Climate Change Daily Repost

Managed retreat – Words rarely spoken

Sea levels rise, and coastal cities flood. The Center for Climate Integrity estimates that by 2040 protecting larger cities (more than 25,000 residents) with seawalls will cost over $42 billion. If the smaller cities are included, then the cost leaps to over $400 billion. So what happens when the cost of protecting low lying neighborhoods exceeds their collective property taxes? There are various temporary fixes, but the obvious solution of “managed retreat” is rarely discussed.

 Human psychology is geared towards resilience, not retreat. Taxpayers respond best to the message that their properties will be protected at all costs. The stark truth is that there is not enough money to continue protecting all of the properties threatened by rising seas. When tidal flooding regularly inundates streets, then the writing is on the wall. Either the government provides expensive protection, or the residents eventually relocate.

The cost of tidal flooding

King tides and tidal flooding bring home the reality of rising sea levels for many coastal residents. They live on the margins of climate change and don’t have the luxury of denying that their streets and front lawns are increasingly underwater. Still, talk of a managed retreat from low-lying neighborhoods is awkward. No one wants to abandon their home. But regular flooding creates access problems for these neighborhoods, and the costs to residents are two-fold. 

The direct cost is related to water damage or the costs of avoiding it. Some residents eat the expense of raising their homes on stilts or pillars. But others simply pay to mend the regular damage caused by saltwater. Also, there is a cost for constantly driving over flooded roads. Saltwater corrosion reduces the life of people’s vehicles. The second longer-term cost to residents is the loss of property value. Because without intervention, neighborhoods that regularly flood become less desirable for buyers. 

However, the expenses from coastal flooding extend beyond the individual homeowner and affect all city taxpayers. Saltwater is corrosive and damages water lines, sewer lines, and roads. Repairing this infrastructure is not cheap. Fixing the current sewer line corrosion problem in Fort Lauderdale will take $1.4 billion they don’t currently have.

Managed retreat or market decline

City planners face a dilemma. Scientists and city planners understand that mother nature ultimately wins out along the coast. While the protection of limited areas is possible, economic reality dictates that huge expenditures to protect small areas is not generally feasible. 

An orderly, managed retreat is better than an unmanaged retreat, but the orderly solution is politically unpopular. No elected official wants to kick voters out of their homes or tell voters that they should relocate. No matter what the timeframe on a retreat strategy, some voters will lose out. If the city declares that in 30 years they will no longer support municipal services in a neighborhood, then voters in that neighborhood suffer an immediate and significant loss in property value. In the Vision 2100 plan for the coastal city of Norfolk, Virginia, the work retreat is only used once. That one reference states that the city won’t retreat.

 As opposed to talking about retreating, the preferred option in most cities involves letting “market forces” dictate the way forward. There is some logic in this approach since the loss of market appeal due to flooding will slowly discourage people from moving into certain neighborhoods. As property values fall, then only those who have no other options will move in, or the homes will be abandoned. 

When the neighborhoods are devoid of influence and wealth, then the city can abandon the maintenance of infrastructure without negatively impacting elected officials. The relocation of residents will still be required, but it is cheaper relocating poor people rather than wealthy ones. So, the market option allows planners the luxury of avoiding normal long-term city planning in favor of kicking the can down the road.


King tides, bringing reality home (Source: ArcheanWeb) – Also:

Saltwater and sewers: A nasty combination (Source: ArcheanWeb) – Also:

Climate change at the margins (Source ArcheanWeb) – Also:


Climate Change Turns the Tide on Waterfront Living (By Jim Morrison; Wachington Post) – Also:

Feature Image: Tangier, Va. (Modified) –   By U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District from United States – 160916-OI229-A-021, Public Domain,

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.