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Can Natural Infrastructure Enhance Coastal Resilience?

Coastlines sustain many species of fish and wildlife, support local and regional economies, and offer valued recreational opportunities. But coastlines are resources vulnerable to extreme storms and other weather events.

Following Hurricane Sandy, a number of efforts addressed the use of natural infrastructure in coastal areas for resilience. In particular, marshes and wetlands may buffer storms, but quantifying the protection provided by natural infrastructure is not easy.

Susan Taylor, Ph.D., associate for Environmental and Natural Resources, and her colleagues at Abt have been working to define the metrics that can offer important quantifiable data on how natural infrastructure provides ecosystem and socio-economic resilience.

“Communities and agencies want to know if we have a wetland or marsh here, how will that help limit the impact of erosion, or just how much is needed to dissipate flood waters,” Taylor said.

Certain coastal areas may consider solutions for acute, or low frequency and high impact, potential hazards, while others might address more chronic or gradually advancing hazards, such as erosion. But these aren’t the only questions. A particular solution may include green, or softer, approaches such as creation of a living shoreline with vegetation. In other cases, coastal areas may warrant a gray, or harder, approach, such as a concrete seawall to absorb and limit the impact of large waves.

These approaches have a variety of benefits and tradeoffs. Determining the best approach means getting the measurements and metrics first. Agreeing on natural infrastructure metrics isn’t easy, though. Coastlines make up over 95,470 miles of the United States, and are home to more than 123 million people. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, many local residents, state and federal agencies, as well as organizations and institutions such as schools and hospitals, wanted to find ways to prepare and plan for future weather events.

With the measurements and metrics, communities along the coasts that are thinking about green and gray engineering solutions will be able to tap into the best evidence on natural infrastructure and make data-informed decisions on how to design and plan for future extreme weather events, Taylor said.

How We’re Addressing Coastal Risk Reduction

Abt has supported the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources (IWR) for the past 10 years. This has included a broad range of tasks, from developing a National Flood Risk Characterization model to developing an air pollution emissions model for cargo vessels, to providing ongoing support to the Corps’ Systems Approach to Geomorphic Engineering (SAGE) program, said Jerry Stedge, Ph.D., Abt‘s Water and Land Resource practice manager.

Leading Abt’s coastal resilience work under SAGE, Taylor is working with IWR and other federal and state agencies, academics, and NGOs to create a community of practice to integrate coastal risk reduction activities across public-private partnerships and various sectors. SAGE incorporates work across the nation and in several regional areas including San Francisco, Calif. New York City, Barnegat Bay, N.J., Puget Sound, Wash., Baltimore, Md. and Jacksonville, Fla. Working groups have been formed to provide information and advance communication – such as web tools – alternative finance, policy, and science and engineering to work through questions relating to these metrics, monitoring needs, and the overall solutions that can be designed at a variety of scales.

Regional groups, Taylor said, work with communities to adopt systems-scale approaches and address challenges related to natural infrastructure. “Locals know where areas are vulnerable, and by working together, the partners and communities can identify ways to solve that challenge, find a way to fund the solution, and build-up that natural infrastructure.”

Taylor explained that the community of practice has been a collaborative way to create a platform for stakeholders to share what they know, learn from each other, and advance the evidence about natural infrastructure. Through the demonstration projects and practice collaborations, stakeholders collect important metrics and monitor how successful the natural infrastructure projects are. With the data, they are able to see how well the solutions meet the objectives of various partners, and how effective and reproducible they are.

Abt’s Coastal Resilience Leadership

Abt’s role on SAGE is to continue to share evidence and promising practices, ensuring all levels of community are involved and have the best information for their own plans and activities. This means supporting content and findings on the SAGE website and cataloguing coastal resilience projects around the nation in the SAGE project database. Abt will continue to support SAGE under a recently awarded $47 million indefinite deliverables indefinite quantity contract (IDIQC) with IWR.

“We are really building up the science through this project,” said Taylor, “from being able to say this is what works, to helping partners create the most effective, evidence-based policies they can. It is important to be collaborative and help all users think about natural infrastructure in ways that capture progress and outcomes.”

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