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Preparing for Rising Water Along U.S. Coastlines

Bruce Babbitt

May 2011, English

In this paper, Bruce Babbitt argues that the most extensive land use impacts in the United States caused by climate change will occur along coastlines. Rising sea levels are already encroaching on lowland regions, leading to coastal flooding and increased salinity of groundwater. Two approaches can be used to prevent flooding: (1) building levees and seawalls to hold back the seawater; and (2) relocating infrastructure and settlements to higher ground. Babbitt asserts that the first method can destroy coastal wetlands of significant ecological value and adversely affect the fishing industry. Although the second method may concede some land to the sea, it lets adjacent wetlands migrate inland, allowing habitat and fisheries to adjust naturally to the changing environment. Adaptation by relocating development and human settlements away from the shore will require regional land use planning that entails a high level of community participation and analyses incorporating hydrology, social sciences, ecosystem science, and resource economics.

Among the various challenges of relocation, the financing of coastal infrastructure reinvestment is paramount. Babbitt proposes setting up a coastal infrastructure fund with revenues coming from three sources: (1) fines and penalties resulting from the 2010 BP oil spill and future oil royalties from Gulf oil production; (2) borrowing based on an extension of the Build America Bond (BAB) program; and (3) a national infrastructure bank. A portion of the income from oil royalties is already given back to the coastal states. After the BP oil spill, some Gulf states requested that a larger share of these royalties be distributed to them for coastal restoration. This proposal provides an opportunity for the federal government to mandate these states to establish realistic plans for reconfiguring coastal infrastructure and managing retreat as a condition for transferring funds to local levels.

The reauthorization of the BAB program also could help raise capital for rebuilding coastal infrastructure. Yet Babbitt expresses concern about the lack of national priorities and guidelines for directing these funds to support reinvestment in essential coastal infrastructure. The idea of forming a national infrastructure bank has been endorsed by President Barack Obama and has appeared in several legislative proposals. Such a bank would choose among the state and local governments’ requests for funding to invest in roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, and public housing. With some clarification of national priorities, coordination among multistate projects, and detailed financing mechanisms, Babbitt predicts that the idea of an infrastructure bank will continue to gain visibility and political support.

This paper was presented at the Lincoln Institute’s Land Policy Conference of 2010 and is Chapter 2 of the book Climate Change and Land Policies.