Water Talk DNR newsletter - March 2016

Water Talk

March 2016

Water Talk Newsletter is issued three to four times per year.

If you have ideas or requests for the next edition of Water Talk, contact Ceil Strauss at ceil.strauss@state.mn.us 

Addressing Floodplain Connectivity at Roadway River Crossings

Floodplains are low, flat lands along river and stream channels that periodically flood with water and sediment.  Floodplain connectivity is the ability of water, sediment, and biological communities to move freely between a river’s banks and its floodplain.  When a river and its floodplain are in 

Natural floodplain

balance, this represents a natural, stable river system. In simple terms, the river is connected to its floodplain. In a stable river system, when water flows above the banks, it is able to disperse excess velocity and sediment across the floodplain (i.e., its valley).  The floodplain is then able to “work its magic” by holding water and filtering sediments, thus reducing flood damage and bank erosion downstream, and keeping our rivers clean. Therefore, maintaining floodplain connectivity is a critical component to maintaining river stability and natural floodplain function.

Dakota county crossing example

Changes to floodplain connectivity are commonly caused by human activity, when structures, fill, or undersized culverts are placed in a river’s floodplain.  When such obstructions are introduced onto a river system, it often concentrates the swift-moving floodwaters, which results in excessive erosion of the channel bed and banks. Erosion along such unstable channels will continue until a balance is once again achieved. This balancing act commonly requires decades, even centuries, to re-achieve equilibrium introducing tons of sediment into the river system to manage. The river system will naturally soften its gradient between the channel and floodplain, taking acreage with it.

In an upcoming series of Water Talk articles, we will address impact of improper roadway and culvert design to floodplain connectivity. It is based upon both anticipated and accomplished research on road/river intersection (e.g., bridges, culverts) design. The Ecological and Water Resources (EWR) Division has been promoting an approach to improve infrastructure (e.g., culverts, bridges, etc.) by integrating local landform metrics into site design. Although on-going, our findings and recommendations can be reviewed and accessed on our website at the following link:


This DNR collaborative effort has been on-going since 2013, and results are not complete. For questions or to learn more, feel free to contact: 

Kevin Zytkovicz, Stream Habitat Program, Kevin.Zytkovicz@state.mn.us, 651-259-5151

Salam Murtada, Land Use Unit, Salam.Murtada@state.mn.us, 651-259-5688

If Your Community is Asked to do National Survey, Please Participate

ASFPM logo


The national Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) worked with the University of Wisconsin Survey Center to prepare its first national survey of local floodplain administrators. In the next few weeks (in March 2016) the survey will be distributed randomly to 3,000 communities across the nation.

survey icon
  • The survey should not take more than 30 minutes to complete.
  • Individual responses will remain confidential. While the aggregate results of the survey will become public, officials do not have to worry that their personal information will be disclosed.
  • The survey effort should be completed by mid-May.

If you receive a survey from ASFPM or the University of Wisconsin on floodplain matters, please respond. We'd like the input of our Minnesota communities!

One Day Floodplain & Shoreland Management Training - For Local Officials & Others

Time: Registration at 8:30.  Sessions run from 8:45 am to 4 pm with an hour break for lunch. Two tracks will be offered for most of the day so those attending can choose to cover basics or more advanced topics.

Cost:  FREE for training.  At most locations there will be an opportunity to order (and pay for) box lunches that morning; bring cash or a bag lunch. 

Target Audience:  City, county and watershed staff who administer shoreland ordinances, floodplain ordinances,  interpret FEMA flood maps, or determine flood elevations; or consultants, surveyors, insurance agents, realtors, or others who work with these issues.  Feel free to forward to others who do work in mapped floodplain areas.

2016 training sites
Training dates as image

 If you are interested in this training, please RSVP by the date listed for the location you will be attending. Contact Matt Bauman at matthew.bauman@state.mn.us or 651-259-5710.  Late registrations or walk-ins are welcome, but knowing the number of participants by the RSVP date will help us prepare.

