University of Georgia

For the love of salt marshes: Michelle Covi fights for coastal resiliency

Michelle Covi stands in front of several trees and a small river.
Michelle Covi serves as the Department of Defense’s coastal resiliency liaison through UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. In her role, Covi works with military communities to identify solutions for environmental and infrastructure issues affected by rising sea levels, changing weather patterns, and other shifts in climate. (Photo by Lauren Corcino)”

It’s not the pristine sandy beaches or kitschy seafood restaurants that draw Michelle Covi to the coast. Those are fine. Nice, even, on a warm summer day. She’s drawn, instead, to something most vacationers don’t consider.

Salt marshes.

“They are these incredible ecosystems and worlds that are unlike other environments,” she said.

This love has driven much of Covi’s career. It’s vital in her role as the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) coastal resilience liaison under the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

Part of UGA’s Public Service and Outreach division, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant provides coastal communities with education and assistance to foster responsible use of Georgia’s coastal resources. The program is a partnership between UGA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Sea Grant College Program, a national network of 34 Sea Grant programs in coastal and Great Lakes states and territories.

Covi works with coastal military installations and surrounding communities, connecting them to programs and projects that help them thrive in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding risks due to climate change. She focuses on infrastructure and ecosystems that affect military missions and communities, which often include salt marshes.

“I was always interested in the natural environment and ecosystems,” Covi said. “Growing up in Baltimore, there would be these huge ravines with tall trees that I spent hours exploring.”

Covi attended UGA in the late 1980s to pursue a master’s degree in zoology. As a graduate student, she travelled to Sapelo Island (home to the UGA Marine Institute) to study food chains. There, she discovered her love for Georgia’s salt marshes.

“Georgia is a great place to study salt marshes. They’re so much bigger here than the Chesapeake Bay —I couldn’t believe it when I first saw them,” Covi said. “There’s so much going on in these environments where fresh water meets salt water and the land is meeting the sea, creating this nutrient-rich mud for plants and animals to thrive in.”

She was working on her Ph.D. in coastal resources management at East Carolina University when Covi came across a calling that would occupy the rest of her career: communicating climate and environmental issues to the public.

Covi described salt marshes as "kidneys of the earth" that serve multiple purposes, including purifying water and providing nesting grounds for marine life. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

“At the time, I resisted focusing on climate change, but it became increasingly clear that my line of work was pivoting to that issue,” Covi said. “Sea level rise just kept coming up as an emerging issue in North Carolina, and people at the coast did not understand or want to plan for it.”

Her position with DoD allowed her to address this gap in public understanding while providing solutions to coastal communities—solutions that become more necessary with every centimeter the water gains on the land.

“The people in DoD are very interested in working on nature-based solutions to climate adaptation and supporting natural resources,” Covi said. “With that, we’re looking at how we can restore salt marshes in coastal communities.”

Salt marshes play a vital role in coastal resiliency and sustainability. Covi described them as the “kidneys of the earth” that serve multiple purposes, including purifying water and providing nursery grounds for marine life. The marshes also serve as a buffer when large storms come through.

“If you live on the other side of the marsh and you’re hit by a storm surge, the salt marsh actually slows all of that water down,” Covi said.

Some of the most common ways Covi said that project partners restore salt marshes is by using a technique called living shorelines. As opposed to hard structures like seawalls, living shorelines use vegetation and other natural resources to serve as barriers against shoreline erosion and flooding.

Covi works closely with the DoD’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program to preserve natural resources in military installations and communities. In addition, she collaborates with Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability, a regional organization that covers much of the Southeast from North Carolina to Mississippi.

“That makes me different from a lot of the people in Sea Grant,” Covi said. “I work all over the Southeast and other parts of the country in a federal partnership with DoD.”

“At the time, I resisted focusing on climate change, but it became increasingly clear that my line of work was pivoting to that issue. Sea level rise just kept coming up as an emerging issue in North Carolina, and people at the coast did not understand or want to plan for it.”

– Michelle Covi, Coastal Resilience Department of Defense Liaison, UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant

At UGA, Covi often works with the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems, the College of Engineering, and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government for nature-based infrastructure solutions to the issues she encounters in the various military communities.

“I sometimes bring projects to the units to work on. For example, I connected some folks from the UGA Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems in the College of Engineering with a natural resources manager at Fort Stewart to look at a salt marsh changing due to a tide gate  designed to protect a railroad bridge. An engineering student is now working on a nature-based alternative. ,” Covi said.

Although she enjoys opportunities to work with academic faculty, Covi loves working hands-on with communities and solving problems that have an immediate impact.

“I find that working with colleagues and communities fit my personality better and allow me to make that impact I want. In fact, a lot of what I do is connecting people and groups.”

Ultimately, as the coastal resiliency liaison, Covi’s goal is to provide communities with sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions so that their ecosystems can flourish and their infrastructures can withstand what the Atlantic throws at them.

“With the climate continuing to change and create these big storms, we’re going to see disruptions, not only in the quality of life on these coastal military installations, but also how it affects their training,” she said. “By preserving the existing ecosystems, we reduce the climate impacts.”