America’s WETLAND Foundation Discovering Models for Coastal Adaptation

The America’s WETLAND Foundation’s (AWF) Sea Level Rise Communities of Innovation initiative was highlighted at a Nicholls State University roundtable discussion to kick off the new year. Citing Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes as potential models for adaptation to the new normal of sea level rise, participants encouraged actions to be taken to protect local populations, the economy and ecosystem assets, which are plentiful but threatened in the region.

Parish officials coastal experts, NGOs, academia, and concerned citizens, drilled down on how to keep home values up as negative stigma associated with sea level and FEMA flood map projections cause concern in areas at high risk of rising tides and other climate impacts.

According to flood inundation maps released by the real estate website, Zillow, close to $1 trillion in real estate will be lost in America if seas rise six feet and, in a startling report released by Climate Central, sea levels are projected to rise one foot by the year 2030.

Val Marmillion, managing director of AWF, said, “A one-foot rise in only slightly more than a decade will have an incredible impact on Louisiana and coastal areas like Houma and Thibodaux and surrounding communities. While taking actions to adapt to what is called the “new normal,” the Foundation is making the case that retreat is not the answer. Instead, we advocate for living with water and building with nature as a formula for sustaining coastal communities and environments facing rising seas and saltwater intrusion which destroys coastal lands.”

In a presentation to the group, Marmillion cited that the majority of residents in Louisiana and other coastal regions around the country have their life savings tied up in their homes. “The stigma associated with high-risk communities vulnerable to sea level rise, stronger storm events, and even nuisance flooding can begin to bring down home values. We are committed to help Gulf coast communities avoid this possibility by taking specific actions to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of sea level rise that can preserve cultures, jobs, and ways of life we all hold dear,” Marmillion said.

Dr. Jay Clune, President of Nicholls State University, spoke about actions the university is taking to adapt to sea-level rise. “We see Nicholls State at the epicenter of the land loss and changing environment with our students and faculty vulnerable to its impacts. So we’re taking actions to help be part of the solutions,” Dr. Clune said. “We have established the Office of Coastal Support here at Nicholls to coordinate and add to the university’s efforts on coastal restoration and adaptation. We are establishing a Coast Center that will include a model of the Atchafalaya basin similar to the Mississippi model in Baton Rouge, and are creating the Bayou Region jobs Incubator. Its mission is to grow and support a diverse, sustainable and inclusive economy in this region through entrepreneurship and small business development of industries addressing Louisiana’s coastal crisis.”

Dr. Clune said, “Our vision is an economically thriving and inclusive community on the innovative forefront of Louisiana’s coastal and water crisis in which entrepreneurs emerge, jobs are created, and business thrive. The state of Louisiana through the CPRA has been a tremendous partner in helping us establish these efforts.”

Rick Johnson of Entergy, whose company provides electrical power to the region, said, “The work we are doing today can impact all of us along the Gulf Coast. It’s all about adaptation. As a company, we are always in the process of strengthening our infrastructure. We want the communities we serve to have reliable power and we’re investing heavily to make sure they do.”

Sidney Coffee, AWF senior advisor, noted that “Sustaining our ecosystems to support our economy holds the key to restoring nature’s defenses. The new FEMA flood maps that are about to be released promise to impact the insurability of coastal communities and adapting to ways to keep local economies strong and growing is an intended outcome from sessions like these. It is important to remember that as insurance rates spike, there is a corresponding loss of home values.”

“Communities that fail to act and adapt to sea level rise, face the growing threat of reaching a tipping point when the perception of risk turns home values upside down. If real estate values decline and investments diminish, the tax base for basic services becomes depleted and what follows is obvious,” Coffee said.

In 2011, AWF and Entergy hosted a series of Blue Ribbon Community Leadership forums that explored how coastal communities need to change to keep their areas prosperous and safe into the future. The Houma/Thibodaux area was a key focus of those hearings and the roundtable on January 14th held at Nicholls State focused on the progress made since then.

Marmillion said, “We return to the Houma/Thibodaux area with the next phase of our work – the Sea Level Rise Communities of Innovation program – to encourage a new era of ingenuity and solutions. Ideas to match the challenge of rising seas will flourish with ways to prevent retreat from the communities we love and the homes that hold our investments.”

“In places like Thibodaux and Houma, with diverse populations and equity ladder, adaptation helps everyone – those who can’t afford to lose their home values and those who depend on public works and services to provide security and protection along with education and health care,” Marmillion said.

AWF is developing an axis of coastal communities for the Sea Level Rise Communities of Innovation program – Louisiana and Florida are two very different ecosystems but with the same climate challenges facing all coastal communities. “Demonstrating that we can build with nature and live with water by elevating our homes, considering floating communities, aligning government codes with adaptation strategies, enhancing tree canopies and native plant life, finding new ways to store water with places for water to go instead of in our homes, and thinking about things differently will open us to new and better ways to adapt to what is truly a new normal,” Marmillion said. “These two regions can serve as models for adaptation nationally as we prepare to live differently with imminent and certain changes. The certainty that our landscape will change does not have to mean things will be worse. Adaptation and young minds working on livable communities represent an exciting prospect for the future.”

As communities show progress in developing a comprehensive adaptation plan and take actions to ensure their ability to adapt in the face of rising seas, AWF will designate them as a Sea Level Rise Community of Innovation and help them communicate the actions they are taking, making sure business and industry investors and homeowners see that they are limiting vulnerability and telegraphing that they are open for business and here for the long term, thus avoiding the negative stigma of an at-risk community.

AWF supports the notion that the “new normal” will require a belief system that respects the power of nature to carry us into future prosperity and equity for society, our economy and the environment. It’s not a bad proposition to, in turn, be able to salvage one’s home value, community and culture for enhancing the environment that has allowed America her greatness.

Marmillion serves on Florida’s Monroe County Climate Change Advisory Committee, which is in the process of completing a second five-year adaptation plan for the Keys.

The new program in Louisiana will operate in tandem with the AWF’s recently announced Louisiana Coastal Exchange, designed to register coastal restoration and protection projects that require funding and encourage private sector financial support to implement the projects as part of a company’s or foundation’s corporate social responsibility to reduce carbon footprints or assisting communities where they operate. AWF has completed three such projects contiguous to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which it sees as a line of demarcation for saltwater intrusion that destroys freshwater marshes and natural habitats, removing the natural protection provided by healthy wetlands.

AWF will soon release information on the growing coalition of research institutions that will help ensure the foundation of the Sea Level Rise Communities of Innovation program. Plans call for inviting participation in the program by Gulf and East Coast communities vulnerable to the rising tide, following a process of demonstrations in several communities.

This roundtable was made possible by the generous support of Entergy.

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