Using lessons from Superstorm Sandy and safeguarding the coastal systems that help limit the destructive nature of storms
At this time eight years ago, the Northeast and Atlantic Coast were being pummeled by one of the strongest, deadliest, and most destructive hurricanes in recent memory, ultimately inflicting roughly $70 billion in damage on American communities.
Unfortunately, Sandy has been followed by other destructive and costly hurricanes, and climate change is contributing to more frequent storms. As we work to implement solutions for the impacts of climate change, it is clear that many of the most cost-effective options also provide benefits to fish, wildlife, and all Americans who enjoy outdoor recreation. It is also clear that we face many difficult decisions about the future of development where it can affect our lands and waters.
One law that has helped to keep this balance since 1982 is the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. But there are opportunities and threats to the future success of this policy.
Keeping Coastal Habitat Intact
When Ronald Reagan signed the CBRA into law, he commended it as a “major step forward in the conservation of our magnificent coastal resources [that] will enhance both wise natural resource conservation and fiscal responsibility.” Nearly 40 years later, the CBRA has saved the federal taxpayer $9.5 billion, while protecting coastal habitat that is vital to fish, shellfish, birds, and other wildlife. The CBRA has also helped to improve coastal resiliency by discouraging development in areas that are vulnerable to hurricanes, sea level rise, and storms.
The CBRA established the Coastal Barrier Resources System, which includes roughly 3.5 million acres of undeveloped barrier islands, beaches, wetlands, inlets, and estuarine areas along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Areas in the System are shielded from most federally funded development, so these habitats remain undeveloped or lightly developed.
This is good news for sportsmen and women who enjoy saltwater fishing, boating, and other forms of outdoor recreation. Coastal wetlands and nearshore waters protected by the Coastal Barrier Resources System comprise important fish habitat. In fact, more than half of the fish and shellfish caught recreationally in the Southeast depend on coastal wetlands and estuarine habitat.
Wetlands protected by the System also help to buffer and absorb the impacts from storms like Sandy, helping to shield upland communities from flooding and other harm. A 2020 study found that, on average, wetlands can greatly reduce property damage from storms, providing roughly $700,000 in protective value per square mile annually.
The Future of the CBRA
In 2018 and 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified more than a quarter-million acres that could be added to the protective System in nine states affected by Hurricane Sandy—New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—a storm that affected almost half the country. The proposed maps were publicly reviewed and now must be finalized and sent to Congress for action next year. Adding new areas to the Coastal Barrier Resources System would help conserve more habitat for fish and wildlife, enhance coastal resiliency, and save money.
But while the new maps are welcome, an action by the Department of Interior has prompted concern by taxpayer advocacy groups, environmental organizations, and sportsmen’s groups, including TRCP. In November 2019, the Department of Interior announced that federally funded sand mining would be allowed in undeveloped inlets, islands, and beaches in the areas protected by the CBRA to generate sand for beach renourishment projects in developed areas.
Sand mining threatens habitat and reduces storm resiliency—the cornerstones of the CBRA. CBRA expansion could make even more of a difference for fish, wildlife, and coastal communities, but undercutting one of its core protections will reduce its ability to conserve habitat and buffer upland communities. The National Audubon Society has challenged the DOI’s decision so the CBRA’s full benefits to habitat and public safety can be restored.
Karen Hyun is the vice president for coastal conservation at the National Audubon Society.
Top photo by Daniel X. O’Neil via flickr.