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Engineering with Nature: USACE, NOAA, and the Value of Partnership

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 55

In this episode, we present a podcast from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called Engineering with Nature. Host Sarah Thorne and Todd Bridges, Senior Research Scientist for Environmental Science with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Lead of the Engineering With Nature® program, are joined by Steve Thur, Director of NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. Sarah, Todd, and Steve discuss how the practice of Engineering With Nature and the application of nature-based solutions are evolving and the importance of protecting critical coastal ecosystems. They also tell the story of the collaboration and partnership between the Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA.

Swan Island, Chesapeake Bay, after restoration efforts began

Coastal islands and marshes in Chesapeake Bay are disappearing, along with the ecosystem services and shoreline protection benefits they provide. Within the last half century, the cumulative effects of shoreline erosion, land subsidence, inadequate sediment supply, and sea level rise have accelerated the rate of island submergence. NOAA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and partners collaborated to reverse this trend on Swan Island, shown here. Dredged material was used to rebuild eroding islands to provide coastal protection, wildlife habitat, and social benefits.


Host: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast, I'm Troy Kitch. Today, we're excited to share a podcast from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called Engineering with Nature. This particular episode features an interview with Steve Thur, director of NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. The discussion you're about to hear is about how nature-based solutions are helping to protect our coastal ecosystems. And it's about the long partnership between NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in finding these solutions. And it's about building our national resilience to climate change, particularly along our vital coasts. There's a lot packed into this talk and we think you'll enjoy it. But that's not the only reason we're sharing this episode with you. Engineering with Nature is a great podcast! If you like the NOAA Ocean Podcast, we think you'll like this, too — just search for "Engineering with Nature" in your podcatcher of choice, and hit that subscribe button.

Engineering with Nature podcast introduction: Welcome to the Engineering with Nature podcast. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working with the Engineering with Nature initiative since 2010, working and collaborating to advance the use of natural processes and systems to deliver a broad range of economic, environmental, and social benefits. EWN develops and implements nature-based solutions for water and infrastructure projects. It brings together a growing international community of practioners, scientists, engineers, and researchers to harness the power of nature to innovate, solve problems, and create sustainable solutions. This podcast tells their stories. Now here's your host, Sarah Thorne of Decision Partners.

Sarah: Welcome to season three, episode 10. We kicked off season three by talking about major policy changes in the US that emphasize the urgent need to take action to build climate resiliency and significantly renew and upgrade the country's infrastructure. Nature-based solutions, or NBS, are front and center in these initiatives. We're wrapping up the season with the discussion about how the practice of Engineering With Nature and the application of NBS are evolving and their importance in protecting critical coastal ecosystems. We're also telling the story of a powerful collaboration and partnership. Todd Bridges, senior research scientist for environmental science, with the US Army Corps of Engineers and National Lead of the Engineering With Nature program and I are joined by Steve Thur. Steve is the director of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Steve's passion is bringing biophysical and social sciences together to sustain coastal ecosystems and the vibrant communities that depend on them. Welcome, Steve.

Steve: Thank you. I'm really looking forward to the discussion.

Todd: We really appreciate Steve making the time to talk with us today. I think he's a great guest and our relationship with NOAA is a great exemplar, I think, to end season three with. It is commonly said, or you will hear how important collaboration is and recently I've been saying that the path of progress runs on the rails of relationships. And the Corps of Engineers and NOAA have a great relationship on Engineering With Nature and the collaboration and the partnership and what we're achieving through that, I think, is making the future of Engineering With Nature, even brighter.

Sarah: Todd, I understand that your relationship with Steve and his team really started at a workshop that the Army Corps and NOAA co-organized in March of 2016.

