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Rising to the Challenge: Conference on Sea Level Rise

Michelle Covi

On June 30, 2014, Old Dominion University hosted a meeting organized by U. S. Senator Tim Kaine along with U. S. Representatives Scott Rigell, Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, and Rob Whitman along with Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim and Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms. The meeting, entitled “Rising to the Challenge” was designed to share with the estimated 300 public attendees a discussion of how the federal government and military installation are addressing sea level rise in Hampton Roads, whether those efforts are being coordinated with regional entities and how greater coordination might be used to leverage work being done at all levels and in all sectors. Two panels were convened and the elected officials took turns asking questions of representatives of military, federal, state and local organizations and Old Dominion University.

The conference opened with a welcome from Old Dominion University President John Broderick who highlighted efforts at the University, such as the establishment of the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative in 2010 that has develop the university into a research hub in this area, capitalizing on expertise in modeling and simulation and the development of the Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute. He noted that Hampton Roads will serve as model for the rest of nation.

Senator Kaine, in his opening remarks, spoke about his long dedication to addressing sea level rise and climate change in Virginia. Although different groups of people have been meeting to work on addressing adaptation, this conference is the first with bipartisan representation from elected officials representing the region in the Federal government. He noted that there are significant challenges to this diverse state with a population center only second in the nation for vulnerability to sea level rise. While efforts to adapt are evident at the Navy base and some private homes that are elevated, without action, “someone is going to make the case for going somewhere else.” Senator Kaine admitted that the elected officials may not agree on everything, but that they should find areas of agreement. He said, “ We don‘t need more descriptions of the problem, we need solutions.” He noted that the elected officials in Virginia work well together and that the citizens think the government needs to take action. The task for this conference is to discuss solutions and how elected official can help in facilitating action.

Congressman Rigell said that the large turn-out by the public for the event demonstrated the importance of this challenge for the region. He described his experience with flooding in the city and noted that the university is uniquely qualified to address the issue. He acknowledged the efforts take to date and agreed that the Virginia delegation of elected official works well together.

Congressmen Scott and Wittman expressed their commitment to working with their colleagues to support efforts to address the challenges of sea level rise. Both looked forward to the opportunity to learn from the panels about the regional efforts to adapt. The focus of the elected officials is on finding areas of agreement so that the region can move forward with solutions.

Mayor Fraim introduced the first panel whose members addressed questions of Federal policy activities and needs. The mayor described the challenge of sea level rise, particularly the higher tides which charge the storms so that they are more forceful and destructive. The assets at risk include the second most vulnerable Navy installation in the world. Panel members were introduced as:

  • Alice Hill, senior advisor for Preparedness and Resilience for the National Security Council;
  • RADM Jonathan White, Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy;
  • RADM Kevin Slates, Chief of Naval Operations energy and Environmental Readiness Division;
  • John Conger, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense;
  • Greg Steele, Chief, Planning and Policy, Norfolk Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers;
  • Jim Reddick, Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response, City of Norfolk;
  • Skip Stiles, Executive Director, Wetlands Watch.

Alice Hill addressed the first question from Senator Kaine about the importance of adaptation to national security by describing how sea level rise puts life and property at risk in the same ways as many other threat to the nation. She said that sea level rise threatens infrastructure and is a mission readiness issue for the military. It is no longer enough to look to the past when we build our infrastructure, we have to look to the future. She listed some of the federal initiatives, such as the one billion dollar competition within HUD for communities hit by recent disaster, green infrastructure grants for the Virginia coastal region, and the federal data initiative. She said that they are learning how the federal government can support a problem that will be addressed at the local level.

