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What Does Sea Level Rise in the Chesapeake Bay Mean for RVA?

Unlike the hotly debated environmental topic of global warming, sea level rise is undeniable. While we can argue about what factors are contributing to sea level rise, we cannot deny that it is happening.

There is hard data tracking sea level and when projections are overlaid on topographical maps, the results are nothing short of terrifying. And for those living along the the low-lying areas of the Chesapeake Bay, they can tell you firsthand how scary it is to see the water gradually move closer inshore every year eroding the shore, consuming land, and causing flood insurance premiums to skyrocket.

The counties and city governments in these low lying areas are on borrowed time. Their tax base is staring down the barrel of a gun that will cause near certain death if something isn’t done, and done quickly. And the worst part of the story is that this is not something that will occur in 50-100 years; this is happening RIGHT NOW.

I am closer to this topic than most. My wife and I own waterfront property and Anderson’s Neck Oyster Company-an oyster aquaculture farm on the York River. The York is essentially an estuarine finger of the Chesapeake Bay. I am both amazed and scared to death at the speed of the encroachment of the water we have seen in the past few years.

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We have an unfortunate complication in the Chesapeake Bay that makes sea level rise worse here than virtually anywhere else in North America. The process of subsidence was caused by the last glacial period when an extremely heavy layer of ice covering North America as far south as Pennsylvania depressed the land below it under its enormous weight. These glaciers caused the area just to the south of them, the area of the Chesapeake Bay, to be pushed up temporarily to an artificially high level in what sounds like a tongue in cheek situation called glacial “forebuldge.” But this-ahem-forebulge is nothing to laugh about. The forebuldge is steadily subsiding since there is no more ice pushing the lands of the Chesapeake up at their edge, while sea levels simultaneously rise. The combination of the two has set in motion what could be the largest and most expensive manmade or natural (pick your viewpoint here) financial disaster the United States has ever seen. And here is an even scarier fact. The financial impact has already begun. Play around with the map below and you can see what the impacts are for a corresponding rise in sea level at various intervals in meters. The default is set at 3 Meters (~9.8 feet). You can also zoom in to see specific areas.

Think Richmond is immune to sea level rise? You would be wrong

Richmond is in Central Virginia-surely sea level rise can’t affect RVA, right? Well I have news for you. The James River is tidal up to the fall line at Richmond. That means sea level impacts Richmond’s portion of the James River, especially at high tide. If you zoom in using the sea level tool above, you can see what areas of Richmond would be impacted by rising sea levels at different intervals. And while this mapping tool is far from perfect when zoomed in at its most granular level, it tells a story. At a one meter increase, which is what the most conservative of scientists have been predicting by 2100, we see very little impact. But we would risk losing the soon to be built Stone Brewing bistro and beer garden on Wharf Street and its tasting room parking lot across Gillies’ Greek. Got your attention? Now your beer is at risk. But wait it gets worse.

The scientific community just doubled the predicted level of sea level rise to 2 meters by 2100-whoops. Now Stone’s tasting room, strategically located by City Hall right next to the concrete lined and highly flood prone Gillies Creek is flooded-double whoops. Go to 3 Meters, and the City of Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant is impacted. Go to 7 Meters, and you have an unmitigated disaster. At 7 meters nearly the entire wastewater treatment plant is underwater as are huge swaths of Manchester. My guess is that will be an expensive situation were it to occur. Go to the 15 meters that is predicted if the Antarctic ice sheet melts, and you might as well break out your zombie apocalypse survival kit, because it isn’t going to be pretty.

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When hypotheticals become reality

In just this past week alone, I have heard two anecdotes that speak to the point. At a local food industry meeting in Richmond Virginia, I bumped into a friend-Chef Todd Johnson. Todd’s family home is close to our oyster farm in the town of West Point, VA. I asked him how his mom was. He told me she was moving from her waterfront property and selling it if she could. Apparently, she could no longer afford the flood insurance as the premiums have recently started climbing rapidly.

Just a day later, I spoke with the head of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, Lewis Lawrence (AKA “Lewie”). Lewie wanted to discuss with me a joint public/private effort he was spearheading to make use of waterfront property that had recently been given to his organization. Apparently his organization has inherited myriads of waterfront parcels of land throughout Virginia’s Middle Peninsula that line the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. He simply didn’t know what to do with it all. He was possibly envisioning a new oyster hatchery at one of the parcels that could potentially supply the Chesapeake Bay’s burgeoning oyster aquaculture industry. He wanted to know if I would like to be involved.