Todd: Yeah, indeed it did. From time to time, you will hear the phrase ‘whole of government approach’ used and that idea and phrase just, they roll smoothly out of the mind and off the tongue, but it's much harder to pull off than to say. There's a lot of effort and energy involved in working jointly across the boundaries of organization and mandate. But the Corps and NOAA NCCOS, we co-developed and conducted this workshop that was hosted at NCCOS’ Hollings Marine laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina in 2016. About 40 very talented and knowledgeable people from the Corps of Engineers and NOAA, across headquarters and field offices and research and development came together to explore our mutual interest in, and synergies on the topic of natural and nature-based features. How to use nature to be able to address the challenges and opportunities with respect to coastal resilience and environmental value and social benefits. It was a great workshop that I will end by saying is still paying dividends, six years later, in the form of Corps of Engineers and NOAA collaborations on Engineering With Nature.

Sarah: It led to many, many synergies and opportunities. Steve, before we get too far along here, let's talk a bit about your background, your work at NOAA's National Center for Coastal Ocean Science, that we call NCCOS. Talk a little bit about the background and why this coastal ocean work is so important.

Steve: So I think, um, providing the baseline for what our organization does will really help underscore why we're so focused on a partnership with the Army Corps on Engineering With Nature. Our office is the marine science entity of the National Ocean Service and we have a fair degree of flexibility in what we research. Our role is primarily to serve the science needs of other parts of our agency, our partners in federal and state governments, and other decision makers. And some of those are from private landowners to nonprofits. We have five focal areas and work on nature-based features touches three or four of those five. We are interested in marine spatial ecology. Which is where marine resources are in time and space. We are interested in coastal resilience and how to promote that we produce ecological forecasts. So can we predict environmental phenomenon in the future that are important for everyday citizens? We conduct observations along our coasts, and finally we're involved in the social sciences. Four of those five are really connected with nature-based features and Engineering With Nature. And I think that's why there was so much interest to participate in a workshop with the Army Corps back in 2016. It's really core to a lot of what we do.

Sarah: And just to put it into perspective, you have over 40% of American citizens live along the coast.

Steve: Yes, a tremendous amount of our gross domestic product goes through our coastal counties’ ports or economic activity that's generated in those counties. Tremendous number of people live there and many others choose to recreate along our coasts.

Sarah: So it's very, very significant to the country and climate change is having a huge impact. So talk a little bit, Steve, about your initial interest in Engineering With Nature. What intrigued you about Engineering With Nature?

Steve: I have to admit that academically have degrees in biology and economics. And there aren't too many folks that have academic backgrounds in those disciplines. They're pretty diverse. Um, where they come together for me is on how we can wisely use our marine resources. I'm a very much a proponent of science informing management along our coasts. And so Engineering With Nature was an opportunity to apply my personal passions and the expertise of the organization I work for, to make society better. The economist that's still within me, focuses a lot on efficiency. And Engineering With Nature solutions offer us the potential for win-win-win solutions. They can help mitigate flood risk. They can help restore our habitats. They can help with fisheries production, threatened and endangered species recovery, and provide for human recreation. When one application or project can touch on so many societal benefits. I see that as a huge win for efficiency and it's something we should be involved in.

Sarah: And Todd, what was the interest for you and getting to work with Steve and his team?

Todd: Well, let me first say that genetically speaking, mutts are very resilient animals, and I have seen this in you and your organization. So, I'm thankful that you're a mutt, quite honestly. I just, I would pick up on here is that coasts are such vital environments, whether you're looking at it from the standpoint of how many people live along the coast, or the economic, so coastlines, but I would also say that because of the development that's occurred along our coast, the system has been changed a lot in the last hundred, hundred and 50 years. A lot of intervention by people. And to continue a theme that we introduced in previous podcasts focused on the inland system, we also need to rebalance coastlines and find opportunities to integrate, harmonize if you will, engineering with natural systems. Because the marrying, the coupling of natural systems, nature-based solutions with engineering will make our coasts more resilient. And to be able to create that kind of harmony or that kind of integration requires an organization like the Corps of Engineers, which has its mission set, and organization like NOAA, which has its mission set. We need to find the complementarity between those two sets so that we can pursue these kinds of integrated solutions. And Steve and Steve's organization team, they're leaning into this with us and it's producing great outcomes.