Topics Covered: 

  • History of floodplain management regulations, roles, definitions, & permitted uses in floodway vs flood fringe
  • FEMA map basics and latest on map & data updates
  • FEMA map interpretation
  • Permit process and record-keeping
  • Flood insurance basics (including highlights of 2012 & 2014 Reform Acts)
  • FEMA map appeals/revisions
  • Determining BFEs in A zones
  • Zoning basics
  • Shoreland management basics and special shoreland topics (nonconformities, pervious pavement, PUDs, new buffer law)
  • Higher standards for shoreland and floodplain management
  • Variances in shoreland and floodplain

 Presented by:  DNR Ecological & Waters Resources Floodplain & Shoreland staff 

Changes to FEMA's Map Service Center Web Site

If you've been to FEMA's Map Service Center Site - www.msc.FEMA.go - since December 13, 2015, you will see many changes in the way it appears.

  • The new home page looks very different.  See the new look in Figure 3 (below).
  • The MSC page search functions are now on the left. Note that they are under search functions for the main FEMA web site.

New MSC site look
Figure 3 - The new MSC home page

When you do a search, the interactive icons are more prominently at the top. See example in Figure 4 that includes the icon links for:

  1. View Map  
  2. Save Map (as png file)
  3. Interactive Map*, and
  4. Show all products for this area.

HINT - if the new site is not working for you, try cleaning your cache.

*Link to the FEMA Flood Hazard Data Layer viewer; only available in counties with Digital Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or DFIRMs, which is the format that started in 2003.

MSC search with icons
Figure 4 - Icon links that you can see on the new FEMA Map Service Center site
MSC info sheet


A new information sheet on "How to Use FEMA's Map Service Center Site" is now available on the DNR web site.

And the information sheet on "Using FEMA's National Flood Hazard Layer (NFHL) Viewer" is also available.

Zoning Challenge - I Need a BFE in an A Zone. Can I Use the Model Based A Zone BFEs?

You are the local floodplain manager. A resident contacts you and says that they are refinancing their mortgage and the bank is telling them they must purchase flood insurance. The bank told them to go to their local floodplain manager and get a copy of the elevation certificate and get the base flood elevation. 

The house was built in 1960, and they haven't done any additions or big improvements, so you don't have any elevation information. You look at your FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) and see the house is in an A zone, so there is not a BFE on on the map or in the Flood Insurance Study.  BUT, you know there are models for the A Zones ("pink lines") in that area. You also see that the A Zone and the 2-foot contour elevations are not at all consistent. Based on the 2-foot contours, the house is about ten feet above where the floodplain appears to be. 

What do you tell them? What are your options to help them?

House partly in Zone A
Figure 5 - Site is partly in A Zone (light blue layers). "Pink lines" show estimated 1% annual chance flood elevations. Gold lines with numbers show 2-foot contour elevations.

See bottom of this Water Talk newsletter for answer.

Fifteen Years of Mitigation Action - Granite Falls, Minnesota

The City of Granite Falls has been working on flood mitigation for 15 years. The funds secured and projects done over those years help the city to be, as described by Mayor Dave Smiglewski, “better prepared for and better protected against the inevitable high waters that occur in the river.”

The city has experienced 5 of its 10 highest flood events in the last 19 years, including their largest flood, in April of 1997. After that initial event, much of the city’s attention quickly turned towards rebuilding and getting things back to normal.  Not a lot of attention was placed on mitigating the risk; after all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime “500-year” flood. The second major event came four years later in April of 2001, which is ultimately what triggered the city to aggressively pursue mitigation efforts ever since. In the aftermath of just these two floods, the total cost of clean-up alone for the city was nearly $1.3 million. Throw in a tornado that struck the city in 2000, and the city had all the support they needed to get serious about hazard mitigation.

Since completion of the city’s initial flood hazard mitigation plan, the city has secured nearly $40 million in funding from local, regional, state, and federal sources. Funding partners over the years have included the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR), the Economic Development Administration (EDA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, and Yellow Medicine County. Demonstrating local commitment to flood mitigation has been an important part of the city’s successful federal-state-local partnerships. Much of the city’s $600,000 contribution has been provided through in-kind services and other non-monetary contributions.

