Supporting Policy in the Face of Sea Level Rise

Writer: Hayley Hunter, River Basin Center

Contact: Katie Hill, Carl Vinson Institute of Government

Sea level rise is an issue many coastal communities are already facing. The sea level off the Georgia coast has risen over 9 inches in some places, and that number will only continue to grow (UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant). The Georgia coast has seen more frequent flooding events, more significant tides, and stronger, more dangerous hurricanes.

Katie Hill, an affiliate of UGA’s River Basin Center and research professional in the Planning and Environmental Services unit at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia is investigating how communities can adapt to climate change challenges.

While Hill works on an array of projects, from environmental policy analysis and development to wastewater infrastructure, her current research is primarily focused on the Georgia coast. It also applies to other coastal communities, including in other southern Atlantic and mid-Atlantic states such as Florida and North and South Carolina.

 “Communities are coming to realize that it’s incumbent on them to really begin to plan and act on these different impacts. Local governments are going to be on the frontline of fielding questions about adaptation to climate change, as well as in planning and incorporating changes,” Hill said.

While states will play a role in sea level rise adaptation strategies, local communities will bear the brunt of the work. Many of the coastal communities that will be affected by sea level rise do not have adequate resources available to them to deal with these issues on their own. Many local governments on the Georgia coast are fairly rural and do not have dedicated planning staff.

Hill is helping these communities begin to ask questions that will help prepare them.

Hill’s research will help offer guidance to these smaller communities with issues relating to sea level rise that they might not have the resources to handle themselves. While Hill and her colleagues are not actually representing these communities, they are helping local governments determine their legal liabilities and duties regarding sea level rise. They are making educated, forward-looking guesses to advise communities and state agencies on the best ways to protect residents and businesses.

“What we continue to learn is that many of the policies and regulatory structures that we have stand in the way of the opportunities that make the most sense in adapting to sea level rise, from an environmental, public health, and economic standpoint,” Hill explained. “What we are trying to do is take a holistic approach to all of the different programs and policies to make sure that they’re all working together so that we can implement the best option.”

“What are the legal liabilities and duties that might arise from sea level rise? What are the scary outcomes that we need to be aware of? Is sea level rise going change these liabilities and duties? What are the legal, policy options for sea level rise? Do local governments have authority to implement them or are there regulatory barriers? These are just a few of the questions that arise for small communities in the face of climate change.” Hill said.

And while the mechanisms behind the need for these policies and programs might still be a point of contention across the United States, in coastal communities it is impossible to ignore the changes.

“In coastal communities across the United States people are seeing changes. Even if they may argue about what is causing this change, they can see that tides and flooding are worse and the tide gauges have changed.” Hill said.

Hill hopes to create a foundation for smart, effective sea level rise planning on the Georgia coast and the coasts of neighboring states. Hill and colleagues are tackling this one topic at a time. Currently, they are looking at infrastructure issues related to sea level rise, and the potential of incorporating natural infrastructure to combat issues like property damage from flooding.

To learn more about Hill’s research and other River Basin Center research like it, visit us at

Katie Hill, pictured, is an affiliate of the River Basin Center and a research professional at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Katie Hill, pictured, is an affiliate of the River Basin Center and a research professional at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.