Changing the Tide: Environmental Justice Integrations within Coastal Conservation

Reflections on a Summer with Restore America’s Estuaries

By Liz Plascencia (she/they)

Home is where the Pacific envelops the rugged coastal cliffs and sloping valleys of California. The roaring swells, salty sweet air, and high tide line of kelp fronds are the foundations of my childhood. My fondest memories were shaped by the tide pools bursting with sea life at Point Dume State Marine Conservation Area.

Today, a return home to these shores details a different story – one distinct from the romanticized ideals I held as a child. A return to this

Credit: U.S. EPA

coastline today will reveal indicators of anthropogenic climate change through sea-level rise, plastic pollution, and coastal erosion. I cannot imagine a more moving call to action. How can I help mitigate, adapt, and manage coasts, specifically the coasts that fostered the livelihoods of my ancestors, the playgrounds of my youth, and the future hometowns of the next generation.

Within my lifetime, average sea surface temperatures have increased alongside global atmospheric temperatures. This increase in global temperatures coupled with the rapid thermal expansion of seawater, has led to the overall rise in relative sea surface levels. It is becoming harder and harder for folks to deny these physical indicators of climate change once they come knocking on our door or creeping up our shorelines.

In the wake of these ocean-related climate stressors such as sea-level rise, thermal expansion, ocean acidification, increased flooding, and more frequent and intensified storms, how will we manage the disproportionate damage that will inevitably affect historically marginalized communities along our coastlines? Climate change stressors will only continue to exacerbate existing environmental harms and inequities within these communities. The question then becomes a matter of how and not when we can intentionally integrate environmental justice concerns within coastal management practices and policy?

Following natural hazards, historically marginalized communities are faced with a critical question: rebuild or retreat? Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for rebuilding efforts and buyout programs to perpetuate environmental injustices and structural racism due to the unfair distribution of federal funds. Moreover, coastal communities who rely on productive fisheries for their livelihoods may not find it as easy to pick up and move if their entire culture is centered around the sea.

This summer, I was grateful to be placed with Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) to help support their strategic plan to explicitly focus on the integration of environmental justice concerns throughout coastal conservation projects. Unfortunately, traditional estuarine and coastal conservation projects have omitted indigenous practices, community inclusion, and justice concerns. But, today RAE is poised to help champion this work as they are a powerful voice for coastal restoration within the nation’s capital.

Founded in 1995, RAE is a national alliance of 10 coastal conservation groups who are dedicated to restoring and preserving America’s estuaries and coasts. As a grant facilitator, stakeholder convener, and project implementer, RAE has become acutely aware of the benefits following a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) focused approach to coastal restoration.

To achieve this intentional integration of environmental justice within coastal conservation, RAE launched the Inclusive Coasts Initiative, with the help of the National Science Foundation, to improve DEIJ in grantmaking, project design, and implementation in the coastal sector. RAE trusts that the Inclusive Coasts Initiative will help guide the coastal conservation sector into a future with improved access and reach to grant funding.

Today, I am inspired by robust coastal resiliency strategies that center nature-based solutions such as living shorelines, restoring coastal wetlands, buffering tidal salt marshes, opening fish passages, removing invasive species, transplanting seagrasses, and restoring shellfish habitat. However, in order to inclusively manage and adapt to the environmental stressors facing all coastal communities, we must consider a more holistic review of the stakeholders, vision, and access to a just coastal resiliency strategy that centers environmental justice.

Liz Plascencia (she/they) is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at Yale School of the Environment, specializing in Water Resource Science and Management. As a Queer, First-Generation Mexican American, Liz aspires to implement equitable coastal management practices and policy that center environmental justice, habitat conservation, and the blue carbon economy. Liz is from Los Angeles, California and earned her B.S in Geological Earth Sciences from Dickinson College as a Posse Scholar. She joined RAE as a Summer Fellow in 2021. 

Editor’s Note: We were honored to have Liz join our team this Summer and were so inspired by the work she is doing. We can’t wait to see where her path leads and the positive impact she will make in the coastal community. Thank you for everything, Liz.