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Great Lakes Article:

America's coasts at risk
By Larry Wheeler
Tallahasse Democrat, Washington Bureau
Published February 26, 2006


More disasters of Hurricane Katrina-proportions are a certainty because the United States has no policy to control growth in danger zones at the water's edge.

In a single generation, land along the nation's fragile coasts has been gobbled up, concentrating wealth at the shore, threatening the environment and putting at risk millions of people and property worth billions of dollars.

A three-month Gannett News Service examination found:

Already crowded retirement havens like Palm Beach have packed hundreds of thousands of newcomers into condos and homes overlooking the water.

About 23 percent of the nation's estuaries do not meet state and federal clean-water standards for swimming, fishing or supporting marine species.

Pollution-related closings and swimming advisories at U.S. beaches hit an all-time high in 2004.

The National Flood Insurance Program is $18 billion in debt and lacks the ability to repay the money it borrowed from the U.S. Treasury to cover property losses from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The communities around the Great Lakes - America's freshwater coast - still struggle with industrial pollution as they face continuing cleanup costs and the beginnings of revitalization.

In many seashore towns, commercial fishing and shipbuilding industries have been replaced by tourism-driven economies and lower wages.

Demand for waterfront property has driven home prices so high that workers who staff the shops, restaurants, schools and police departments can't afford to live nearby.

"If we kick this down the street, the crisis five years from now will be irreversible," said James Watkins, a retired Navy admiral who was chairman of the 2004 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

"We better get our act together," Watkins said.

Population growth

The number of Americans living near the shore increased by 23.6 million between 1980 and 2005, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of population trends in counties nearest to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

If runaway land consumption and relentless growth in automobile use continue unchecked, many healthy shore communities could face sharp declines over the next 25 years, according to Dana Beach, director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and an authority on coastal sprawl.

Beach authored a report for the Pew Oceans Commission that concluded many coastal watersheds may trip from healthy to damaged over the next two decades unless coastal communities adopt growth policies that slow land consumption and minimize polluted runoff from impervious surfaces.

''Part of the dilemma is that there is vast ignorance across the country about ecology,'' Beach said. "When we modify watersheds (with roads and buildings) we are changing the physical attributes, the biological attributes of the water bodies embedded in those watersheds."

Estuaries and bays

Most coastal communities recognize their bays and estuaries are in severe decline.

The 3,000-square-mile Gulf of Mexico ''dead zone'' off the Texas-Louisiana coast is well-known. Aquatic life there has perished. Spawning has halted.

Texas officials are trying to prevent further loss of habitat by limiting development along the 367-mile coast through state and federal coastal and wetland protection programs, according to the state's Center for Policy Studies and Environmental Defense.

Hazardous bacterial contamination caused more than 20,000 closings and health advisory days at beaches across the country in 2004, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council most recent report.

That's the most since the environmental group began tracking 15 years ago, said Nancy Stoner, director of council's Clean Water Project. Some of the increase is due to greater monitoring.

In 2005, Gulf Coast beaches from Texas to Florida were hit with dangerous algae blooms and fouled by fish kills. The algae blooms have forced local governments to post ''No Swimming'' signs while dead fish have sullied the beaches.

Patchwork of programs

The federal government has a patchwork of regulations and agencies that focus on pollution, flood control, the environment and growth patterns.

Some federal efforts, like the National Flood Insurance Program and beach restoration projects run by the Army Corps of Engineers, contribute to the growth of waterfront communities.

The value of property covered by the flood program is $555 billion, more than five times what it was 25 years ago. It generates about $2 billion in annual revenues, mostly from premium payments.

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how a single disaster can overwhelm the flood program.

The federal government's lead agency on ocean and coastal issues now offers programs to help shore communities learn about the natural disasters that threaten their communities so they can make smarter decisions about growth.

However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget has remained relatively flat since 2000, limiting the reach of its small teams of coastal specialists. The agency's budget for the current year is $3.86 billion, down 4 percent from 2005.

Nevertheless, NOAA has teamed up with experts at the Environmental Protection Agency to address the problem.

''Our role is to provide coastal communities with the best information possible so they can make informed decisions about where and how to grow,'' said Tim Torma, a manager of the environmental agency's Smart Growth Program.

Pricing workers out

But many beach communities are now playgrounds for the wealthy while the working class is pushed out.

Karen Krafft, a single mother with two children, is typical.

She can barely make ends meet living in Nags Head, N.C., on the annual salary of $25,000 she makes as a credit counselor. Her summer weekends are spent cleaning vacation homes to make more money.

Krafft's story is not unusual, said Charles Colgan, chief economist for NOAA's National Ocean Economics Program. Large job losses in traditional ocean industries like shipbuilding, offshore energy production and commercial fishing have been offset by the growth in tourism and recreation, Colgan said.

Before Katrina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had seen the nation's largest percent gains in coastal tourism and recreation employment.

However, average annual wages in these sectors ($16,321) were less than half the average U.S. wage ($34,647).

Others who have the financial means are reluctant to leave paradise even after repeated assaults from dangerous hurricanes.

"It's just a wonderful place to be," said Lee Shrewsbury, a Nashville, Tenn., businessman who owns a house on Pensacola Beach that was battered but not destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Solutions await action

In its final report, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy made more than 200 recommendations to highlight coastal issues and coordinate 11 Cabinet-level departments and four independent agencies that oversee some portion of the nation's ocean and coastal policy.

The ambitious agenda has received little attention from the White House or Congress. President Bush partially followed one recommendation and formed a Cabinet-level "Committee on Ocean Policy." The panel mostly serves as a clearinghouse for information on existing programs.

Contact Larry Wheeler at

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