Congress must act to solve an urgent crisis on our coasts
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.