Defense Department could start funding off-base infrastructure fixes for sea level rise, flooding
By PETER COUTU | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 8, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — In the face of rising seas and frequent flooding, the Department of Defense could soon start pitching in money to fix roads and other vulnerable infrastructure needed to access military bases.
After years of examining the impacts of climate change and working to mitigate the future effects on bases, the most recent national defense authorization act set the stage for the military to ramp up spending in civilian communities. It also placed the Defense Department at the forefront of dealing with sea level rise in the federal government.
“It's a wise investment for the Department of Defense to help fund adaptation projects that directly benefit a base, or to prevent the deterioration of the community around a base," said Joe Bouchard, a former Commanding Officer of Naval Station Norfolk. “To me, all of this is very encouraging — long overdue, but I’m glad, finally, this is happening.”
Though the last Congress largely punted on dealing with climate change, a specific bipartisan consensus emerged, where legislators agreed that military resilience was important.
Two of the key legislative changes were led last year, in part, by two of Virginia's Congressional members — U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, a Virginia Beach Republican.
Taylor, who lost a bid for re-election last fall to Democrat Elaine Luria, authored an amendment that allows the Defense Department to pay for repairs to roads damaged by recurrent flooding and sea level rise or that mitigate the threat in the future.
When proposing the change, Taylor said he had roads like Hampton Boulevard in mind. Research shows that the main road to Naval Station Norfolk could start flooding daily by 2050.
Often, there is a mutual interest between communities and nearby bases, Taylor said. Most in the armed forces live off base, and military installations are often key drivers of local economies.
So, it makes sense that the two would work together — because if sailors can't get to a base, he said, the community won't have one for very long.
The idea, he said, is to give the Department of Defense the chance to defend critical assets in the community, which was largely prohibited before.
“It’s a big deal," Taylor said. "Number one: It’s something that’s in stone now.”
Bases throughout the country could be vying for money in the coming years because virtually all military installations will be impacted by the changing climate's impacts, according to a recent federal report.
On the coast, when sea level rise accelerates, more roads will be regularly inundated, possibly blocking access to bases for the members who live in the community. Hampton Roads could see roughly a foot-and-a-half increase by 2050.
And as this happens, there will be a strong mission justification that the military needs to improve access so people are able to get to work, said John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security.
“If you make the base resilient but fail to make the community resilient, essentially the base is still in a lot of trouble,” Conger said.
For Hampton Roads, the move comes as two Joint Land Use Studies are being conducted to identify where military personnel live and the roads they take to work, essentially pinpointing what infrastructure is most important for the region's bases.
The other major change, a new pilot program, provides broad authorization for spending money on infrastructure projects off base. While some work in civilian communities was funded before, it had to be specifically authorized — meaning the scope was very limited.
But now, through the Defense Community Infrastructure Pilot Program, the Secretary of Defense may make grants, cooperative agreements and supplement funds to help state and local governments improve community infrastructure that enhances the military value, resilience, or family quality of life.
The state or local government needs to contribute at least 30 percent of the funding for any project unless it's in a rural area or for reasons related to national security. The pilot program, which will exist for at least 10 years, has no funding yet. Kaine, on the Armed Services Committee, supported the initiative.
"I’m hopeful that this provision ... will help the Department of Defense and the communities that surround military bases work together to protect critical infrastructure,” Kaine said.