‘Build Back Better’ Could Help Coastal Communities Address Flooding

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Water covers a parking lot at the Onancock wharf during a September 2020 king tide. File photo by David Martin.

By Stefanie Jackson – The Build Back Better Act, which the U.S. Senate will revisit in January, contains a provision that could help Virginia address increasingly frequent coastal flooding, stated Jack Alber, an associate of the Washington, D.C., public relations and communications firm, Signal Group, in an email late last month.

The Build Back Better Act, if passed, could include $6 billion for coastal restoration, which advocates say would “help strengthen the state’s natural coastline infrastructure and protect Virginia’s iconic coastline from further loss to the most rapid sea level rise on the whole Atlantic coast,” Alber wrote.

According to a report from States At Risk, the funding would impact about 164,000 Virginians who are at risk of coastal flooding and whose number is expected to increase to more than 300,000 by 2050.

Virginia’s coastal areas are home to 59% of the state’s population, generating $140 billion in annual income for the state and 63% of its gross domestic product as of 2018.

Virginia has more than 7,000 miles of coastline, much of which has receded due to the 14 inches of sea level rise that has occurred since 1930. Tidal flooding in the state has increased 132% since 2000.

Protecting coastal environments is key because they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it up to four time more efficiently than forests on land, according to research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

A 2017 study indicated that stimulus-supported coastal restoration projects created 2,200 jobs.

More than 110 environmental groups, including the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, support the inclusion of funding for coastal restoration in the Build Back Better Act.

Pamela Mason, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science senior research scientist who participated in a Dec. 17 interview with the Eastern Shore Post, discussed current trends in building Virginia’s coastal resilience and how to direct the attention of U.S. Congress members and federal funding to the Eastern Shore.

Her educational background is in tidal wetlands ecology, and most of her work has focused on shorelines: “how shoreline habitats provide valuable benefits to coastal communities and Virginians and how we can do our best around decision-making to minimize adverse impacts to those systems.”

Her work focuses on natural and nature-based features (NNBFs) like beaches, dunes, tidal wetlands, non-tidal wetlands, and riparian wooded buffers and “translating that science to policy.”

Mason is part of the VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM). She also is the co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Wetland Workgroup, which facilitates projects that protect, restore, and enhance tidal and non-tidal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Her work for CCRM includes “wetland modeling … that’s focused on where wetlands are going to be in the future, and we’re trying to use that information to better inform decision-makers about where they might look to do projects.”

The Build Back Better funding would be useful to support projects that are more expensive and difficult to fund, such as in urban areas like Norfolk, Alexandria, Arlington, “and even your little town of Cape Charles,” Mason said.

Acquiring land costs more in those areas since they consist of waterfront property, creating an additional limitation when pursuing federal funding. “I think that’s particularly true in some of our rural communities, where the tax base is driven by property values, and so there’s reluctance to try to think about building a tidal marsh on the shoreline when you might be selling that to a developer for a high dollar amount,” she said.

Much of the Eastern Shore is susceptible to storm surge and sea level rise: 52% of Accomack County and 42% of Northampton County has a land elevation of less than 10 feet, Mason said.

Even though Cape Charles has a beachfront, it is most likely to flood from the south, from the direction of the harbor, because it’s such a low-lying area with little vegetation other than turf grass, she added.

(For more information on existing NNBFs in Accomack and Northampton counties and where new NNBFs are recommended, visit

https://www.vims.edu/ccrm/research/climate_change/adaptation/nnbfs/index.php and scroll down to “Locality Summary Reports.”)

Accomack and Northampton, being rural areas, benefit from existing natural features like tidal marshes and coastal forests, but there is both public and private infrastructure that is lacking in NNBFs near the shoreline, Mason noted.

But “the water quality is critical” to the Shore’s recreational and commercial fishing and aquaculture industries, and the NNBFs help preserve water quality by filtering the water and safeguarding it against impacts such as runoff from farming, she said.

Not only does marsh vegetation remove carbon from the air and decrease greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it removes nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous from the water that infiltrates the soil, then converts the nutrients into plant material.

Another concern is that “the marshes are disappearing,” Mason said.

One method for preserving marshes and other natural features is to apply thin-layer dredge material. This is already being done in parts of the Shore; for example, when the entrance to the Cape Charles harbor is dredged, the material tends to be sandy, so “they put it right back on the beach, generally,” Mason said.

Other Causes of Flooding

Not all flooding on the Eastern Shore is caused by sea-level rise due to climate change – some of it is due to storm surge (an abnormal rise in sea level caused by high storm winds) or heavy rains.

Jon Derek Loftis, a research assistant professor at VIMS, is leading the StormSense Project in Tidewater, Va., focusing on inundation forecasting research to enhance emergency preparedness for flooding caused by storm surge, rain, and tides.

