More Than Sun and Sand, Our Beaches are Nature's Infrastructure
We're in the dog days of summer now, and lots of folks are headed to the beach to make up for lost time since the pandemic began.
My favorite part of traveling to the coast from DC is watching my surroundings slowly turn from urban areas to the forests of the eastern coastal plain, to the Chesapeake Bay and the swaying grasses of its salt marshes, to the wooded swamps and calm waters of the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and finally to the sandy barrier islands and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean.
"Every acre of saltmarsh, barrier island, and oyster reef is an essential part of what we call our 'natural infrastructure.'"
This transition from one ecosystem to the next over a short distance is what makes our coastline so fascinating and biologically diverse. Like multiple speed bumps, these ecosystems stack up against the fierce winds and waves of the ocean, diffusing them and protecting our coastal communities. For example, salt marshes can reduce wave heights by 70% or more, and every mile of wetlands can reduce storm surges by one foot. Every acre of saltmarsh, barrier island, and oyster reef is an essential part of what we call our "natural infrastructure."
Just like roads and bridges, our wetlands and floodplains provide critical services to our communities. These coastal spaces act as our first lines of defense against the rising seas and increasingly intense storms brought by climate change. They also provide important habitats for birds, improve water quality, serve as nurseries for the economically important fishing industries, and offer recreational opportunities for people.
"Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration can invest in building climate-resilient communities and promoting natural infrastructure solutions."
Too often we see gray infrastructure along our coasts, from sea walls to rocky armored shorelines, that damage and degrade these important coastal ecosystems. However, natural infrastructure, or working with the environment, presents an alternative that will naturally grow and adapt as climate continues to change over time. Natural infrastructure is a more cost-effective option, "estimated to provide $23.2 billion in storm protection services every year."
For this reason, the National Audubon Society has a new suite of policy recommendations that put our wetlands, islands, and other ecosystems to work to make our communities and wildlife more resilient to climate change. The needs of communities on the frontlines of climate change should be top priority. Increasing flood risks disproportionately affect lower-income communities, communities of color, Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, which are often located in low-lying, flood-prone areas and near polluting facilities as a result of redlining and other forms of environmental and social injustice.
"Congress should specifically promote natural infrastructure solutions when making investments to build community resilience before disasters strike..."
Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration can invest in building climate-resilient communities and promoting natural infrastructure solutions. Additionally, any infrastructure package proposed by President Biden should direct $10 billion in much-needed funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support coastal restoration efforts that increase resiliency of communities and improve habitats for birds and wildlife. Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration can also promote natural infrastructure solutions through disaster recovery and hazard mitigation programs. By directing funding to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program, Congress can help lower-income communities enhance their resilience to increasingly extreme weather. Similarly, Congress should specifically promote natural infrastructure solutions when making investments to build community resilience before disasters strike through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program.
Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration should also bolster and expand the most important resilience law on the books -- the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. Enacted in 1982 with wide bipartisan support over the years, this law saves taxpayer dollars and protects vitally important coastal habitats. It does so by limiting federal investments that would encourage development on environmentally sensitive and dynamic barrier islands, like Maryland's famous Assateague Island and some of Delaware's most beautiful beaches. Such islands provide refuge -- free from human disturbance -- for birds like the least tern and piping plover to feed, rest, and raise their young.
"The marshes and the islands are each doing their part to fight climate change."
In one effort to keep pace with rising sea levels, Audubon Mid-Atlantic is restoring salt marshes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland at Deal Island Wildlife Management Area with sediments dredged from the Wicomico River by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The project will not only restore a natural flood buffer for historic and socially vulnerable villages on the Deal Island peninsula, but it will also improve habitat for the saltmarsh sparrow -- a bird creeping dangerously close to extinction as their nests are getting flooded by increasing sea-level rise.
Many coastal birds are in crisis, threatened not only by climate change, but also development, overfishing, and pollution. Seabird populations around the world have decreased by 70% since 1950. In North America alone, shorebird populations have decreased by 70% since 1973, telling us we must act to protect the places that they -- and we -- need for survival.
So the next time you take a family trip to the beach, take note of the different landscapes you pass along the way. The marshes and the islands are each doing their part to fight climate change. Let's do ours, by ensuring they’re still here to protect us for generations to come.