Growing Returns

Three ways to make home buyouts more efficient

By: Gabrielle Rosario, EDF Intern

Each year, flood risk increases from sea level rise and storms, raising major concerns among millions of homeowners. Flooding can inundate homes, damage property and cause safety and health concerns, as well as isolate residents from essential government services like trash pickup or emergency vehicle access. In fact, by 2030, over 20 million Americans will be at risk of inundation due to sea level rise, and many will be unable to afford to move.  

Managed retreat policies, such as voluntary home buyouts, can facilitate the relocation of residents out of increasingly flood-prone communities. But unfortunately, existing federal programs are slow and require local governments to meet complex and challenging guidelines. 

Innovative approaches are needed to make buyouts more efficient. Here are three strategies that can help: 

1. Establish state-level buyout programs

States can establish state-level flood buyout programs in which a state department funds, organizes and manages home acquisitions in local governments. On average, these programs are faster, less complex and provide more flexibility compared to federal programs. 

A great example is New Jersey’s Blue Acres program, a state buyout program under the Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). Since its founding in 1995, the NJDEP has spent $190 million to acquire more than 1,000 properties with an average processing time of six to 12 months to complete, compared to an average five years for buyouts funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And in 2022, the state allocated another $50 million to continue to grow this impactful program.

Blue Acres also builds strong relationships with localities by inviting them into the decision-making process through comprehensive community engagement and outreach. Additionally, NJDEP employs staffers with diverse backgrounds, including human ecologists, planners and social workers that have the capacity and technical expertise to help localities through each step of the process.

2. Develop state or local funding mechanisms to finance buyouts

States can help fund local buyout programs and reduce the cost-share requirements of federal programs, which can be a burden for local governments with limited budgets. 

For instance, state bonds can shorten a buyout process from 18 months to as little as three. States may also use revolving loan funds, which provide low-interest loans to localities and are funded by interest and principal payments from older loans so the program can operate cyclically. Finally, states can use grant programs, which provide debt-free funding to localities for flood buyouts.  

Local governments can also choose to fund buyouts with their own budgets, which are on average quicker and allow for greater control over the process, which can lessen burdens to meet complex federal requirements.  

Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina serves as an example of a successful locally-funded buyout program. As the area was unable to meet the complex requirements laid out by FEMA, the county created its own funding mechanism. The program now utilizes funding from local stormwater utility fees, allowing the county to streamline its process and quickly purchase homes after floods. Since 1999, the program has purchased more than 400 properties, and the buyouts take an average of six months to complete. 

3. Build capacity for local buyout programs

Many local communities lack the expertise and capacity to apply for federal funding and are unable to implement buyouts on their own. An effective strategy is for federal and state agencies to provide technical assistance or training to local governments on buyout applications.  

At the federal level, FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should develop buyout training modules for communities, including grant application workshops or cost-benefit analysis training. They can also increase funding for staffing at the state level, which would assist communities applying to federal grants. 

Increasing state agency staffing across multiple departments can also provide support for local governments, including training, templates, technical advice and interim reviews to localities, which in turn builds local governments’ capacity to implement buyouts. Greater staffing could also improve transparency of government actions during buyouts, as there are more staff dedicated to communicating with residents to explain the process. This can thereby build residents’ trust in government, leading to smoother implementation. 

With flood risks increasing across the country in coastal and inland areas alike, we need more tools in the toolbox to make our communities more resilient to climate change. Improving access to and the effectiveness of voluntary flood buyouts will help Americans adapt to a climate-driven future. 


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On this International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, protecting the Nation’s wetlands is more important and urgent than ever

By: Ivy Steinberg McElroy, EDF’s Climate Resilient Coasts & Watersheds Intern

The International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction was established by the United Nations General Assembly to accelerate action to strengthen disaster resilience. In the United States, this day comes on the heels of a major blow to our Nation’s wetlands. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to narrow the scope of protections for wetlands, as defined in the Clean Water Act. As result, this landmark decision could cause detrimental impacts to the environment, communities and economy. That means more flooding – especially for more vulnerable communities downstream.  Read More »

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The impact of storm surge barriers on estuaries and ecosystems

By Philip Orton, Research Associate Professor, Stevens Institute of Technology

Due to the increasing frequency and risk of coastal storms and flood disasters, many governments and decision makers are looking to construct gated storm surge barriers.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is recommending these large steel and concrete barriers be built across entrances to 11 U.S. estuaries, enabling closure during storm surges to minimize coastal flooding. However, many scientists are wary of the potential effects these barriers could have on coastal ecosystems, leading many advocates to push for a precautionary approach or their outright rejection.

