By Madeline Urbish
Last week, the House Coastal Communities Caucus sent a request to the administration official who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers requesting an independent study on the effectiveness of beach erosion structures. The Corps did complete a report on the structural and non-structural approaches to coastal risk reduction and resilience in 2013, but it was not the kind of independent scientific study that caucus co-chairs Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and David Jolly (R-FL) and their colleagues are asking the Corps to fund.
Specifically, the Caucus’ letter requests the study to address three elements:
- The relative effectiveness of erosion remedies;
- The expected longevity of these remedies and performance in different geomorphic settings; and,
- The expected tradeoffs association with these approaches, considering environmental, economic, and social effects
The Corps has looked at and been authorized to study the effectiveness of its coastal strategies in the past. Section 1037 of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 requires the Assistant Secretary of the Army to conduct a review of all beach nourishment projects to assess their costs and benefits. To date, no action has been taken to implement that effort. Additionally, the Corps was authorized in the 1996 Water Resource and Development Act to evaluate "innovative or nontraditional approaches" to prevent coastal erosion. The Corps has not used hard structures, such as sea walls, in federal projects for the past three or more decades, and many states severely restrict their use. Nevertheless, the Corps tested various innovative methods of reducing erosion, including both structures and nature-based features, until Congress stopped funding the program several years ago. Unfortunately, a final report or conference from the program does not appear to exist through the Engineer Research & Development Center.
The Caucus' letter notes the risk imposed by beach erosion. This erosion not only affects the tax revenues generated by recreational and commercial activities typically associated with coastal towns, but it also threatens “coastal property, infrastructure, and ecological aquatic habitats.” In 2011, coastal counties contributed $6.6 trillion to U.S. GDP, 51 million jobs, and $2.8 trillion in wages. Globally, coastal counties rank third in GDP, just behind the U.S. and China. Additionally, over 50 percent of the country’s population lived in coastal watershed counties in 2010 and by 2012 there were over 132 million homes located in these areas.
For some background, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been in the business of coastal storm risk damage reduction since the 20th century. Its projects, authorized and funded by Congress, typically are designed to last 50 years, during which the Corps is responsible for maintaining the project’s protective elements. Localities contribute anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the cost.
Over the last century, our understanding of coastal environments has evolved dramatically. The Corps’ experience and research throughout the decades has demonstrated the worth of various approaches to mitigating erosion and providing protection to coastal communities. A 2013 report by the Corps identified many of the benefits for natural and nature-based approaches for resilience, but recognized the need for more focused research on these strategies to reduce uncertainty around their effectiveness. The Caucus' letter would appear to be the perfect opportunity to fill in this gap.
Routine and event-based beach erosion can put coastal communities at greater risk for future storm damage. Wider beaches can help protect homes, businesses, and entire communities from wave impact and flooding during a storm. Hard structures like groins, jetties, and seawalls have been shown to be effective in preventing erosion in some areas, while accelerating erosion in others. Soft structures such as dunes or general sand nourishment provide added protection against breaking waves during storm events. Other nature-based approaches have also shown promise, including beach grasses and other natural habitats that protect against erosion.
Greater understanding of sea level rise has also impacted the conversation around coastal resilience. According to a recent report by the Risky Business Project, by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal properties not currently at risk could flooded at high tide. The Corps now requires all civil works programs to incorporate direct and indirect physical effects of projected future sea-level change.
The Corps appears to have the opportunity and support to conduct a quantitative study of the approaches it employs to prevent coastal erosion and improve shoreline protection. Funding gaps for coastal storm damage reduction over the past several years may be addressed with better knowledge of its importance and the possibility of effectively mitigating some of the risks faced by coastal communities through tried and tested engineering methods. If the Coastal Communities Caucus is serious in its request, it will need to work with the Corps and the Administration to identify a funding source for this important study. Whether or not the issue will be pressed remains to be seen, but the Caucus' letter is a promising first step for coastal resiliency and shoreline protection advocates.
For more information, contact Madeline Urbish at firstname.lastname@example.org.