Many Three Forks property owners are finding out how bureaucrats can violate the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution by taking private property without due process of law and without just compensation. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) and DNRC (Montana Department of Natural Resources) are doing this by redrawing the 100-year flood maps for the Jefferson River.
The maps distinguish between the flood plain and the floodway, the former being land that can be developed under certain regulations and the latter being land on which no new construction is allowed and no building can be remodeled or rebuilt if destroyed. The new maps do not give the actual acreage added to the floodway, but an eye-ball estimate suggests it is at least 3,000 acres. That is a non-trivial amount of land to be put off limits to any development.
Before rolling over and playing dead, the first step for all property owners and for Three Forks officials should be to protest the maps which must undergo a public comment and appeal period. This will occur in 2022 or 2023, so there is plenty of time to get the maps right.
The maps are being redrawn based on better topographic data from satellites and on new hydrological models. These models are like a black box where we cant see what is inside. In the review process, all parties should ask what is behind the models. Is there evidence of greater water flows? Is there evidence of more ice dams, the main cause of Jefferson River flooding? In fact, given predictions of global warming, it seems more reasonable to expect less precipitationi.e. lower river flows--and higher temperaturesi.e. fewer ice dams.
Models are only useful if they can predict. In this case they are predicting a 1 percent chance in any given year of flood waters covering the floodway with 1 foot of water. Given there has been no such flood in recorded history, a better prediction would be that there is a zero percent chance of a 1-foot flood in any given year. As the saying goes amongst modelers, garbage in, garbage out.
To date, Three Forks officials have responded to the draft maps by seeking money to mitigate the predicted potential flooding. Along with an engineering firm and a nonprofit policy group, both of which have vested interest in getting federal money, the city wants to build a 3-mile long, 100-feet wide, 5-feet deep channel to divert the predicted, but never observed, flood waters.
Building the channel raises many questions. First and foremost, how will the city get permission from affected landowners to build the channel? The proposal calls for easements across private property, but the city has not talked to landowners about their willingness to sell easements. What if they refuse to sell, a real possibility given that landowners always worry that easements come with calls for public access? If they refuse to sell easement, the city would have to go through a costly and contentious eminent domain process, condemning the property and forcing a negotiation. Only the lawyers win in such contests.
Second, who will pay for the $5 million project? If the city is successful in getting federal funding, it will only cover $3.78 million, leaving $1.26 million to come from taxpayers. Put another way, Three Forks taxpayers generally will foot the bill to protect a few property owners from problematic flood risks.
Third, what will the channel look like when it is not carrying predicted flood waters? A computer-generated photo in the proposal shows beautiful, grass-covered banks and bed, but anyone familiar with the area knows that grazing land will become river rock after the channel is dug.
Finally, will the channel become a swamp during the summer? The water table in the area is 2 feet or less. That means a 5-feet deep channel will always hold water in the summer, making it a mosquito infested swamp. In the winter it will be frozen over, making it less useful for carrying any flood waters.
Rather than accepting the redrawn FEMA flood maps and letting the bureaucracy dictate where and how development occurs, it makes more sense for citizens to hold their employees accountable. The redrawn maps reduce property values with little evidence that they reduce flood risks. Chasing federal dollars to fix this imbalance adds to the general tax burden and turns productive ranch lands into a swamp, all in the name of development for a few.
Terry Anderson is a Senior Fellow at Stanford Universitys Hoover Institution, Professor Emeritus at Montana State University, and a property owner in the Three Forks area.
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Guest opinion: New Jefferson River flood maps are all wet - Belgrade News
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