Home to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, America’s coasts and Great Lakes are central to life in this country. Americans look to the coast for economic opportunity, relaxation, and spiritual renewal. But now, coastal communities are at the forefront of the climate crisis, subject to increasingly severe extreme weather events, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems.
One solution—supported by 68 percent of Americans and with bipartisan congressional backing—is to restore the natural infrastructure that protect communities, foster wildlife, and lock away carbon. Investing in key coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes, seagrass meadows, oyster beds, and coral reefs creates jobs and helps coastal communities prepare for the now-inevitable impacts of climate change. This is especially important for historically disadvantaged communities that have and continue to experience both the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and higher risks of climate change. Coastal restoration can also be implemented in part through the Climate Conservation Corps—a priority for President Joe Biden supported by a majority of Democrats and independents, as well as half of Republicans.
Coastal states are ready to build back better, with “shovel ready” projects that will create jobs and revitalize communities. To support this effort, a bipartisan coalition of House members is advocating for the investment of at least $10 billion in coastal and ocean restoration; and this same amount is also included in Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s (D-AZ) recently reintroduced Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act.
Now it is time for Congress to take advantage of this historic moment and invest in coastal and ocean restoration.
How coastal restoration can help build for the future
Coastal restoration and resilience projects provide both environmental and economic benefits:
Safely locking away carbon
Blue carbon ecosystems—ocean and coastal ecosystems that capture carbon—have massive potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Each year, blue carbon ecosystems such as coastal wetlands and mangroves sequester carbon at 10 times the rate of tropical forests. This adds up. According to the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, by 2050, the protection and restoration of blue carbon ecosystems could prevent approximately one gigaton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The value of blue carbon ecosystems is increasingly being recognized in the United States: For example, in the Gulf, a blue carbon network has been introduced to develop new tools and projects to benefit local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and academia.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season cost the United States almost $47 billion, and the 2021 season is also predicted to be worse than normal. Investments in natural infrastructure such as coral reefs, wetlands, and salt marshes can, however, reduce the damage caused by severe weather like storm surge and flooding, saving money and lives. Meanwhile, habitats such as coral reefs can absorb up to 97 percent of wave energy, and just 10 meters of salt marshes can reduce 50 percent of small wave energy. During Hurricane Sandy, coastal wetlands prevented more than $625 million in property damages. Across the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, wetlands have been estimated to prevent $5 million in tropical storm damage per square mile.
Conserving coastal habitats also helps communities inland. New Jersey towns upstream of preserved wetlands experienced 20 percent less property damage during Hurricane Sandy than did those without wetlands.
Investing in coastal resiliency projects would support a major priority of the Biden Administration—generating good-paying jobs through improving U.S. infrastructure and climate resilience. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act showed that investing in the coasts works: With $167 million to allocate, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received more than $3 billion in proposals for “shovel ready” ocean and coastal restoration projects, and the proposals that received funding generated approximately 15 jobs per $1 million invested.
If anything, the opportunities are even greater today. Nineteen coastal states submitted an initial list of 680 potential coastal restoration projects that could start in the next 18 months. This $6 billion investment would create nearly 70,000 jobs. If extended to the remaining 16 coastal states and territories, the need for investment easily exceeds $10 billion.
The case for $10 billion
Hundreds of projects across the nation are in need of funding and support. The projects below are just a few examples of the many benefits that investing in natural infrastructure can bring to coastal communities across the country.
Low-income communities in Oceanside, California, are disproportionately facing public health concerns due to poor water quality and flooding. Once home to the endangered tidewater goby, the now-urbanized Loma Alta Slough is little more than a creek. However, the city’s $8.67 million restoration project, once funded, would be able to restore ecological function to the wetland, decreasing flood and public health concerns and increasing public access and species habitat.
After Hurricane Sandy, New York City implemented the Resilient Neighborhoods initiative to benefit Staten Island’s East Shore. This initiative includes many projects that all aim to increase the area’s coastal resiliency through preserving natural environments, investing in flood risk strategies, increasing waterfront access, and advancing building resiliency. Areas such as Oakwood Beach have already started this coastal restoration effort, recently completing a $300,000 project to restore salt marsh and sand dune habitat on their beaches. This is projected to reduce flood risks and storm surges as well as susceptibility to wildfires.
Norfolk, Virginia, is hoping to pilot the state’s first urban redevelopment project and build a Resilience Lab and waterfront park to educate cities around the nation on coastal restoration in urban spaces. Intentionally built on a floodplain, the $2.1 million small-scale project will take into account sea level rise projections, including living shorelines and conservation easements providing native oyster habitat. The laboratory space will teach the public about ocean-based climate solutions, and the project aims to be finished by 2022. This strategy could pave the way for similar coastal education and restoration projects across the nation.
In the northern shore of Willapa Bay, Washington, communities are facing some of the most rapid erosion rates on the Pacific Coast, losing an average of 100 feet per year from 1910 to 2010. The area’s sole transit route is dwindling, with recent storms and tidal surges threatening to flood 4,000 acres of private, public, and tribal lands. The local economy is estimated to lose $3 million to $5 million annually solely from the loss of its cranberry beds. Fortunately, the community has come together to fight this problem, creating nine nature-based projects to decrease erosion and restore shorelines, including dune restoration and nature-based shoreline reinforcement. These efforts have already seen success. In particular, a 2018 nature-based shoreline reinforcement project was able to absorb wave energy and prevent upland loss during winter storms.
By investing $10 billion in coastal restoration, Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the climate crisis, save lives and money, and create jobs. Americans support this approach, and states are ready to get to work. Congress must not miss its chance to act.
Jackie Quinones is a conservation intern with the Energy and Environment team at the Center for American Progress. Alexandra Carter is the deputy director for Ocean Policy at the Center. Miriam Goldstein is the managing director for Energy and Environment and the director of Ocean Policy at the Center.