A project recently undertaken by engineers at the University of Georgia hopes to assure coastal marshes remain protected.
In a new collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and funded by Georgia Sea Grant, researchers are tackling marsh preservation by bringing together unlikely partners: insurance agencies.
Healthy salt marshes provide protective benefits such as water filtration, flood prevention, and regulation of water levels.
“Since they are an advantage, how should we allocate resources as if it were an asset like a concrete seawall or a concrete wall?” asked Matthew Bilskie, a UGA engineer who focuses on coastal resilience.
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If a concrete wall is blown away during a storm, Bilskie said, it gets repaired afterward. This project is trying to figure out how to do the same for natural resources.
“The goal is not to put a monetary value on the salt marsh,” Bilskie said, but to begin this pilot project to explore how natural resources can be valued based on how they serve the environment and the community.
Resource science and economics
Although projects like this are rare, The Nature Conservancy conducted a similar project to assess the benefits of mangroves in Florida.
Bilskie is joined by UGA’s Yukiko Hashida, a natural resources economist, who said this is her first time studying salt marshes. In the past, she has worked extensively with natural resources that are traded, as well as those in grayer spaces, such as forests. Forests have benefits beyond their ability to make paper, such as air purification, and Hashida said her experience working to assess the non-tradable environmental benefits of forests will transfer to work with salt marshes. .
Hashida said salt marshes are somewhat similar in this way because they have fish, biodiversity, water filtering and quality control, all of which have not been quantified by trade. She called it an exciting exercise to apply this kind of thinking to a new subject.
Using an empirical approach, Hashida assesses past storm damage. These statistics allow him to isolate the different variables that may contribute to storm damage and determine the role salt marshes play in reducing impacts and protecting inland communities.
For Hashida, tying a natural resource to insurance is an exciting approach because of the time scale.
“The insurance industry, by definition, is long term (planning) – they have to go beyond 30 years, 50 years, and so they really explore climate change and sea level rise” , said Hashida.
Individual owners are much less likely to purchase additional salt marsh insurance and to think in terms of 50-100 year scales. But larger entities, like insurance agencies or government, routinely plan for this far into the future and can be good partners for long-term sustainability planning.
Bilskie and Hashida emphasized that they are scientists, not insurers. A big part of The Nature Conservancy’s project involves bringing together stakeholders, from local governments to different types of insurers, to discuss the kind of science-based questions the UGA team can answer. answer.
Georgia Sea Grant, beyond funding, provides inroads to stakeholders and community members invested in the project. Because the Marine Grants Program has extension officers all along the coast, these officers have already established strong relationships with members of the coastal community who might be interested in the project.
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The first year of the two-year grant will focus on collecting data and analyzing the numbers, while the second will focus on explaining their findings to stakeholder groups.
But Bilskie said his team expected the project to last well over two years. Georgia Sea Grant funds the project for the first two years, but the team will seek additional funding from multiple sources and continue to develop their work for perhaps a decade or more.
Ultimately, he said the goal was to include salt marsh preservation as part of the insurance. While the scientists will come to an end, Bilskie said it’s up to insurance agencies to take the data and incorporate it into their own calculations.
Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (912) 328-4411.