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How to help communities step back from the coast as sea levels rise

by Jeff Peterson

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a discouraging new assessment of sea-level rise along the American coast. Press reports focused on the near-term estimates of up to 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2050. Hundreds of thousands of homes and parts of hundreds of communities will be permanently inundated. The message is that devastating sea-level rise is not just our children’s problem; it is right around the corner.

Less noticed was NOAA’s expanded analysis of sea-level rise, not just to 2100, but out to 2150. NOAA reports that coastal communities will experience sea-level rise of up to 4 feet by 2100 under an “intermediate” scenario and over seven feet by 2150.

International success in limiting warming will slow the rate of sea-level rise but the oceans will keep rising for centuries. This means our grandchildren must learn to live with a shoreline that is farther inland than the one we have known for centuries.

These new insights pose a conundrum. On one hand, the country needs to act now to meet the near-term threat. Today, the accepted response strategy is to hold the shoreline right where it is by building seawalls or adding sand to beaches.

On the other hand, sea-level rise is coming at a scale that will eventually defeat such interim protection measures. In most places, a durable solution requires stepping back from the coast, gradually relocating homes and other assets to make room for the ocean.

Even the Army Corps of Engineers, with a long history of building coastal protection structures, concluded “human systems may have to relocate in a responsible manner to sustain their economic viability and social resilience.”

Both approaches are expensive and require massive federal funding. Should taxpayers be asked to pay for expensive coastal protections structures that just interim solutions? Relocation may be inevitable, but it is disruptive to people’s lives and unpopular. When can modest investments in protection structures reasonably buy some time?

Today, most federal investments in coastal flood resilience are for protection structures. Relocation tools and programs are not well defined or funded. It is time for the federal government to provide the leadership needed to help state and local officials with these hard choices.

What would a national strategy for coastal flood resilience that addresses both structural protection and relocation look like? TheCoastal Food Resilience Project, a network of nonprofit organizations, recently published a white paper describing a framework for advancing the relocation side of the coastal flood resilience equation.

A key part of the proposed approach is to steer new development away from sea-level rise risk areas. New development in these areas makes the future relocation challenge more difficult and costly. The federal government should “preemptively” relocate new development from risk areas using policies such as declining to provide federal flood insurance for such development and setting a good example by directing federal agencies to avoid funding new development in flood or sea-level rise risk areas whenever possible.

Another key step is to significantly expand existing resources to buy properties in sea-level rise risk areas from willing sellers. These buyouts should be limited to properties where a buyout is in the government’s long-term financial interest (i.e., it is cheaper to buy a property now than to pay future flood insurance losses and likely disaster assistance). This will gradually reduce the density of structures in these areas, making eventual relocation less daunting.

States need to help set the direction for coastal flood resilience and the federal government needs to provide the resources states need to develop and implement coastal flood response plans. States can also help local governments evaluate the pros and cons of structural protection measures and relocation. Without leadership from states, some local governments might not consider relocation options or adopt strategies that are coordinated with those of neighboring communities.

States can also help protect the interests of low-income people and ensure that beaches and wetlands are allowed to migrate inland as seas rise.

Finally, although the federal government provides significant funding for local structural protection projects it does not have a standing program that a coastal community can apply to for funds to begin a gradual relocation process. Such a new program could include a neighborhood-scale buyout program for risky properties, help to shift community infrastructure to higher ground, and support efforts to move housing, economic development, and community services to safer areas. The federal government can’t afford to relocate all coastal communities, but there are national benefits to assisting communities that ask for help including sustaining cultural identity, avoiding the chaos of unplanned retreat and stabilizing housing markets.

Coastal communities and property owners face hard choices: whether to try to hold back the rising ocean and when to move to higher ground. Nothing can prevent this transition from being expensive and disruptive, but leadership from the federal government can help minimize damage and costs and create a coast that our grandchildren can be proud of.

Jeff Peterson is a retired senior policy adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the author of A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published April 8, 2022 on The Hill.

Click HERE to view and download the Resilience Matters e-book

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