Nearly 10 Billion Taxpayer Dollars Saved by Bipartisan Coastal Law: New Economic Study

Study comes as Coastal Barrier Resources System undergoes 9-state revision after Hurricane Sandy.

Washington, DC –A new study published Friday in the Journal of Coastal Research shows that the federal Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) has saved the federal treasury $9.5 billion and projects additional savings of $11-109 billion over the next 50 years. The savings to date are higher than previously thought, showing how effectively the program protects U.S. taxpayers from bearing the cost of coastal storm damages. (Full article PDF here.)

“The Coastal Barrier Resources System was one of the best ideas Congress ever had,” said Karen Hyun, Vice President for Coastal Conservation at National Audubon Society. “And this study tells us that it works exactly the way it’s supposed to. It delivers massive federal savings plus environmental protections that help coastal communities withstand deadly storms and hurricanes.” The Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), which created the System in 1982, uses a free-market approach to coastal conservation: it bans most federal tax dollars for development and rebuilding on storm prone, ecologically sensitive coastal areas, which helps conserve them as wildlife habitat and essential buffers against storms and flooding for coastal communities. “Concrete walls aren’t the answer for the kinds of storms and flooding we have been seeing. Billion-dollar, 500-year storms are becoming annual events. Natural infrastructure like wetlands, islands and beaches are nature’s front line of defense and keeping them development-free is a common sense way for us to reduce storm impacts and keep costs down for taxpayers.”

The first published, peer reviewed study of its kind, “An Analysis of Federal Expenditures Related to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) of 1982,” finds that CBRA reduced federal coastal disaster expenditures by $9.5 billion (in 2016 dollars) between 1989 and 2013. The only other known attempt to determine the program’s fiscal impact was in 2002, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that CBRA would save approximately $1.3 billion (in 1996 dollars)from 1983 through 2010.

The authors model different kinds of scenarios to calculate future cost savings 10, 30 and 50 years into the future. In a series of three tables, they lay out low, medium and high rates at which these acres could have developed were they not part of the CBRS, along with low, medium and high levels of potential damage, depending on the number and severity of coastal storms. They conclude that CBRA will save taxpayers:

  • Between $3.78 billion and $17.09 billion in the next 10 years.
  • Between $8.69 billion and $62.86 billion over the next 30 years.
  • Between $11.4 billion and $108.59 billion over the next 50 years.

The study evaluated disaster expenditures from four federal agencies (Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], Department of Transportation [DOT], Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]) in the time period 1989–2013. National Flood Insurance Program expenditure figures for this time period were inconsistent and unreliable and therefore excluded from the study; had they been included, costs savings would have been found to be even greater.

The analysis is based on actual USDA 2012 Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) land development rate data to calculate annual federal expenditures that would have been paid out in 93 coastal counties had they been developed. The authors are Andrew S. Coburn (Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, Western Carolina University) and John C. Whitehead (Department of Economics, Appalachian State University). The peer reviewed research was contracted by the National Audubon Society under a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

CBRS, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, designates undeveloped coastal barriers along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico coasts as ineligible for most federal subsidies for building, rebuilding and disaster recovery. It encourages the conservation of hurricane prone, biologically rich coastal barriers, which function as the first line of defense against storm surges and flooding for coastal communities and provide wildlife habitat. CBRS currently includes approximately 3.5 million acres of islands, beaches and wetlands, some of which are privately owned (System Units, 1.4 million acres) and others of which are wildlife refuges, state and national parks and public and private conservation areas (Otherwise Protected Areas, 2.1 million acres).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently accepting public comment on part of its proposal to add 277,000 acres to the System, and remove 1,344, in the nine coastal states (Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, New York (Long Island), Rhode Island and Virginia) that were impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  

“The Coastal Barrier Resources System is a win-win-win-win program,” said Hyun. “From Audubon’s point of view, birds win because it preserves places where birds like Piping Plovers and Brown Pelicans nest and raise their chicks. Nationwide, taxpayers win because they aren’t forced to subsidize risky development in flood-prone areas. Recreational and commercial fishing wins, too, because coastal wetlands and waters support the multi-billion dollar fishing industry.  And people who live and work along these coasts win because sandy beaches and barriers absorb the blow of a storm surge while wetlands limit flooding.”

CBRA has enjoyed bipartisan support since it was first signed into law by President Reagan in 1982, including in bipartisan legislation passed by Congress (HR 5787) in December 2018 that added 18,000 acres to the System. CBRA is supported by free market think tanks, taxpayer advocacy groups, insurance industry groups, and organizations representing state level officials on the front lines of managing flood-prone areas.  It is also supported by National Audubon Society and other national and state wildlife and conservation groups.

Audubon is working to rebuild and strengthen coastlines as first lines of defense from storms, tidal surges, and rising seas. The Coastal Barrier Resources Act is a focus of Audubon’s Coastal Resilience efforts that prioritize natural infrastructure.

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon’s state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon’s vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more at and @audubonsociety.

Media Contact: Anne Singer, 202-271-4679,