The obvious question I had for Lewie was: Why the heck were all these people giving away their property in the first place? I was floored by his answer. Apparently, property owners in Virginia’s middle peninsula are abandoning their land and giving it away because sea levels are rising at the edges of their property lines at an alarming rate. Flood insurance premiums are rising as a result. And flood insurance is required to have a mortgage in these low lying lands. These financial forces make keeping or selling these properties all but impossible.

So why are we seemingly doing nothing to prepare? I can’t seem to get a good answer to this basic question. The lack of preparation is nothing short of mind-boggling, especially since the Chesapeake Bay is ground zero for sea level rise. The following high profile cities are in imminent danger as subsidence and sea level rise strike with their one-two knockout punch: Baltimore, Annapolis, Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth, Jamestown, West Point (VA), even portions of Washington DC and countless other small cities and towns that line the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

So we have a problem, what should we do?

So there is a bit of good news. We are blessed by a geographical pinch point at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. This is where the seawater from the Atlantic enters and exits the Chesapeake Bay. While the mouth of the Bay is large, it is not so insurmountable that it is impossible to bridge the span. We have already built an enormous 23 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel connecting Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore. So why not build a flood control system at the Chesapeake Bay mouth and save Washington DC, Baltimore, Newport News, Hampton, Annapolis, and every low lying area of the Chesapeake Bay along with it? You cannot tell me the expense of building such a system would surpass that of relocating all of the people and businesses of the Chesapeake Bay. Saving the low lying lands and the tax base they provide are reason alone to get to work.

So what type of flood control system should we build?

Building a basic flood wall at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is problematic. A flood wall would disrupt fish migration in and out of the Chesapeake Bay. That simply won’t do. The Chesapeake Bay fishery, and all of the birds, mammals, reptiles, and subaquatic vegetation which depend upon this fishery are simply too great to put at risk. Add the almost certain loss of the commercial oyster and crab fisheries were such a basic flood wall constructed, and one can quickly see this solution is a nonstarter.

Another complication is that the scientists of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have rightly pointed out that we get hit on occasion in the Chesapeake Bay by massive storms known as nor’easters. These storms push enormous quantities of water from north to south. If a wall existed at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, this would cause the Chesapeake Bay to fill up like the world’s largest bathtub. The ensuing flooding would defeat the original intent of the flood wall-preventing catastrophic flooding-and make it worse.

If you live in the city of Richmond, Virginia, you are familiar with this phenomenon. In 2004 during Hurricane Gaston, rain filled the city with such enormous quantities of water, that the rainwater could not escape through the flood wall fast enough. This caused flood related losses approaching $20 Million in Richmond alone. And this was just one city. Imagine if that was spread across the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed. The damages would be in the tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions, if the storm was large enough.

So if a basic flood wall won’t work, what will?

a41ddc72-3e55-4686-a907-0f7608e6197f-2060x1236-470x282I have had the privilege of visiting Venice, Italy. It is an absolutely magical place. And it will be lost to the sea soon if the Italian authorities don’t do something to combat sea level rise.

Luckily, the Italians are doing something about it. It is called the Mose Project and it consists of a retractable flood barrier that is raised and lowered using submersible chambers that are filled with air causing them to rise and hold back the water, or flooded with water when it is safe to allow them to sink to the seafloor. These chambers can be raised when storm surges and high tides risk inundating the Venetian lagoon. They can also be lowered to allow water to naturally escape as the tide pushes water from the lagoon.

This same technology would allow the delicate brackish water of the Chesapeake to be maintained, fish to successfully navigate back and forth, and save the land and cities of the Chesapeake bay which would otherwise be lost. It also would be more than adequate to satiate the most skeptical of scientists who predict as little as 1 Meter of sea level rise by 2100.

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I am certain that there are many other flood barrier technologies that are also being dreamt up that could be used to similar effect. The point is however, that we need to do something-NOW. It is inexcusable that we have not started already. There is too much that we stand to lose-and gain-by not putting a plan in place and beginning work immediately. Time is not on our side. The longer we choose to do nothing, the more we stand to lose. The process of sea level rise has already begun. And the early losses are real and already having an impact.

We can and must solve this problem. If we can send men to the moon and a robotic unmanned rover to Mars, we can certainly build a flood barrier that saves the cities of the Chesapeake Bay watershed while preserving the ecology of the Bay. For goodness sake, let’s get to work…and fast!

Image Credits: The Guardian. Chart credit to http://papers.risingsea.net/future-sea-level-rise.html

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