Loftis is known for his involvement in the annual “Catch the King” event in Hampton Roads, in which hundreds of citizens participate by using the Sea Level Rise iPhone and Android app, which is GPS-based, to map maximum inundation to improve the accuracy of models for predicting nuisance flooding.

“Catch the King” is named after extreme high tides called king tides, which are highest high tides and lowest low tides and which occur several times a year when the moon is closest to the Earth during full and new moons.

“There’s definitely a movement to try to link … the rain and the tides. They come together when you get a storm,” Mason said.

The key is finding natural storage spaces for the rain and stormwater, such as tidal and non-tidal wetlands and coastal forests, which have highly permeable soil.

If the lands are covered with dense vegetation, such as marsh grasses, shrubs, and trees, it creates friction and slows down waves and water flow, and it “minimizes how much erosion reaches whatever the upland is behind it, like the residential community or town that’s behind it.”

Local governments should attempt to minimize how development impacts existing NNBFs and identify areas where those features are missing, where restoration should be targeted.

A Build Back Better Act grant could possibly be used to create marshes, build beaches and dunes, or develop breakwater systems to protect existing beaches. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities to do that work,” Mason said.

Other federal programs, such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration or FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities or BRIC, already have gravitated toward natural-based solutions to coastal flooding and have laid the framework for what’s possible in the Build Back Better Act.

Living Shorelines

Another VIMS researcher, Donna Bilkovic, co-edited the book “Living Shorelines: The Science  and Management of Nature-Based Coastal Protection,” which was released in 2020.

Living shorelines, which are made of natural features like marsh grasses and oyster reefs, protect smaller shorelines – such as those along the Eastern Shore’s many creeks – without the adverse effects of traditional, non-natural installations like bulkheads.

Bulkheads for smaller water bodies like creeks are often over-designed, and even though they prevent erosion, they incorporate no natural features that filter the water, leading to reduced water quality and adverse impacts on aquatic life such as minnows and blue crabs, Mason said.

Due to the influence of thorough research, living shorelines are now Virginia law – erosion protection measures must include living shorelines unless it can be proved that a living shoreline would be unsuitable for a particular project, she said.

“In those quieter areas, what sometimes they call ‘sheltered coasts,’ building a marsh … is a highly effective erosion-control habitat. That’s naturally what it does … and that’s also been demonstrated through science,” Mason said.

Beaches and dunes offer protection in “high energy” areas where marsh grass doesn’t grow naturally.

Sand is highly permeable and absorbs wave energy in a process called “run up.” As waves run up the beach, some of the water “flows back, on the top … but a lot of that water goes back down into the sand and returns, basically, underneath the surface, where you can’t see it,” Mason explained.

Research following Hurricane Sandy showed that dunes are the “first line of defense” against major storms like hurricanes. “Houses that are behind dune systems – the storm will pick away at the dune, and often, the houses then are preserved and protected,” she said.

Coastal riparian buffers work in a similar fashion. The term “riparian” literally means “along the river,” but it is also used to refer to vegetation buffering a creek. Ideally, that vegetation will be native plants. For coastal Virginia, that means plants like loblolly pines, red maple trees, bayberry shrubs, and perhaps some grasses, depending on the thickness of the tree canopy, Mason said.

Nationwide Impacts

“Virginia, including the Eastern Shore, is at really high risk to have adverse impacts to sea level rise and from coastal flooding. … Nationwide, coastal Virginia has one of the highest rates of relative sea level rise,” Mason said.

There are coastal Virginia communities that would greatly benefit from federal funding for coastal restoration and resilience measures because those communities can’t afford to implement the measures on their own.

Some of Virginia’s coastal communities are underserved, low-income, or the locality’s “incomes are entirely based on property taxes and they can’t take the trade-off. … In Virginia, a lot of our coastal economy is based on the fact that we are along the waterfront,” Mason noted.

Even though the Eastern Shore can be easily overlooked at the state and federal levels, Mason pointed out there are “a lot of elements of the Eastern Shore that provide value to … Virginia and the whole coastal economy,” and they go beyond tourism, including: Wallops Island (a home to NASA and the U.S. Navy), aquaculture, and agriculture, which also is subject to adverse impacts of coastal living via saltwater intrusion.

The percent of Eastern Shore citizens who are people of color may draw the attention of state and federal authorities concerned with matters of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, Mason added.

The Shore’s characterization as a rural, underserved region also is an attention-getter. Cost-share or matching grant programs challenge small, rural communities and create “limited access” to state and federal funding, she said.

“So once you start putting all that together, you get … multiple ways that some of our coastal communities are not at the table and not getting as much funding,” Mason said.

“There’s a whole lot at stake, and so additional funding to make (coastal resilience projects) easier to do … it would be great for Virginia at this time.”

This story was updated to include links to studies by States At Risk and NOAA.

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