County fights FEMA over new flood insurance maps and impact on farmers

The Federal Emergency and Management Agency promoted a recent open house in Montevideo to unveil new flood insurance rate maps for Chippewa County as a chance “to see how the maps can affect communities and property owners.”

Experts at the open house will help residents understand flood risk and flood insurance, flood plain development regulations and the mapping process. Residents can meet with experts one-on-one to view their own addresses on the new maps.

Many residents of the western Minnesota county who viewed the maps, however, not only didn’t like what they saw, but were stunned by a huge increase in land the federal agency suddenly decided to categorize at high risk for flooding. The West Central Tribune notes the federal agency’s drastic proposed changes pose a big financial problem for agriculture, prompting the county board to swing into action.

Chippewa County is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hold off on its approval of new flood maps for the western Minnesota county and to revise them.

The new maps are believed to roughly triple the amount of land in the county to be included in the 100-year floodplain, although the exact acreage is not known to county officials.

While the maps include some residences and other structures that were not previously listed as being in the floodplain, the greater concern is the amount of agricultural land now included, Scott Williams, land and resource management director for the county, told the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners on Aug. 1.

FEMA relied on a more than decade-old aerial survey to estimate the risk of flooding on land throughout the county. Besides the addition of considerably more agricultural land, county officials see several potential shortcomings with the agency’s results that they intend to aggressively push back on.

Williams said county officials share the concerns of the landowners. He said FEMA developed the maps based on a flyover of the county in 2010. Ground elevations determined by the flyover were used in calculating where water would flow during a 100-year flood event.

While the land elevations appear to be very accurate, Williams said the risk of water overtopping the ditch banks is not as great as the maps indicate.

For one, he and the commissioners said they do not believe FEMA used accurate data on the flow rates and capacity of the drainage systems. The commissioners said they believe the hydraulics of culverts on the systems were assumed rather than known.

The agency’s maps matter because the results determine the cost of flood insurance. The higher flood risk proposed by FEMA could result in higher insurance costs, particularly for farmers. There’s also concern over whether the feds will take into consideration common sense fixes that landowners want to implement to mitigate some issues.

They are concerned that the crop insurance costs for lands placed in the 100-year floodplain will increase significantly. Matt Gilbertson, chair of the County Board, said one farmer told him the increase could be as much as $85 an acre.

Many of the affected landowners contend that the new maps do not accurately show the flood risk for their lands.

They also point out that low points on the ditch banks described by FEMA as “breaches” could easily be rectified by placing a load or two of clay on the locations. They would like the opportunity to do so before the maps are adopted.

It’s not easy to convince any federal agency to reconsider, but Chippewa County farmers and residents hope to have help. Besides the county commissioners, they’ve reached out to the offices of Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Seventh District Republican Rep. Michelle Fischbach.