Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee To Hold Hearing on Sea Level Rise

Tomorrow’s Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing on sea level rise provides a good opportunity for elected officials to hear firsthand about the risks to U.S. infrastructure due to sea level rise.  Among those testifying will be Ben Strauss from Climate Central, whose remarkable maps of coastal areas vulnerable to sea level rise should serve as a wakeup call to anyone still in doubt of the potential impacts.

Warming oceans and melting polar ice could contribute to rising seas of 7 to 78 inches by the end of the century, depending in part on our ability and willingness to reduce carbon emissions.  Miami ranks number one worldwide in terms of assets exposed to coastal flooding, and the Norfolk–Virginia Beach metropolitan area ranks tenth.

In all, as a new report from NRDC highlights, 23 states in the U.S. are at risk of increased flooding from rising seas.  In addition, most of these states also face risks to drinking water sources because of salt water intrusion as saltwater from the ocean mixes with freshwater either under or running across the land.  This can increase the cost of water treatment or render drinking water aquifers unusable.  Yet only seven coastal states have developed comprehensive plans to address the threats of climate change on water resources.  State-level action on sea level rise in particular is inconsistent at best.

Among the states taking the most comprehensive action on climate preparedness in general:

  • California has a Sea Level Rise Task Force, and the state’s comprehensive climate adaptation plan includes sea level rise issues.  The state is conducting an assessment in conjunction with Oregon, Washington, and the National Academy of Sciences of local and global sea level rise for 2030, 2050, and 2100.
  • Maine addresses sea level rise in its adaptation options report.  In conjunction with partners, the state has developed a coastal sea level rise adaptation tool that simulates flooding associated with sea level rise and analyzes economic impacts of flooding and costs of different adaptation strategies.  The state has assisted some local communities on adaptation planning (e.g., via the Sea Level Adaptation Working Group in Saco Bay).
  • While Pennsylvania is not identified as a marine coastal state, the impact of sea level rise on saltwater intrusion in the Delaware River is discussed in a comprehensive state adaptation plan.  The impact of sea level rise on water and wastewater infrastructure and water quality also is considered in the state water plan.

Among those states identified in NRDC’s report as falling short in climate change planning:

  • Texas does not have a state-level plan that addresses sea level rise.  The state hazard mitigation plan acknowledges the impact of sea level rise and climate change on coastal hazards, but the state has not developed a plan to address climate change impacts.  Texas has provided limited state funding to select areas for erosion response projects.
  • In Virginia, the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change final report recommended that the state develop a sea level rise adaptation strategy (although that has not happened). Nonetheless, the state has provided funding to three coastal planning district commissions (Hampton Roads, Middle Peninsula, and Northern Virginia) to assess sea level rise vulnerability and develop response strategies.  The state is also promoting “living shorelines” through the development of local management plans and a permitting program that authorizes and encourages living shoreline techniques for shore stabilization.
  • Florida does not have a state-level plan that addresses sea level rise.  However, sea level rise is included in a post-disaster redevelopment planning guidebook for coastal communities, and the state has funded a sea level rise modeling and adaptation strategies study for wetlands in the Apalachicola Bay system, an update to the Pinellas County Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan, and sea level rise adaptation plans for Punta Gorda and Satellite Beach.  The Department of Transportation also is supporting research on development of a method to determine sea level rise vulnerability of transportation modes and infrastructure.

No matter how much states are doing to plan for climate change and sea level rise, implementation of plans will be the key to success.  In addition, as is highlighted in our report, there’s a lot more the federal government could be doing to help state and local governments when it comes to climate change preparedness. For example, the federal government should:

  • Support limits to reduce carbon pollution from new and existing sources. Cleaning up harmful carbon pollution from power plants and other sources will save lives, create jobs, and protect our environment.
  • Lead by example in adaptation planning by requiring climate change impacts to be considered as part of federal agencies’ analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
  • Ensure more effective use of federal funds by requiring states to consider the implications of climate change in their use of certain federal dollars – including through the National Flood Insurance Program, Coastal Zone Management Administration Awards, Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, and disaster mitigation funding under the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.
  • Assist states, via agencies like the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), by providing technical information on the projected scope and impacts of climate change.
  • Support legislation such as H.R. 2738, the Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act of 2011, which would provide needed funding specifically to help address changing hydrologic conditions at the state and local levels, and S. 1881, the Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment Act, which would help to build the adaptation capacity of the nation’s natural resources by requiring federal agencies and encouraging states to develop natural resources adaptation plans.

Senator Bingaman (NM) deserves credit for convening this important hearing.  It’s good to see Congress holding hearings on the issue of sea level rise and the associated impact on infrastructure and energy.  What would be even better would be some meaningful congressional action on the issue.