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Trump’s proposed NOAA cuts would disarm our coasts in the face of rising seas, scientists say

An oceanfront condo building is seen June 3, 2014 in Miami, Florida. According to scientists, the South Florida coast faces frequent flooding by the end of the century because of sea level rise (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A proposed White House budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could put coastal communities throughout the nation at a major disadvantage as they struggle to adapt to threats from sea-level rise, severe storms and other climate-related events, scientists and other experts said.

That’s because the budget, revealed by The Washington Post last week, targets a handful of programs that provide important resources to help coastal states prepare for the coming effects of climate change.

The programs in the crosshairs include NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management grants and Regional Coastal Resilience grants, which come to $75 million combined, according to the document; its $10 million in Coastal Ecosystem Resiliency grants; the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, an annual investment of about $23 million; and its $73 million Sea Grant program.

At a federal advisory committee meeting in Bethesda, Md. on Tuesday, the acting administrator of NOAA, Benjamin Friedman, did not dispute the Post’s reporting on the proposed budget, although he cautioned that the cuts were only proposed.

“Let me just say that this is really preliminary information that is out there, this is part of the normal kind of budget deliberations that are ongoing; nothing is final,” Friedman said. “The president’s budget isn’t due to come out for a few weeks, and then of course it will be months until we get a final FY18 budget, and then nothing will happen till Congress votes on an appropriation bill … until then we’re moving forward, and it really is business as usual at NOAA.”

Leaked preliminary funding proposals put many government agencies on the chopping block to fulfill Trump's lofty budget promises. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

In the meantime, however, the proposed coastal cuts have a lot in common. These are grants and programs that lie at the intersection of oceans, the coast and a changing climate. Experts think the proposed cuts would not only disarm our coasts in the face of warming and rising seas and the growing storm threats that come with them, but that they would disadvantage coastal states, including many states that voted for Trump, in dealing with threats they’re likely to face.

“Most people live near coastlines in our country and around the world, and need to be able to support their economy — and to try to prevent again the kind of devastation that we saw in Katrina and other storms,” said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.

To see how the proposed NOAA cuts disadvantage coasts and coastal communities, take the proposed cuts to the Coastal Zone Management grants. These grants are part of a partnership between the federal government and coastal states, including those bordering the Great Lakes, under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act.

In many cases it’s local governments or state governments that have the responsibility, and most — especially the local governments — don’t have the wealth of information that the federal government does, and they don’t have immediate access to experts or resources to do a lot of the planning that they need to do,” said Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist at Oregon State University and former NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama. “So through the Coastal Zone Management grants, a lot of that information and expertise is made available to them.”

According to NOAA, all coastal and Great Lakes states participate in the Coastal Zone Management program, except Alaska. Among these are more than a dozen states that voted for Trump, including historically red states such as the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and swing states such as Florida.

Or consider the proposed cuts to Regional Coastal Resilience grants, which deal more specifically with bracing communities for adverse climate and weather events. These programs “build resilience of coastal communities to the negative impacts from extreme weather events, climate hazards, and changing ocean conditions,” according to a recent NOAA presentation.

Much like these are the Coastal Ecosystem Resiliency Grants, which are more focused on restoring ecosystems so they can adjust to changing conditions in a way that also benefits humans. Wetlands, when healthy, can help keep pace with sea-level rise. They can also help weaken hurricane storm surges. At a time when oceans are ticking upward and getting closer to communities — yes, including Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat — this seems like a no-brainer.  

Also proposed for the chopping block are several research and education initiatives that provide valuable information to help coastal communities plan for the future. The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a group of 29 sites throughout the coastal United States — including spots along the East and West coasts, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, Hawaii and Alaska — that have been set aside specifically for the study of estuarine systems, or the areas where rivers flow into the sea. The program produces scientific data on these unique ecosystems and provides training and education for local communities and policymakers on protecting and managing them.

“It’s not a basic science program,” said Don Boesch, who directs the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “It’s pretty applied to management of those research reserves and areas they represent throughout the whole state.”  

This is important for the preservation of the plants and animals that call these areas home — but because wetlands are critical buffers against storm surge and sea-level rise, it’s also a significant form of preparation for future climate change.   

Of similar importance is the Sea Grant program, a partnership between NOAA and universities across the nation, which supports coastal research and education. The program relies on on-the-ground agents, who help establish a “real connection” between academics and coastal communities, said Jeff Carney, an architecture professor and director of the Coastal Sustainability Studio at Louisiana State University, which houses the Louisiana Sea Grant program. These programs can be vital sources of information on everything from fisheries management to storm preparation.

“They’re a conduit of information from the communities to scientists and universities, and a conduit of information from universities to communities so that they can take advantage of the newest breakthroughs in science,” Lubchenco added.

It’s a popular program, according to Boesch, who noted that Sea Grant typically enjoys bipartisan support among lawmakers. This is just one aspect of the White House plan that may make it a hard sell in Congress. Additionally, Lubchenco noted, Sea Grant programs in individual states often rely on a system in which funding from the federal government is matched with funding from states, universities or industry partners.

“The federal dollars leverage a lot of additional financial resources,” she said, adding that by cutting the federal funding, “you hurt states big-time.”

For now, the budget cuts remain only a proposal — but one that could place coastal communities at a disadvantage in the face of sea-level rise, natural disasters and other impending environmental changes. In fact, well-planned adaptation efforts could make the difference in whether cities such as Miami and New Orleans survive into the next century.  

But although the effects of climate change remain among the greatest risks to the U.S. shoreline, one also doesn’t necessarily have to believe in anthropogenic global warming to acknowledge the services provided by these programs. In addition to climate adaptation efforts, they also support resilience against storms and other natural events, research on fisheries management, the preservation of wetlands (which have value for recreation and biodiversity as much as coastal buffering) and general community planning processes.

“Just from a dollars-and-cents perspective, avoiding human suffering, why would you do anything to pull back on support where most people live and where most of the infrastructure is built?” said Arroyo of the Georgetown Climate Center. “That’s not cost effective.”