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Diving Deeper: Episode 30 (February 24, 2011) - Coastal Zone Management

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….What is coastal zone management?
Our nation’s coastal zone is vital to the well-being of our country. It is home to roughly half of the nation’s population and supports ecologically important habitats and natural resources. It also includes vibrant ports and harbors as well as many other important industries. According to the National Ocean Economics Program, in 2007, the coastal zone contributed $7.9 trillion to the U.S. economy. 

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Bill O'Beirne on coastal zone management. Bill is the Acting Team Leader for the Pacific and Islands Region in NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management Coastal Programs Division. Hi Bill, welcome to our show.

BILL O’BEIRNE: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me.

HOST: Bill, why are our coasts so important?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, think about how many of us love to go to the beach or go fishing on the bay?  And where else can you go to see so much wildlife these days? Here’s something else you might not think about – healthy coastlines help protect lands from storm damage, they reduce flooding, and they help keep coastal waters clean.

The coastal zone is a critical economic engine for the country. Beaches, estuaries, wetlands, coastal lands, they support lots and lots of jobs – they support jobs in tourism, in fishing, in energy, commerce, and the maritime professions.

And here are some surprising numbers: 13 million Americans – farmers, manufacturers, longshoremen, truckers from across the country – rely on working commercial ports in the coastal zone. These ports ship roughly a trillion dollars worth of products every year. And Kate, did you know that 180 million people visit our beaches, our coasts, our oceans each year? This adds up to almost 12 billion dollars annually.

HOST: So it sounds like our coasts are really critical to the nation’s economy, the nation’s well-being as we’ve said based on these statistics. What kinds of threats do our coasts and coastal communities face?

BILL O’BEIRNE:  Kate, the short answer is the coasts are being over-indulged. How many people do you know visit the coast or want to live or retire to the coast? Kate, how often do you get a flyer in your mailbox advertising coastal properties for sale? I usually get one about once a week.

And as you pointed out, more than half the U.S. population lives in the coastal counties. Population density on the coast is almost four times greater than the rest of the country. I remember when you could actually drive along the North Carolina outer banks and never see a traffic jam. 

And more people mean more development – more homes, more schools, more offices. And more people and more development mean more competition for space, greater pressures to develop fragile coastal resources, fewer places to get to the beach, and more pollution. More people and structures mean more lives and buildings are at risk from coastal hazards like hurricanes, tsunamis, flooding, and landslides. 

Our program, the Coastal Zone Management Program, attempts to mitigate these threats while accommodating coastal development.

HOST: So Bill, on that note, can you tell us a little bit more about the Coastal Zone Management Program? How does it work?  

BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, unlike a lot of other top-down environmental programs, the Coastal Zone Management Program is a cooperative partnership between NOAA and the coastal states and territories.

The overarching goal of the national program, set out in the Coastal Zone Management Act, is to balance the protection of the coastal ecosystems with economic and human quality of life issues – like access to the beach and vibrant coastal communities.  

NOAA offers financial and other incentives to coastal states and territories to participate in the national program. In turn, the states and territories develop and put into practice their own personalized management programs to advance these national as well as their own state goals.

Last year, we provided about 68 million dollars to 34 coastal states and territories to assist in running their programs.   

HOST: Bill, that’s great. So far today we’ve mentioned the coastal zone. What exactly is the coastal zone?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Simply put, the coastal zone is where the land meets the sea. More technically, it extends seaward to the limit of state waters and inland to cover an area that has direct and significant impacts on coastal waters. So practically speaking, this means that inland boundaries of state programs can vary. However, all program boundaries include things like bays, inlets, estuaries, tidal wetlands, beaches, dunes, and barrier islands.

While we think of the coastal zone as a narrow strip, it’s actually a pretty big area. All totaled the coastal zone includes almost 100,000 miles of shoreline and encompasses roughly 425,000 square miles of coastal lands and water. That’s an area about twice the size of Texas.

HOST: Bill, what are the national goals of the Coastal Zone Management Program?

BILL O’BEIRNE:Kate, in the late 1960s people began to realize that unplanned or poorly planned development along the coast was causing a number of problems. Things like loss of fragile habitats, adverse changes to ecological systems, and the loss of open space for public use.  

So in 1972, Congress enacted the Coastal Zone Management Act in response to these problems. The Act encouraged coastal states and territories to take more of a leadership role, and be more proactive in planning for and managing the coastal zone. So that the coast will become a place where fish and wildlife abound; where people can fish, swim, relax, and make a good living; and where predictable hurricanes and storms are less disruptive to local and national economies, and less devastating to coastal residents.

HOST: How can we try to meet these ambitious goals?

