A little over a year ago Superstorm Sandy barreled up the east coast and wreaked havoc on coastal communities and in many states inland. The impacts were notably fierce in New Jersey and areas in and around New York City, but Rhode Island and other states also suffered serious impacts. Homes, businesses and the local infrastructure which creates communities – phone and electrical lines, roads and highways, drinking water and sewage systems, and TV and mass communication systems – were knocked out for days. Some folks couldn’t return to their homes for weeks and thousands of people along the east coast lost their homes completely. It’s estimated that 285 people were killed.
The significant challenges that coastal states face with increasingly large storms in the era of climate change are clear. Luckily, we have excellent policy tools designed specifically to help address the uncertainties of climate change in the National Ocean Policy, and ocean user groups across our region support its use. The National Ocean Policy uses regional ocean planning, improved science and data, requires better agency coordination and relies on deep involvement by stakeholders – all of which are needed to tackle these types of management challenges now. As one state official said, “We can either plan now or we can let nature plan for us.” This is especially true when the anticipated future increase in the number and severity of storms will make these challenges larger and more difficult. We have the tools of the National Ocean Policy at hand, but if some in Congress get their way the New England states could be barred from working with the federal agencies necessary to plan for coastal storm impacts.
The House of Representatives has recently passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, also known as WRRDA. The House bill contains a harmful additional provision, known as a rider, which would prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from coordinating with coastal states to implement any ecosystem-based management or regional ocean planning program. This provision, led by a Congressman from land-locked Waco, Texas, seeks to prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a key coastal and ocean management agency, from coordinating with coastal states. This means that even though many states are conducting planning efforts to help protect their ocean resources and support their state’s ocean economy, they would not be able to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps on any projects under the National Ocean Policy. While driven by an anti-federal sentiment, the Flores rider actually weakens the ability of states to carry out ocean planning and coastal management for the welfare and health of its own citizens.
On the bright side, the Senate passed a version of the WRRDA bill containing the National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO), which would establish a beneficial fund for improving coastal management and resilience. Championed by energetic Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, NEO will help set up an endowment supporting work by state, regional, tribal and federal entities, as well as nonprofit organizations and academic institutions to fund the baseline science, monitoring, and observation data needed to improve ocean use management, including economic development that will create jobs and support coastal economies.
We need ocean planning and we need all federal agencies — including the US Army Corps of Engineers – to be closely engaged with states and other federal agencies. We can’t be held hostage to the whims of a nonsensical political agenda when we have real work to get done; the difference could be destroyed communities and lost lives. Thankfully, large numbers of Senators and Representatives from New England and other states have spoken out in support of the National Ocean Policy and a National Endowment for the Oceans. Now the Congress needs to let states prepare for their own future by rejecting the irresponsible Flores Rider and enacting the National Endowment for the Oceans.