

But in Texas, says Roy Sedwick of the Texas Floodplain Management Association, not all counties are meeting those "bare minimum" standards.

“We still have probably around 300 counties and cities that are not participating in the NFIP — which means they do not have floodplain regulations enforced," he says.

Even in places where regulations do exist, development can still contribute to flooding, says Sedwick. For example, if you build a subdivision and elevate the new development with extra earth, that can push water onto other properties.

“So that’s something that the local government needs to consider when they approve subdivision plots, and of course to do that, that tackles a higher standard than what FEMA has,” Sedwick says.

In the case of last weekend’s flooding, he says many of the damaged or destroyed homes in Wimberley were likely built before floodplains were even mapped in that area. If they are rebuilt at all, they will have to be constructed according to the FEMA standards. 

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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