US Coastal Barrier Resources Act: Model for Strategic Federal Intervention?
Many will be aware of my long-standing obsession with the potential application of US style federal legislation for coastal management in Australia. In a previous blog (No. 227, November 2022) I outlined the functions and processes of the US Coastal Zone Management Act 1972 (CZMA) . This legislation enables the federal government to work in partnership with state governments “to preserve, protect, develop, and where possible enhance the resources of the Nation’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations”. Criteria have been established to guide a consistent set of outcomes supported with federal funding. There is quite clearly a strategic intent behind this Act.
There is another piece of federal coastal law in the USA that is of potential relevance in Australia, the interestingly named John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources Act 1982 (CBRA). This remarkable law came about as a result of US Congress recognizing that federal actions can lead to loss of life and damage to natural coastal barrier systems. It was enacted into law by President Ronald Reagan (note the CZMA became law under another Republican namely Richard Nixon). One of the authors of the CBRA was Senator John Chafee who along with Representative Thomas Evans sought to reduce wasteful expenditure of federal funds while striving to protect natural resources. Vulnerability of barriers to hurricanes was seen at this time to be of such significance that intervention by the federal government was necessary.
In essence the CBRA prohibits federal (but not state or local) funding in areas designated on coastal barriers along Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. These areas have been mapped by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and include islands, beaches, bars, spits, tombolos and associated wetlands and aquatic habitats covering around 14,000 sq. km. The Act was amended in 1990 by the Coastal Barrier Improvement Act (CBIA) to include otherwise protected areas held for conservation such as state parks and lands owned privately for conservation purposes. A reauthorization of the CBRA in 2000 ensured that if some portion of a barrier is developed, the remaining undeveloped portion may be included in a mapped coastal barrier system (CBRS). All these legal actions exemplify the ongoing intent of Congress to protect environmental assets for public good purposes.
Andrew Coburn and John Whitehead undertook “An analysis of federal expenditures related to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) of 1982” in the Journal of Coastal Research (2019, 35 (6), 1358-1361). They point out that although parts of the mapped areas within a CBRS may be developed, “federal taxpayers largely do not underwrite the investments”. This means that actions taken by various federal agencies involved in coastal management such as NOAA, FEMA and the Corps of Engineers are restricted in what they are able to do to mitigate risk in CBRS units including not contributing to funding of roads, wastewater systems, potable water supply and disaster relief. A study in 2002 estimated savings to the taxpayer of US$1.3 billion by 2010. Their more recent work indicates the CBRA reduced federal coastal disaster expenditures by US$9.5 billion between 1989 and 2013 with a forecast savings of as much as US$108 billion by 2068 (in 2016 dollars). CBRA therefore serves to disincentivize state and local governments from encouraging development on designated coastal barriers.
The CBRA is an example of how the federal government in the USA has adopted a strategic approach to coastal management with multiple benefits to the economy, in protecting nature, and in saving lives (another example is through the US National Estuary Program established in 1987 within the federal EPA (https://www.epa.gov/nep). The contrast with Australia is stark. As far back as 1979 proposals put to the Australian Government through numerous inquiries to undertake committed programs based on federal legislation similar to those in the USA have been to no avail. My 2022 paper in Ocean and Coastal Management (223, 106098) provided specifics as to why this was the case. In terms of risk mitigation, several reports including that by the Productivity Commission have highlighted how little federal expenditure has been made available for risk reduction compared to funds for disaster recovery. Of course, this is only one area where sustained federal investment could have enhanced that of state and local government in maintaining and improving environmental health in a partnership arrangement similar to that under the US Coastal Zone Management Act 1972. The Great Barrier Reef is the one big exception.
The new Labor Government has taken some steps to reduce risk and improve Australia’s resilience to natural hazards. One is the recently announced Commonwealth Disaster Ready Fund managed by the National Emergency Management Agency (https://nema.gov.au/programs/disaster-ready-fund/round-one). The fund will provide up to $1 billion over five years to support projects across a range of natural hazards under two streams: infrastructure and systemic risk reduction. Only states and territories can apply for funding under round 1 although they are expected to work with local governments and communities to identify suitable proposals.
While I welcome this initiative, from a coastal perspective I have concerns as to how efficient and effective such a project-oriented program will be without being linked to agreed criteria based on a national strategic vision given the dynamics of the coastal zone in the emerging climate change era. There are questions around consistency and transparency in how lead agencies (mostly emergency authorities) in each state collate and transfer applications to the Commonwealth, and the degree to which the Commonwealth will apply consistent criteria that can achieve long-term adaptive outcomes. This particularly applies in coastal areas where risks of coastal inundation exacerbated by sea level rise may be approached differently in different states. Maladaptation remains a constant threat as local self-interests appeal for support without an appreciation of potential long-term adverse effects.
As a nation we need to learn from other countries such as the USA and Netherlands as to how to make the necessary institutional arrangement to secure sustainable outcomes. Australia is at a disadvantage. We do not possess well entrenched, securely funded federal agencies like FEMA, Corps of Engineers, NOAA and EPA with direct coastal management responsibilities. Any advocacy for something similar in the past has encountered political and bureaucratic obstacles. Our Commonwealth Government does have constitutional powers over banking and insurance. This allowed it to introduce last year the cyclone-related reinsurance legislation which has the potential of facilitating continued occupance of hazardous coastal areas, a direction somewhat contrary to the multiple benefits documented in the USA through application of the CBRA.
The scale of forces impacting on growing populations along our coast and the passion we have for coastal living demands a rethink of past ad hoc efforts at a national level where the states and local councils shoulder the responsibility of developing and implementing individual strategic plans without federal guidance and support. There is scope for the Commonwealth Government to take a more strategic approach in partnership with other levels of government provided it sees the pitfalls of short-term project “fixes” and looks long-term at strategic advantages in ways demonstrated by other national governments. We see an imperative for this “For the times they are a-changin’”.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2023. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org