Congress should update the Gipper's coastal barrier law

Congress should update the Gipper's coastal barrier law
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According to a popular aphorism that may or may not have originated with Albert Einstein, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. By that measure, Americans' persistent willingness to rebuild homes and infrastructure in locations vulnerable to floods, hurricanes and other natural catastrophes is nothing short of insane. 

As we now find ourselves in the midst of the most active hurricane season in at least a dozen years, Congress has an opportunity to take a step away from the status quo. Updating the maps employed by the Coastal Barrier Resources System — a task that has not been completed since 1990 — would be a productive first step. 

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act was championed by former President Reagan and signed into law in October 1982. The law designated undeveloped wetlands and coastal barrier islands along the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes as zones where the federal government could no longer extend any subsidies to aid development that could imperil these biologically rich ecosystems.


Notably, the CBRA does not prohibit private parties from undertaking development in areas designated by the program. Instead, it simply requires that any such development be undertaken entirely on the developer's own dime. Federal roads and infrastructure, federally subsidized flood insurance and other federal expenditures are forbidden within the CBRS.


In his signing statement accompanying the CBRA, Reagan remarked that the law “simply adopts the sensible approach that risk associated with new private development in these sensitive areas should be borne by the private sector, and not underwritten by the American taxpayer.” 

By virtually any measure, the CBRA has been a success. In 2002, on the 20th anniversary of the law’s signing, a study released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the program was on track to save taxpayers nearly $1.3 billion, a total excluded savings to the National Flood Insurance Program. Ten years later, another study released on the program’s 30th birthday found that, among areas designated by the CBRA, 84 percent of measured units remained undeveloped, while only 13 percent experienced even minimal development.

To secure future savings, and to ensure that designated areas reflect the latest and best science, the time has come to bring modern mapping technologies to bear on the problem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under congressional direction, has sought to do just that. In 2016, the service completed a thorough updating process and transmitted its findings to Congress for adoption.

This so-called “pilot project” could be adopted in its entirety by simple reference. Unfortunately, to date, no member has introduced legislation to accomplish that. Instead, a scattershot cross-section of lawmakers have introduced bills designed to enshrine into law only those bits of the pilot project concern the regions each respective member represents.

While some updating is better than no updating, this approach fails to continue the policy legacy set out by President Reagan when he signed the law. Piecemeal mapping updates will lead to an unfortunate scenario in which the areas most in need of CBRA inclusion will be those least likely to be updated. Taxpayers will be left to pick up the tab due to a lack of political will.

As rebuilding commences following the twin catastrophes wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it behooves Congress to move proactively to protect American taxpayers from encouraging redevelopment in areas that, without federal assistance, may never have been developed in the first place. Congress should act promptly to adopt the FWS pilot project's maps. As Reagan himself put it, the CBRA is a law that meets a national problem with less federal involvement, not more.”

Ian Adams (@IaAboutCa) is an associate vice president at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government in Washington, D.C.