Ganite Falls city hall former location

The city began with an aggressive buyout program where they negotiated the acquisition, demolition, and relocation of over 35 residential properties and 25 commercial buildings in the downtown area along the Minnesota River, as well as along the overflow channel. The city also relocated their city hall building, which was permanently moved in 2009.

Additional efforts included the construction of a flood wall, the re-purposing of the Prentice Place Commons building, and a new water treatment plant. Most recently, the city received an EDA grant in the amount of $1.5 million, which was matched with a grant from the MNDNR, to relocate their sanitary lift station out of the floodplain. According to Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski, the lift station was one of the last of the big flood mitigation projects that the city had taken on.

Open space in Granite Falls

But not the last.  That honor goes to the rehabilitation of the city’s signature pedestrian bridge over the Minnesota River, which was mostly under water during the 1997 flood event.

Mitigating flood risk of a community takes time—sometimes a decade or more—and can involve multiple costly projects. But the payoff of a safer, more resilient place to live, work, and invest in the future is worth every penny and all the effort. These efforts are more than just about saving buildings, but rather preserving the services and tax base of those protected areas. As explained by City Manager Bill Lavin, “I know for a fact that the city’s tax-base is stronger than it was pre-flood.”

In Granite Falls, these efforts have significantly reduced the number of structures in floodplain, and enabled the city to become a Class 5 member of FEMA’s Community Rating System, which provides residents and property owners within the high risk flood hazard area a 25 percent reduction on the cost of their flood insurance premiums.

Everything seems to be under control now in Granite Falls. The city’s efforts have taken given the town a sense of confidence fighting these floods.  Mayor Smiglewski commented in an interview during the 2011 floods: “It's a beautiful day; the river’s high. It's kind of a tourist attraction.”

This article was provided by FEMA Region 5, but was modified for use in this newsletter. Photos provided by MNDNR Floodplain Program.

Upper Mississippi River Conference - Save the Date

The Upper Mississippi River Conference traditionally has attendees from all the upper Mississippi River states, and has good representation from those in academia. See the Save the Date card and the Upper Mississippi River Conference web site for more details.

UMRC Save the Date

Technical Mapping Advisory Council (TMAC) Update - 2016

The Technical Mapping Advisory Council (TMAC) was re-established* in July 2014, to “review and make recommendations to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on matters related to the national flood mapping program.” This re-establishment was mandated as part of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012.

The 21 members of the TMAC form an advisory committee consisting of acknowledged leaders in the technical fields of surveying, cartography, remote sensing, geographic information systems, and other professions associated with preparation and publication of Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). Beyond technical skills, the TMAC also seeks a balance of Federal, state, local, and private members, and the geographic distribution of members from across the nation. 

TMAC’s mission is “to provide counsel to FEMA” and is demonstrated through its five guiding principles: to use effective leveraging and efficient implementation to help to ensure the financial stability of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), and assist in producing credible products that will, in turn, promote continued stakeholder acceptance in the final mapping product. TMAC’s goals include meaningful cooperation between local, state, and Federal governments and their private sector partners, adequate and timely use of funding, accurate modeling and risk assessments, and understanding of flood risk by the public.

TMAC Future contions report

The re-established TMAC has produced two important documents, TMAC Future Conditions Report and the 2015 Annual Report. There is also a 2015 Annual Report Summary.

The TMAC Future Conditions Report, outlines the TMAC’s effort to “consult with scientist and technical experts, other Federal agencies, states, and local communities to develop recommendations on how to ensure FIRMs incorporate the best available climate science to assess flood risks, and that FEMA uses the best available methodology to consider the impacts of the rise in sea level and future development on flood risk.” The report details an extensive series of recommendations to FEMA for implementation to accommodate our changing environmental conditions.

TMAC annual report cover

The 2015 Annual Report outlines the activities and accomplishments of the TMAC through its first year. Included in the Annual Report is a list of 22 recommendations in policy or regulatory practices, reflecting nine topic areas that include:

  • Community of Users and Uses
  • Flood Hazard Identification - Program Goals and Priorities
  •  Flood Hazard Identification - Core Data, Models, and Methodology
  • Flood Hazard Identification – Production Processes
  • Flood Risk Assessment and Communication
  • Data Distribution and Management
  • Federal Partner Collaboration
  • Cooperating Technical Partners; and
  • Maintenance and Funding.

