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Volume 4, Number 1
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Coastal Populations Swell Nationwide
Report Says Chesapeake Is at Risk

By Erica Goldman

Cover of Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008 showing a crowded beach

That coastlines across the nation continue to experience high rates of population growth comes as no real surprise. So when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its once-a-decade update to the report, Populations Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008 on March 1, few heads turned at the finding that the nation's coastal population is expected to increase by more than 7 million by 2008 and by 12 million by 2015. But the report does provide an important context for how our nation's coasts are changing and what that growth might mean for the highly populated Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"This is an important study," says coastal resource economist Doug Lipton, leader of Maryland Sea Grant Extension. Lipton says that like the last version of the report, this update should provide decision-makers with key background. "It is not prescriptive. It doesn't form policy or make judgments. But it summarizes data in a useful way and stimulates people to develop policy," he says.

The report ranks the Chesapeake Bay watershed as the second most populated coastal watershed in the country (out-peopled only by the Hudson River watershed) and Maryland and Virginia pop out as "hot spots" of growth in the Northeast Region. Nationwide, the Chesapeake Bay watershed also experienced the greatest change in population from 1980 to 2000, which grew by over two million people. Using data from the U.S. census bureau, combined with the expertise of three private firms, the report projects that between 2003 and 2008 four counties in the Washington, D.C. metro area will experience a surge of population growth. Fairfax County, Virginia is expected to show the greatest increase in population over the whole Northeast region, growing by over 100,000 people in this five-year period.

But these numbers only tell a partial story. "Take the statistics for Fairfax County, for example," says Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. These projections suggest that a large population increase will occur in an already densely populated area, he explains. "What these data don't tell you is the rate of land conversion either in Fairfax County or in adjacent counties such as Loudoun," he says. This is especially important now that the Virginia Supreme Court has decided to throw out Loudoun County's slow-growth regulations that had blocked home building on vast areas of open space, he remarks.

Rather than sprawl development, high population density growth is often a more desirable outcome for the environment, says Gerrit Knapp, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. "Smart Growth encourages high density settlement. The idea is that to protect environmentally sensitive land, it is better to concentrate growth in smaller areas," he says.

Despite its current population and predictions for intense growth, the Chesapeake watershed is better off in some ways than others in the top ten, explains Lipton, since despite recent development trends it still boasts large stretches of open farm- and forestland. The Chesapeake — though it ranks second in total population nationwide — remains the least densely populated watershed of any of the others that are ranked by the report, he explains.

"This means that we still have places to put people and we still have the opportunity to make choices about how we grow in the coastal zone," Lipton says. He feels that we can make decisions about how to minimize the impact of growth on coastal resources based on well-informed decisions.

Maryland in particular may be better prepared than most states to handle the continued pressure of population growth in the coastal zone, says Vicky Carrasco, coastal communities specialist for Maryland Sea Grant Extension.

Maryland's Smart Growth-Anti-Sprawl legislation, passed in 1997, put the idea of planning for growth on people's radar screen, Carrasco says. "Planning for growth is one of the precursors to managing growth effectively," she says.

Carrasco plans to expand the resolution of NOAA's report by looking more closely at the population trends in Maryland coastal communities. She will examine counties on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean with respect to natural resources, population growth, density, and socio-economic factors. She intends to incorporate narrative profiles of each county to place growth in Maryland into a cultural framework (see "New Sea Grant Specialist" for more on Carrasco).

In the Chesapeake Bay region and nationwide, the report suggests that the current population pressure on the coastal zone will only grow and intensify. What we can't do, says Lipton, is just "wade out" blindly and hope that coastal population growth will pass.

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