Admiral Slates was asked by Congressman Rigell for a specific estimate of projected sea level rise and if the Navy had a particular number that it was using in its planning. Slates responded that the Navy uses U.S. Army Corps of Engineers models to plan infrastructure, but they have not used an exact number for their estimates. When considering Norfolk, the issue of land subsidence compounds global sea level rise, so that this is the most vulnerable area for the Navy, he said. They have been taking a prudent approach to factor in climate change resilience- the fuel pier on Craney Island is one example where they built it higher than they would have normally to account to sea level rise. He added that any number that might be used for planning will not be a Navy number and that all the federal entities are working toward developing planning specifics.

Skip Stiles of Wetland Watch was asked by Congressman Scott if sea level rise was inevitable or if there is something that can be done to stop it. Mr. Stiles responded that we cannot stop sea level rise and there are a number of issues that add to the rise rate in the region, including subsidence and the contribution of the Gulf Stream slowing, but that people are sick of driving through water and the communities cannot act alone to adapt. Congressman Wittman asked Mr. Steele about the role of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in the sea level rise adaptation process. He responded by saying that many people are not aware of that the mission of the Corps extends to flood risk management. People are more familiar with the permitting side of Corps activities, but they also work very closely with cities and other local governments in flood risk management activities as a federal partner. He said that they do not have one number that they use for planning, but they do use three scenario curves that are tied to local conditions.

Admiral White was also asked to address the issue of determining sea level rise rates for planning. He responded by noting that there are a range of climate predictions and that it was like a hurricane track in that forecast for the near future have a more narrow range of possible tracks than forecasts for dates farther out. He encouraged the scientific community to get together with engineers to decide when and how infrastructure planning decisions can be made. Mr. Conger added to Admiral White‘s comments that 30 years in the future is the most certain prediction and that is about a foot, but if infrastructure is designed to last longer than 30 years, you need to take greater precaution.

Mr. Steele added that the U.S. Army Corp has an on-going North Atlantic Coastal Comprehensive Study that looks at the area from Northern Virginia to Maine. In the study, they are addressing not just risk, but vulnerability, which can be both infrastructure and communities. The focus has shifted from just looking at dollar to looking at vulnerabilities and they currently are talking with Norfolk to address the community needs. He noted that the Corps can work well across cities and regionally.

Mayor Fraim explained that he had met with Senators Kaine and Warner and with the Whitehouse to try to find money for sea level rise adaptation projects in Norfolk. Everyone recognizes how important it is for the city to work directly with the Navy to make sure that the workforce can get on and off the base. He said that he is worried about the transportation routes to the base, he is worried about preparedness and wants to know how they can do a better job communicating.

Admiral Slates said that he felt that they were doing a good job communicating and that community resilience is a key to the success of the base. He pointed to the Pilot Project/Interagency Task Force as an example of cooperative efforts and partnering.

Mayor Sessoms noted that many of the infrastructure project that might help the cities adapt to sea level rise are very expensive. He asked Mr. Steele if there is a regional capitol project that would gives the greatest benefit for the cost.

Mr. Steele replied that although they are mandated to take a watershed and regional approach, the problem comes with determining how the projects are funded- who pays for what. They have a history of overcoming this challenge with the Elizabeth River Project. He said that there is no specific regional project identified, but that when they are looking at projects, they look to see if it crosses municipal boundaries and he wondered if there was a way to get the state more engaged in adaptation work. Perhaps the second panel will address this point.

Senator Kaine raised the issue of the transportation bill and asked what they could be doing at the federal level to tackle adaptation in the transportation bill. Mr. Conger replied that Part of what you would want to do in any project is take into account the life of the project and projected sea level rise. He gave an example of a Department of Defense directive to reduce building in the 100 year flood plain and moving launch pads at Cape Canaveral rather than recapping them in a flood-prone area. He said that this kind of action is not hard and “there is a lot you can do if you admit there is a risk.”

Congressman Rigell asked if there was a specific section of waterfront that is especially impacted and should be targeted for sea level rise risk mitigation. Admiral Slates responded that the region has problems anytime there is a storm and that the Langley base starts to flood before the Naval base at Norfolk. He mentioned some spots with sinkholes and parking problems. One of the major concerns is utilities and improvements in utility resilience would be most welcome.

