When the Floods are Certain But (NOAA’s) Funds Are Not

June 22, 2017 | 5:10 pm
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

Did you know? Arriving tomorrow and continuing over the weekend, our coasts can expect some of the highest tides and most extensive flooding of the year (we’ll see these King Tides again in July and August). The number of days with coastal flooding is expected to be 35% above normal this year, and “normal” already includes a steep increase over historic levels, courtesy of sea level rise. Well underway is an extra-active Atlantic hurricane season.

There are reasons for all of these things, some of which we’ll get to. And the fundamental reasons that we know about these reasons are (a) science and (b) NOAA—our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the nation’s most vital scientific agencies.

Did you know that just fourteen percent of US coastal counties (not states!) produce 45 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). NOAA also finds that close to three million jobs (that’s one in 45) are directly dependent on the ocean economy? And the ocean economy (using 2014 numbers) accounted for 149,000 business establishments, 3.1 million employees totaling $123 billion in wages and contributing $352 billion in gross domestic product.

Hey, thanks NOAA, cool to know. And did you know that 180 million Americans  use their hard-earned dollars annually to make 2 billion visits to beaches? In fact, coastal states receive about 85% of the tourist-related revenues in the US.

What happens on our coasts matters greatly to the US economy and, apparently, to our collective sanity.

Wait, there’s more. Did you know our coasts continue to see rapid population growth (39% of US population) and development (1355 building permits issued daily in ten years) including in flood-prone areas, even as sea levels are projected to rise 4, 6, possibly 8 feet this century? (How do we know that? Science and NOAA.) Or that $882 billion worth of homes (almost 1.9 million nationwide) is in reach of sea level rise by the end of this century?

The convergence of these trends creates colossal risks for our country’s economy, for businesses, and for people and their homes. These are tenuous circumstances along our coast that need to be managed carefully if our communities are to grow resilient in the face of such change. But many states and communities are trying to mitigate their risk and prepare for rising seas using data and tools, courtesy of NOAA. Its Digital Coast, for example, connects digital elevation models with sea level rise projections and enables sea level rise risk to be visualized and understood by residents and planners alike. And NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management Grants as well as the Sea Grant Program help provide funding resources to communities and state governments who match these funds to implement planning and projects that reduce flood risks and increase natural habitats.

What does a sensible federal administration do in light of all of the above?

Enhance NOAA’s ability to help coastal states and communities adapt to change, continue our nation’s thoughtful investment in this agency’s vital coastal resilience building resources, and double-down where risk is greatest.

What is this administration doing?

Proposing budget cuts that would gut NOAA’s capacity to do these things and outright eliminate some of these core taxpayer-built assets that provide vital data and build coastal communities’ resilience. Some of these NOAA’s programs that communities are using go back to 1970’s and help communities’ ability to plan, respond to, and mitigate coastal risk events. Here’s a deeper look at one of the many places that will experience sunny day flooding: South Carolina.

Since 1980, South Carolina has been impacted by 51 billion-dollar coast hazard natural disasters causing impacts to the 1,241,048 people who call the 2,876 miles of coastline their home (this includes  offshore islands, sounds, bays, rivers, and creeks). Approximately half (49% or 175, 613) of these people live in the floodplain (coastal and riverine), 54% of these residents are over the age of 65 and to 56% are considered to be lower income or in poverty. In fact, a total of 83,833 coastal properties in South Carolina worth $45 billion could be under water due to sea level rise by the end of this century.

Recent studies indicate that we’ll see more coastal flooding due to sea level rise, which is happening faster than originally thought. At a minimum we are likely to see that 10 cm rise would take place in about 30 years’ time.

NOAA’s grants under National Ocean Service (NOS) and Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) have contributed greatly to helping make South Carolina’s coastal communities more resilient to these coastal hazards. For example, in one year (from FY 2015 – 2016) in South Carolina, the SC Sea Grant Consortium provided 25 coastal community resilience trainings, assisted 11 communities in implementing sustainable development practices and plans, enabled 6 mayors to develop regional plans for critical natural areas, and activated volunteers to restore 2,681 acres of beach habitat.

In 2017 South Carolina has received 12 grants from the NOAA’s National Oceans Service (NOS) totaling over $25.5 million. Under the President’s FY18 budget, funding under NOS could be cut by a quarter. South Carolina also received 9 grants from NOAA’s Office of Atmospheric Research (OAR) totaling almost $10.2 million, under the President’s budget by one-third.