Published in the scientific journal Earth’s Future and supported in part by funding from  Environmental Defense Fund, colleagues and I recently formulated a new research agenda focused on the intersection between the increased use of storm surge barriers and the resulting estuary impacts. These are three key takeaways from our research:

Photo by: Rens Jacobs
Rijkswaterstaat, Data-ICT-Dienst, Beeldarchief Rijkswaterstaat

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Why every state needs a Chief Resilience Officer

By Makenna Cavanaugh, Federal Affairs Intern, Climate Resilient Coasts and Watersheds

Communities across the country are grappling with the whiplash of flooding and extreme storms as the frequency and severity of climate hazards reach unprecedented levels. From economic instability to safety hazards, to inequities and the destruction of entire neighborhoods, these events have proven to have devastating and lasting impacts. And one thing is made clear – we need real, robust solutions and we need them across all levels of government to protect communities and promote long-term sustainability.  

Some states have acted by establishing a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), a government position that is responsible for spearheading resilience coordination and bringing together stakeholders to build, develop and implement resilience strategies. Creating a state-level CRO helps leaders effectively plan at the state, county and municipal level and is a major step forward in protecting communities from future climate impacts. 

Currently, 21 states have an established resiliency office or position at the state level. Among them, 11 states have a CRO.  Read More »

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Climate-driven floods could displace millions of Americans. Local buyout programs could help them relocate.

By Kelly Varian, Master of Public Affairs Student at UC Berkeley

Flooding is the most frequent and costly natural disaster in the United States, causing over $30 billion in damage annually, with disproportionate effects on low-income communities. With climate change exacerbating flood risk and population growth continuing in high-risk areas, over 40 million Americans living along rivers and inland floodplains, along with 13 million more on the coasts, could see their homes inundated with water by the end of the century. 

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My perspectives on how we can inspire the next generation of Black climate leaders.

By Arianna Mackey, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Summer 2022 Intern

I became aware of my community’s lack of environmental awareness at a very young age. Growing up in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, my family and I visited the Nauticus museum often. One afternoon, after spending time in the flooding exhibit, I explained to my mom that due to increased flooding, Virginia Beach would be inhabitable in the future, with standing water reaching the front door following a storm. She brushed me off by saying it was an “over-exaggeration” and our community was fine. That encounter piqued my interest in environmentalism. Read More »

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This Leadership Institute graduate sees a path to water security through an often overlooked strategy: innovation.

Joseph Gallegos’ interest in water and climate change began as a hobby after he retired as a telecom executive during the 2015 drought. Tired of watching his lawn go brown, Joseph decided to build a system to take water use by his washing machine and deliver it to his lawn, since no such product existed at the time.

His solution took off and is now available at Lowe’s under the brand Grey4Green, a company Joseph founded that aims to promote water and climate resilience through innovation and community outreach. In 2019, Joseph started working on another system to substantially reduce water use on farms, which is called the aquifer pipe.

I first learned about Joseph’s innovative and entrepreneurial drive when planning for the next cohort of the Leadership Institute, a program he participated in last year facilitated by the Environmental Defense Fund and Rural Community Assistance Corporation. The institute builds capacity and leadership skills so members of disadvantaged and underrepresented communities can more effectively engage in water decision-making and help develop equitable, long-lasting water solutions.

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3 ingredients for success in soil health

This blog was originally posted on Soil Health Partnership’s blog.

Profitable conservation systems don’t look the same on every farm. Growers must implement different strategies to address their specific needs, thanks to a wide range of variables including soil type, moisture availability, equipment and labor. However, just because every farmer takes a slightly different approach to soil health doesn’t mean there aren’t some consistent success factors.

In our recent report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line (developed in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund and the agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom), we discovered that farmers who felt their soil health practices were making a difference — both in the data and anecdotally — took some similar approaches. These three “ingredients for success” increased their chances for achieving profitable conservation systems. Read More »

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Experience plays a role in cover crop profitability

This blog was originally posted on Soil Health Partnership’s blog.

When it comes to cover crops, patience combined with realistic expectations is often the name of the game. Unlike the immediate cost savings that often come with conservation tillage, cover crops have annual costs as well as efficiencies and soil health benefits that can take time to achieve.

These are some of the reasons why in our report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line, we found experienced cover crop users were more profitable when compared to new adopters. Read More »

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Understanding the impact of conservation tillage on operating expenses

This blog was originally published by Dr. Maria Bowman on Soil Health Partnership’s blog.

When farmers consider implementing a soil health or conservation practice on their farm, one question they inevitably ask is: what will the financial impacts be?

In an effort to answer this question, we recently released Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line — a report developed in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund and the agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom — to better understand the benefits, opportunities and limiting factors associated with common conservation practices. Read More »

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