Recommendations of the TMAC will likely affect the end user of NFIP products. The most probable suggestions that could have a lasting impact on communities are recommendations that FEMA fully transition from panel-based paper maps to a complete digital environment; structure-based risk determinations; offer community-based incentives to reduce risk; and increase the data partnerships with the states and local communities.

More information on the TMAC, a Frequently Asked Questions flyer, and its publications may be found at TMAC’s web site. 

* The original TMAC had been authorized in 1994 following the National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994, but was only impaneled for a term of five years.

This article was provided by FEMA Region 5, but was modified for use in this newsletter.

Online NFIP Training Options

FREE! Online NFIP Training

Webinar participation is free, but registration is required. Priority registration is given to FEMA Regions 2, 5, 7, 9, and 10. Note: Minnesota is in FEMA region 5.

NO SHOW Policy: If you cannot make the training, you must cancel 24 hours before the class is scheduled. Failure to attend two or more classes without notice will affect your eligibility to register for future classes.

Online learning

  • CRS: Preparing for a Verification Visit, March 15 @ 12 pm (central)
  • CRS: Flood Warning & Response (Activity 610), March 16 @ 12 pm (central)
  • Using Risk MAP Products in Floodplain Management, March 17 @ 12 pm (central)
  • Tools for Determining BFE, April 13 @ 12 pm (central)
  • Elevation Certificates, April 14 @ 12 pm (central)
  • Introduction to CRS, April 19 @ 12 pm (central)
  • CRS & Natural Floodplain Functions, April 20 @ 12 pm (central)

How Do You Solve a Problem Like A Zones?

How to get flood zones based on accurate data and boundaries

Editor's note: This article originally ran in the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) December 2015 News & Views Newsletter. It was written by Ceil Strauss for the "By the Chair" column, and has been modified for this newsletter. Any opinions expressed are those of the author. 

A Zones are still a problem

I run into problems with A Zones on a daily basis, and so many of our local officials and others working with floodplain issues in Minnesota. And we know A Zones are a problem for much of the country, especially in the central and western states. They often do not have have the information needed to make local zoning and development decisions, or to determine flood insurance rates.

Some ongoing and recent examples of problems involving A Zones include:

  • Hearing continual complaints about the quality of the maps, i.e., “Those FEMA maps that were drawn with crayon.”
  • Convincing lenders that the map from 1976 (or earlier) REALLY is the current effective map.
  • Determining Base Flood Elevations using limited information for zoning decisions, as happens hundreds or thousands of times a year in our state and involves significant time for local officials and state staff assisting them.
  • Determining BFEs for a dramatically higher number of pre-Flood Insurance Rate Map landowners who have flood insurance and now need the BFE for insurance rating.
  • Assisting residents and local officials with hundreds of Letters of Map Amendments a year that involve structures well above the BFE, including a good percentage by 10 feet or more.

On a related note, I recently read a December Marsh report, “Reforming the National Flood Insurance Program,” that said Minnesota, as a state, had the lowest rate of compliance for mandatory flood insurance. The point in the report was that better compliance with the mandatory purchase requirement is a priority, and I completely agree with that.

However, I am convinced that a big part of the explanation for our low compliance rate has much more to do with the study using the unmodernized floodplain digital layer that is all we have for a majority of our counties, than it documenting non-compliance. Those older floodplain layers were a quick digitization intended for high level planning, and often did not digitize around higher islands that are up to many square miles in size. And the digital Flood Insurance Rate Maps that were started during the earlier years of FEMA's map modernizition program have A and AE Zone layers that include areas 20-30 feet above the BFE. There’s a reason we have so many LOMAs relative to the number of policies!

