Opinion

A natural coastline is the best defense against storms

Oyster reefs are being made of recycled oyster shells in Murrells Inlet on Thursday, July 16, 2015. The beds are being made by volunteers and members of Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina, South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement and the state Department of Natural Resources. The reefs improve water quality, control erosion and provide habitats for more than 120 species. Similar coastal preservation programs are underway in North Carolina.
Oyster reefs are being made of recycled oyster shells in Murrells Inlet on Thursday, July 16, 2015. The beds are being made by volunteers and members of Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina, South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement and the state Department of Natural Resources. The reefs improve water quality, control erosion and provide habitats for more than 120 species. Similar coastal preservation programs are underway in North Carolina. jblackmon@thesunnews.com

It has been almost a year since Hurricane Florence dumped record amounts of rainfall on parts of North Carolina. Two years ago, Hurricane Matthew flooded the state—some of the same areas flooded by Matthew were also inundated by Florence. This September marks the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Floyd, which devastated the state. Someday in the not to distant future we will again be talking about another devastating hurricane that brought epic flooding and damage to our state. With a changing climate, these storms are inevitable. While we can’t prevent these storms, we can help communities become resilient to their effects — creating conditions that help communities rebound from storms.

We know that nature-based solutions can play a role in addressing the effects of climate change. Oyster reefs, wetlands, seagrass beds, beaches and dunes, coral reefs, and mangrove forests absorb waves and storm surge. Restoring and protecting floodplains and wetlands along streams and rivers gives them more room to accommodate floodwaters that result from extreme rainfall events.

The Nature Conservancy has developed the Coastal Resilience tool, a computer application that provides community planners and managers the best available science and spatial data to identify community flood risk, and evaluate where and how oyster reefs, wetlands, marshes, and other natural systems can be used to help abate coastal hazards and rising seas. We are working with several communities in northeast North Carolina to help them plan, using this tool to make thoughtful decisions on where to deploy these natural solutions. Our goal is to extend the use of tools and information like this along the coast.

We are using satellite imagery to track where flooding occurred during past hurricanes including Floyd, Matthew, and Florence. With that data we can determine where catastrophic flooding is most likely in the future. We are using this data in partnership with the US Geological Service to model the Cape Fear River basin. The model will simulate where and what types of natural remediation strategies are needed to achieve meaningful flood reduction. In addition to reducing flooding, nature-based solutions are likely to result in improved water quality downstream by reducing runoff that brings pollutants into the system.

That’s the beauty of nature-based solutions. They often provide a multitude of benefits for people and nature. Take an oyster reef. It acts as a natural breakwater, reducing shoreline erosion. In some cases, it may help create new shore as sand builds up behind the reef. It also creates habitat for fish and other shellfish. And, it helps improve water quality as an adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.

Traditional built infrastructure rarely has more than one benefit and often causes other harmful consequences. And, it usually costs more than natural solutions. You build a seawall and what lies immediately behind that seawall might be protected to some degree, but the shore on the waterward side is eroded at a quicker pace and the seawall doesn’t provide any benefits to nature like the oyster reef does.

Millions of federal dollars are flowing into North Carolina as a result of Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Florence, and Tropical Storm Michael. Ensuring that those dollars are well spent is crucial. State and local governments must look at natural solutions as they determine where and how to spend those dollars. The Nature Conservancy is working to provide the science to guide that work. We will all benefit when there is recognition that we can’t build our way out of these situations, but we can harness nature to make human and natural communities more resilient to the coming storms.

Julie DeMeester is Water Director for the NC Chapter of The Nature Conservancy; Brian Boutin is Director of the Chapter’s Albemarle-Pamlico Program
  Comments