THE BLOG

Losing Ground

04/01/2015 06:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Despite the vital importance of coastal wetlands and the public and private efforts to save them, the nation is losing the preservation battle. According to the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) analysis, more than 1500 square miles of these precious wetlands were eliminated, mostly by development, between 1996 and 2011.

This is particularly bad news for the more than 125 million Americans who live on or near the coast. Depending on location, they can be beneficiaries of these fast-disappearing wetland buffers that mitigate the impacts of super storm surges and inexorable global warming-related sea level rise.

These wetlands' value is affirmed by an Army Corps of Engineers study in the aftermath of the Atlantic Coast's Super Storm Sandy. Researchers found that coastal wetlands can reduce flooding by anywhere from five to 40 percent.

Unfortunately, when the original wetlands are eliminated, human beings have a difficult time offsetting the loss. Not only have restoration programs failed to keep pace with the rate of depletion due to human encroachment. Just as germane, rarely has society been able to come close to reproducing the rich biodiversity and eco-functionality that once naturally existed.

Many realtors shrug their shoulders and contend that to ban development in coastal wetlands constitutes a serious impediment to economic growth.

Hold on. If you want to talk about economic threats, direct your attention to a recent Reuters analysis. It identified at least $1.4 trillion in high risk American coastal private property that wetlands shield at least in part from the forces of nature.

But flood control is just one aspect of wetlands' economic munificence. Coastal wetlands provide billions of dollars in benefits through water storage and purification, erosion mitigation, spawning grounds for fisheries, recreational opportunities and habitat for 75 percent of water fowl and 45 percent of endangered species. The overall positive contribution to the economy is open-ended and thus dwarfs any short-term benefits from development.

As retired Republican House Science Committee chairman Sherry Boehlert points out, society is often forced to replace filled-in natural wetlands with extremely expensive dams, levees or sewage treatment facilities, all with limited life spans.

Hence, when suitable open space is available, it makes fiscal sense to attempt to restore original wetlands as best as one can. That is confirmed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The progressive scientific think tank reports that when best practices are applied in wetland restoration efforts, 15 dollars in benefits are generally returned for every dollar spent, even when full ecological recovery is not realized.

Still, with restoration usually being imperfect, it is much preferred not to lose any more of the remaining half of the nation's original wetlands. To advance that objective, such valuable real estate should ideally be zoned off-limits to development. Short of that, flood insurance for wetland development should be astronomically priced or denied altogether to discourage permanent settlement or rebuilding of demolished structures on ecologically strategic coastal areas.

NOAA statistics indicate there is not a moment to lose.