The Real and Present Threat of Flooding in Virginia Requires Coordinated Action

2021 FEMA flood map Hampton Roads

by James C. Sherlock

An editorial in The Virginian-Pilot this morning is titled, “A worrisome, watery future,” and is built around an update on flooding from NOAA.

It is a grave situation.

NOAA projects one foot of combined sea level rise and subsidence here in Hampton Roads by 2050. The adjacent map has not been updated to the new assessment. One more foot of water will turn most of the map orange and red – submerged and very submerged.

For larger scale perspective, see here.  For a thumbnail of a USACE storm risk management study of the City of Norfolk see here.

The Pilot editorial writer, approaching his conclusion, wanted to say something about green initiatives. So he did. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and such.

You can be for or against RGGI, but you cannot reasonably contend that it will stop flooding in Hampton Roads. The editorial is an example of green absolutism. That is one of the philosophies that has blocked state action on multi-jurisdictional flooding.

But it isn’t the only one.

The Moses complex. The thing about absolutists on the left and the right is that they must always ignore facts that don’t fit. In doing so about flooding, they fail to recognize that people organize under governments primarily for group safety.  Those governments must provide it.

One of the strangest things about flooding is that many people think their political positions will somehow make it go away. Or keep them safe and only drown the people who disagree with them.

Let’s look at the three sides that have actively opposed state action in coordination with the federal government on major flood control projects.

The green absolutists. One of the tragedies of the modern left is that its adherents think that they can hold back flooding with climate initiatives. A Moses complex.

I support clean water, clean air and more efficient ways to generate power. All of those, in my view, are good things where their value exceeds their costs — of all kinds. Pretty much how I feel about masking school children.

But the green left seems psychologically unprepared to accept engineering solutions to flood control. At least three reasons are worthy of consideration.

One school of thought is that such a position comes from a fear that the choice is either/or. That if engineered solutions are built and successful no one would want green solutions. That is a level of insecurity, like claustrophobia, that defies reason and facts. But it is there.

A second is that many greens will abide natural flood control solutions — shoreline grasses, wider beaches, clearing man-made obstacles to tidal flows, etc. — but not engineered solutions such as sea walls, tide gates, berms and levees. That has been the position of Virginia’s powerful greens. The fact that green solutions alone will not solve the problem does not bother them. Or maybe it does, just a little, because they will not mention that inconvenient fact.

The greens despise the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) because they know that it is the organization that builds engineered solutions. They either do not know or do not care that it is also an agency that, by law, does everything feasible with green solutions before it considers man-made ones. Or that it is USACE that enforces clean water laws.

A final one is that the most deranged and vengeful of the greens — the kind that spike old growth trees to kill loggers- – think protecting the coasts and riverine communities from the ravages of flooding will somehow deny the earth the revenge it has earned for the man-made injuries it has suffered. This, in its gentlest version, is the move-away-from-the-water-or-drown crowd.

Those who defer to local governments. Conservatives want the level of government both capable and closest to the problem to provide the solution. That is my personal position.

It is also unequivocally true that tidal and riverine flooding cannot be dealt with solely at the local or regional government level in Virginia for at least three reasons.

  • It is too expensive for a local government acting alone;
  • Political will and resources are unequally distributed among adjacent jurisdictions. Local governments have tried and failed to band together in regional compacts to work with the federal government to get it done; and
  • Political boundaries are simply not a consideration to the water.

I have encountered a few Republican politicians who consider themselves protectors of local government authority when they vote against giving the state the authority to organize and lead multi-jurisdictional flood control.

They particularly object to the state serving as the agent — the non-federal sponsor — to deal with the federal government on those specific matters.

That position has not borne fruit. Local governments have proven incapable of doing it and single-point non-federal sponsorship is the only way the federal government, and its unmatched resources, will deal with multi-jurisdictional flooding.

I actually heard whispers among members of the General Assembly that if they just wait for a destructive hurricane, but hopefully not too destructive, the feds will pay 100% of the costs of both cleanup and future defensive measures.  =It isn’t true, but that does not mean they didn’t wish it so.

Those who have other plans for the money. = Did I mention that many state politicians do not want to pay the bill?

Louisiana, like Virginia, deferred to local governments — until Katrina. At that point, the state held an emergency session of the legislature to create an agency to serve as the non-federal sponsor.

