Politics of Poverty

Rebuilding bayous? That’s a “no-brainer”

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"Miss Betty" of Chauvin, Louisiana stands on the foundation of her former home, which was ruined by a hurricane in 2007. Coastal restoration programs can improve resiliency of areas to withstand storms, strengthen communities and the economy, and restore degraded ecosystems. Photo: Valerie Downes / Oxfam America

Each taxpayer dollar invested in coastal rehabilitation results in more than $15 in net economic benefits, says new Oxfam and Center for American Progress report.

One of my favorite places in the DC area is the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. Every weekend it’s jam-packed with people bird-watching, kayaking, and fishing – enjoying all the benefits a tidal wetland offers.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, there’s a plaque at the preserve with a 1749 quote from then seventeen-year-old surveyor and future President George Washington, who called the wetland a fine improvable marsh.”

This basically captures historical attitudes toward our coastal ecosystems. Our forebears largely valued them for what we could do to them: what we could build on them, what we could extract from them. At Dyke Marsh, for example, a few years after Washington’s survey, farmers built dykes to create more farmland, and over decades destroyed over 200 acres of wetlands.

In the process of making them economically productive, we lost what those wetlands had to offer—not just today, but for our children and future generations—which is:

  • A source of food, as an important habitat for finfish and shellfish;
  • Livelihoods supporting commercial and recreational fishing, tourism and real estate;
  • Recreation;
  • Pollution filtration processing nutrients like nitrogen or even capturing carbon; and
  • Protection against extreme weather and coastal flooding.

Fortunately, we are beginning to get the message about the inherent value of coastal ecosystems. We’re learning to invest in—and to count the economic benefits from—restoring our coasts.

And it’s just in time. According to the most recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we are losing coastal wetlands at the staggering rate of 80,000 acres per year.

This isn’t just an environmental disaster. It’s an economic disaster as well. Healthy and productive ecosystems are crucial for our coastal communities, in the US and across the globe.

While it’s one thing to say these resources have value, it’s another to quantify the benefits. Oxfam America recently collaborated with the Center for American Progress (CAP) in trying to do just that. The result is a new report, The Economic Case for Restoring Coastal Ecosystems. Specifically we looked at the value of projects that were a part of NOAA’s $167 million Coastal and Marine Habitat Restoration Program under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

What we found was surprising even for us. For each taxpayer dollar invested in the projects examined in this report, we found more than $15 in net economic benefits today. By analyzing three locations around the country—Seaside Bays of Virginia’s Atlantic coast, Mobile Bay in Alabama, and South San Francisco Bay in California—CAP and Oxfam America found that investing in well-designed coastal restoration can be highly cost effective and generate economic activity for generations to come.

In Oxfam’s work on the Gulf Coast, we partner with Bayou Grace Community Services in an area of Louisiana that has one of the nation’s highest rates of wetland loss. The former director, Rebecca Templeton, used to tell me that in her community the wetlands and coastal ecosystems were like a social safety net.

You could always go to the marina and find work related to the robust fishing industry. If you lost your job, you could always go out and catch some crabs, maybe some shrimp or speckled trout to put food on the table.”

When Congress included funding for restoration projects in the Recovery Act, the goal was to put people back to work. In fact, these projects generated 17.1 jobs per million dollars, better than comparable projects in energy infrastructure or road and bridge construction (triple the number created in the oil and gas sector).

In the report we find that in low-income coastal communities, these restoration jobs can be significant pathways out of poverty. Despite stereotypes of coastal living being the providence of the wealthy, these projects are a good example of how coastal communities can also look like Bayou La Batre, Alabama, or Northhampton County, Virginia—facing high poverty, high unemployment, and threatened industries. In both cases, these were fisheries jobs. Of the occupations involved in constructing these Recovery Act projects, we found that the majority of these were jobs paid above national median annual wages. There are quality options with growing demand for employees with the right training within these projects.

The wetlands were protecting families, even in a time of disaster. Ms. Templeton also told me that her grandparents explained that in the old days, when a hurricane was headed toward town, it first had to go over the barrier islands, then the wetlands. In the process, the storm would get slowed down and weakened.

When you add it all up, the balance sheet is crystal clear: the sum of these benefits far exceeds the total investment. The report recommends various actions the public and private sector can take to increase our coastal resiliency, strengthen our communities and the economy, and restore degraded ecosystems.

Perhaps NOAA’s Deputy Administrator, Mark Schaefer, put it best in reacting to the powerful case presented by the report, saying,

We need to do a better job of helping people understand what is happening to our coastlines in aggregate, over time. We gain big when we conserve and restore coastal habitats.

This is a no-brainer.”

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