Study details steps to protect Virginia Navy bases as sea levels rise
By PETER COUTU | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: May 29, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service ) — A newly released study between Norfolk, Virginia Beach and the Navy recommends sweeping changes that would reshape areas from Ocean View to Sandbridge to prevent floodwaters from cutting off military bases.
The 266-page report, which was released Wednesday, details 22 steps both cities and other partners should take to ensure the Navy can carry out its mission and remain a major part of the region’s economy in the face of climate change.
The Defense Department has been studying the vulnerability of its bases, said Joe Bouchard, former commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk. "The message is clear: There are bases threatened by climate change, especially by sea level rise."
The first-of-its-kind study looks at current and future flooding as a type of encroachment impacting bases. That's a shift from how the defense department has looked at its assets in the past when the focus has been on approaching developments.
The study's findings carry far-reaching implications that could help shape costly infrastructure improvements in the future.
Proposed solutions would cost between a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $50 million for comprehensive improvements. The study, which is still a draft, looks at possible conditions — and the feasibility of potential fixes — under both 1.5 and 3 feet of sea level rise, focusing on chronic or nuisance flooding and not factoring in possible storm surge events.
Four target areas were identified as places where major vulnerabilities were anticipated to impact infrastructure the Navy uses:
—The area around Naval Station Norfolk, which has the most miles of roadway that could be flooded under 3 feet of sea level rise.
—Neighborhoods to the west of Little Creek.
—The area surrounding the Lynnhaven Inlet and near much of Shore Drive.
—Sandbridge Road and other neighborhoods near the Dam Neck Annex.
Under 3 feet of sea level rise, 123 community assets — including schools, a hospital, and police and fire stations — would be exposed to flooding and more would have access cut off. That would mean military service members, their families and the broader community would see fewer benefits from such resources, according to the study.
"Even if the building isn't flooded but you can't get there, that's a problem," said Ben McFarlane, a senior planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission who led the project.
Since 1930, the relative sea level has risen by more than a foot at Sewells Point at Naval Station Norfolk, the highest rate on the East Coast. Flooding has dramatically increased.
Research points to the rate of sea level rise accelerating in the coming decades, which will lead to waterlogged roads, flooded homes and fewer ways to enter nearby bases if no action is taken.
Today, flooding impacts 35 miles of roads, according to the roughly $500,000 study. With 1.5 feet of sea level rise, that number jumps to 104 miles. At 3 feet, that affects up to 269 miles.
It poses a major problem for both local installations and cities. There are nearly 20 access points to the two cities' six Navy installations. And most of the roughly 130,000 personnel who work at Oceana, Naval Station Norfolk, Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads, the Dam Neck Annex or Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story live off base and commute to work.
When some of the roughly 200 miles of roads leading to bases are inundated, it cuts off access and disrupts mission readiness. For cities, some worry the problems could lead to less defense spending in Hampton Roads, which currently makes up about 40% of the area's economy.
"With rising sea levels and increases in frequency and levels of roadway flooding, as well as worsening congestion as the region’s population grows, current transportation nuisances could become more serious problems in the future," according to the study, which began in 2016 and was overseen by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.
Eight projects were labeled as a priority, with four in Virginia Beach, three in Norfolk and one carrying shared responsibility. And there are some specific recommendations to prevent floodwaters from cutting off access to military bases. Norfolk should raise a stretch of Hampton Boulevard. In Virginia Beach, drainage systems around Naval Air Station Oceana's Bells Road Gate should be bolstered.
But McFarlane said the project also includes recommendations for more studies to find comprehensive solutions.
"It's more than just fixing the roads," he said.
Currently, the study is in a final draft form, McFarlane said. It'll soon be posted publicly, and a 30-day comment period will begin. Over the next month, two public meetings will be planned — one in Norfolk and the other in Virginia Beach. After that, McFarlane said he'll review comments and possibly tweak the study before issuing the final report.
Bouchard said he is worried that because the study is simply advisory and funding is tight, localities could quickly become complacent when it comes to implementing the proposed actions.
"In theory, a base could be closed in a (Base Realignment and Closure) round due to flooding around a base because it impacts its military value," Bouchard said. "If the cities don't fear bases being closed due to sea level rise, then they won't take action."
The study suggests possible funding sources could come from local capital improvement money, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Joint Land Use Study overlaps in some ways with Virginia Beach's recent Dewberry environmental report, but this project comes at the issue from a new angle, providing an in-depth assessment of what initiatives would benefit and protect Navy bases, McFarlane said. It could shape the cities' priorities.
"It sets us up for a much more robust conversation with the Navy moving forward," he said.
Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, is focused on attracting, retaining and growing federal facilities in Hampton Roads. In order to be able to do that, he said the facilities need to be viable in the long term — which includes guarding bases against recurrent flooding.
Quigley, who was on the study's policy committee, called it "tremendously encouraging" that the region is looking at the problem "right in the eye" and figuring out what to do about it. He called the study a blueprint for actions that should be taken in the coming years.
"We've got to do this together," he said.©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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