Putting Wetlands to Work for Disaster Recovery

Audubon's policy platform lays out the need for natural infrastructure to protect birds and people in the face of climate change.
Aerial view of the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center at Pine Island in Corolla, North Carolina. Justin Cook

No one will forget the intense challenges that 2020 brought us, from record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires to a global pandemic that devastated our economy and public health. As Congress and the Biden administration look to help our country rebuild and recover from these compounding crises, investing in nature presents an opportunity to deliver multiple benefits for communities, birds, and other wildlife. Audubon presents a new suite of policy recommendations for making our communities and wildlife more resilient to climate change, by putting our wetlands, barrier islands, and other ecosystems to work.

Just like roads and bridges, our natural landscapes—like marshes, beaches, and floodplains—provide critical services to our communities. They serve as safe recreational spaces, enhance our resilience to climate threats like increasing flooding and drought, and improve habitats for birds and other wildlife. They also act as carbon sinks by storing carbon pollution in their leaves, roots, and soils, bringing the U.S. closer to meeting the Biden administration’s recently announced goal to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030.

The effects of climate change are already being felt by communities around the country who are facing rising seas, more intense and frequent storms, heavier rainfall events, or more extreme droughts. More than 41 million Americans face rising flood risks, and $1 trillion in properties in the U.S. are threatened by sea-level rise alone.

Birds are also telling us that we need to act on climate change. Climate change is already threatening the survival of birds like the Saltmarsh Sparrow, which are increasingly seeing their nests inundated by floodwaters, and warmer waters are driving the fish that seabirds rely on further and deeper into the ocean. As a result, sea- and shorebird populations have decreased by 70 percent over the last several decades.

Natural infrastructure presents an opportunity for addressing climate threats to both birds and communities, while putting people back to work in safe, high-paying restoration jobs. Natural infrastructure is engineering with nature. It involves restoring and mimicking natural landscapes like wetlands to buffer communities against flooding, enhance habitats for birds and other wildlife, and absorb carbon pollution—delivering multiple benefits for communities and birds.

By protecting natural barrier islands and restoring marshes, we can shore up these first lines of defense that protect communities against storm surge and rising seas. We can reconnect rivers and lakes, and restore natural floodplains to absorb the heavy rains that are increasingly flooding communities. Finally, we need to help our communities adapt to a changing climate, by incorporating climate-resilient rebuilding practices and nature-based approaches into our disaster recovery and hazard mitigation programs.

Plus, natural infrastructure can be more cost-efficient than traditional “gray” infrastructure-- like seawalls and jetties—when accounting for environmental and social values. For example, our economic analysis shows that removing a flood-prone road and restoring salt marsh in the Mastic Beach community on Long Island, New York, will return $15 for every dollar invested, in terms of flood risk reduction, habitat, recreational values, and more.

Gray infrastructure built to protect against today’s 100-year flood event will become less protective over time as flood risks increase with sea-level rise and changing rainfall patterns. While gray infrastructure will be necessary to protect some communities, gray and natural infrastructure can work together to create more durable and environmentally beneficial projects that create multiple lines of defense.

Audubon is already working with our partners around the country to demonstrate how we can put our coasts and waterways to work to better protect our communities. In Marin City, California and southeast Chicago, we are working to restore urban wetlands and alleviate flooding in nearby communities. In the Carolinas, we are protecting and restoring islands that protect mainland communities and serve as home to a large number of nesting coastal birds. And in Connecticut, Audubon is working with landowners to create space for marshes to “migrate” inland as the ocean encroaches.

As Congress and the Administration make economic investments to help the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and look for ways to build resilience and combat climate change, they should prioritize natural infrastructure as win-win-win for birds and people.

Download Audubon's natural infrastructure policy platform: Building Resilience with Nature.