Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Coastal Barrier Protection

Prepared by Jeffrey A. Zinn

Senior Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

Coastal barriers, lying along the water's edge, are very popular and valuable development sites but are also among the most dangerous because of exposure to and changes caused by flooding and winds. Legislation was enacted in 1981 and 1982 prohibiting most forms of federal assistance to reduce public incentives for development within 186 designated undeveloped barriers along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS). The 101st Congress amended this legislation to increase the size of the CBRS from approximately 450,000 acres to 1,272,000 acres of undeveloped coastal barrier ('9fastl and") and associated aquatic habitat and included sites along other coasts. Minor adjustrnents to specific sites in the system have been made in several enactments, most recently for nine Florida sites in Section 223 of the Omnibus Parks Act (P.L. 104-333).

The federal government is paying increasing costs for damage and disaster assistance in hazardous coastal areas. Damages reoccur at many of these sites, at considerable expense to taxpayers. Congress may consider whether additional measures should be taken, both in developed and undeveloped coastal barriers, to limit federal damage and disaster assistance costs in the future.

Background and Analysis

Most coastal barriers are elongated landforms consisting of unconsolidated materials (typically sand) that shift frequently and rapidly in response to storms, winds, and tides. These landforms provide important habitat for certain species and protect inland areas, wetlands, and estuaries from the brunt of ocean storms. Coastal barriers are also among the most valuable real estate in the country; the value is highest when the parcel is adjacent to the shoreline. Development has been rapid on many coastal barriers in recent decades, increasing the magnitude of the threat to life and property when major storms strike.

In the early 1980s, legislation was enacted that removed most federal subsidies that encourage development from designated coastal barriers along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Initial legislative action in 1981 removed the availability of federal flood insurance for new construction on certain barrier islands identified by the Department of the Interior (DOI). A more encompassing enactment, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982 (CBRA), established a 186 unit CBRS and removed many forms of federal assistance on those units, including grants for new water, sewage, and transportation systems.

CBRA required DOI to report to Congress with any suggested modifications to the CBRS, including additions and deletions. The report, completed in 1988, recommended the inclusion of additional units along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. For the first time, DOI recommended units for New Jersey, Maryland, the Florida Keys, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Congressional approval of these units would have increased the CBRS from 186 to 461 units, 666 to 1,089 shoreline miles, and 0.45 to 1.2 million acres. Much of the increased acreage, however, would have come from adding associated aquatic habitat, such as adjacent wetlands, rather than from expanding the fastland area where development is most likely to occur.

In 1988, Congress enacted the Great Lakes Barrier Act, which required DOI to identify additional units for the CBRS in the Great Lakes. The DOI recommended 112 Great Lakes units for inclusion in the CBRS.

In the 101st Congress, legislation (P.L. 101-591) enacted many of the recommendations in the DOI report, including expanding the CBRS from approximately 452,000 acres to 1,272,000 acres of undeveloped coastal barrier ("fastland") and associated aquatic habitat. These additions to the CBRS included acreage in the Great Lakes (31,450 acres), the Florida Keys (66,500 acres), Puerto Rico (20,834 acres), and the Virgin Islands (3,775 acres). It also required the DOI to prepare maps of undeveloped coastal barrier units on the Pacific Coast (except Alaska) and established processes for including federal excess property and "otherwise protected areas" in the CBRS. Finally, the enactment required federal agency self-certification of compliance with the CBRA, authorized a 2-year interagency task force for addressing additional options for the CURS, and appropriations of $1 million annually for the next two years to fund the task force. Congress has not acted since 1990, other than to make minor boundary adjustments.

Status of the Issue

Despite the enactment of the CURA and associated legislation, development in high-risk coastal areas continues, but largely outside the designated sites. However, the DOI has not reported on how the impact of the 1990 CBRS additions has affected the rate and pattern of the development of designated coastal barriers. Development will also depend on broader economic conditions. There are a variety of reasons for the continuing, but limited, development within these sites. One is that DOI may not have identified and Congress approved as many units as they might have for the CURS. Another is that coastal development, even on designated coastal barriers, might still be occurring to the extent that developers build without insurance or can find non-federal support for flood insurance as well as infrastructure. Development will also depend on broader economic conditions.

This continued coastal development -- on both developed and undeveloped coastal barriers -- raises the economic question of whether the federal government should subsidize this development through funding for infrastructure, or continue to pay (along with state/local governments and the private sector) for the increasing storm/flood damage and disaster assistance. Sea level rise is an important and controversial consideration in this debate.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. What federal budget savings would result if the federal government reduced or halted subsidies that foster continued coastal development on either developed or undeveloped coastal barriers? To what extent is private funding for infrastructure development and flood insurance substituted for withdrawn federal funding/subsidies?
  2. The possibility of sea level rise due to global climate change has been discussed. To what extent would the likelihood of such a rise affect the debate over federal program that foster development of coastal barriers?
  3. Are the qualifications for designating sites included in the coastal barrier system adequate, or should they be altered? Should the system include additional, or perhaps fewer, sites?

Sources and References for Further Information

Miller, H. Crane and Richard L. Stroup. Turning the Tide on Wasted Tax Dollars. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation and National Taxpayers Union, 1989. 24 p.

U.S. Congress, House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, Subcommittee on Policy Research and Insurance. The Coastal Barrier Improvement Act of 1990. Hearing, 101st Cong., 2nd Sess. Sept.11, 1990. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1991. 189 p. Serial No.101-167.

U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Environmental Protection. Coastal Barrier Resource System. Hearing, 101st Cong., 1st Sess. Sept.29, 1989. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1990. 143 p. S.Hrg. 101-363.

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Coastal Barrier Protection Issues in the 101st Congress. CRS Report for Congress IB90047 (archived). [by Malcolm M. Simmons.) Washington, DC: Jan. 8, 1991.

U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Coastal Barriers Study Group. Report to Congress: Coastal Barrier Resources System. Washington, DC: 1988.


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