Congress must act to solve an urgent crisis on our coasts
The peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is approaching, and the National Weather Service predicts hurricane activity to be more active this year, above the long-term average, as it has for the seventh year in a row. Climate change is making storms stronger and more frequent, putting people, property and the environment at higher risk for damage from increasing floods and erosion.
To address this urgent challenge, Congress needs to modernize and expand the Coastal Barrier Resources Act — a little-known but powerful law that protects coastal communities, wildlife and the federal taxpayer from damage caused by storms and sea-level rise.
For 40 years, this bipartisan law has protected millions of acres of pristine, undeveloped beaches and wetlands across much of the United States. Using a conservative, market-based approach, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) discourages development in hazard-prone areas by removing federal spending, such as flood insurance, disaster recovery grants and other programs funded by the federal taxpayer. This policy has been highly effective, with less than 5 percent of the areas protected by CBRA developed, compared to more than 25 percent of the land outside the CBRA system. By preventing wasteful federal spending in these sensitive coastal areas, it has saved taxpayers nearly $10 billion, while at the same time providing birds a safe habitat and nearby communities a buffer against storms and sea-level rise.
To build on this success, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently recommended that Congress add over 277,000 acres to the CBRA’s system of protected areas along nine states that were most impacted by Hurricane Sandy nearly 10 years ago. Coastal wetlands prevented more than $625 million in property damages during Hurricane Sandy. Adding new wetland areas to the CBRA system would extend this protection to more communities along the East Coast. This proposal is awaiting action in the U.S. Senate and House.
In June, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on draft legislation called the Strengthening Coastal Communities Act, which would add this new acreage to the CBRA system, along with a subset of areas on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The draft bill would also authorize a pilot project to identify ways to extend CBRA protections to upland areas where wetlands could migrate as sea levels rise, as well as expand the definition of an undeveloped coastal barrier to include areas not yet included in the CBRA system.
In a joint letter to the Senate, more than 30 organizations including ours, Audubon and the R Street Institute, expressed support for the Strengthening Coastal Communities Act, bringing together fiscal conservatives, insurance groups, state floodplain managers, hunters and anglers, zoos and aquariums, as well as several national and state conservation groups. However, the Strengthening Coastal Communities Act has yet to be formally introduced in Congress.
Lives and livelihoods are at stake if this legislation stalls out in Congress. Coastal storms have caused almost $950 billion in economic losses in the U.S. since 1980, and sea-level rise alone threatens properties nationwide worth more than $1 trillion. By removing taxpayer-funded subsidies for development in hazardous coastal areas, CBRA promotes public safety. Nationwide, coastal wetlands provide $23 billion in storm protection services each year, reducing recovery costs for communities and taxpayers. The wetlands and inlets protected by the CBRA system support recreational and commercial fisheries that are essential to our economy and coastal heritage. Additionally, birds like Piping Plovers rely on the undeveloped beaches and islands of the CBRA system to nest and fuel up for their long migrations.
Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and House must introduce and pass the Strengthening Coastal Communities Act. This legislation is critical to save lives, protect coastal wildlife and their habitats, as well as reduce wasteful federal spending.
Portia Mastin, J.D., is the policy manager for coastal conservation at the National Audubon Society. Her work focuses primarily on federal laws and policies pertaining to coastal wetland and estuarine conservation and restoration, as well as promoting nature-based solutions to flood and storm management for coastal community and ecosystem resilience. Mastin previously worked at the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, where she conducted legal policy research on coastal, marine and freshwater issues.
Jerry Theodorouis the director of the finance, insurance and trade policy program at the R Street Institute. Jerry develops and advances effective free market public policy solutions to complex issues where federal and state governments have intervened. He was previously a director in insurance research at Conning in Hartford, CT. Prior to Conning, Theodorou worked for the global insurance giant American International Group (AIG) in a variety of global underwriting, operations and strategy roles, including close to a decade of expatriate managerial assignments in Europe and the Middle East.