Along America’s Coasts, Little-Known Law Has Potential for Big Impact

Coastal Zone Management Act seeks to balance ecosystem health, development

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Along America’s Coasts, Little-Known Law Has Potential for Big Impact
A boat motors past a Santa Barbara, California, beach near where an oil well blowout devastated hundreds of miles of shoreline in 1969. The accident helped spur approval of important environmental laws, including the Coastal Zone Management Act.
Mitch Diamond/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, millions of gallons of crude oil fouled the waters off California’s Central Coast in what was then the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The accident affected 300 miles of coastline, from Pismo Beach to northern Mexico.

Public outcry over the spill and other environmental problems helped drive adoption of several federal laws, including the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), which Congress passed in 1972. It sought to balance conservation and reasonable development of the country’s coastal areas.

The law plays an increasingly important role in American life because almost 40 percent of Americans—more than 123 million people—lived on or near a shoreline in 2010, a number that was forecast to increase by 10 million in the following decade. These communities are increasingly vulnerable to destructive hurricanes, erosion, and rising sea levels caused by climate change. In addition to providing vital shelter and food for fish and birds, coastal habitats such as salt marshes and oyster reefs can help reduce damage from flooding, coastal storms, and storm surges. As coastal populations continue to grow, conserving these natural defenses will become even more critical.

Law helps states, territories manage these vulnerable areas

The CZMA provides federal grants to states and territories to conserve their coasts and adjacent waters and uplands, and gives these jurisdictions a voice in proposed federal actions that may affect their conservation zones.

The 34 states participating in the National Coastal Zone Management Program have developed plans that meet six broad objectives and include mechanisms that support federal-state collaboration to achieve those goals. Each plan is developed with public participation and in close collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The U.S. secretary of commerce, who oversees NOAA, reviews and ultimately approves the plans.

Approved plans make states eligible for federal grants and technical assistance to support the proposed work. Since 1972, more than $2 billion has been awarded to participating states and territories.

The law also grants states the right to review federal agency actions that could affect their coastal areas and the authority to appeal those actions if they are inconsistent with the state’s plan.

Every five years, states and NOAA review past priorities and identify upcoming ones, focusing on nine “enhancement areas,” such as reducing development in high-risk coastal tracts, conserving wetlands, and promoting public access to coastal areas. This process allows states and territories to assess and report on their accomplishments and to qualify for federal funding to support additional programmatic improvements. This month, NOAA kicked off its most recent review, giving states an opportunity to identify priorities for coastal management for 2021-25.

Other coastal protection programs created by the law

The CZMA also created a tool known as the special area management plan, which can advance three overarching goals within its designated area: balance natural resource conservation with reasonable economic growth, improve protection of life and property in hazardous areas, and foster more predictability in government decision-making. States can receive NOAA funding and technical assistance to achieve these and other goals.

The law also established the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, under which states and NOAA designate estuaries—coastal places where freshwater and saltwater mix—for long-term research, monitoring, public education, training, and stewardship. The system has 29 sites across the U.S. Many scientists regard these as living laboratories where federal, state, and local agencies, universities, and communities can research and monitor water quality and other factors vital to healthy ecosystems. The reserves also can help to conserve or restore sensitive habitats like seagrass and wetlands.

Although many Americans may be unfamiliar with the Coastal Zone Management Act, it creates opportunities for critical federal-state partnerships to sustain and enhance the country’s coastal areas. As The Pew Charitable Trusts embarks on work focused on conserving these ecosystems, we plan to encourage greater use of the law’s programs to help support these critical environments.

Ted Morton directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts at the federal level to protect ocean life and coastal habitats. Sylvia Troost helps lead Pew’s initiatives to conserve marine life in the United States.

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