Under the President’s FY 18 budget, both the NOS Competitive Grants under Coastal Science and Assessment and Coastal Zone Management Grants and Regional Coastal Resilience Grants would be zeroed out as well the Sea Grant funding under OAR including National Strategic Investments, Small Business Innovation Research and state program funding, among other funding opportunities.

But what does that look like on the ground?

Here are a few snapshots of how NOAA is bringing South Carolina shorelines, and it’s communities to life:

  • NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer showing 4 feet of sea level rise (current projections estimate much higher sea level rise by the end of his century).

    NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer, Regional Coastal Resilience Grants and the City of Charleston, South Carolina: The City of Charleston is one of the hot spots for frequent tidal flooding with a  409% increase in nuisance flooding since 1960’s. Imagine that based on NOAA projections, from 1970 to 2045 Charleston’s tidal flooding will increase 2 days per year to 180 days—the equivalent of experiencing flooding conditions every other day!

  • City officials are working to prepare for the next 50 years with a comprehensive, 5-phase sea level rise strategy with an estimated cost of $154 million and a completion target of 2020. The plan calls for hiring a chief resilience officer, as well as capital improvements that include better drainage systems, raising the elevation of streets, building and extending seawalls, and retrofitting public housing.With NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer, city council members were able to use flood projection maps and realistic visualizations of sea level rise impacts on local landmarks to help inform their flood risk management strategies. Thanks to NOAA, the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium will have $766,887 in funding through a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant to advance these critical sea level rise resilience and recovery efforts as described in their Strategic Plan (FY2018-FY2021).

Beachfront Vulnerability Index (BVI) for the southwestern end of Folly Beach, South Carolina. This map shows the ArcGIS Weighted Overlay assessment using data on elevation, long-term erosion rates, number of dunes present, wave height, tidal range, a habitable structure’s proximity to an inlet, and a habitable structure’s distance from the state’s lines of jurisdiction. The results of this assessment established a BVI score for each parcel.

  • Building Resilient Communities Using a Beachfront Vulnerability Index: Just in the last two decades, South Carolina’s eight coastal counties have experienced rapid growth and erosion. In fact, NOAA’s data show that 3,773 square miles of change (17 percent), including a 21-percent increase in developed areas from 1996 to 2010. To help improve their resilience, South Carolina’s coastal zone management program utilized NOAA’s data including elevation, long-term erosion rates, number of dunes present, wave height, tidal range, and a setback line and baseline to develop a beachfront vulnerability index. This index helps planners to assess community exposure and susceptibility and provides a vulnerability score for each parcel along the South Carolina coast. It also incorporates mitigation and adaptation strategies in both local and state beachfront management plans.

    Community-Based and Larger-Scale Oyster Restoration in ACE Basin NERR, South Carolina

  • The ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), named after the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Native American tribes (as well as rivers) is located in South Carolina’s St. Helena Sound and is one of 29 reserves that make up the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS). With funds from NERR Science Collaborative the reserve and state worked together to engage over 1,000 community volunteers to restore two miles of shoreline with vital oyster reefs building coastal communities’ resilience to storms and sea level rise.

Each of these programs requires buy-in at the state and local levels with an in-kind match to the federal investment. The SC Sea Grant Consortium for example leveraged $2,649,008 in funds (FY 2015 – 2016) which is an equivalent of a 433% return on the state’s investment, not to mention $4.9 million in economic benefit and 167 jobs. Thanks NOAA!

As our friends in Charleston, SC and all of America’s coasts witness the sunny day flooding today and the next few days, we know that their minds won’t be on President Trump’s latest tweet or whether he will call them to discount the reality of sea level rise. Instead these communities will be wondering how to continue to survive and thrive as this administration guts the very resources they need to see tidal flooding and other coastal hazards coming, and determine how to respond.

Time to defend NOAA’s budget

Without NOAA’s Digital Coast, NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer, Coastal Zone Resilience Grants, or the Sea Grant Program, among many others, these communities will be flying blind and patching together funding to keep their sea level rise strategy moving forward, even as they face faster rising seas and more frequent and intense hurricanes.

Now is a good time to reach out to Congress to ask them to keep these places in mind and to resist these cuts to NOAA’s budget. Here and here are more reasons why.