Sarah: Well, right from your first workshop. You got to work. You saw the opportunities. You saw the challenges. You wanted to collaborate. You got to work. I understand. The first project that you worked on together was the Mordecai Island project along the New Jersey shoreline. Steve, maybe you could talk about what the challenges and opportunities were in that project.

Steve: I'd certainly love to. So this was an opportunity to apply multiple entities’ expertise and authorities to solve multiple problems at once. So, Mordecai Island is a barrier island protecting a developed community. And through time, erosion, and sea level rise, that barrier had been a eroding, degrading, and eventually it's split into two lobes. So the protection that it was affording the nearby community was pretty significantly decreased. And so we had the opportunity to work with the Philadelphia district of the Army Corps, Todd's group at ERDC and several other partners to beneficially reuse dredge material to rebuild that island. From a human infrastructure protection standpoint, the community regained the benefits that the barrier island had been providing. But simultaneous with that, it provided habitat for a wealth of NOAA and state trust resources. So we're providing additional habitat that can help with fisheries, avian species protection, things along those lines.

Todd: Well, let me follow on just briefly about Mordecai Island. I got my first exposure really to the needs in New Jersey, shortly after Hurricane Sandy, when our colleagues in the Philadelphia district invited me and a few others up to tour coastal New Jersey in the back bay environment. I believe it was the winter of 2013. I'll say it's the coldest I have ever been in my life. It was in the middle of a polar vortex. And I thought, surely, goodness, the coast of New Jersey can't be like this every day and I'm glad it's not. But there are needs there. New Jersey was really whacked by that storm and it sort of shook the system, including people there, to focus attention on the needs, not just from the engineering perspective, but also the natural landscape, which had been stressed in multiple ways. And it was broadly recognized that more investment and intervention in that natural landscape was going to be necessary to create resilience, broadly-based resilience in New Jersey, including at a Mordecai Island, which is a fantastic opportunity for several reasons.

Sarah: So the Mordecai Island project really demonstrated the power of bringing like-minded partners and a lot of diverse experience together to deliver innovative coastal resilience solutions. Let's talk about how your collaboration evolved through your next major project, the Swan Island restoration project in Chesapeake Bay. And Steve, maybe you could lead off.

Steve: Certainly. For those outside of our region, and I live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, they may not be aware of the cultural significance of the Bay waterman culture. The islands in the Chesapeake Bay have been inhabited for a couple of hundred years. They make their living, their way of life is so intimately connected with the natural cycle of the bay. There are very few inhabited Chesapeake Bay islands, remaining. Many of them lost to erosion and sea level rise, land subsidence. One of those communities is a very small town of Ewell. And that town had been protected by Smith Island from a fairly long, roughly 20 mile fetch across the Chesapeake Bay. They would be exposed to winds from the west. And so Smith Island had been bearing the brunt of those winds, had been eroding, and had been subsiding. And so the protection that it afforded to this small remnant town of Ewell, which is so culturally significant, was pretty important. And so multiple partners came together to design a project again to beneficially reuse dredge material to renourish the island, plant additional marsh, and conduct long-term research on the ecosystem services that are being provided by the project.  We’re continuing to monitor and what we've found is that marsh species nearby, submerged aquatic vegetation, plants under the water surrounding the island, have flourished, which is a very good news story.

Sarah: We actually did a podcast on that, as you know. Paula Whitfield, a research ecologist, talked about the Swan Island project in our season one, episode five podcast.

Todd: Yeah, indeed. Paula was one of those NCCOS scientists that contributed to that project in tangible ways and as Steve was revealing, these kinds of nature-based projects kind of cross they're really transdisciplinary. So it requires you to bring a diversity of knowledge and skills to understand how these projects can be designed and built. And the effort underway between our organizations now is focused on understanding what happened and monitoring the performance ecologically from an engineering point of view, in regards to how that island is functioning to provide attenuation of waves, for example, but also how it's performing from a social point of view. And we're collaborating with social scientists to understand the perspectives of the community, in Ewell, with respect to Swan Island.

