A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation details how we can use natural defenses to protect our communities and ecosystems from hurricanes and floods.
We can reduce our exposure to severe weather events and become more resilient by using natural approaches that rely on existing or restored natural systems (wetlands, dunes, barrier islands) to reduce risk by dissipating and attenuating waves and slowing inland water transfer. Nature-based approaches to reduce risk are designed to offer the same protections as natural systems but are man-made (engineered oyster reefs, shore lines, and dunes). This natural infrastructure offers equal or better flood and hurricane protection than built infrastructure such as levees while avoiding maintenance and construction costs.
In addition to these free or low–cost protections, natural infrastructure provides a host of other benefits including floodwater storage and habitat for wildlife as it reduces wave energy. In the Chesapeake Bay, every dollar spent on vegetative shoreline stabilization results in as much as $1.75 returned to the economy through improvements in ecological resources including aquatic vegetation, shellfish, and waterfowl.
Our current policies undervalue the importance of these natural protections and encourage development in coastal areas and floodplains. From 2004 through 2009, coastal watersheds of the lower 48 states lost 80,000 acres of wetlands per year. Further, roughly 66 percent of all natural riparian areas in the U.S have been lost or severely modified by human activities.
Fortunately, leaders at all levels of government have the chance to safeguard people and conserve nature through better policies. These include prioritizing natural infrastructure and investment in protecting or restoring nature; better planning and zoning; closing the loopholes in the Clean Water Act; and reducing our risks from extreme weather by reducing the carbon pollution that is causing climate disruption. These policies would provide many benefits beyond flood and hurricane protection, from wildlife and habitat conservation to taxpayer savings. A win-win-win.
Jen Quinn is central Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Harrisburg. She tweets @QuinnJen1.