June 15, 2013
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The growing threat that rising sea levels pose to the Virginia coast has been well known for years, but one of the authors of a report on recurrent flooding says the state still isn't making any concerted efforts to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Earlier this year, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science submitted a report to state lawmakers that they had requested on ways to address coastal flooding. While seas are rising globally, the problem is exacerbated in Virginia because the land along the coast is slowly sinking. In Hampton Roads and other coastal communities, flooding is commonplace during major storms and is expected to worsen over the next 20 to 50 years. The VIMS report anticipates a sea level rise in Virginia of roughly 1.5 feet during that time period.
Carl Hershner, director of VIMS' Center for Coastal Resources Management, told The Associated Press that while the report provided numerous examples of what other places around the world are doing to address the issue and recommendations for Virginia to start, he isn't aware of any them being taken up at the state level.
"As a commonwealth, Virginia hasn't made any determined, purposeful strides in trying to adapt to climate change impacts. And it's not that we are unaware of them, it's just that the state isn't focused on trying to respond to those issues right now," he said.
Among other things, the report calls for the state to coordinate planning efforts, review local governments' authority to address projected flooding risk and enable them to do so, and determine prioritized areas for flood mitigation.
In short, most of the options for addressing rising sea levels and flooding center on three strategies. Governments can adopt policies encouraging people to retreat from flood-prone areas, create engineered shoreline protection systems such as seawalls, or encourage policies for people to adapt their lifestyles to reduce flood impacts.
The absence of a state lead has left local governments to largely combat the issue on their own by adopting a patchwork of ordinances and flood-mitigation tactics. Virginia Beach is examining new ways to combat sea level rise and already requires new construction and major building expansions to be elevated one foot above base flood elevation to minimize property losses.
The VIMS report says 26 percent of Virginia Beach's land area could face flooding over the next 50 years, flooding 289 miles of roads.
A University of Virginia report released last year that was based on community feedback from city residents said the least socially feasible way of addressing the problem was the purchase of development rights, while the most likely option to help the city prepare for sea level rise was to provide greater education and updated zoning.
The state's largest city already uses costly sand replenishment projects to ward off rising waters from oceanfront hotels and vacation homes.
In neighboring Norfolk, the same waterways that helped make the city the home of the world's largest naval base leave little outlet for floodwaters. Many residents routinely move their cars to higher ground when even a minor storm approaches because flooding is so rampant. That flooding also is becoming more routine. According to federal data, the number of hours the Hague area near downtown Norfolk has flooded has more than tripled in the past 70 years.
Norfolk has primarily focused its flooding prevention efforts on improving its stormwater drainage systems. Norfolk also has used federal grants to help elevate homes in some flood-prone areas. And it's considering adopting a slew of new floodplain regulations that, among other things, would require a 20-foot setback from the edge of mean high water for new homes. A public hearing on the proposed regulations is scheduled for June 27.
Hershner said that while there's a growing urgency to address the problem, it's also a long-term issue without an overnight fix.
"It's not an all-or-nothing right now sort of response that's required. This is a slow process that's going to play out over decades. What we need is a flexible strategy," he said. "We've got to start now in making some realistic and meaningful plans and we need to begin implementation now."