Steve: I think for us the Swan Island project was a really crystal clear example of the metaphor I use with my team about how our science can be used as a lever to move much larger sets of resources than we control, in a direction that's mutually beneficial. And so we're collecting this data, not only to monitor the performance of Swan Island, but hopefully to inform future similar projects done around the country. How can we demonstrate that this is effective from an engineering standpoint, from an ecological standpoint, and from a social standpoint, and if it works here, what can we take and apply in different regions so that our relatively small investment in science can leverage much larger investments by folks like the Army Corps of Engineers to green up some of their additional practices to get these win-win-win solutions. 

Todd: The country dredges about, in round numbers, 200 million cubic yards of sediment every year. And there's tremendous opportunity to use that sediment beneficially to support natural features like Swan Island, like the Baltimore District has done with that beneficial use project, but to do that all along our coasts and to find ways to do that economically so these opportunities are affordable. But we also want to do it in a way that maximizes the value that's generated in engineering, and environmental, and social terms. And that's one of the reasons why this Swan Island project is such a valuable learning opportunity for all organizations.

Sarah: And Swan Island's also been a fantastic case example for you both to share with decision-makers, policy-makers, regulators in Washington, DC. Steve, maybe you can talk about the growing interest in these projects and your work together in Washington.

Steve: Yes. So it is absolutely essential that we view partnerships at the broadest level for success of initiatives like these, and that includes the legislative branch of our federal government. So we sponsored with our partners an ‘all interested’ staff briefing on Capitol Hill several years ago. We have done these on various research topics that we have been involved with and this one has the largest attendance, at the time. We had 82 participants, at least 45 of those were congressional staffers. These are folks that work directly for the committees responsible for drafting legislation, for oversight of executive branch agencies and the personal staff of individual members that are interested in this topic. Having 40 or more congressional staff at one time, hearing a message about partnership engineering, and nature is, is nearly unheard of. It was a tremendous success. We had multiple speakers, including Todd, and we came out with a tremendous set of follow-up actions. We had a lot of inquiries about what we were doing. They wanted to learn more. And that led us to think about how we can continue to engage congressional staff on nature-based solutions.

Todd: There's just tremendous interest, and I would say growing interest, in these kinds of opportunities, that is to harness, to leverage natural systems, not only for environmental value, but also for social and engineering value. And we're seeing this reflected across the spectrum. From people on the street, if you will, to people who are making decisions, as Steve has indicated, on Capitol Hill. It's a great opportunity and we have to be prepared to share and to communicate with those different audiences and to address the particular interests and concerns and opportunities.

Steve: Todd, I think those opportunities are really important to highlight. The briefing we held was on Capitol Hill. It was convenient because it was close to the staffers. And pictures are a wonderful thing to tell stories. But it's not the same as being at one of these sites. And so that's why we chose to invite several of those congressional staff out for a site visit to Swan Island. We involve the local community. We had them escort us out to Smith Island. We had 10 congressional staffers, the majority were from NOAA's oversight committees, the House Science, and the Senate Commerce Committee plus the personal staff of Maryland's two senators and the local member of Congress. We also had four members from the staff of Maryland's governor come. We had our partners come. We had the demonstration of what we had done. We talked through with local members of the community. Being out on the water with those staff for three or four hours was worth many times what you get out of a 30-minute briefing in their office. They get to touch, they get to feel, they get to interact with the citizens that were helping with these engineering and science solutions makes a tremendous difference.

Sarah: Yeah, firsthand experience on the ground. Absolutely invaluable. You've since had the opportunity to provide background information sessions to various committees on the Hill over the past year or so. How was their interest, how has the interest of the policymakers in the legislators changing?

Steve: I think as Todd mentioned interest has been growing. And we've talked in particular within NOAA with the staff from the House Science Committee on Engineering With Nature solutions. There is a tremendous amount of interest there and that's led to a recent hearing that they held that we might be able to talk about. But our original discussions with them focused on living shorelines and how to create habitat through them with multiple benefits, including for flood risk reduction. We've had similar conversations with the Appropriations staff, those that control the flow of funding to our agencies. And so from both the authorizing and the appropriating sides of the legislative branch, we’ve seen growing interest and that's reflected in the direction that we received from them.