BILL O’BEIRNE:Well, these goals are accomplished through development of planning and management programs at the state level. It’s important to note that the Coastal Zone Management Act called for the establishment of programs and not just plans. State programs go beyond plans because the program policies need to be enforceable at the state level, and the programs need to have sufficient organization and capacity to actually implement the policies. 

The Act provides a lot of flexibility as far as the design and organization of a state’s program. The specific program structure is left up to the states to be tailored to local institutional, environmental, or other circumstances that they find. 

In return, states are provided two principal incentives to participate in the program. First, financial assistance to assist with the development and implementation and enhancement of their programs, and second, the opportunity to exercise federal consistency authority.

HOST: Great, so emphasizing programs and not plans. That sounds very good. What is federal consistency, one of the incentives that you just mentioned?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, you could probably do an entire show on federal consistency – it’s a pretty complex topic. But in a nutshell, federal consistency is a tool to facilitate cooperation and coordination between states and federal agencies. Once a state’s program is approved by NOAA, activities affecting the coastal zone that are conducted by, authorized by, or funded by federal agencies, need to be consistent with the approved policies of that coastal program. This allows states to have influence on a wide range of uses and activities with significant potential impacts that they traditionally wouldn’t have.   

For example, if a state had an enforceable policy that called for avoiding or minimizing impacts to coastal wetlands, then proponents of a federal highway project that might impact wetlands would need to work with the state to ensure that the location and construction and maintenance of that project was done in a manner that avoided or minimized impacts to those wetlands.  

HOST: OK Bill, so it sounds like there’s a lot of different people involved with coastal zone management. What is the state’s role, specifically, in this partnership?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Well generally speaking Kate, states develop policies to protect natural resources, to manage coastal development, and to streamline government processes. They also develop a mix of management tools – planning, regulatory, acquisition, education, and even restoration – to implement those policies. They also exercise federal consistency authority as we just said. But each state does it a bit differently based on their particular needs.

Some states rely heavily on coast-wide permitting or other regulatory programs to protect things like tidal wetlands, beaches, dunes or to manage waterfront development. Others programs develop plans and regulations for managing uses in specific areas. They may have plans and regulations for bays and lagoons to protect fragile resources and maintain water quality. These plans guide where, and how intensely, development can take place on land or where marinas, boat moorings, navigation channels may be located in these bays and estuaries.
A number of states share the implementation role with local governments. States establish standards that local governments implement through local plans and ordinances and permit programs.

Many programs include research, education, and stewardship components. For example, several of the programs conduct or support voluntary water quality monitoring, beach cleanups, or bird banding programs in the coastal zone.

Some programs use restoration, acquisition, or low-cost construction projects as a management tool. For example, some states target waterfront revitalization as a way to maintain or improve coastal economies. States support waterfront planning, the rehabilitation of dilapidated docks and piers, or the construction of boat ramps and landings. Others conduct planning to ensure that water dependent industries, such as commercial fishing fleets, still have access to the water.

HOST:  Bill, what types of expertise are needed to run these different programs?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, states employ a wide range of expertise including planners, geologists, biologists, coastal engineers, lawyers as well as other specialists for things like oil and gas projects or dredging.     

HOST: Bill, how many state partners are there?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Right now, 34 of the 35 coastal states and territories are partners in the national program and we’re currently working with Illinois to develop a program.   

HOST: And what is the National Ocean Service’s or NOAA’s role in coastal zone management?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Well, Kate, I’ll steal a line from an old commercial – “We don’t manage the coasts, we make coastal management better.”

Our Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management tries to be a catalyst for strong coastal management. For example, we identify new or effective policies, procedures, or other solutions to difficult coastal issues that states or others are developing and try to share them with our partners. 

Our office oversees the federal consistency provisions. We train state and federal agency staff on the many nuances of federal consistency. We are part of the appeals process for federal consistency decisions, and we help to mediate the disagreements between the state programs and the federal agencies on consistency issues.

We also provide financial, management, and technical assistance to maintain and strengthen state coastal programs. And that technical assistance can come from our office, or other offices across NOAA like the Coastal Services Center.

Our office also plays an oversight role. We periodically evaluate programs to make sure that they’re meeting the minimum requirements needed to participate in the national program, and also that they’re spending their federal dollars wisely. 

HOST: OK Bill, so back to the national goals that we talked about earlier. How do the programs work to protect natural resources and habitat and water quality?       
BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, they do this in a number of ways. To gain federal approval for their coastal programs, roughly two-thirds of the states have developed or enhanced state tidal wetlands laws that limit development in or near coastal marshes. Others have developed programs to better manage stormwater runoff or control erosion to limit these pollutants from damaging coastal habitats. And many states employ habitat restoration programs. For example, Connecticut has programs to restore tidal exchange to wetlands, to do in stream restoration, and they even do some dam removal.

