Opinion: Virginia addressing flood crisis, but more work is needed


Gradyon Avenue at Blow Street is flooded following heavy rainfall in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk on Aug. 11, 2020. (Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot)
Gradyon Avenue at Blow Street is flooded following heavy rainfall in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk on Aug. 11, 2020. (Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot)

My 3-year-old daughter will experience three times as many climate disasters as my parents according to recent research in Science. I live down the street from my childhood home in Virginia Beach, and the increase in high-tide, wind and rain-driven flooding is clear, making nor’easters and hurricanes even more worrisome. Three reports agree that infrastructure built in Virginia today should withstand approximately a 20% increase in precipitation.

Emily Steinhilber works as director of Virginia coastal resilience at Environmental Defense Fund. (HANDOUT)
Emily Steinhilber works as director of
Virginia coastal resilience at the
Environmental Defense Fund.

However, we can secure a more resilient future for my daughter and all commonwealth residents by investing in resilience planning and implementation. Natural hazard mitigation saves $6 for every $1 spent on federal mitigation grants, and the American Flood Coalition estimates that every $1 billion invested in flood resilience could create 40,000 jobs. Natural infrastructure, such as oyster reefs and restored marshes, protects and enhances ecosystems, minimizes economic losses, spurs innovation, and benefits the health and wellbeing of surrounding communities.

Local and state leaders across Virginia are making great strides. In Hampton Roads, Norfolk is reducing flooding by restoring shorelines and building a resilience park, while Virginia Beach is developing plans for marsh terraces in Back Bay and will have a bond referendum this November to accelerate its Flood Protection Program. Hampton recently issued a $12 million environmental impact bond to finance nature-based solutions in the Newmarket Creek area.

Rural communities are also innovating. In the Middle Peninsula, public property will be used as living labs in partnership with Norfolk-based nonprofit RISE and Virginia Sea Grant. Localities in the Northern Neck and on the Eastern Shore have participated in the Resilience Adaptation and Feasibility Tool with partners from the University of Virginia, William & Mary Law School and Old Dominion University.

At the state level, the commonwealth has adopted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Intermediate-High Standard (2017) for sea level rise planning, increased floodplain management standards for state agencies and universities, required known repetitive flood loss disclosure for homebuyers, required the Department of Environmental Quality to incorporate climate change across all programs, included climate change projections in bridge design, and revised the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and tidal wetlands regulations to include sea level rise.

Still, funding remains a challenge. Some 45% of proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative goes to the statewide Commonwealth Flood Preparedness Fund to build local capacity and implement projects, with $64 million raised this year and the first round of grants to be announced soon. However, more is required as cities have identified billions of dollars in needs.

Virginia’s first Coastal Resilience Master Plan, slated for release by the end of this year, will be far from perfect — it won’t be statewide or include all flood hazards — but it is a critical foundation upon which Virginia can continue to make progress.

Virginia’s leaders must continue the science-based master planning process on a regular four-year cycle and dedicate adequate resources and talent to ensure success. Increased engagement and investment in under-resourced communities is essential so all Virginians have the same opportunities to thrive with water. And because most challenges will be felt at the local level, all communities should include climate change and flood resilience in their planning processes. These opportunities are outlined further in the Virginia Conservation Network’s 2022 Common Agenda and highlight the urgency for action.

Like many of you, I am inspired by my family to act for our future. We cannot stop extreme weather from occurring, but we can take bold action to position our state and future generations to better confront the challenges ahead.

Emily Steinhilber works as director of Virginia coastal resilience at Environmental Defense Fund. A Virginia Beach native, she brings more than a decade of experience in coastal policy, most recently at Old Dominion University. She serves on Lynnhaven River NOW’s Board of Directors.

The original article can be found at The Virginian-Pilot here.