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Why America is a leader in coastal engineering

By Staff | Jan 26, 2011

Is America a leader in coastal engineering…and, if so, why?

The answer to the first question is easy: Yes, America is a clearly a top spot for coastal engineering expertise. Meaningful coastal innovations and research occur around the world, driven by renowned academic institutions and unique national coastal issues. But when it comes to the breadth and depth of coastal knowledge, the U.S. is still seen by most as the leader. Why?

A wealth of coastal research and technology. Almost every coastal state can boast of its undergraduate and graduate-level coastal studies, which also reflect the diverse issues facing each state’s coastline while encouraging rigorous research into options and solutions to those issues.

On top of that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remains a national treasure of coastal talent and research, as well as a watchdog agency working with state regulators and private groups to help protect our coastal ecosystems.

The Corps (which has been in existence as long as this country itself) literally wrote the book on coastal management — the Coastal Engineering Manual, acknowledged as the bible of the field — and has a long and proud history as a leader in both coastal research and management of coastal infrastructure projects.

• This country’s unique coast: Other countries may have more challenging problems, but no one else has so many of those challenges within the same border. From gentle sandy shorelines to rugged coastal cliffs, from the Louisiana estuary bays to the cobbled Washington coast, from pristine parks to bustling ports, and through rivers and inlets galore, America’s coast has it all.

• The amount of coast to manage — and intensity of use it receives: With more than 12,300 miles of coastline, the U.S. ranks eighth worldwide — with about half of that coast in the contiguous U.S. But when you calculate coastline length against a county’s population, the U.S. jumps up to No. 2 in rank in terms of people living near a coast… and that doesn’t factor in tourism, where the U.S. is an international leader (and its beaches are an international magnet). Given the ease of access for the vast majority of the U.S. population (and tourists, too), that puts a lot of people on the beach a lot of the time.

• The economic value of that coastline: America’s coastal counties account for more than half of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and jobs; while also being the source for more than 85 percent of all tourism-related revenues. Add in the vital role America’s ports play in our global trade, and it’s easy to see that sound coastal management is a wise economic move.

• A balanced approach to coastal resource management: With the coast serving so many economic masters — shipping, fishing, habitat, tourism and recreation — and with its intensity of use and interaction, there remains a clear understanding that no one interest can overwhelm the others and that the delicate ecology of the coastline must be mirrored by a delicate balance of interests reflected in regulation, use and maintenance.

• A vibrant private-sector supplement to public coastal management efforts: In a unique way, American coastal management has evolved into an intricate web of government regulation with business innovation, public-sector policy leavened with private-sector entrepreneurship. Government may make sure the coastline is accessible and fairly regulated, while private interests work to keep it economically vital and environmentally safe.

We often hear about the coastal advances being achieved in other countries, engineering marvels or technological breakthroughs that are cutting-edge solutions to challenging issues. And we are right to applaud sound coastal management policies, wherever they originate.

But when you consider the diversity and difficulties throughout the American coast, and the range of resources that this country has brought to bear to better manage them, the picture that emerges is complexity balanced with competence, a palate of answers as broad as the issues they seek to address. That’s why American coastal experts are ready to put their talents and techniques up against the best the world has to offer, and are confident they will match any challenge this (or any) coast has to offer.

To find out more about America’s coast, go to www.asbpa.org.