Facing the need to adapt to sea level rise of three feet or more due to climate change, the U.S. needs to establish a new agency to do land use planning and build coastal infrastructure similar to the way the country built a first-class interstate highway system, former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt said at the Lincoln Institute's 5th Annual Land Policy Conference, The Environment, Climate Change, and Land Policies.
"There is an enormous opportunity here. It’s only negative if you think about it in a traditional way. We must have a national plan and a realistic financing plan behind it," Babbitt said. The interstate highway system was a national infrastructure plan put together and concluded effectively, he said, that engaged the states, and was financed by a gas tax rationally related to the capital needs of the plan. It had standards, and regions had to work together because the roads had to connect across state lines.
"If we’re serious about getting on with this (adaptation to climate change in coastal regions) – here’s a minimum step: a national coastal restoration agency, with national standards based on cost-benefit analysis. Lay it out in cold print." Such an agency "would turn to the states and say, no money, until there’s a state plan, that is real, and begins with a land use plan, that tells you, here’s what this coastal region is going to look like by the end of the century." The plan should address how people live and the management of retreat as necessary, he said.
The financing mechanism should not be a grant program in perpetuity, stacked on top of all the other federal funding programs of late, Babbitt said. Instead, the beneficiaries of the work -- those who use the protected harbors and refineries and other infrastructure, similar to users of highways -- could contribute through user fees. Offshore drilling royalties – those contributing to the problem of climate change -- should also be a revenue source, he said.
There is an enormous task ahead preparing for sea level rise and coastal flooding. In California, sea-level marshlands are host to an array of critical infrastructure, including giant pumping plants and canal systems distributing drinking water from dammed reservoirs already struggling with melting snowpack and more rain than snow, that will be swamped. "The residents of LA and San Diego are going to be drinking saltwater," the former Arizona governor said. In Louisiana, setting New Orleans aside -- Babbitt predicts that city will be like Venice in the midst of gulf waters -- up to 10,000 square miles of coastal land is threatened by the twin impacts of sea level rise and sinking delta land. The fate of two million mostly rural residents living south of Interstate 10 in Louisiana reflects "the kinds of decisions we are going to have to make in this country."
The response thus far has been underwhelming. The $13 billion collection of ideas proposed to Congress under Coastal 2050 includes pumping sediment to build up land and using rip-rap and river cut-outs, ''but these plans are silent on sea level rise. And there is no land use planning component. The silence about the land use issues writ large is absolutely stunning. It’s just a little collection of projects," one of which would create a mere 200 acres of land. The US Army Corp of Engineers, meanwhile, proposes more levees, including a 70-mile "great wall of Louisiana," even as the Dutch take down their seawalls and use natural systems to work with water. "Underlying it all, is the lack of candor about what’s necessary, about where we go," said Babbitt. "A land use plan speaking truth to those 2 million people ... it's going to have to be a managed retreat. It’s happened over the history of the delta -- a land use plan that says over time, over generations, we’re going to adapt, and we will move people and industry in a thoughtful and rational way. But none of this is going on. There’s just silence."
Senator Christopher Dodd's idea for a national infrastructure bank may also not be up to the task, Babbitt said, because funding would essentially be grants decided by a five-member board. It can't be left to the states, judging by the use of Build America bonds for stadiums and the like. Still, Babbitt said, "my despair is mitigated by a reading of American history. We have an episodic ability to reinvent ourselves, usually in response to crisis. We see it in late 19th century reform, the New Deal, civil rights in the 1960s. We find we are able to muster, coinciding with leaders who are serious."