Coral reef restoration in the United States takes a major step forward as reefs are officially declared “national infrastructure”

On October 26, 2023, coral reef restoration—which is the activity that introduced me (Storm Cunningham) to the then-nascent restoration economy some 40 years ago—took a major step forward when the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF) approved a resolution that designates coral reefs along U.S. states and territories as national infrastructure.

This resolution makes it easier to direct federal funding, particularly infrastructure, hazard mitigation, and disaster recovery monies, to reef conservation and restoration to boost resilience for people, property, and livelihoods.

The Center for Coastal Climate Resilience at the University of California – Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz) drafted this policy resolution with its close federal partners at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Last year, UCSC led the development of guidance on Coral Reef Restoration for Risk Reduction (CR4) with these partners.

That guidance was approved and published by the task force, and this new resolution represents the follow-up action requested by the USCRTF.

Damages from storms, fueled by climate change and risky coastal development choices, are skyrocketing,” said Michael W. Beck, the director of UCSC’s Center for Coastal Climate Resilience and the AXA Chair in Coastal Resilience.

Reefs are the first line of defense for many communities across the USA but can also be heavily damaged during storms.

Perversely, federal disaster funding could be directed to redevelop human-made, artificial infrastructure such as seawalls, but not to restore our natural defenses,” said Beck.

In June, Puerto Rico received FEMA’s first-ever hazard mitigation funding for coral reef restoration.

Previously, USGS, UCSC, and NOAA rigorously quantified how damages to reefs from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 increased risks to the people of Puerto Rico and where reef restoration could provide the greatest protection benefits.

This resolution solidifies how important nature-based solutions are to protecting our coasts from the impacts of climate change and will make it easier to apply federal funding to preserve our natural infrastructure,” said Beck.

We will continue our work to redirect public and private risk and recovery funding so that it is invested equitably in cost-effective natural defenses and will help those disproportionately impacted in our coastal communities,” he concluded.

UCSC-led work shows that reefs are particularly important for protecting underserved, underrepresented, and vulnerable populations.

Photo of reef in Hawaii via Pixabay.

See UCSC Center for Coastal Climate Resilience website.

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