Another example is managing dredging. Dredging is critical to keeping ports open and competitive in a global market. However, the new generation of tankers need really deep channels. Historically dredging was very destructive to coastal areas – dredge materials were dumped kind of willy-nilly on wetlands and other productive waters, but states have developed policies to require that those dredge materials be put in areas that are going to have far less of an impact. And in some cases where the dredged material is appropriate – they may require material to be placed in a manner that will maintain or rebuild beaches and coastal marshes.

A number of states such as Maryland, Rhode Island, and North Carolina have also developed buffer programs to protect vegetation along shorelines and coastal streams. These lands serve as filters for runoff into coastal waters – filtering out sediment and other pollutants in the runoff. Programs have developed requirements that restrict or limit development or clearing of vegetation in these areas within a certain distance of the shoreline.    

HOST: Bill, how are the state programs helping coastal communities prepare for coastal hazards?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, they’re doing a number of things. Many programs have developed construction setbacks which direct development away from high hazard areas such as areas susceptible to storm surge, flooding, even chronic erosion. These setbacks try to increase the lifespan of buildings on the coast as well as to protect people and the natural defenses like beaches and dunes. 

Other states have developed policies to accommodate coastal development by making changes to their building codes. The building codes address how buildings are designed, how they’re elevated, and constructed to withstand flood waters and high winds. Other states may require real estate agents to disclose potential hazards affecting the property at the time of sale of that property.

HOST: So really they’re thinking of all kinds of hazards – wind and hurricanes and flooding. How are states involved in protecting land or purchasing land for coastal conservation?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, in 2002, Congress amended the Coastal Zone Management Act to create the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program. And this program provides more substantial funding specifically for coastal land acquisition. To be eligible for the funding, state coastal programs develop conservation plans which identify priority coastal sites for acquisition. These priority sites are coastal and estuarine lands that are important for their ecological, conservation, recreational, historic, and aesthetic values.

Each year states submit projects from those plans to NOAA for competitive funding. Last year we provided roughly 25 million dollars to permanently conserve some really important coastal lands.

A project in Alaska led to the protection of over 20,000 acres in the Nushagak Bay watershed, an area that encompasses highly valuable salmon habitat. In Mississippi, funds were used to purchase a substantial portion of Deer Island, this is an island that provides key habitat and recreational opportunities for Mississipians.

HOST: So Bill, to wrap up a little bit, what are the biggest challenges to the future of our coasts? And what is the program doing to address these?

BILL O’BEIRNE: Kate, the three biggest challenges to the coasts are climate change, how we use our oceans, and cumulative and secondary impacts from development. 

Climate change is likely to magnify existing management concerns such as coastal erosion, coastal flooding, and storm surge due to accelerated sea level rise. It will also introduce new concerns such as changes to ocean water chemistry and the shifting of habitats due to changes in air and water temperatures. 

States are already experiencing some of these climate change impacts - changes in the timing and amounts of freshwater inflow to estuaries, and the increased flooding of low-lying coastal wetlands, storm drains, and coastal roads. The occasional flooding of coastal roads might be just an annoyance to vacationers, but it’s a big issue to residents especially when an ambulance or a fire truck can’t make it to their homes. States such as Maryland, Delaware, and California are using best available science to develop better regional vulnerability and risk assessments to identify potential impacts and develop strategies to adapt to these expected changes.   
Second, we are beginning to better understand how valuable our oceans and nearshore waters are to rapidly expanding activities in these areas. These activities include shipping, fishing, energy development, and aquaculture. These activities are degrading marine habitats and creating use conflicts. States like Oregon, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and others are leading the way in developing plans for their state waters to reduce these use conflicts, much like you would plan how to use the land in a town or county.  
Finally, over the last 30 years, it’s become clear that incremental development in coastal watersheds has resulted in increased runoff that is degrading coastal water quality, wetlands, coral reefs, and increasing coastal flooding. States are really struggling to develop methodologies to permit these impacts. Other states are working with local governments to conduct watershed planning, storm water management, and erosion and sediment control programs. 

Kate, addressing all these issues is going to be challenging given the current national and state budget forecasts. But, addressing them is going to be critical if we want to ensure, for the long term, that the coast remains an economic engine for the country, and a great place to visit or live. Our nearly 40 year partnership with the state coastal management programs under the Coastal Zone Management Act provides an excellent platform from which we can address these challenges.

HOST: Thanks Bill for joining us on Diving Deeper and talking more about coastal zone management and what this means to us. To learn more, please visit


That’s all for today’s show. Please join us for the next Diving Deeper on March 10.