Fixing flood woes made harder by Virginia’s Constitution

May 12, 2021 12:01 am

Members of the Virginia National Guard deployed on a rescue mission during flooding in 2012 on the Eastern Shore. (Photo by Capt. Clint Harris/Virginia National Guard)

By Skip Stiles

About this time, every four years, I am reminded of the cruel trick that Virginia’s Constitution plays on those of us working on the commonwealth’s nagging issues. It seems we’re just making progress when our one-term, four-year governor has to leave office. 

Virginia’s short, single term for governor is unique in the nation, but not for good reasons. No one in their right mind would ever set up such an arrangement if they wanted to fix really important, chronic problems.

For progress on intergenerational issues such as education, equity, economic health and environmental quality we have to depend upon the goodwill and focus of the next governor and the one after. These are “supertanker” issues: if we start changing direction today, it will take years for our ship of state to begin shifting course. And that assumes that some intervening governor doesn’t reset the rudder.

Wetlands Watch has seen this most clearly in our 12 years of work on climate change adaptation. In 2008, then-Gov. Tim Kaine convened a climate change commission that met for a year and issued a report, listing of dozens of simple steps Virginia could take to deal with sea level rise and other climate impacts. However, the report was issued as the Kaine administration was leaving town, so nothing happened.

The next governor was not interested. The following governor had other priorities. Only when Gov. Ralph Northam came along was there someone in the executive mansion who picked up the dusty report from 2008 and read it (re-read it actually because then-Sen. Northam was a member of the Climate Commission).

Finally, in 2020, Gov. Northam and Natural Resources Secretary Matt Stickler joined forces with the General Assembly to deliver a set of sweeping measures dealing with climate change. 

Twelve years of waiting was over as our Department of Environmental Quality was charged with addressing climate change, our shoreline and tidal wetlands regulations had to take climate change and sea level rise into account, and the state joined a multi-state carbon emissions reduction effort. That effort will generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year to be returned to Virginia to deal with energy efficiency and flood protection.

Virginia is on its way to putting those first-in-the-nation climate change measures in place but the calendar is closing in. The Northam administration is now rushing to find a stopping point for their climate change initiatives before they leave.

After that, those of us concerned about climate change will have to start over, hoping the new governor is interested and willing to make the effort needed to push the issue along a bit before they also fall prey to our constitution’s cruel trick and leave town.

Meanwhile nature is playing an even crueler game. Climate change does not pause for the new governor to find their way, it just plows relentlessly ahead. Shorelines drown, coastal forests die off, cities and towns flood from more intense rainfall and heat waves plague us without regard to our constitutional dysfunction.

Short of changing our Constitution (a long overdue conversation) what are some workarounds we could try?

People from Staunton to Sanford are seeing increased flooding and want their communities protected.  If we make addressing climate change a “constituent” service and not a policy debate we gain more support. Because this is a statewide concern, these issues should be made part of this fall’s statewide campaigns.

We need to view this challenge as a public works and infrastructure issue and not just an environmental one. There are many billions of dollars in identified flood protection needs statewide and flood protection projects mean jobs while protecting public safety and avoiding economic loss.

The good news is we have funding for those projects in the newly created Community Flood Preparedness Fund, a statewide pool of money that comes from that carbon reduction program Virginia recently joined. 

However, because this Fund is not independently run, it is vulnerable to the actions of future administrations. Already attempts have been made to divert some of this fund for other uses. We need to create an independent governing board for the fund to insulate it from future political manipulation. 

This is a lot of extra work just to plug the holes in our Constitution but if we don’t want to risk waiting another dozen years for a governor who cares about climate change, we’ll have to try and help the next one embrace the issue.

Skip Stiles is executive director of Wetlands Watch, a statewide environmental group based in Norfolk. He can be reached at [email protected].


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