Grant opens floodgates on wetlands mitigation

In announcing their $150,000 flood mitigation grant to the city last week, FEMA officials emphasized one particular option for reducing the risk of flood damage from Malibu Creek: restoring at least part of the land in the Civic Center to its former presumed status as a wetlands, including vacant land and that lying underneath existing developments.

But the head of FEMA’s community mitigation program for the Western United States said this week that the mitigation route chosen by a local government depends on the financial resources available and the support in the community for the methods proposed for reducing flood damage.

The most common mitigation option local communities use under the guidance of FEMA is the removal of buildings that have repeatedly flooded in flood-prone areas. The buildings are either relocated or demolished, and the land is publicly held in perpetuity as open space, said Jack Eldridge, regional chief of FEMA’s community mitigation program. Properties that have had two or more flood loss claims in any 10-year period are considered repetitive loss properties.

On its Website, FEMA boasts of the success of these mitigation measures in flood plains across the country, including the moving of entire towns in the Midwest along the Mississippi River to higher ground. FEMA helped coordinate these projects, including assisting the communities in acquiring funds from other federal and state agencies to buy the property from private landowners.

But because of pricey California real estate, Malibu may have to focus on other options during its grant-financed study of flooding problems in the city, said Eldridge. Other options are elevating buildings, constructing protective walls and working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on public works projects to redirect flood waters.

“FEMA officials often mention the acquisition option because it is the cleanest of the bunch,” said Eldridge. He added that in Malibu, “Obviously, that option would not be as widespread as in the Midwest, but the community has to look at each and every one of these properties that have repeatedly flooded and decide what [it] wants to do about [it].”

Still, both the regional director of FEMA and the head of the mitigation program in Washington, D.C., last week emphasized their visualization of wetlands restoration as a key component of flood mitigation in Malibu.

Martha Whetstone, regional FEMA director, said last week that one of the objectives of the study financed by the $150,000 grant is to assure “that existing wetlands and open space in the flood plain are retained for natural storage for flood waters.” She also said FEMA is “very interested in helping local governments identify land that should never have been developed and should never be developed in the future.” And she added that communities often find the “wisest” flood mitigation measure “is to allow properties to revert to their open, natural state as wetlands.”

The head of the national flood mitigation program, Michael Armstrong, said such measures “not only create a disaster-resistant community, but an environmentally compatible community.” Armstrong added, “Wetlands are not only good for the environment, they also protect against floods.”

The Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy, the local organization that attracted FEMA’s attention to flooding and played a pivotal role in convincing the agency to award the grant, has been working to recover land near Malibu Creek for wetlands restoration.

Marcia Hanscom, a member of the conservancy board, said the group has not taken up the issue of whether to advocate for the removal of existing development in the Civic Center. Instead, she said, the group is focusing on keeping undeveloped parcels as open space.

Gil Segel, president of the conservancy, also said in a telephone interview that his group is focusing on preserving undeveloped land in the Civic Center, but he added, “If we had our druthers, we would make it all open space.” Segel quickly called back to clarify that he did not think moving existing development was “doable.”

“We’re focusing on the undeveloped piece of property,” he said.

The $150,000 grant will be used mainly to pay for the study and proposed mitigation plan. City Manager Harry Peacock said the city is waiting for the actual grant money before taking additional steps to prepare for the study.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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