Sarah: And Todd, you also had the opportunity to brief the White House Coastal Resilience Interagency Group in September of 2021, when you release the natural and nature-based features guidelines.

Todd: Yes we did. And I would say to compliment the interest in the legislative branch there's considerable interest within the Administration and specifically, the office of the president and in the White House several organizations, offices, within the White House are exploring all available options for creating climate resilience, in particular, for coastlines as well as other areas. And so we did brief the Coastal Resilience Interagency Group this past September on the international guidelines on natural and nature based features for flood risk management, which we published in September, online at our website. And these guidelines, a thousand pages of information and guidance to help inform planners and engineers and decision-makers about these opportunities, this guidance was a culmination of five years of effort, and NOAA and NCCOS, and the National Marine Fishery Service were vital partners and collaborators, and producing that. So even as guidance, illustrates the importance of working across organizations to make progress.

Sarah: And most recently in March of 2022, the two of you had the opportunity to testify before the House Science Committee.

Steve: The title of the hearing was “From Gray to Green, Advancing the Science of Nature Based Infrastructure.” I had been asked by the committee to talk about research needs, since this is the science committee and their oversight role is in the R&D space that NOAA occupies and I had identified three research gaps. The first of which was, we need to continue to assess the performance of these nature-based features. As they develop and progress through time, we need to understand how they are evolving so that we can improve our practices going forward. Second, I identified that we needed to quantify the ecosystem services that these projects provide in addition to the flood risk management benefits. And we need that information so that it can be appropriately worked into benefit cost analyses of future projects. And then the third, I mentioned earlier, social science. There are a pair of social science gaps here. The first is that we need to take the outcome of the second research priority, those ecological services, and put a value on them and for better or worse, many things boil down to hard numbers, to dollars. And so, we've got to be able to convert ecological services into a value-based monetization. And the parallel is that we need to understand the public perceptions of nature-based solutions. They haven't been used as frequently in the last 50 years as traditionally engineered solutions and so there is some hesitancy, and social science can help us understand and potentially overcome those concerns. Those were the three items that are highlighted for the committee in terms of research gaps.

Todd: One of the elements that I would highlight from this hearing is I was strongly encouraged by, really the substantive nature of the questions that the congressmen and congresswomen posed to Steve and me and to Dr. Sherry Hunt from USDA during this hearing. They were asking questions, not at a super superficial level, but asking really important questions. And there were coastal representatives participating, but also representatives from inland places like the state of Oklahoma, the state of Iowa, and they were all interested in understanding how this translates down to their context and their place. I found it very motivating, this hearing and having the dialogue and really the serious way that our legislature, and our legislators are attending to this opportunity of nature-based solutions.

Steve: You touched on a chord that really struck me as well. The members had some personal stories that they shared during the hearing about their experience being out in nature and looking at some of the benefits that we get from natural and nature based features for their local communities. This went beyond a simple surface-level understanding of the issue and showed a real depth of interest and concern. I was also amazed we had members from the Northeast, the Great Lkes states, the Heartland, members that had asked questions for the record, but weren't there in person, from Florida and Oregon. It really spanned the geographic breadth of our country. It underscored for me that nature-based solutions have an applicability nearly across our great nation and that this isn't a particularly political issue and that we have society across our country that are in need of the combined benefits of nature-based features for both risk reduction and ecological service provision.

Sarah: Watching the testimony, I thought it was really interesting, to your point Steve, the personal connection that people made and the questions that they were asking you. And we've talked about that on our previous podcasts, that people really need to be able to connect with the land, connect with where they live, connect with what's important to them in nature. And I think both of you did a really good job in bringing nature-based solutions back to the people, in their content.

Todd: ‘Place’ is very important.  I saw this during the hearing, you could relate, ‘I've been there, and I've seen that’. People respond differently than, ‘oh yeah I viewed that from afar on video one day’ and Steve was making this point earlier, it's so important to put your feet on the ground, at these places, in these challenges, and at these projects. That makes a tremendous difference.

