Protecting the Nation’s Coasts: How NOAA’s Digital Coast Became a Game Changer

July 26, 2017
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The federal government is no stranger to headlines and late night punch lines for inefficiency, overspending, and bureaucracy. But one agency – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – is contradicting this perception. NOAA’s Digital Coast initiative is an example of government done right. You may not have heard of it, but chances are the Digital Coast is supporting economic development and protecting your community or a favorite vacation destination today.

Now in its 10th year, Digital Coast brings together public agencies, nonprofits, academia, and private industry to share resources for the common good. The Digital Coast platform provides communities with a wealth of valuable data, tools, and training they need to address issues impacting coastal regions, and threatening jobs and homes, such as storm surges and sea levels that could rise up to eight feet this century. This public-private partnership delivers a proven return on investment and enables the agency to get the most bang for the taxpayers’ bucks. In fact, the Digital Coast’s benefits have exceeded costs by a margin of 3:1 according to NOAA’s “Projected Benefits and Costs of the Digital Coast” report. With continued operation through 2030, Digital Coast will achieve an estimated 411 percent ROI, as noted in the report.

A Deeper Dive into the Digital Coast

The U.S. coastline – including oceans, bays, and lakes – represents only about 10 percent of our total land area. But a NOAA study found that nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population – more than 123 million people – live in coastal zones, and that number is projected to grow 8 percent, to nearly 133 million people, by 2020.

More frequent severe weather, like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, plus rising sea levels and natural disasters continue to change landscapes, putting natural habitats and the lives and livelihoods of citizens at risk. When tragedy strikes, it’s clear that these communities need better resources to adequately address risks associated with their proximity to the coast.

Digital Coast was designed with these concerns in mind. Launched in 2007, it’s a central repository of information designed to meet the unique needs of the coastal management community. The Digital Coast is a website that hosts content from hundreds of sources – nongovernmental organizations; city, county, state and federal governments; private companies; and academia – all of which are vetted by NOAA. It contains more than 115 collections, including bathymetric (underwater depths of lake or ocean floors) and topographic (surface of the earth) imagery, weather radar and elevation data, as well as nearly 1,900 individual data sets.

More importantly, Digital Coast gives state, county, and local governments the tools, training, and resources they need to turn the raw data into information they can use. Before Digital Coast, these entities likely had little or no access to such tools and computing power, or expertise in using them. Digital Coast fills that gap, providing solutions like visualization and predictive tools, and search capabilities, that make data easier to find and understand. And for those organizations that need assistance using the tools, NOAA provides online training or offers courses at users’ locations.

Digital Coast is a one-of-a-kind resource that provides access to everything from economic information to satellite imagery, giving city planners, developers, and even private citizens like you and me, the tools to understand how communities may be impacted if the sea level rises, why development along the coast may affect natural resources, or how weather trends may reshape the landscape.

Digital Coast: Impressive Taxpayer Return

From coast to coast, communities are benefiting from Digital Coast’s collaborative resources. Experts in wildfire-weary Southern California, for example, have used Digital Coast tools to analyze 26 years of data to develop better strategies for land use and natural resource management, and assess vulnerabilities. Across the country, officials in Georgia's beloved Tybee Island – a robust residential area and popular summer destination – were concerned that rising sea levels could cut off access to the single causeway that connected it to the mainland. Sophisticated data and tools, such as Sea Level Viewer, enabled researchers, and state and local planners, to collaborate in building a solid adaptation plan, then focus the public conversation on the most vulnerable areas, ultimately making the area more resilient over time.

With $25 million worth of net benefits already delivered in its first decade, Digital Coast is expected to reach $117 million with continued operation over the next 15 years. But this could be at risk, given the current political environment and proposed budget cuts at NOAA.

The Digital Coast Act

Acknowledging the success of the Digital Coast program, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) introduced the Digital Coast Act (S.110). The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), passed the Senate in May and seeks to develop deeper data sets in new frontiers, like Alaska – which spans more than 5,580 miles of coastlines – and Arctic areas, where there is insufficient satellite or high-resolution LiDAR. Most importantly, the bill seeks to make the Digital Coast initiative an official government program, and authorizes $4 million for each fiscal year between 2018 and 2022 to support the program – an important step in ensuring it can keep delivering benefits despite many proposed federal budget cuts.

The Digital Coast is an ideal model for the federal government to apply within other agencies, as it has proven how to make the most of taxpayers’ money – something that is critical today as proposed budgets seek to cut costs and streamline expenses. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives should now work to advance the Digital Coast Act, as passage of this legislation is critical to ensuring that constituencies around the country have access to valuable information that supports economic development, protects natural resources and averts costly disasters.

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