Americans Love Our Beaches, But Who Will Protect Them?

Millions of Americans visit our nation's sandy shores every year to relax, socialize, swim, paddle, or simply enjoy the view. Our nation's beaches are also major drivers of our coastal economies. From the coast of Maine to the shores of Hawaii, beaches attract an endless stream of visitors who patronize local hotels and businesses. According to the National Ocean Economics Program, ocean tourism and recreation contributes over $100 billion to our GDP every year.

Unfortunately, our nation's beaches are now in serious peril, jeopardized by an ever-growing number of threats. Industries, both old and new, are staking their claim to develop in our coastal environment. Water quality is a major issue, with over 20,000 beach closures and advisories issued each year. And, beaches themselves are shrinking or disappearing altogether, choked by private development on one side and sea level rise on the other.

The good news is that solutions to many of these problems are well within our grasp. The question is whether we will embrace these approaches before it's too late. If so, our National Ocean Policy will almost certainly be a key piece of the puzzle.

In 2010, the National Ocean Policy was created by President Obama based on the recommendations of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Recognizing the value of our nation's blue economy, the policy directs federal agencies to work with states, tribes, stakeholders, and the public to "protect and restore our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes".

A cornerstone of the policy is regional ocean planning - a bottom-up process to address the many competing uses of our ocean. For beachgoers, this provides a unique opportunity to protect special coastal places by steering new potential development, such as wind farms or aquaculture, to less sensitive areas.

In regions such as New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Pacific Northwest, the coastal recreation sector is asserting itself as a major player in ocean planning. Thousands of coastal enthusiasts are speaking out for their favorite beaches, aided by scientific studies that spotlight the enormous values of ocean recreation. The anticipated outcome is ocean plans that will protect some of our nation's most outstanding coastlines.

Similar strategies must also be employed to address the impacts of climate change on our beaches. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, over 50% of surveyed U.S. coastlines are at high risk for beach loss due to sea level rise. Such assessments do not bode well for the future of our beaches, which is why bold actions are needed to protect these resources for the future.

This includes appropriate set backs for new development to ensure that our coasts can adapt to rising seas. It also means embracing shoreline protection strategies that mimic natural processes. The good news is that many states already have strong policies to support shoreline planning efforts. Other states, however, continue to stick their heads in the sand, hoping the problem will simply go away. With sea level projected to rise up of 2-3 feet by 2050, it is high time we stop reacting to coastal erosion and begin planning for the future.

Finally, to protect the public health of beachgoers, it's crucial that we support the federal BEACH Act. A day at the beach should not make you sick, but the reality is that thousands of people succumb to stomach bugs, skin rashes, and other ailments from visiting the shore. The BEACH Act was passed in 2000 to help states pay for water quality monitoring and spur local solutions to pollution problems. Yet, despite a paltry funding level of $10 million a year, the BEACH Act is in serious jeopardy of being cut from the federal budget.

If you're like most Americans, chances are you'll visit the beach at least once before the year is over. In an age of political division and technological revolution, beach going has somehow endured as a communal activity that binds us together as a nation. It's so important that our federal leaders hear from constituents who benefit from the BEACH Act and other policies described above.