Old map and bad DFIRM examples

Cost efficient options available

The good news is that current technology allows us to produce model based A Zones for a fraction of the cost of AE Zone modeling. In ballpark figures, it costs $10,000 per mile for AE Zone level modeling versus $100 to $150 per mile for the different levels of model based A Zones. For a large percent of the nation’s A Zones, communities are clamoring for DFIRMs with model based A Zones. Figure 3 (below) shows the continuum of model based A Zone. Note that the A Zone in the Figure 1 and 2 examples do not have any supporting models or data, so are not even on the continuum.

A zone continuum

Note: A recent Minnesota Water Talk article gives a brief explanation of the different accuracy levels for the model based A Zones.

Pink lines with label

Unless a detailed study is done, the BFEs and the cross sections from these model-based A Zones will not be shown on the DFIRMs, but the models and shape files with the BFE data are available to local officials, engineers, surveyors, etc.

Ask any of our local officials if they’d rather have DFIRMs with these model-based A Zones, versus wait until FEMA has the funding to do DFIRM with AE Zones, and they will give you an immediate “YES.” These model-based A Zone help with 95 percent of the problem situations noted earlier. 

Ways to get flood zones based on accurate data and boundaries

ASFPM’s “Flood Mapping for the Nation” report and the Technical Mapping Advisory Council recommendations recognize there are still large areas of the country that don’t have maps based on accurate data and boundaries. There are many other areas that are a priority for mapping funding, but the momentum is going in the right direction to recognize that at least a portion of the funding needs to focus on getting at least the model-based A Zone level of mapping nationally.

In the counties that were mapped later in the Flood Map Modernization program, we had model-based A Zones. In the Risk MAP program, while the focus has shifted to watershed-based efforts and greater emphasis on outreach, FEMA is now doing First Order Approximations, at a minimum. The good news is that the budget deal that was just passed by Congress includes significantly more mapping funding than we’ve seen in recent years. And we are hearing that “some” of the mapping funding for FY16 will be targeted at getting a portion of the older, paper  map counties DFIRMs based on model-based A Zones and accurate boundaries for A and AE Zones. We need  to continue to address the many other mapping update needs, including mapping of residual risk areas, coastal flooding, erosion hazards, etc. However, I’d like to see these efforts continue until we have mapped A zones based on accurate data and boundaries nationally.

FEMA Map Updates - Scheduled/Anticipated Dates

(And updates since last Water Talk)

 New Maps Effective:

  • Anoka County - December 16, 2015
  • Hastings Levee panel; Dakota County – March 16, 2016

Letters of Final Determination (Letters sent 6 months before effective dates):

  • Hennepin County – May 2016 (anticipated)
  • Scott County – July 2016 (anticipated)
  • Marshall County - August 2016 (anticipated)
  • Blue Earth County – Uncertain (on hold - levee issues)
  • Kittson County – Uncertain (On hold - levee & ring dike issues)

 90-Day Appeal Periods:

  • Marshall County – October 1 to December 30, 2015
  • Crow Wing County – November 5, 2015 to March 10, 2016
  • Olmsted County (2nd) – mid-March to mid-June 2016 (anticipated; needed for Eyota & Pine Island)
  • Roseau County (2nd) – March to June 2016 (anticipated; needed for Badger)
  • Wright County – May to August 2016 (anticipated)
  • Houston County - May to August 2016 (anticipated)
  • Carver County – June to September 2016 (anticipated)
  • Nicollet County – Uncertain (on hold - levee seclusion question)

 Open Houses/Resilience Meetings:

  • Blue Earth, Fillmore, Marshall, Nicollet, Wilkin and Yellow Medicine Counties - June or July 2016 (anticipated)

 New Preliminary Maps:

  • Houston County (revised) – January 15, 2016
  • Winona County – March 2016 (anticipated)
  • Yellow Medicine County (revised) – March 2016 (anticipated)
  • Fillmore County (revised) – April 2016 (levee & updated A zone panels; anticipated)
  • Chippewa County – Uncertain (on hold - levee seclusion question)

 NOTE: Anticipated dates likely to be pushed back as issues arise

Zoning Challenge Answer

First, you break the news that since the house was built before the floodplain regulations, you do not have an elevation certificate in the city files. And the lender MUST require purchase of the flood insurance if the structure is in the flood zone, even it it is clearly well above the flood elevation.

