Using Nature to Build a Stronger Coast

marsh restoration

Five years ago this week Hurricane Sandy devastated communities along the Atlantic Coast with record storm surge, fierce winds and torrential rain. This year’s destructive storm season only underscores how vulnerable our coastal areas are and the important role of nature in helping to protect communities and ensure a future for fish and wildlife. In this blog, Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Regional Director, shares her vision of a stronger East Coast – one that uses natural infrastructure for the benefit of people and wildlife.

marsh restoration

Planting marsh grasses at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland. Credit: Dagny Leonard, The Conservation Fund

What would the East Coast be like without any wetlands, marshes, or estuaries? What if the coastline were just open water slapping against concrete seawalls, bulkheads, and rock barriers?

This is exactly the kind of coast that researchers explored in a recently published study of how wetlands help protect coastal communities from flood damage.

Using computer models to estimate the property damage that would have occurred during Hurricane Sandy if all wetlands on the East Coast didn’t exist, the study found that wetlands prevented $625 million in damage during the storm.

They found that wetlands resulted in an average of 11-30 percent reduction in property damage. And even areas without wetlands benefited from their presence nearby – places such as Hamilton Township, New Jersey, which would have experienced 139 percent more property damage from Hurricane Sandy if not for the wetlands located between the township and the coastline.

The study is notable because it is one of the first to link the direct property damage costs of a hurricane to the presence of natural infrastructure. But it’s also notable for what the authors couldn’t reasonably include in this study – the economic value of ALL the benefits that wetlands provide, year after year and storm after storm.

Benefits such as: nurseries for the fish and shellfish we eat; filtration of the water we drink and swim in; habitat for birds and other wildlife; natural beauty that fuels the ecotourism and outdoor recreation industries that local economies depend on; and so much more.

These benefits add up to one conclusion – investing in nature is worth every penny.

The destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy presented an opportunity to focus science and resources on building a stronger coast through natural infrastructure. What does that coast look like?

It’s a coast where natural infrastructure benefits people and wildlife. Where marshes act like sponges to absorb rising water – and provide habitat for birds, fish, and shellfish. Where undammed rivers help reduce flooding to nearby communities – and fish swim up from the ocean to historical spawning grounds. Where oyster reefs and other living shorelines buffer coastal zones from wave erosion – and create new habitat for marine life.

It’s a tough and resilient coast, one that will undoubtedly sustain damage from storms and other natural forces but will bounce back more quickly than a coast without natural infrastructure. It’s built to last over time.

We are well on our way to creating such a coast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and numerous partners in government, universities and nonprofits have been working hard to make it possible, and five years after Hurricane Sandy some incredible work has been done – beaches restored, dams removed, river miles opened up, living shorelines built, and marshes restored.

Up and down the coast, people have been sharing their stories with us of what this work means to them.

Harry Bailey Claire Bailey Reeds Beach

Harry and Claire Bailey at their home on Reed’s Beach, New Jersey, along the Delaware Bay. Credit: Steve Droter

Harry Bailey of Reed’s Beach, New Jersey, who built his home with the help of his two sons, said, “No one seemed to care about the beach before. Storms came and destroyed the beach and no one came to fix it. These organizations came in, now the beach is built up, the horseshoe crabs are back, and birders from all over the world come here to see the birds.”

parker river great marsh steve droter

Volunteers and conservationists Geoff Walker and Peter Phippen gather photographic evidence of erosion and invasive phragmites along the banks of Plumbush Creek at the Great Marsh, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Steve Droter

Lisa O’Donnell of Essex, Massachusetts, which sits on the largest contiguous salt marsh in New England – the Great Marsh – said, “Essex is built in and around the marsh; it’s unique in that respect. So clearly the marsh is part of our fabric it’s how we identify ourselves, and it’s also a very important environmental asset for the town. Environmentally and economically, it’s crucial to us.”

Melissa Baile Eastern Neck

Melissa Baile grew up crabbing around Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Now she is president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, where she leads conservation and volunteer activities such as the winter bird count. Credit: Steve Droter

Melissa Baile, president of the all-volunteer organization Friends of Eastern Neck in Rock Hall, Maryland, said, “The community here respects the refuge, and appreciates what it brings to Kent County, to Rock Hall. A lot of the local community come out and use it to walk, to fish, to kayak. I think people are starting to realize that you need these kinds of places, and they just don’t happen. You have to protect them.”

kayaking Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed

The rivers of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed are a popular recreation hub for paddlers, anglers, and hunters. Credit: Loren Kearns

And in Rhode Island, where restoration of the Pawcatuck River is engaging community and creating a ripple effect for smaller projects, such as a town park built on a former brownfield site, Denise Poyer of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association said, “The more resilient we make this watershed and the rivers in the watershed, the more of a beneficial impact it’s going to have on our coastal areas.”

Severe weather has always been a factor for coastal communities, but now storms are happening with greater frequency and intensity. The deadly storms of the 2017 hurricane season are harsh reminders of our coastal vulnerability. Hoping for a solution that prevents damage entirely is foolhardy, but developing strategies that minimize the damage is necessary and possible. Protecting and restoring natural infrastructure – alone or combined with hybrid and gray infrastructure – can help reduce the impacts of storms and sea-level rise and help communities recover more quickly.

With the help of people like Harry, Lisa, Melissa and Denise, we’re going to continue working to build a stronger coast.

What kind of coast do you want to live on? Share your vision of a #StrongerCoast with us below in the comments.

 

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