Clarkson: Funding for community flood preparedness critical for Virginia’s future

The residents of Chesapeake, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and other coastal communities suffer significant flooding from rising tides, rainstorms, and, of course, hurricanes on a regular basis.

Much has been made of these issues with sea level rise and coastal flooding. Virginia Beach has already spent millions of taxpayer dollars on plans to save communities. The price tag for relief and mitigation will undoubtedly reach the billions.

But flooding from increasingly severe storms isn’t just an issue in coastal areas. The problems extend to inland communities throughout the commonwealth. Just ask some of the residents of the town of Hurley in Buchanan County who saw their entire lives washed into the river last summer as heavy rains fell from an isolated, stalled out storm. Mudslides and rising waters took every possession that many of the residents had, and unfortunately one woman lost her life.

There’s the adage that possessions can be replaced, but that falls on deaf ears for the residents of Hurley, most of whom couldn’t afford flood insurance even if they could get it. As of right now, there is no mechanism to replace what was lost.

There’s the adage that possessions can be replaced, but that falls on deaf ears for the residents of Hurley, most of whom couldn’t afford flood insurance even if they could get it. As of right now, there is no mechanism to replace what was lost.

I am sorry, what? Tell that to the owners of more than 100 homes which were lost or severely damaged. Tell that to the relatives of the woman who lost her life.

Situations like this shed more light on the fact that individual communities and states will need to find a way to provide relief for places like Hurley and the coastal areas as well as being more diligent in preparing for the increased flooding that is undoubtedly coming in the future.

Fortunately, Virginia has a mechanism in place to help communities from the coast to the far southwest reaches of the state prepare for future flooding events.

The Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF) was established by the Virginia General Assembly in 2020. Monies in the fund are exclusively dedicated to enhancing flood prevention and protection across the commonwealth.

Currently the CFPF is funded from a portion of the proceeds generated from Virginia’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

To date, Virginia’s participation in RGGI has generated more than $100 million for the CFPF in the last year alone. More than $32 million of those monies have been awarded in the first two grant rounds, with another $40 million earmarked for the next grant round in April. The balance has been designated for regional watershed flood resiliency plans to be completed by the state.

So far awards have gone to projects and planning from the city of Alexandria, to the Northern Neck, to Virginia Beach, to Charlottesville and all the way out to the furthest reaches of Southwest Virginia in Buchanan County, illustrating the need for flood resiliency is not just a coastal issue.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made clear his desire to pull Virginia from RGGI.

Pulling out of RGGI is about politics. Watching your life being washed away in a torrent of muddy water is not a political event. It’s a disaster.

Regardless of Virginia’s future in regards to RGGI, it is imperative that Virginia continue to fund the CFPF.

If Youngkin is intent on pulling out of RGGI and sacrificing the funds generated annually for flood preparation, he should have a rock-solid plan to sustainably fund the CFPF from somewhere else going forward. So far, one has not been introduced. Failure to do this will be its own disaster and will cost communities from southwest Virginia all the way to the coast hundreds of millions of dollars over the next handful of years for flood preparation.

Tee Clarkson works for First Earth/2030, helping private and public clients manage eco-assets. They are currently working with public entities around the state to prepare flood resiliency plans and implement projects using CFPF funding.

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RGGI yes, but if Youngkin withdraws, Morefield’s HB 5

Hurley, a small community in Buchanan County, in the far reaches of Southwest Virginia suffered terrible losses on August 30th, 2021 as a driving rain sent creeks over their banks. The flood waters and mudslides destroyed more than 35 homes and damaged 50 others, washing out roads, and leaving children who were already at school suddenly bereft of homes to return to. One woman was swept away in the floodwaters and drowned. 

This was a disaster. And in the economically and environmentally distressed coalfields, it is increasingly likely to happen again. 

The good news is that Virginia has a new tool in hand to protect against these calamities. In July of 2020, Governor Northam and the General Assembly brought Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), joining other eastern states in limiting carbon emissions and auctioning the rights to emit. These market sales’ dollars flow into the state coffers, with 45% of the money earmarked to the new Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF) that supports flood preparation, planning, and resilience in all Virginia’s counties and cities. 

The first two rounds of distributions will deliver nearly $25 million to communities across Virginia. The monies won’t just go to coastal flood-prone areas like Virginia Beach or Norfolk, but also Winchester, Richmond, and Buchanan County, where these funds will help communities like Hurley avoid future disasters with planning and remediation projects.

Intense and increasing patterns of severe weather tell us that the only smart move is to put on-the-ground, real solutions to protect people and property – especially those communities experiencing the double distress of flood exposure and economic disadvantage, who need solutions the most. 

