Newport News is looking at flooding, sees sea level rise as regional issue

Reema Amin
Contact Reporterramin@dailypress.com

Officials say they are addressing the immediate risks of flooding in Newport News. But on the city level, there's no plan to address the longer-term problem of sea level rise.

That's because the issue is regional and should be handled by more than just one locality, said Mohammad Shar, a civil engineer for the city who has been involved with finding solutions for flooding and, eventually, sea level rise in the city. Shar and engineers with other Hampton Roads cities meet bimonthly through the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission to discuss the matter, he said.

"We are brainstorming to see what's going on as far as sea level rise and trying to manage it as a region," Shar said.

Researchers with the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute, a group that studies how to best manage natural resources globally, agree. That group has studied how sea level rise will affect Hampton Roads as a region.

"Across the board we need regional policies that are tied to state policies ... instead of, 'Everybody fend for yourselves,' and hope you can figure it out," said Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs for the World Resources Institute.

The other reason is that sea level rise is not as much of a threat in Newport News as it is in Norfolk and Hampton, both of which have more low-lying areas, said both Shar and City Manager Jim Bourey.

Derek Loftis, an assistant research scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said Bourey and Shar were "quite right" in saying the city has a much less immediate risk than Hampton and Norfolk.

The city is more elevated than other areas, especially Hampton and Norfolk, he said. He also cited a recent study from the Virginia Coastal Policy Institute that shows Newport News having about $375,000 in annual flood damage with a two-and-a-half-foot sea-level rise, compared to $21.4 million for Chesapeake, $19.4 million for Norfolk and $14.6 million for Hampton.

Still, he said, the city is making some effort. Loftis is working with the city to help install its first-ever water-level sensors using $105,000 in grants from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. The city is kicking in an additional $30,000.

And the city does have its share of places that flood easily, in addition to City Line Apartments. Shar named Fort Eustis, the downtown area along Salters Creek, Newmarket Creek and other creeks that flow into the James River.

A couple of years ago, Bourey said, the city decided to make people who live in floodplain areas build their houses two feet above the ground instead of the previously required one foot.

The city also is trying to improve stormwater drainage for when there is heavy rainfall, Shar and Bourey said. The city has 61 active projects listed on its engineering website that involve stormwater drainage.

In January, the city was turned down for a $20.6 million grant it had requested through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program aimed at addressing sea level rise.

The city wanted to upgrade the existing Chesapeake Avenue seawall, which extends from the Anderson Park fishing pier to the Hampton city line, and build a bike trail and sidewalk adjacent to the seawall, according to the city application provided by HUD. It also wanted to stabilize two open drainage channels, one along Hampton Avenue and one at Salters Creek along an existing right-of-way, and stabilize a 40-foot tide gate with storm pump station at 16th Street.

According to Shar, there are four separate scenarios of rates at which the sea level could rise by 2100: at its historic rate, 1.6 feet; at a low rate, 2.6 feet; at an intermediate rate, 4.9 feet; at a high rate, 7.5 feet.

But that's amplified by the additional problem of land subsidence, according to Shar and C. Forbes Tompkins, a research analyst with the World Resources Institute. To illustrate land subsidence, Forbes said to think of land near the Chesapeake Bay as a cardboard box placed on a block of cement. The cement is essentially the aquifer where a lot of drinking water comes from.

"Now if you remove half of that cement block, then stand on it again, the box is going to cave in with you on top of it," Tompkins said. "If you're removing more and more water, it's losing the pressure of where the land mass was."

That's something that Shar said he and other engineers in the region have discussed attacking by "recharging the aquifer." It's a concept that has been proposed by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District: pumping treated wastewater back into the aquifer to keep land from subsiding.

But that's still in the conceptual phase, Shar said, and would require a lot of cities' and counties' approval before it could go forward.

"There is no silver bullet answer," Tompkins said.

Amin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4890.

High water

This series looks at the state of sea level rise in Peninsula-area communities and how their governments are responding.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
50°