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Lawmakers may argue about climate change, but they want seawalls

Members tacked on about $26 million in earmarks for seawalls to the fiscal 2023 spending bills. Experts say they're a short-term solution at best.

A man stands at a seawall partially washed away by Tropical Storm Noel in South Palm Beach, Fla., in 2007.
A man stands at a seawall partially washed away by Tropical Storm Noel in South Palm Beach, Fla., in 2007. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

As ocean levels rise, members of Congress are turning to simple tools to protect their districts: seawalls.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents a coastal area north of Tampa Bay, said in an interview that there’s a growing need for seawalls and other flood mitigation projects back home.

“A lot of this infrastructure is decaying,” said Bilirakis, who got a $2 million earmark for a seawall in his hometown of Tarpon Springs. “We’ve always had flooding. We’ve had flooding issues all over my district,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure if climate change is to blame. “In the low-lying areas, even in some of the subdivisions as well.”

He said, “Have I seen an increase? I can’t say that for a fact.”

The Florida Republican is one of 11 members, from both parties, who together tacked about $26 million in earmarks for seawalls to House and Senate fiscal 2023 spending bills.

Setting aside the starkly different tactics Republicans and Democrats support to address human-caused climate change, which GOP members often downplay, there is bipartisan interest in federally backed projects to protect coastal districts and construct massive multipart barriers to guard against encroaching water levels.

Beyond Bilirakis, GOP Reps. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, along with House Democrats Kathy Castor of Florida, Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, Barbara Lee of California and Ed Case of Hawaii all have seawall-related earmarks for fiscal 2023.

Senate Democrats Gary Peters and Richard J. Durbin each got earmarks related to seawalls and a House bill to fund the National Park Service includes about $124 million for seawalls and “shoreline landscape” at the Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and in the adjacent West Potomac Park.

‘Myopic solution’

“We’re going to see policy folks and decision-makers wanting to protect their constituents,” Shana Udvardy, senior climate resilience policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. “The problem is things like seawalls tend to be a very myopic solution to a much bigger problem.”

Earth’s ocean and sea levels are rising because of melting ice and glaciers and because humans are warming the planet’s oceans by burning fossil fuels, leading to ocean expansion.

Global sea levels have climbed in the past century because of human-caused climate change and are rising at a rate of roughly one-eighth of an inch per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

“High tide flooding is becoming more common and damaging in many parts of the U.S.,” Rick Spinrad, the NOAA administrator, said in August at the release of new data on what is known as “nuisance” or “sunny-day” flooding, which happens at high tide without a storm. The U.S. is on track for 1 foot in sea level rise by 2050 and 2 feet by 2100, according to NOAA and NASA.

Paul Chinowsky, an engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said two factors are driving an uptick in the construction of seawalls in the country: stronger storms coming more often and old age.

“It’s really the frequency and the intensity of storms, which are reducing the lifespan of sea walls that already exist,” Chinowsky said.

Another factor is that water has crept farther inland, Chinowsky said in a phone interview. “[Sea level rise] is beginning to erode beaches and get up much higher into town” than it did before, he said. 

A report that Chinowsky helped write in 2019 found the U.S. faced a “bare minimum” of more than $400 billion in costs over the next 20 years to shore up coastal communities against sea level rise.

“Every town is going to have to make a decision. Do they have the financial resources to put a technological solution in place?” he said. “Or do you start relocating, and who pays for that?”

With roughly 40 percent of U.S. citizens living in coastal counties and about 50,000 miles of at-risk property in the U.S. that Chinowsky and his colleagues identified, that question will play out nationwide, he said. “Thousands of towns are going to face this. Someone at some point will have to make a decision.”

Human-made barriers to protect shorelines have existed for thousands of years, long before humans warmed the planet, Ron Flick, a coastal oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said by email. “These projects long predate any concern about sea level rise, which is a relatively new worry,” Flick said. But, Flick said, “the need and demand for seawalls and other forms of coastal protection can only increase on most coasts.”

‘Lowest-hanging fruit’

Jessie Ritter, senior director of water resources and coastal policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said coastal communities turn to physical barriers, like seawalls, breakwaters or riprap (chunks of rocks or stone in a cluster) because deploying them is easier than executing a plan to pull back from the water.

“Hardening is the lowest-hanging fruit,” Ritter said in an interview. “Increasingly, it’s where people are turning.”

The most expensive seawall earmark is from Van Drew, who added $10 million for a project in North Wildwood, N.J.

Seawalls and other hard flood-prevention structures are not without drawbacks. Beyond creating a “false sense of security” for those behind them, seawalls can accelerate erosion of nearby coastal property, prompting others to build their own walls, Ritter said.

“They just make it worse downstream, down current,” Ritter said. Once neighbors see a barrier go up and they build their own seawall in response,  erosion can accelerate, she said. “You create this feedback loop.”

Fourteen percent of the U.S. coastline is hardened against erosion and ocean-related wear, according to a 2015 study in Science.

“Seawalls don’t really provide a lot of ecological benefit,” said Rachel Gittman, an East Carolina University biology professor. “They’re just a vertical wall. They don’t mimic any natural environment that we have on coasts. It’s not great habitat for marine organisms.”

Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., said in an interview there’s pushback in his district to riprap or rock walls on inland waterways because they block recreational use. “Most of my constituencies don’t like that,” Mast said.

During what’s known as a “king tide,” which is an exceptionally high tide, docks in his district that were rebuilt within the last five or 10 years are often submerged. “You will find them underwater.”

Beyond the earmarks for seawalls, there is bipartisan support for large seawall and flood mitigation projects that a water policy bill would authorize, including a proposed Army Corps of Engineers project to erect a seawall near Galveston, Texas.

That bill, which easily passed the House and the Senate, would authorize a roughly $30 billion project called the Texas Coastal Spine, along with dozens of other flood mitigation projects.

The corps and a state agency have proposed for the project a series of steps, including elevating buildings, creating sand dunes on the outer edge of the bay, building levees and creating surge gates in the Gulf of Mexico.

Congress should pass bipartisan legislation to create a national climate resilience strategy for sea level rise and other climate impacts, said the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Udvardy, who added that by taking a broader look, the country can steel itself for climate costs through the end of the century.

“How are we going to fund these projects? Where are we going to put those resources?” Udvardy said. “The benefit about looking much more broadly is that then you have that plan. You can figure out where resources really are needed.”

Said Ritter: “A reckoning is coming where we need to make some hard decisions.”

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