Ten billion dollars in funding to restore beach dunes and dune grass, salt marshes and estuaries, oyster and coral reefs may seem unrelated to the rebuilding of America’s crumbling roads, bridges and sewer plants. But restoring and expanding natural coastal barriers — or living infrastructure — is actually a practical cost-effective way of reducing the growing impacts of sea-level rise, intensified storms and “sunny-day flooding” associated with the rapidly worsening climate emergency. And those impacts will be devastating to the U.S. economy if we don’t act now. While vulnerable coastal counties comprise less than 10 percent of the nation’s landmass, they generate 46 percent of its GDP.
Natural infrastructure including salt marshes, mangroves and other coastal habitats not only act as nurseries for fish, birds and animals, filter runoff pollution and recharge our aquifers, but they sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide while protecting hundreds of billions of dollars of coastal property at risk of flooding and storm damage. Natural infrastructure acts as storm barriers (hence the term “barrier island”) while reducing tidal surges at a far lower cost than “hardened” or “gray” solutions including bulkheads, levees, seawalls and giant floodgates that have been proposed for Houston and New York or the installation of more and larger water pumps in places such as New Orleans, Annapolis and Miami Beach.
As reported in Scientific American, “armored shorelines” cost four times as much to maintain as natural infrastructure but provide less protection. During Superstorm Sandy, wetlands, the 10-30 percent of natural shorelines that remain in the N.Y. and N.J. region, reduced storm damage to adjacent areas by 11 percent. A study of the Gulf Coast between Texas and Florida conducted by the Nature Conservancy and the insurance industry found wetlands restoration could prevent $18.2 billion in losses for an investment cost of $2 billion not counting additional economic and ecological benefits such as improved fisheries and sequestered “blue carbon.”
Yet the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate only has $1.3 billion for coastal work on restoration and resiliency, missing a key opportunity to save taxpayer dollars in disaster response and recovery. The Coastal States Organization (CSO), representing the governors of 35 coastal states, commonwealths and territories, has identified over $6 billion in shovel-ready projects that could help jump-start a living shorelines industry for tens of thousands of skilled workers including design engineers, landscape architects, heavy equipment operators, biologists, plant, soil and fisheries technicians.
The state of Louisiana and the federal government through the Water Resources Development Act will spend around $800 million next year, part of a 50-year coastal restoration effort to keep key cities including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., from becoming the Pelican State’s new coastline. Similar investments are necessary to protect other at-risk coastal cities.
A U.S. Geological Survey study in California found that the cost of sea-level rise could prove greater than its raging wildfires, displacing over half a million people in the coming decades at a cost of at least $150 billion. Many of these future threats are preventable with smart investments in nature-based solutions today.
The Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act of 2021 and the bipartisan Shovel-Ready Restoration Grants for Coastlines and Fisheries Act of 2021 both contain a $10 billion down payment on coastal restoration, a figure also supported by the bipartisan House Oceans Caucus. However, this investment has not yet made its way into the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill. The ongoing congressional recess would be a great time to suggest it be included.
While some elected officials are careful to not associate increasingly intense storms, flooding and sea-level rise with climate change, there is no place where people are not demanding action — and politicians must listen — as 100-year coastal flooding events and more dangerous and unpredictable hurricanes become the new norm.
We believe a $10 billion initial commitment to restoring our shorelines using nature-based solutions, as proposed by members of both parties, is economically smart, will protect property and lives, create good-paying jobs and support the most vulnerable among us well into the future and from sea to shining sea.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group and co-host of “Rising Tide – The Ocean” podcast.
Daniel Hayden is president and CEO of Restore America’s Estuaries, a national coalition of coastal conservation groups dedicated to restoring and preserving America’s estuaries and coasts.