In this example, the house is IN the high flood risk zone, so the lender must require flood insurance.The insurance agent will need the lowest floor elevation and the base flood elevation (BFE) to determine the flood insurance premium.

What is the base flood elevation?

Since the site is currently in an A Zone, the estimated 1% annual chance flood elevation data (i.e., the "pink lines") can be used for zoning and flood insurance decisions. Use the estimated 1% annual chance flood elevation as the approximate base flood elevation (BFE). In this example the cross-section at the upstream end of the site is 765.6 (NAVD88). If the lowest adjacent grade of an existing house is higher than the BFE, the house is eligible to apply for a Letter of Map Amendment.

NOTE: If the site is in a current detailed study area (Zone AE, A1-30, AO or AH), updated data on a FEMA preliminary new map CANNOT be used for insurance rating or a LOMA until the new map is effective.

Want to learn more about A Zone models, when they can be used, and how to see the data? See articles on A Zone Models in the November 2015 Water Talk.

DON"T FORGET: For zoning & permitting decisions you will use the Regulatory Flood Protection Elevations (RFPE), which is higher than the BFE. See the local ordinance for details, but the lowest floor for regulatory purposes will need to be at least a foot higher (and often more) than the BFE used for insurance decisions.

Where can the homeowner get elevation information?

(1) Community - The first place to check is in the community records, especially if it was built after the first FEMA map for the community was issued. (We've already noted there is not any information for the house in this example.)

(2) Other public agencies - If the local watershed district (or anyone else) requires permits or does reviews, they might possibly have elevation information. Check with them.

(3) Licensed surveyor - The homeowner can hire a licensed surveyor, and in some cases this is the only option. (In unique situations - especially where there are many properties in or near a FEMA mapped high risk floodplain, communities occasionally assist neighborhoods with coordination of a survey, or cost-sharing for a survey.)

(4) Option if house is clearly high - Many communities can check their electronic mapping or a county viewer where elevation contours can be seen. In Minnesota we have the MNTOPO Viewer. This is a public site where 2-foot elevation contours can be seen statewide. If the house appears to be more than 2 feet above the BFE, see the "LOMA with 2-foot contours" option described below. 

Can the homeowner get an exception for the flood insurance requirement? Yes, they can obtain a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA)

LOMA example

In cases like this, where more accurate elevation information shows the structure is above the flood elevation, FEMA has a process to request a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA). The applicant submits information showing that the Lowest Adjacent Grade (LAG) - i.e., the elevation of the lowest place the ground touches the structure foundation (or the supports for attached decks or stairs) -  is higher than the base flood elevation (BFE). If the LAG is higher than the BFE, FEMA will send a LOMA document confirming that - based on the more accurate data - the structure is not in the high flood risk area and that flood insurance is not mandatory. The elevation information must be provided by a licensed surveyor or a professional engineer, with two main exceptions:

  • LOMA-OAS eligible - Where the structure is not actually shown in the high flood risk zone. If the structure is near a flood zone, but an aerial photo with the floodplain overlaid on top shows it's not in the flood zone, the elevations are not required. FEMA will accept the application without a survey and will issue a "Letter of Map Amendment - Out as Shown," or LOMA-OAS).
  • LOMA using the 2-foot elevation contours - See more information below.

The MNDNR web site has links to the application forms and more information about how to apply for a LOMA.

Option to get a LOMA using the 2-foot contours

Aha! image

In most of Minnesota, if the structure is clearly above the base flood elevation, there is an alternative to getting a field survey. FEMA will accept a map with an aerial photo, the 2-foot elevation contours, lot lines, and a few other details in lieu of a field survey. This is an option if:

  • The map is prepared by the city, county, a licensed surveyor or a professional engineer.
  • The 2-foot elevation contour that is below the structure (and not going through the structure) is more than one foot above the base flood elevation.
  • The site is in a county where the 2-foot contours have been certified for this use (all counties in Minnesota except for Pine and Stearns).

See more details on Letters of Map Amendments using LiDAR elevation data at the MNDNR web site.