‘We can adapt’: Virginia releases coastal master plan

Northam calls roadmap a ‘milestone’ for how state will deal with sea level rise linked to climate change

By: - December 8, 2021 12:01 am

A lifeguard watches over the resort district in Virginia Beach. Coastal Virginia is among the most vulnerable places in the U.S. to sea level rise. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration released Virginia’s inaugural Coastal Resilience Master Plan Tuesday, meeting a pledge earlier this year to complete the initiative before his term ends. 

Developed over the past year with what the governor’s office said was input from 2,000 people, including residents, local government representatives, environmental groups, business leaders and others, the master plan provides a technical assessment of coastal Virginia’s flood hazards through 2080, critical infrastructure and vulnerable communities. It also includes a public “Coastal Resilience Database and Web Explorer” that catalogs existing resilience projects and funding opportunities.

Speaking in Hampton Tuesday, Northam called the plan a “milestone” that “will set the course for us to adapt and protect our most critical natural, economic and social infrastructure.

“Climate change is not a theory. It is a reality. It’s going to change how our coasts look and how we live and work there. But with thoughtful planning and a willingness to make tough decisions, we can adapt,” he said. 

Over the past two years of Democratic control of Richmond, a period set to end this January when Republicans reassume control of the executive branch and the House of Delegates, lawmakers have moved swiftly to set up frameworks to deal with climate change. 

The General Assembly has passed legislation to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector and transportation, as well as beginning to examine carbon sequestration. Democrats also pushed through a law allowing Virginia to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon market that has brought in $228 million in revenues for flood protection and low-income energy efficiency. 

In October 2020, Northam’s administration released a comprehensive framework for developing the Coastal Resilience Master Plan that “unequivocally” identified climate change as “the root cause” of the recurrent flooding that has plagued Virginia’s coasts.

That framework served as the basis for the master plan released Tuesday. Engineering firm Dewberry, which oversaw Virginia Beach’s sweeping sea-level rise and flooding study, led development of the plan under a $2.6 million contract. An appointed technical advisory committee also acted as a primary driver of the effort.  

Virginia’s coasts are already feeling the impacts of rising sea levels linked to climate change. Military-heavy Hampton Roads, which has also been slowly sinking for years due to geologic forces and industrial water withdrawals, is experiencing the fastest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast. The rural Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore are seeing major losses of acreage. And Alexandria in Northern Virginia is consistently plagued by flooding, particularly in its historic downtown.  

The master plan puts numbers to some of those impacts, concluding that between 2020 and 2080, the number of residents living in homes exposed to extreme coastal flooding will nearly triple, from approximately 360,000 to 943,000; annualized flood damages will increase from $0.4 to $5.1 billion; miles of primary roadways exposed to chronic coastal flooding will increase from 55 to nearly 340 miles; and 170,000 acres of tidal wetlands will be permanently inundated.

Chris Stone, a professional engineer and chair of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce said the coastal plan was essential for maintaining the state’s business environment. 

“Mitigating the flood risk is critical to preserving property values and property tax revenues,” he said.

Officials, including Virginia Special Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Adaptation and Protection Ann Phillips, on Tuesday cast the master plan as an ongoing effort that would be updated every five years. A second phase of the inaugural plan, slated to be completed by 2024, is expected to incorporate rainfall and riverine hazards.

“As our waters continue to rise, we must, again, proceed with great urgency. We have a lot to do, and we have no time to waste,” said Phillips

Whether the master plan will be continued will be up to the administration of Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. While Youngkin has expressed skepticism of some of Virginia Democrats’ signature climate successes, particularly the Virginia Clean Economy Act, during the campaign season he emphasized the need for funding to help combat sea level rise in Hampton Roads and pledged to put together an independent committee to raise funds and contract for projects in the region.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.