Sarah: Absolutely. Before we wrap up, I'm really interested in hearing what's ahead for Engineering With Nature, and the broader NOAA collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers. What, what are you going to be working on? Steve? Let's start with you.

Steve: So this is something I'm personally excited about. We have identified that evaluation of performance of nature-based features is one of the most significant gaps that we can assist with, with our specialized skills and capabilities. And so we're going to be, starting this year, our research program to look at multiple nature-based features that have already been constructed. They'll be of various ages.  And we're going to assess them for their current status and compare those to the ‘as-built’ conditions from several years ago. And our hope is that we're going to be able to discern in the absence of ongoing monitoring data, which many of these projects don't have after their initial construction phase, how they have performed and evolved over time. We're also looking to get on the ground floor of new projects, sort of like Mordecai and Swan Islands to begin collecting baseline information preconstruction, and to set up monitoring programs that are done in conjunction with the actual build out of the project so that we have a complimentary approach.

Sarah: And Todd, measurement, we've talked about it so many times, it really is the holy grail for nature-based solutions.

Todd: Yeah. I mean, performance and benefits, performance and benefits. And I think it's also important for us to acknowledge and recognize that developing resilience along our coastlines, climate resilience, is not a battle of a few years. It's a battle of decades. So we really have to take a long view toward this. And fortunately, in the case of nature based solutions, there are natural analogs, 500,000 acres of mangroves around Florida, for example. Millions and millions of acres of wetlands along our coastlines. And there's so much known about these systems already. So there's a wealth of opportunity, if you will, to understand the performance of these systems. And, and those that we can represent by constructing, if you will, nature based solutions and benefits and so forth. We have a policy research project underway now that we highlighted at the beginning of season three. And that's going to be producing fruit over this summer, summer of 2022, and we're going to have a national meeting, probably in September of 2022 to share the results of this effort to take a comprehensive view of the benefits that can be achieved, engineering, economic, environmental, social benefits that can be derived from nature based solutions in combination with conventional infrastructure. And I think our progress is very dependent on us putting attention on these points that Steve emphasized and that the benefits that can be derived from these projects.

Sarah: And the benefits that can be derived from partnerships that are as strong as this one. Any thoughts on that?

Steve: Well, from my perspective, the benefit of partnership is hard to understate. We each bring different skill sets. We each bring different sets of resources, not the least of which of those is funding. Going forward, I can only see additional need to strengthen it and bring other parties into the fold. It is the case that the handful of organizations that our office has worked on projects like these with, is not sufficient to address the needs of our country. And so, unless we can grow the pie, what we have to do is to get other folks with their own pies to the table.

Todd: I love pie. I'm a chocolate cake fan, but I also love pie. I'm an equal opportunity dessert consumer. This has been such a productive, and I would say pleasurable, partnership with NOAA. I mean the Corps of Engineers and NOAA, distinct emissions, for sure. And we have a long history, our organizations do, together, but there is a lot of complimentary skill sets and opportunities across the mission space between our two organizations. And I think what we've been doing for the last several years with Engineering With Nature just highlighted those opportunities. So, I think, you know, the sky's the limit. If I can just pick a phrase for us to continue to make progress together. On engineering and nature together.

Sarah: That's a perfect place to wrap up. Thank you, Todd. And thank you, Steve, for sharing your perspectives for helping us really see the power of nature-based solutions, innovation, but also the dramatic results that your partnership has been able to produce. And it all started with a workshop in 2016. So it's been quite a journey. Good for you, really interested in seeing where this goes and what's ahead in the future.

Steve: Sarah, Todd, thank you very much for having me on the podcast.

Todd: Oh, thank you, Steve.

Sarah: We appreciate you being on the podcast, Steve. And to our listeners, thank you so much for listening. We hope you've enjoyed this podcast and we hope you'll join us again when we talk about Engineering With Nature.