Report links sprawl to declining coastal health

When impervious surface exceeds 10 percent, rivers, creeks, and estuaries degrade

provided by Pew Oceans Commission

ore than half of all Americans live along the coasts. Within 15 years, an additional 27 million people are estimated to live in coastal counties, which comprise only 17 percent of the nation's area. A new report prepared for the independent Pew Oceans Commission links this development and growth along the coasts to the declining health of our ocean habitats and resources.

    “Americans have long enjoyed living, working, and playing along the coasts. However, we see increasing evidence that this love of the coasts and oceans comes at a cost to the very beauty that attracts us there in the first place,” said Leon E. Panetta, former White House chief of staff and current chair of the Pew Oceans Commission, which is conducting the first independent review of national ocean policies in more than 30 years.

    In his report, Coastal Sprawl: The Effects of Urban Design on Aquatic Ecosystems in the United States, Dana Beach of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League details the effects of urban design and land-use practices on aquatic ecosystems in the United States. Beach presents new strategies and tools that communities may use to preserve the same ecosystems that attract residents, tourists, and businesses to the coasts.

    “Although the problems associated with coastal sprawl are complex, the solutions are straightforward,” said Joseph Riley, mayor of Charleston and chair of the Commission's coastal development committee. “Communities need to make active decisions about where and how to grow if they are going to protect their quality of life.”

    Beach reports that runaway land consumption, dysfunctional suburban development patterns, and exponential growth in automobile use lead to pollution and habitat degradation on the coast. Some large coastal metropolitan areas consume land ten times as fast as they add new residents. Across the country, driving has increased at three to four times the increase in population. He concludes that if today's land consumption trends continue, more than one-quarter of the coast's acreage will be developed by 2025 – up from 14 percent in 1997.

    “These trends are a prescription for severe ecological damage,” said Beach. “Abundant research on rivers and estuaries confirms that when impervious surfaces cover more than ten percent of a watershed, the rivers, creeks and estuaries they surround become biologically degraded. If today's growth trends continue, many healthy watersheds will cross that threshold over the next 25 years.”

    Beach highlights national efforts underway to reform development patterns, embodied in such movements as Smart Growth and the New Urbanism. However, he finds that the linkage between land-use changes and coastal ecosystem performance is not well understood, nor is it adequately integrated into these broader movements. Beach points to many opportunities for implementing change. At the local level, citizen activists are promoting better growth patterns through improved zoning and public investment policies. States such as Maryland, Florida, and Oregon continue to refine statewide planning processes in order to achieve growth that is more efficient. Reauthorization of federal legislation on transportation, coastal zone management, and water quality is forthcoming. All of these arenas offer the prospect for coordinated policy revisions that protect coastal ecosystems, Beach concludes.

    “The potential for positive change is enormous, and the momentum is building. Now is the time to add the cause of coastal ecology, and the voices of coastal protection advocates, to the call for land-use reform,” said Beach

    The Pew Oceans Commission is comprised of leaders from the worlds of science, fishing, conservation, politics, and business. Members have held regional meetings throughout the country to study fishing, marine pollution, coastal development, introduced species, aquaculture, and governance. In addition, the Commission has received science reports on marine pollution, introduced species, and aquaculture. The Commission will issue its final recommendations to Congress, the Bush administration, and the nation in early 2003.

    Additional information about the Pew Oceans Commission, including science reports and a complete list of members, is available online at Coastal Sprawl: The Effects of Urban Design on Aquatic Ecosystems in the United States is available online at