Op-Ed

Coral reefs save us from flooding. We must save them from destruction | Opinion

Across the United States, reefs provide more than $1.8 billion in flood-protection benefits annually.
Across the United States, reefs provide more than $1.8 billion in flood-protection benefits annually. Getty Images

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season is almost upon us; the last two hurricane seasons were devastating to Florida. The race is on to recover and build resilience ahead of the next storms. And we need to invest in one of Florida’s most valuable and underrated defenses — its reefs.

Most people have no idea how valuable coral reefs are for coastal defense. Now we do. Reefs act as submerged breakwaters, they “break” waves and dissipate their energy offshore.

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Working together, the U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy and the University of California Santa Cruz, have shown just how valuable reefs are using state-of-the-art flood-risk tools. Across the United States, reefs provide more than $1.8 billion in flood-protection benefits every year. In Florida alone, reefs provide more than $675 million in flood-protection benefits to people, property and jobs every year.

These look like general, ‘back of the envelope’ numbers. They are not. They are based on what are now the best flood-risk maps available for these coastlines. They predict flood risk at 10 meters by 10 meters, that is about one-hundredth the area of city block. So we can show not only that Florida receives benefits, we can identify specifically who may get those benefits. And we can sum those benefits up by municipality; in a 50-year storm (between a Category 4 and 5 hurricane) the coral reefs off of Miami-Fort. Lauderdale would provide more than $1.6 billion in flood protection benefits.

The bad news is that we are rapidly losing these benefits in Florida and elsewhere (and often around the densely populated areas where we need them the most). Many have predicted the end of reefs. We are not quite so pessimistic — at least not yet.

The good news is that there is evidence that reefs can recover and even adapt, particularly if we identify the resources to manage and restore them.

The better news is that by rigorously valuing these benefits we can help mobilize the public and private investments that we need for this kind of reef management. Indeed there are a number of innovative pathways for action that can completely change the scale of support for reef conservation and restoration.

First, disaster recovery funding must support the recovery of national natural defenses. The United States already has appropriated more than $100 billion to recover from hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma; more of those funds should go to rebuilding reefs and other natural defenses. And it appears that it may: FEMA, for the first time, is assessing damages to reefs as flood-mitigation structures.

Second, the insurance industry can support incentives for habitat conservation and restoration. They are starting to do just that by ensuring that habitats are included in industry risk models and with the first-ever trust to fund an insurance policy for coral reefs in Mexico.

Third, we must recognize and prioritize reefs as natural defenses as they are relevant to national security. Protecting and restoring reefs is relevant to state, territory and national budgets (e.g., FEMA). In Florida, reefs provide the state hundreds of millions in flood-protection services every year, and that is in addition to their many other income benefits such tourism. We should be paying the reefs back similarly to keep those benefits.

The Nature Conservancy and partners in federal, state and local governments, academia, and the private sector are working to protect and restore Florida’s coral reefs — from Martin County to Key West and the Dry Tortugas — based on sound science. The new Respect Our Reef campaign encourages protection of the reefs by the fishermen and divers who know and love them best.

And it is not just coral reefs in the United States; marshes, mangroves and oyster reefs all provide cost-effective benefits for flood reduction. And coral reefs provide benefits to people in more than 60 nations.

If we can get reef protection and restoration right in Florida, we can offer lessons learned to help protect people across the country and around the world.

Michael W. Beck is a research professor at the University of California Santa Cruz and was lead marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

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