Unfortunately, Governor-elect Youngkin has stated that he plans to pull Virginia out of RGGI, forfeiting tens of millions of dollars every year, monies that otherwise could have helped double-distressed areas like Southwest Virginia, Southside Virginia, the City of Petersburg, and the Eastern Shore protect against future disasters. 

We strongly believe that the regional carbon market and the community flood preparedness grants are the right solution for the citizens of the Commonwealth and that Virginia should remain members of RGGI and continue to receive this vital funding. However, as political realists, we know a backup plan is in order. 

Delegate Will Morefield, representing Buchanan County and its neighbors, has introduced HB5. This bill will keep the intent of the Community Flood Preparedness Fund intact, and it will do so by earmarking flood funds for double-distressed areas whether or not Virginia remains a member of the regional carbon market. 

These social justice measures take two forms in Del. Morefield’s bill. If Virginia remains a member of RGGI and proceeds continue to flow to the CFPF, 2.5% of the community fund portion will provide relief for victims of flooding in areas where no federal relief funding was available. Another 2.5% will go to flood resilience planning, again targeting the double-distressed communities. 

If Virginia withdraws from RGGI as Governor-elect, Youngkin, has indicated he prefers, Morefield’s Bill provides a Plan B in which $50 million of the funds already in hand will be allocated to double-distressed areas in equal shares for victim relief and flood planning for the future. 

After last August’s flood, Hurley residents were shocked to receive no federal relief funds from FEMA. The only help they’ll receive will be from the Commonwealth and their own determination. Staying a member of the RGGI carbon market would go a long way toward ensuring that Hurley and other vulnerable Virginia communities will receive critical support for years to come. 

Should Governor-elect make good on his promise to leave RGGI and abandon these funds, Del. Morefield’s HB5, “Hope for Hurley, VA” Bill, does the right thing by delivering a portion of the dwindling funds to the places and people that need it the most. 

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With New State Funding, Virginia Moves to Address Flood Risk Across the State

By: Yaron Miller

Last year, Virginia heralded a much-needed triumph to address increasing flooding across the state with the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF) becoming law. The program was established to provide flood-prone communities with low-interest loans and grants that can be used to develop resilience plans that identify vulnerabilities and interventions, increase local technical capacity and expertise, and fund mitigation projects with a preference for those that use natural features to reduce flood damage. Following the recent selection of CFPF’s first-round grantees, communities will soon begin initiating projects. 

Buchanan County to develop flood resilience plan

One of those is Buchanan County, which borders West Virginia and Kentucky and has suffered from riverine flooding for many years. The impacts of flooding on homes, businesses, critical facilities, and infrastructure are especially consequential for residents as the entire county is classified as having moderate to very high social vulnerability when it comes to recovering from natural hazards, according to the Adapt Virginia database, a state climate change information portal developed by state academic institutions. And as a lower-income area, the county has lacked the resources to comprehensively plan for and address its flood-related challenges.

With the help of First Earth 2030, an environmental management firm based in Richmond, Virginia, working with the county at no cost, county officials secured a $387,500 grant to develop a resilience plan that will engage community members to assess flood risk and identify ways to reduce it, including through nature-based projects. The county will also train a local official to become a certified floodplain manager. And once the state approves the resilience plan, the county will be able to apply for funding for shovel-ready mitigation projects.

“Our intention is to turn these planning dollars into project dollars,” said Charlie Westbrook, co-founder and principal of First Earth, during an October webinar hosted by the Norfolk-based conservation group Wetlands Watch. “Because, as you can see, [floods are] affecting general government services, they are affecting roadways, they are affecting people’s lives and well-being.”

In an email to Pew this month, Craig Horn, Buchanan County administrator and emergency services director, added, “In the past, we’ve had to wait for help” to recover from floods. “People lose their homes or roads get blocked and the money to help arrives long after. These new funds could help solve problems before they happen. It’ll make a real difference.” 

Hampton moves to increase green infrastructure

In the Tidewater region, the city of Hampton received grants for several projects. One, the Honor Park Resilience Project ($147,994), will convert public space adjacent to City Hall into an innovative park that will collect, slow, and treat stormwater runoff while providing residents with a revitalized recreational area. Showcasing a range of nature-based resilience practices, the park will include constructed wetlands that absorb and treat stormwater, a dual-purpose amphitheater that can store excess runoff, and pervious pavers that can detain and slowly release water.