USACE built the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. It is an extraordinary 133-mile-long system of elevated levees, breakwalls, floodgates and pumping stations — and extensive green infrastructure. It was built by USACE. It cost $14.5 billion. The federal treasury lent Louisiana its share on 30-year terms.

As it turned out, Louisiana made more money in increased tax receipts directly traceable to the project than it ever owed for its share.

More importantly, in terms of maximum sustained winds at landfall, Hurricane Ida in 2021 was stronger than Katrina, and hit southwestern Louisiana directly. No lives were lost and property damage was minimal inside the protective system.

The study lobby. I have encountered this one up close and personal as well.

The state universities have found a gravy train in flooding studies and analysis that they fear will dry up when USACE gets involved.

The laser focus of the universities in this area is funding for studies. I told one of them once to prepare to print a million copies of his next study in case of major storm surge flooding. We could use them to fill sand bags. He appeared unhappy with me.

Another study lobbyist is the private engineering firm Dewberry. Virginia Beach spent $4 million with Dewberry for a sea-level rise and recurrent flooding study. I presume that company employs good engineers. I certainly don’t blame them for marketing their services. Good for them. If it helps Virginia Beach plan for recurring flooding from rain drainage issues and for the need to raise culverts, again good.

That firm has its eyes on doing the same thing for the state.

The problem is that if Virginia Beach or the state wants federal money for a project, USACE is required by federal law to do the same study. Again. From scratch.

Catch 22 is that if Virginia Beach wants to spend its own money on, say, a Lynnhaven River storm surge protection project built by a private firm, USACE has to do an assessment in order to grant the permit. Or not grant it.

Inertia and the lack of a lobby for state/federal action. Flooding is not something the General Assembly is used to dealing with. If you doubt that, look at the Bill Subject Index on Virginia’s Legislative Information Service. Try to find the word flood.

Why? There is no organized and funded lobby for multi-jurisdictional flood control.

The lobbies for other single issues should consider the effects of all of this on their own issues. Public education, healthcare, poverty, real estate, small business, whatever. Without protective measures, none survives a major flood unscathed.

The existing system. With the combined opposition of the greens — meaning pretty much all of the Democrats who take money from them — and some Republicans, the position of the General Assembly has been that local governments should organize to handle the problem.

The law defers to regional planning agencies, without giving those planning agencies executive authority. That has been tried and it failed. The local governments refused to defer to their own planning agencies.

What is left in Virginia — no policy at all — is deadly and destructive. Dressing up current policy with calls for more studies and reports is both a waste of precious time and the go-to approach.

Coastal and riverine flooding solutions are, in the United States, organized, funded and constructed as a combination of state and federal action.

It represents federalism at its most fundamental. The federal government, the states, and localities each have interests, rights and constituent safety responsibilities. However, the coasts and most of the larger rivers are not contained within any one state, much less any one municipality.

Writ large, the state is responsible for acting as the non-federal sponsor for multi jurisdictional projects. State responsibilities include organizing the local governments to participate as one, developing the support of the people for the project, providing certain contributions such as rights of way and transportation system adjustments. After the initial USACE assessments of federal interest, needs and costs, the non-federal sponsor must guarantee payment of 35% of the estimated costs or the plan will go no further.

The federal sponsor is the Congress. It approves the projects and writes the checks. The engineer and builder is USACE, the world’s largest civil engineering organization. It is uniquely experienced, staffed, equipped and capable in flood control.

State actions required. So it is left to the Governor and what should be bi-partisan majorities in the General Assembly to organize the state to participate in the existing federal-state program and, when called upon, to guarantee its share of the funding.

The Governor will have to make the case to the people of Virginia to get the General Assembly on board.

Congressional delegation actions required. It is the responsibility of Virginia’s congressional delegation to organize itself to get this done at the federal level.

Virginia has unique federal leverage if it will use it. The flooding threat to the military posture of the United States is centered in Hampton Roads. The Air Force and the Army can move elsewhere.

It is hard to move the Atlantic Fleet inland.

Virginia is unrepresented on the House and Senate committees that handle Water Resource Development Acts, the sources of project approval for flood control. That is a fundamental mistake, and one that needs to be remedied in the next session.

But it is well represented on the House Armed Services. And in the Senate Committee on Armed Services — Sen. Kaine is on the Seapower Subcommittee. Virginia is represented in Budget and Appropriations Committees in both houses.

Virginia’s congressional delegation must work as a team on this while the state is getting its act together to participate.

That same delegation must join the Governor in making the case to constituents. I hope they do it.