The election of Joe Biden as President will surely bring changes to ways of managing environmental issues at various scales in the USA. This has already been foreshadowed with the nominations for cabinet positions, including the role of John Kerry on climate change. In correspondence with colleagues over the past four years it has been very concerning to see the decline in staff resources and funding support for many programs. But the way Trump and his appointments savaged those who seek longer term public good outcomes has been most alarming. But it has not been a total disaster as within government in the US there have been mechanisms that allow for continuity of programs that are based on long-standing federal legislation the likes of which do not exist in Australia.

Over the years I have followed the course of three US federal organisations that have direct coastal management responsibilities. They are the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Office of Coastal Management in NOAA (National Ocean Atmosphere Administration), and the National Estuary Program in the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). I have had the privilege of visiting offices of these three entities on different occasions and become familiar with some of their programs. Information on each can be easily accessed from their respective web sites.

The USACE is very well known to coastal engineers with their experimental and field programs going back many decades. Much of what they do has been debated by geologists and others such as Orrin Pilkey given divergent views on the impact of engineering works, and the way coastal systems change over time. But the Corps is a very established institution with strong congressional support. The passage of the Clean Waters Act in 1972 gave it powers to operate in coastal areas and river catchments and these operations continued during the Trump period. More recent works involving estuarine restoration indicate a more ecologic orientation that I discussed with officials on a visit in 2013.

The US Coastal Management Act of 1972 is something I have longed to see replicated in Australia. It provides a strong partnership link between state and federal coastal interests. It was subject to consideration by our House of Representatives coastal inquiry in 2009 (George Report), but sadly was not made into a recommendation. This reflected our federal government’s lack of commitment to putting into law a standing role for the Commonwealth to assist Australian states in on-going coastal matters. That is not the case in the US and it is pleasing to see that despite everything else NOAAs Office of Coastal Management established under this Act continues to operate. In a nutshell, the Act provides the basis for protecting, restoring, and responsibly developing the nation’s diverse coastal communities and resources. Over the years an elaborate set of administrative and monitoring arrangements have formed the National CZM Program that includes the provision of incentives to states to enhance their own programs in a number of areas including wetland health, mitigating hazards, public access, and special area planning. Despite budget problems, NOAA in FY 2019 invested $75 million to 34 participating states (including some from Great Lakes region) that was matched by $63m from state and local governments and other partners. Over 20% went locally to carry out projects that benefit coastal communities. We can only expect that these programs administered through regional offices of NOAA will continue and be enhanced in future given the recognised risks to coastal communities.

US EPA is a remarkable institution the likes of which we do not have in Australia although again many have advocated for its establishment. The National Estuary Program (NEP) is an EPA placed-based program established by Congress and was authorised by section 320 of the Clean Waters Act in 1987. It aims to protect and restore water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance.

There are 28 estuaries along Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts (and Puerto Rico) that are designated in the NEP. Each estuary must have its own Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMPs) said to be uniquely tailored to local conditions and priorities. I obtained a comprehensive briefing on these activities when last in Washington in 2013 but attempts to stay in touch with officers during the Trump period failed. However, as far as I can see from the NEP web site activities have continued using federal grants as leverage money with one “official” web site informing us that over the 2006-19 period the NEPs leveraged $6.3billion from $290million in EPA grants. These grants even helped with “critical land acquisitions”. Interestingly, I did find reference to support for ways in which NEPs addressed climate change despite the anti-climate change rhetoric of EPA top administrators. But the days of national EPA leadership in this area under the Bush-Obama years disappeared under Trump (see the impressive report entitled “Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: a focus on the mid-Atlantic region”, US Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.1 January 2009 which was formally transmitted to both the President and Congress). I cannot resist the comparison with Australia as the 2009 first pass climate change coastal risk assessments produced by the then Dept of Climate Change in 2009-11 “disappeared” during the Abbott years!

Now we hope that the Biden era will bring enhanced federal-state-local partnership programs in the US involving all three of these agencies. The US has an advantage over Australia as they have these entrenched funded and technically supported institutions that are charged with national responsibilities. They have a history of accomplishments that Trump and his accolades did not destroy. Periodically, or should I say spasmodically, our federal system allows for investment in CZM. Perhaps one day with a courageous government faced with the enormous task of protecting valued coastal resources under various threats from climate change we will see advantages in emulating some of the goodness built into the American system.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email