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Why some lawmakers are pushing for a Virginia flood board

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National Guard

Members of the Virginia National Guard deployed on a rescue mission during flooding in 2012 on the Eastern Shore. 

With sea level rise and more frequent intense rainstorms putting pressure on communities statewide, some Virginia officials are again pushing for the creation of a state flood board.

“People may dispute the cause, but I don’t think there’s any dispute along party lines about what’s happening on the ground across the commonwealth,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-6th, of Accomack. “So the question is, ‘What are we going to do about it to deal with it?’”

Lewis, as well as a commission representing 17 local governments in the flood-beset Hampton Roads region, is backing a proposal for the 2022 General Assembly session to create a Commonwealth Flood Board that they say would be akin to the Commonwealth Transportation Board that regulates and funds state transportation projects. Drafting of the legislation is already underway, said Lewis.

“We see this as very much of a bipartisan or nonpartisan issue and something that’s definitely affecting the entire state, rural as well as urban Virginia from severe southwest, Bristol, to Hampton Roads to Alexandria,” Norfolk City Councilor Andria McClellan told the state’s Joint Subcommittee on Coastal Flooding on Monday, Nov. 22.

Another subcommittee member, engineer Chris Stone, said a technical advisory committee on coastal resilience convened by Gov. Ralph Northam last November also intends to recommend that a flood board be created.

The idea isn’t new. Lewis sponsored a similar proposal during the 2021 legislative session but withdrew it from consideration because he said “some of the advocates for it felt the idea wasn’t ready for primetime.”

A separate proposal for a statewide hurricane and flood risk protection authority from Del. Jason Miyares, R-82nd, of Virginia Beach — soon to become Virginia’s next attorney general — also failed to make it out of committee.

This year could be different, say advocates.

Since the beginning of the year, Virginia has seen an influx of cash earmarked for flood protection as a result of its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state carbon market. While early projections estimated the state would reap roughly $45 million annually for flood protection from quarterly RGGI auctions of carbon allowances, actual totals have outstripped that figure. To date, Virginia’s Community Flood Preparedness Fund, which is funded by RGGI revenues and administered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, has reached almost $64 million and is still awaiting the proceeds of a final Dec. 1 auction.

“One of the things that’s driving this is we really feel there needs to be oversight for these RGGI funds that are coming in,” McClellan told the joint subcommittee Monday. “The way the legislation was created — with all due respect to DCR — at this point there is no such oversight.”

The flood board envisioned by supporters would go beyond administering RGGI funds, however. McClellan told the Mercury the statewide body would act as “an oversight board that provides accountability for federal and other dollars coming in to address flooding.”

Between federal infrastructure dollars and funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, resiliency spending is expected to ramp up in the coming years as climate change’s impacts become more visible and pervasive. Virginia will be an attractive candidate for funding: Flooding increasingly plagues the state’s coast, and the Hampton Roads region is experiencing what scientists say is the fastest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast.

“All of these funding buckets are coming down and we just need a coordinated effort,” said McClellan. “And that’s the goal of a commonwealth flood board.”

Both she and Lewis said legislation could also bring some of DCR’s current functions such as dam safety under the proposed board’s purview.

With Republicans prepared to take control of the executive branch and the House of Delegates this January, any flood board proposal will need to gain bipartisan support.

Republicans largely opposed Virginia’s participation in the RGGI market, blocking Democratic efforts through the budget process in 2019 and voting against authorizing language in 2020. While House Republican spokesperson Garren Shipley did not return a call about whether that chamber would seek to roll back the program, the effort would face an uphill climb: RGGI is already funnelling millions to flooding and energy efficiency projects statewide, and the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to support repeal. A small handful of Republicans, including Sen. Jill Vogel, R-27th, of Fauquier County, also broke party ranks in 2020 to vote in favor of RGGI participation.

Del. Keith Hodges, R-98th, of Urbanna, said Tuesday that “at this time I don’t know what the future of RGGI would be in Virginia.”

Hodges said he would “possibly” support a flood board depending on how it was structured but would want to ensure it didn’t disadvantage rural areas or increase regulations in a way that would prevent residents from being able to protect their property from flooding.

Both McClellan and Lewis expressed optimism that a state flood board could garner bipartisan support, pointing to the passage of a November referendum authorizing Virginia Beach to issue millions of dollars in bonds to speed up flood protection projects. While city voters strongly supported Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe on a 54-46 split, almost three-quarters voted in favor of the referendum. During his campaign, Youngkin also pledged to assemble an “independent committee” that would “be able to raise funds and contract for Hampton Roads to really address our rising seas issues.”

“I think we can craft some bipartisan support on the House side,” said Lewis. “Certainly anyone in Hampton Roads should be sort of reticent or reluctant to go against any flooding projects.”

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