Could flooding and sea level rise cost Hampton Roads a military base?
By PETER COUTU | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 7, 2018
VIRGINIA BEACH (Tribune News Service) — Sea level rise could put some of the region’s bases in jeopardy of closing, which would have a serious impact on the area’s economy, said Joe Bouchard, a retired Navy captain.
The Department of Defense “hasn’t come out and said this, but if they do get authorization for another (Base Realignment and Closure) round … sea level rise and flooding will be one of the factors considered in evaluating the military value of the base,” said Bouchard, a previous commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk.
The outcome depends, Bouchard said, on how Southeastern Virginia works together to address the issue in the coming years.
Roughly 40 percent of the region’s economy stems from the military, according to Old Dominion University. Currently, the multibillion-dollar problem of flooding and sea level rise can disrupt preparation and hamper defense.
“If there is a problem in the surrounding communities with roads or utilities, and the local government is not doing anything about it, then that is going to raise that base on the closure list,” Bouchard said.
Not only do some of the region’s bases flood, he said, but when areas around them do, military members can have a tough time getting to work.
There are still many questions surrounding the possibility of base closures – like when, or even if – the next BRAC assessment will come. Congress has been dead-set against another round, even though the Department of Defense has, for years, stated it has too many bases open and is wasting money.
Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, said he believes there will be another round of BRAC, or something similar , at some point in the future.
Still, he is quick to point out that it’s impossible to say whether either issue will be a factor.
“I think you can make an argument that sea level rise, or a vulnerability to sea level rise, might be a criteria,” said Quigley, whose organization aims to attract, retain and grow federal facilities in the region. “But again, at this point, since there is no BRAC commission, rules or charter – it’s speculation.”
Soon, surrounding communities will be prompted to do more to address the issues.
A land-use study involving the military and the cities of Virginia Beach and Norfolk will wrap up this fall. It’s unique because, for the first time ever, it is evaluating the issues of sea level rise and flooding.
Typically, the studies focus on the encroachment of development, which was the case for the most recent analysis in Virginia Beach and Norfolk in 2005.
For development issues in the past, the solutions were typically changes in laws, which can be relatively quick and inexpensive to implement. But Ben McFarlane, the project manager for the study, warns that the recommendations following the current review will be more complicated: they’re engineering problems, not policy ones, he said.
“A lot of the recommendations that are going to come out of the Norfolk and Virginia Beach study are going to be construction projects,” McFarlane said. “Obviously those cost a lot of money, so the implementation of them will be more time-consuming, expensive and difficult.”
The work is urgent, but not yet at a point of crisis, he said, explaining that they’re not doing the study due to any threat of BRAC.
“There is no message from on high saying, ‘You will do this or you will lose a base,’ ” McFarlane said. “But we know this is an issue, and obviously if it’s an issue now and it becomes a problem later, then that could present its own challenges. We’d like to forestall that if we can.”
The recommendations will be “a shocker to some people” but the region will ultimately spend less money if the issues are dealt with in advance, Quigley said.
Whitney Katchmark, principal water resources planner for the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, said part of the purpose of the study is to ensure the region can “get ahead of things,” as she recognizes that the Navy is a major employer.
“The better our community is protected from flooding, the better it is for them to complete their mission,” she said.
Pointing to numerous actions, such as raising roadways, bridge heights, changes in zoning laws and altering placement for utility infrastructure, Quigley said Hampton Roads is currently tackling the problem head on.
Quigley said this is what separates the flooding and sea level rise scenario from how the region dealt with encroaching development near Oceana in 2005, which nearly resulted in it closing.
The threat of flooding and sea level rise has become a significantly bigger part of the conversation over the last decade, he said. Now a whole slew of organizations – local, state, federal and academic – are working together to tackle it.
“It’s an issue we must deal with, and I’m confident we will,” Quigley said.
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