Admiral White responded to a question of the science of sea level rise. He said that planning for flooding is often based on past estimates, but that we need better estimates for the future, better geospatial data. The subsidence portion of regional sea level rise is linear and geospatial information is key. Mr. Steele noted that the comprehensive study from the Corps of Engineers will answer some of the questions currently raised. The study will look at different areas; different adaptation measures, including structural and non-structural solutions; and the costs. Mr. Conger noted that part of the question is how much flooding can you tolerate and making decisions about options based on how the sea level rise will change the geography of the region. Mr. Stiles also noted that there is a large and unknown cost to adaptation. He posed the question “What are the costs of business as usual?”

Mr. Wittman asked the panel about how they plan to engage the public on the issue and what the challenges are to public outreach. Ms. Hill responded from the executive perspective, explaining how important it is to let people know the risk of climate change. She pointed to the National Assessment report released in the spring as an example of a document designed to engage the public in the science of climate change. Jim Reddick from the City of Norfolk spoke about the Secure Commonwealth Recurrent Flooding Sub-panel. Mr. Reddick said that they are developing an incident command system and that the group is working to leverage the resources that exist. They will take a unified approach to messaging and that the workgroup that dealt specifically with this observed that there are multiple audiences and that we have to be cautious about being polarizing in the terminology that is used.

The first panel closed with a question about how sea level rise will be used to make decisions about navy base closures or realignments. Mr. Conger noted that flooding problems are a kind of encroachment, like many others, but only one piece in a complicated decision process.

Mayor Sessoms opened the second part of the program by making some comments about the risk of sea level rise to the Virginia Beach community. He observed that the waterfront portions of the region are of great value to the residents, businesses, industry and military sectors of the community. The municipalities are addressing hurricane preparedness, stormwater needs and other sea level rise affected issues and learning from officials in other coastal states But these are not just local issues, they need coordination with state, federal and regional partners. In Virginia Beach, they just updated the building code to increase resilience; they are developing risk assessments and assisting property owners with repetitive flood losses. He called out the FEMA flood program as one that needs reform and is not serving people in the way that it should. Mr. Sessoms noted that localities cannot address the challenges of adaptation alone and asked the Commonwealth and Federal agencies to provide assistance in the following ways: 1) Recognize the real risk of doing nothing and commit to a stronger leadership role, 2) Identify a responsible partner or agency to coordinate adaptation activities, 3) Assist with data coordination so that assessments of areas of vulnerability can be identified. He then introduced the panel:

  • CAPT Ray Toll, NOAA/Navy liaison Old Dominion University;
  • VADM David Archizel, Dir. of Military Affiars, Old Dominion University;
  • Molly Ward, Secretary of Natural Resources;
  • Sen. Mamie Locke, Virginia General Assembly;
  • Del. Chris Stolle, Virginia General Assembly;
  • Randy Keaton, Executive Director, Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

Senator Kaine asked Admiral Archizel and Captain Toll to describe the Interagency Pilot Project that is currently being facilitated by Old Dominion University.

Admiral Archizel explained that about a year ago President Broderick spoke with him about using an interdisciplinary approach to adaptation in the region. He said ODU is well placed to work on the problem in interdisciplinary and multi-sectorial way. Hampton Roads brings this approach and he believes 50 years from now people will look back and see that it started here.

Captain Toll described the pilot project and the individuals who are involved. He noted that this will be a “whole of government”, “whole of community” approach. He spoke about the goals of the pilot project, to help coordinate activities and identify knowledge gaps and funding sources. He noted that business is also part of the approach that they are taking so that it can e a public-private partnership.

Congressman Rigell asked Molly Ward to address the issue of coordination of adaptation activities at the state level. Ms. Ward said that there are some concerned about duplicated efforts. The governors is reconstituted the climate commission. There is a call for a one stop shop, but it is hard to say what that might be for the state. It might need to be within the administration, but we need to create that model.

