Resilience planning — and a few innovative ideas — top state’s first Flood Fund grants

RGGI money earmarked for flood preparedness begins to flow to local governments

By: - October 14, 2021 12:02 am

A flooded road outside Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Carbon auctions have given Virginia officials millions of dollars to play with. 

But as the state begins pushing large amounts of that money toward local flood preparedness, the focus is largely on a staid and sober goal: resiliency planning.

“It’s such a big, vast need, and it’s going to take an incredible amount of money to address it, and so you want there to be some organized thought going into what are the projects we’re going to do,” said Morgan Butler, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who works on flooding and coastal resilience issues. “You don’t want localities randomly picking the first project that comes to mind.” 

Of 19 flood preparedness projects Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration pledged to fund last week using $7.8 million in carbon auction money, more than a dozen aim to study and set up frameworks for how local governments can best put money on the ground in future years. 

The focus on long-term planning can be seen in grant applications for local governments from the town of Oyster on the Eastern Shore to Buchanan County in the southwestern coalfields, where this August flash flooding in Hurley knocked 20 houses off their foundations and left one dead. 

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to lay out a plan for the future and take our most jeopardized areas and really protect them,” said Winchester City Engineer Kelly Henshaw. 

Flooding has been a perennial problem in some corners of the state, like mountainous Buchanan and coastal areas vulnerable to storm surge. 

But climate change has exacerbated issues significantly. 

Low-lying Hampton Roads, which has been slowly sinking for millennia due to the shifting of continental plates and, more recently, heavy industrial withdrawals of groundwater, is experiencing the fastest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast as warmer temperatures drive oceans higher. Landowners on the rural Middle Peninsula and Eastern Shore are also seeing tides creep farther and farther up their lawns. 

Many Middle Peninsula residents “report their home foundations, septic systems, decks, and century-old trees are about to fall into the river or bay. Their shoreline is gone and now their yard is going away,” said Lewie Lawrence, executive director of the peninsula’s Planning District Commission, in an email. 

And both on the coasts and inland, more intense precipitation and more destructive storms are leaving stormwater systems unable to handle sudden influxes of water. 

“As the weather patterns continue to become more erratic, we tend to have a lot of localized flooding, especially in our downtown area,” said Winchester engineer Henshaw.  

Gov. Ralph Northam announces Virginia’s Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework in Norfolk on Oct. 22, 2020. (Office of the Governor)

RGGI funding

After Democrats assumed control of all three branches of state government in 2020, they saw an opportunity to raise funds for flood preparedness in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon cap-and-trade market involving 10 other New England and Mid-Atlantic states. 

Over the objections of Republicans, the party pushed a law through the General Assembly allowing participation in the market, which requires power producers to purchase allowances for carbon emissions in quarterly auctions and then redistributes the funding back to participating states. 

Virginia’s law required 45 percent of all proceeds from the auctions to go toward the newly renamed Community Flood Preparedness Fund, to be administered by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. Further provisions required at least a quarter of flood preparedness to go to projects in low-income areas, and priority had to be given to those using nature-based solutions. 

Three auctions in, Virginia RGGI revenues have outstripped early projections that the program could funnel $100 million to the state annually. Since March, when the state participated in its first auction, proceeds have mounted to $142 million, with one auction remaining. 

While some of those dollars have already flowed to low-income energy efficiency projects, which under law receive half of all carbon revenues, the Community Flood Preparedness Fund grants are “one of the first visible manifestations of what the RGGI revenues are going to be put toward,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Butler.

A showcase for resilience

The $7.8 million in grants awarded by the state last week is a small percentage of the $64 million in RGGI money that will go to the Flood Fund. That’s because it only represents the first initial round of $18 million the state made available, said Darryl Glover, a deputy director with DCR, in an email. 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Thirty-two projects applied for that funding, with those not successful in the first round of awards allowed to amend and resubmit their applications. According to Northam’s office, 48 percent of the projects awarded funds in the first round are in low-income areas, and more than half incorporate nature-based solutions. 

Glover said the focus on resilience plans among awards “was not intentional.” But, he noted, for a local government to apply for a more on-the-ground project, “first a resilience plan has to be submitted to the department and approved. Very few such plans have been submitted to date.” As of October, only eight such plans had been approved, according to DCR. 

“There’s a lot of smaller, more rural localities that haven’t had the resources to think about this,” said Butler. 

The Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission is one of the few. Lawrence said the commission had submitted 20 projects as part of its first-round application and is working with another two-dozen applicants for the second round. One project, to install living shoreline near a heavily used public boat ramp that must regularly be closed due to recurrent storm-driven sand infill, received $26,000 in Flood Fund grants. 

“I suspect after this nor’-easter-like tropical storm this weekend, we will see a spike in requests for funding assistance,” Lawrence wrote in an email. 

Other localities with resilience plans in place are also forging ahead. Virginia Beach saw the largest award of the Flood Fund’s first round, taking in $3 million for wetland and floodplain restoration along the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River. 

Hampton, which along with Norfolk participated in the 2015 “Dutch Dialogues” that brought the city together with flooding and resilience experts from The Netherlands, floated and secured funding for one of the most innovative projects of the round: the Honor Park Resilience Park. 

Influenced by cutting-edge Dutch solutions for managing excess water, the project aims to revamp an existing park adjacent to City Hall that memorializes fallen public safety offices to store stormwater overflows. 

“One of the issues has been, in an urban core, how do you get stormwater storage?” said Scott Smith, a senior engineer with the city. “We looked at this park space as an opportunity to make it more resilient and to serve multiple purposes.” 

Envisioned as a demonstration project for other areas of the city, the reworked park will retain its current memorial but, in addition to other features, will include an ampitheater that during storms will act as a catchment for overflows and in dry times will serve as a community space. 

“In the urban cities, we don’t have big lots of open space that we can put in storage. So we’re trying to figure out where we can get storage,” said Smith. “We’re able to explore some new technologies. It’s a high-profile area that we can kind of showcase the different resilient aspects of what we’re looking to do.”

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

MORE FROM AUTHOR