James City County looks ahead on sea level rise

Mike Holtzclaw
Contact Reportermholtzclaw@dailypress.com

James City County has the luxury of elevation and time.

On the topic of sea level rise, the great majority of the county is situated higher than other neighboring cities and counties, allowing James City to observe and learn.

"It is not nearly the immediate issue here that it is in Poquoson or Norfolk or Hampton, which are more low-lying areas," said John Horne, director of the general services office, which oversees stormwater, flood plain management and other relevant issues. "Our topography is very different even from York County, just one jurisdiction down the Peninsula. Those areas have to deal with recurrent flooding of developed areas, and significant acreage that is getting more flooding from tides or storms — we're not in that situation yet."

The operative word is yet.

Horne notes that sea level rise and shore erosion have been happening consistently for millions of years, and with a noted increase in pace in recent generations. It is just a matter of time before James City deals with it on a larger scale, but no one knows just how far down the line that is.

The county participates in discussions of sea level rise organized by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, hoping to learn as much as possible from the cities and counties that have been forced into action already.

"This is one of the big reasons we participate in the HRPDC Coastal Resilience Committee," Horne said. "Lots of studies and experiences get funneled through that we can learn from. If we at some point do have to elevate roads, like they're doing in Norfolk now, it will be helpful to know what kind of infrastructure plans we'll need to have going on."

C. Scott Hardaway, a marine science supervisor at Virginia Institute of Marine Science has studied these issues along the Eastern Seaboard for decades. In 1999, he published the book "Shoreline Management in Chesapeake Bay."

Hardaway said James City County has certain areas situated on the James and York rivers, and one area in particular along the Chickahominy, that have some immediate concerns about sea level rise. But most of the county, he said, is largely safe for now.

"If you're sitting at Kingsmill, if you're on a 30-foot bluff, you don't have too much to worry about," Hardaway said. "If you're down on College Creek, or at Jamestown Island, for instance, in the low marshes, then you're impacted by returning storms and sea level rise.

"As you go up the creeks, there are areas that are vulnerable. For example, up the Chickahominy River, there are a lot of cottages and developments where it's low. That area is right there at the cusp of sea level rise."

The Chickahominy Haven section of the county and Chickahominy River Park are two of the areas in James City that are more at risk of damage from sea level rise or other tidal flooding during major storms.

A year ago, VIMS produced a Shoreline Management Plan for the county. It observed that traditional safeguards — such as bulkheads, concrete seawalls and stone revetments — have had some success, but at the same time "the cost to the environment has been significant and results in permanent loss of ecosystem function and services."

Instead, the VIMS analysis recommended a "living shoreline alternative" that would "minimize impacts to ecological services while providing adequate protection to reduce erosion on a particular site." This would involve the enhancement of the marsh buffer, natural nourishment of the beach, and offshore breakwaters.

Even so, the analysis acknowledged that more traditional methods might be necessary in some cases. The report concluded: "Not all erosion problems can be solved with a Living Shoreline design, and in some cases, a revetment is more practical. Most likely, a combination of these practices will be required at a given site."

Horne said county staff members try to gain as much information as possible from the discussions at the regional planning district commission and stay abreast of the latest data from comprehensive national studies.

He said the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration recently produced the most detailed information yet on storm surge levels, which James City County has already put to use by, for example, raising the minimum floor elevation for new homes in certain areas.

The idea, Horne said, is to stay on top of new information and to continue planning for the future today.

"Our goal is to anticipate as much as possible," he said. "Not just the stillwater flood plain, but what happens if we got a nor'easter with a storm surge on top of a high lunar tide on top of some assumption of what might be happening in this region 20 years from now. We've got all that data, and we are going through it very carefully for anything that could be put to use."

Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479.

High water

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

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
45°