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Virginia needs more oversight, coordination of flood resilience efforts, state group says

A flooded waterway is seen in the background. There is a tree in the foreground.
Katherine Hafner
Tidal flooding at the Hague in Norfolk.

Read the original story on WHRO News website.

Virginia is at the forefront of coastal resilience efforts nationwide. It's one of few states with a dedicated comprehensive plan on the topic.

But the commonwealth currently faces several challenges that delay or hinder those efforts, according to a report from the Resilience Coordination Working Group.

Many localities lack the capacity to address resilience on their own, and planning and funding efforts are too dispersed across different agencies, according to the report. Virginia’s current structure doesn’t provide many local officials with the support they need.

“As risks accelerate, no single entity is capable of fully protecting communities from potential damage and loss caused by environmental hazards,” work group members wrote. “The need to address these challenges is urgent, but resources are limited.”

State lawmakers last year created the work group with more than three dozen representatives from academia, environmental organizations, city governments, local planning boards and private businesses — including the Port of Virginia.

The group met regularly over the last year before recently submitting final recommendations to Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the General Assembly.

Grace Tucker, manager of climate resilient coasts and watersheds for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, was part of the working group. She said they were tasked with figuring out how the state could best support work to prepare for and adapt to the effects of climate change.

“[We] came together to really hone in and hash out some of the specifics about how Virginia could do this most effectively, given the unique geographic and political circumstances that we have here,” she said.

The challenges posed by flooding and sea-level rise in the commonwealth are daunting.

“It’s a very expensive set of problems that we're looking at, and solutions we need to be able to implement,” Tucker said.

The group’s major recommendation is for Virginia to create a centralized resilience office, including a chief resilience officer reporting directly to the governor. (That position was created under Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, but has not yet been filled by Youngkin.)

The goal would be for localities across the state to have a central place to go to for help on things like federal grant opportunities and data on flood risk.

Bigger regions, like Hampton Roads, have already made strides in those areas, Tucker said, but it’s harder for smaller and more rural localities that don’t have the money or manpower.

“It’s very much an apples to oranges situation,” she said. “Differing resources has resulted in differing outcomes.”

She said the work group was inspired by a “hub and spoke” model for statewide resilience developed in Louisiana, with resilience coordinators placed in each state agency.

Over the past year, participants brought up other existing issues, such as relying on website postings to reach underserved communities and officials’ reluctance to implement findings from studies done over the years.

“Political will and political courage are often needed to accomplish resiliency goals and without those, mandates from the General Assembly are likely needed,” the work group wrote in meeting notes last year.

One final recommendation is to increase transparency around the huge pots of money Virginia gives out through resilience funds, such as the Community Flood Preparedness Fund.

The CFPF, which has drawn in more than $300 million from Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, gives localities grants for flood projects. Youngkin’s administration last year opted to remove Virginia from the regional carbon market, which means the CFPF’s future funding source is unclear.

Hampton Roads has received a significant proportion of those funds, including for Norfolk’s massive floodwall project and resilience work in Hampton.

Then there’s the newer Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund, which loans money for smaller flood projects.

The new report said all these funds should be administered with appropriate oversight, possibly by appointing an independent board.

In a statement, Youngkin spokesperson Christian Martinez said the governor “will review any legislation that comes to his desk.”

“We appreciate the good work done on this important issue by the Resilience Coordination Working Group, led by Secretary (Travis) Voyles,” Martinez wrote in an email.