Another project, the Mill Point Living Shoreline ($126,498), will transform a 2,100-foot portion of armored waterfront along the Hampton River into a living shoreline to protect a neighborhood that the city has identified as low income. With replanted wetlands and a restored oyster reef, the riverbank will help reduce flood risk for residents by dissipating wave energy and preventing erosion, and will improve water quality in the river and the Chesapeake Bay.

“Downtown is one of Hampton’s most urban areas,” Carolyn Heaps, city of Hampton resiliency officer, told Pew over email this month. “With about 1,600 residents, it is a mix of homes, local and large businesses, and city government facilities. A significant portion is within mapped special flood hazard areas, including many residential properties.” Heaps added, “And, more than 60% of households in this part of the city earn less than its overall median income. Both of the design projects awarded to Hampton, the Mill Point Living Shoreline and the Honor Park Resilience Park, will invest in downtown’s local community by creating community-scale projects to address the current challenges of local flooding and future climate change conditions.”

A flooded street in the city of Winchester, Virginia.
With funding from the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund, the City of Winchester is developing a resilience plan to update its stormwater infrastructure to withstand flooding that can close roads and affect residents.

Winchester to invest in stormwater management

The city of Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, was awarded $72,266 and will partner with an engineering consulting firm to develop a citywide flood resilience plan. Winchester’s stormwater infrastructure is insufficient to handle the more intense and frequent rains that deluge the city. At the heart of the resilience plan is a comprehensive strategy to upgrade stormwater management and maximize nature-based solutions to mitigate flooding.

“The city is excited to move forward with a resilience plan for our community,” Kelly B. Henshaw, city engineer of Winchester, said in an email exchange with Pew. “We have many examples of urban localized flooding throughout our city, causing detriment to our citizens and property owners, so we look forward to developing a plan that will help build a stronger and brighter future for the City of Winchester.”

These innovative projects from localities throughout the commonwealth are a testament to how far the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund has come since its inception—without any funding—in 2016. Now, this program is a critical resource that is helping localities reduce their disaster risk by investing in strategic planning and projects that harness the power of nature to combat flooding at the community scale. Local governments vying for the next round of grant awards can look to the projects and communities highlighted above for ideas and inspiration on creating a flood-resilient future for Virginians.

Yaron Miller manages the state policy and campaigns portfolio for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.

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Buchanan County Receives Grant to Address Flooding

Richmond, VA – Governor Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that Buchanan County will receive a grant of $387,500 from Community Flood Preparedness awards to cover the costs of developing a plan for the county to become more resilient to floods, in addition to securing staff certification in floodplain management. 

The Community Flood Preparedness Fund makes use of 45 percent of the revenue Virginia generates through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. An estimated $75 million per year will be available through the matching grant program. Buchanan County’s grant to develop a flood preparedness mitigation plan addressing ongoing issues is part of the program’s first round of funding.

This announcement comes as part of $7.8 million in grants to support 19 projects that address impacts of flooding, sea-level rise, and extreme weather around the Commonwealth. The need for this plan was made even more urgent by September’s floods in Hurley, which highlighted the need for more state resources addressing flooding in coal country.

Buchanan County hired First Earth|2030, an environmental asset management company who will be working in conjunction with international engineering firm, Stantec, to help identify and address some of the flooding issues. “Many Virginians think of flooding only occurring in tidal areas. We are excited to see funding head towards nontidal areas of the Commonwealth hit hard by flooding occurring from rain events,” said Charlie Westbrook, Principal of First Earth|2030.  

Elected officials have been searching for solutions to the flooding in Buchanan County:

“The County has been hit hard in recent years with heavy rainfall causing a tremendous amount of destruction and even death in some of our most challenging economic zones. Due to resource constraints, it has been difficult for the county mitigate these ongoing flooding issues. We are excited to support the Buchanan County administration in resolving these ongoing issues plaguing the county,” Delegate Will Morefield (R-N. Tazewell).

Disastrous weather events put a strain on county resources and alternative nature-based solutions help address flooding issues. “First Earth has a creative and economically responsible scope of work for the development of a resilience plan,” said Craig Horn, County Administrator of Buchanan County.  A town hall meeting and other methods for community input will be arranged in the coming months to further identify issues and planning needs. 

The grant opportunity to develop a flood resilience plan is a welcomed start to solving flood issues that have troubled the county for years. 

About First Earth|2030

First Earth | 2030 resides at the intersection of urgent environmental needs and innovative eco/climate solutions. It is a results-based environmental asset management firm delivering customized outcomes for public and private clients. Its team provides innovative conservation techniques that result in environmental and economic project lift.

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