Congressman Scott asked the sea level rise adaptation projects might be coordinated on such a way that the Chesapeake Bay might be cleaned up. Randy Keaton said that local governments are working on these issue. They are looking at many different policies and a number of these policies address both sea level rise and water pollution issues.

State Senator Locke said that over the past four years the General Assembly has engaged in studies. One was the recurrent flooding study conducted by VIMS and one about disaster preparedness. The housing commission also endorsed moving legislation forward to move ahead with a two year plan to move from studies to policy.

Delegate Stolle said that the two resolutions have moved forward. At the state level great work has been done but that has sat on the shelves. They are working on getting action.

Mayor Sessoms spoke about economic development in the area. He noted that the economy is very dependent on the military. The key issue is public safety, but there are significant costs involved. Mr. Keaton responded that the question of costs is an important one. The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission has been examining the concept of adaptive management -- how can we plan for 30 years and then change the plan if higher rates of sea level rise happen. Determining the rates is a priority, but also identifying projects.

Mayor Fraim also described the local economic situation and noted that red tape needs to be eliminated so that the different entities can work well together. He also said that communications must convey urgency, but not scare people. He is very optimistic about the future. The area is learning how to live with water, but we need to take first steps without creating a sense of panic. Mr. Toll said that there is interest in Norfolk at the Federal level partly because of the local leadership and the citizens that are engaged in this effort.

Senator Kaine asked Ms. Ward what could be done on the state level to engage in the whole of community approach to climate adaptation. She replied that there has been a lot of denial and one of the goals of the governments committee, co-chaired by Brian Moran, has been to bring in others and take the whole community approach. Ms. Ward was also asked about Fort Monroe with regards to sea level rise. She responded that the Chesapeake Bay agreement includes climate change. Wetlands mitigation and warmer temperatures are a concern for the administration. Fort Monroe needs to look at the modeling and take that into account. When there is a decision to build a bridge we can take the future water levels into account.

Senator Kaine asked the panel about the pros and cons of adding sea level rise to the transportation funding procedure. He expressed some hesitation because he didn‘t want to create hurdles for getting funding. Mr. Keaton responded that they already use sea level rise in transportation planning in the local area.

Senator Kaine asked the state elected officials how easy it is for them to talk to their colleagues from other parts of the states about this issue. Delegate Stolle responded that some of the local work is being translated to the state level. The flooding metrics used in the transportation rules apply to the entire state, although they may be primarily applied in Hampton Roads. Senator Locke said that this is not just a Hampton Roads problem. A hurricane can affect many different parts of the state, so solutions developed here can be translated to other areas.

To conclude the event, Senator Kaine asked each of the federal elected official to describe their take-aways from the conference. Congressman Whitman said that his main take away is that we have more to do to engage and inform the public on the issue and that they need to find areas of agreement that lead to action points. Congressman Scott said that it is apparent that there is consensus that the area is on the hook short term for one foot of sea level rise in the next 30 year and that regional cooperation is needed to address adaptation. Congressman Rigell said that the meeting was well lead and he was encouraged by the number of people in attendance and especially the young people. He said that there are coordination and communication challenges but that he liked to leave on an optimistic note.

Senator Kaine noted that better coordination is needed, but that there are opportunities, such as in the Transportation Bill. He said that we talked about things that are expensive, but since money is being spent anyway, it needs to be spent in a way that tackles the problem. He said that the region has a good track record and he expects that other will want to copy us. He thanked the host and concluded the session.

The conference was video-taped. To watch the event, click here.

Senator Kaine opened the conference.

The conference brought together four members of Congress: Senator Kaine, U.S. Representatives Scott Rigell, Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, and Rob Whitman.

The first panel included representatives of several federal agencies, state and city governments, and one NGO.