Virginia’s flood woes: It’s time for some consistency

December 14, 2021 12:05 am
living shoreline

Construction of the Fog Point Living Shoreline Breakwater on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Living shorelines, an element of green infrastructure, control erosion and can help act as a buffer against flooding. (Matt Whitbeck/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Skip Stiles

For those of us working on the threats that sea level rise and intense rainfall flooding pose to Virginia, December has been a confusing time so far.

On Dec. 1, Virginia received an early Christmas present when the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) auction generated nearly $38 million for the statewide Community Flood Preparedness Fund, bringing Virginia’s total 2021 RGGI funding for flood control efforts to $102 million.

RGGI is an interstate carbon credit auction with member-states from Virginia to Maine where power generators buy carbon credits to offset the greenhouse gases they emit. This is Virginia’s first year with RGGI and in joining the state laid out a unique way to use our revenues.

Half of the RGGI money goes to low-income energy efficiency and 45 percent goes to the fund to pay for flood-protection planning and projects statewide. With this approach, Virginia seeks to both lower energy consumption, thereby slowing future climate change impacts, while also dealing with the flooding impacts we are already experiencing.

This is the first state funding for projects focused on Virginia’s sea level rise and riverine flood problems. Up to this year, all of the direct flood project funding in the state came from the federal government or from local government treasuries. 

On Dec. 7 the state released the Coastal Resiliency Master Plan, the first cut at developing a strategy for Virginia’s flood control efforts. This initial report was focused only on sea level rise in Virginia’s coastal plain, but Gov. Ralph Northam made clear in releasing the study that a statewide update needed to be done quickly. 

The impacts outlined by this study were sobering and clearly established the need for the fund. Flood damages in the coastal region are projected to increase from $400 million to $5.1 billion a year over the next 50 years, unless we take preventive action. What caught our eye as well was the projected loss of 90 percent of Virginia’s tidal wetlands and nearly 40 percent of our dunes and beaches.

The next day Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin gave observers whiplash when he announced that he would take Virginia out of RGGI, ending the funding stream for Virginia’s flood fund. Attacking the arrangement as a “carbon tax” that added to electricity costs, Youngkin felt that RGGI is, “a bad deal for Virginians. It’s a bad deal for Virginia businesses.”

This is the “cruel trick” we feared might happen with the change in administration, but given the first two events in December, the governor-elect’s actions are especially puzzling.

The Coastal Master Plan shows yearly flood losses, just in the coastal zone, increasing 1,250 percent and primary road flooding increasing over 600 percent by 2080. And this first set of scary figures is just based on sea level rise. When this study is expanded statewide and includes rainfall flooding those numbers will multiply significantly.

The Flood Fund has just started pushing money out the door, with $7.8 million in the first round and nearly $30 million requested in the pending round. $5.5 million of the first round went to Hampton Roads localities, which are farther along in their flood efforts. But this fund is statewide, and more Valley and Southside localities are moving to use the fund to deal with more intense rainfall that is increasing riverine flooding.

If the impacts to Virginia’s citizens and businesses are as bad as the Master Plan says, and if RGGI money can plug the funding gap to protect Virginia’s homes and businesses, why end this funding stream? Even more puzzling is cutting off funding for Valley and Southside communities that are farther behind than coastal localities in fighting flooding.

The Community Flood Preparedness Fund is a phased program providing localities money to prepare strategic flood plans — hire consultants, build capacity and gather data and design projects — and then cost-share with them to build their flood control projects. Without this fund, smaller and rural localities are left without resources, while relatively well-off Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Northern Virginia localities will move ahead and find their own money, such as Virginia Beach recently did. 

RGGI is a carbon tax of the kind conservative economists have endorsed for decades. It starts putting Virginia revenues toward solving Virginia’s problems. It brings urban ratepayer dollars into rural counties, leveling the playing field. 

Contrary to Youngkin’s statement, absent some new scheme to pay for our flooding fixes and given the magnitude of the problems we face, RGGI and the Flood Fund are actually the best deal for Virginia’s businesses and citizens. 

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

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