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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Sea Level Pilot Report: Regional Collaboration Essential to Combating Encroaching Waters

By Brendan O'Hallarn

WASHINGTON - Regional collaboration is essential to combating the threat of sea level rise, in Hampton Roads and threatened communities throughout the country.

That was the overarching conclusion of more than two years of work, led by Old Dominion University, which included nearly 400 community partners in a White House-announced, and Department of Defense-initiated, pilot project that was created to explore ways to address sea level rise and recurrent flooding.

The results of the Hampton Roads Sea Level Rise Preparedness and Resilience Intergovernmental Planning Pilot Project were released Oct. 19 to an audience of policymakers, military officers and political staff at the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C.

"I think Hampton Roads was a perfect example for doing this, based on its national security nexus," said David Adams, director for health security and climate resilience policy for the National Security Council. "Climate isn't the only threat we face, but it is a great influence in the threats we face. This is a major step forward as we close out this administration."

By reaching across boundaries to find shared solutions, Adams said the Hampton Roads pilot project team, which was composed of military, government and community partners, set the tone for the interdisciplinary coordination needed to make these planning decisions.

"It was the perfect match that Norfolk set the standards for other communities to follow on this," he said.

The pilot's final report notes that the recommendations are non-binding, but that there is significant incentive for stakeholders to work collaboratively.

To build on the pilot's recommendations, the U.S. Department of Transportation will fund a joint land use study to be led by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. The project will for the first time consider the effects of encroaching sea levels on land use decisions by military installations and cities.

Old Dominion convened the Hampton Roads initiative in 2014 as a result of a White House executive order directing the Department of Defense to address the issue. It was one of a handful of pilot projects nationwide that were intended to join the Navy and other key federal agencies in developing a coordinated response to different threats faced by the United States.

At the event, retired Navy Capt. Ray Toll, Old Dominion's director of coastal resilience research, said collaboration is essential to have any hope of success in combating sea level rise.

"We need a whole regional network, and we think we can get there," he said, noting that representatives of military branches, all 17 local governments, nonprofits and academia committed to the pilot project process. "For all of these people, sticking with the pilot for two-plus years is a true commitment, and conveys to me how proactive folks that live in this region truly are."

The final report notes that water "knows no jurisdictional bounds," and therefore a high level of intergovernmental collaboration is needed to develop integrated regional solutions to sea level rise preparedness and resilience.

The stakes are high, not just in Hampton Roads, but in every coastal community facing the issue of sea level rise.

Adams noted that one month ago, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum specifying that climate considerations need to be taken into account with all national security policy decisions going forward.

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for energy, installations and environment, quoted a 2007 report that stated climate change will act as a "threat multiplier" for instability throughout the world. And he said it can also negatively impact how the United States responds to these threats.

"We need to be concerned - as we are in the Hampton Roads area, and all of our installations - with the future viability of our bases," McGinn said. "These bases are effectively the launch pads from which we send the necessary capabilities to deal with these threats."

Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs with the World Resources Institute, noted the pilot sought to answer a question: "How does a community with a substantial military presence build resilience to sea level rise that is coordinated across governments and in communities?"

She said the Navy eagerly joined the process due to the realization that even if its entire base was fortified from high water, its enlisted members and staff couldn't get to work if the roads in the community are flooded.

"This project really developed this unique whole of government approach for resiliency. We really see this as a model that can be adapted in other places," she said.

Other pilot project recommendations included:

  • Link infrastructure interdependencies (on and off base) by sharing maps, plans, etc. with neighboring jurisdictions and municipalities;
  • Create and maintain an integrated regional network to observe impacts to the economy, storm water, public health and infrastructure. This data could be used in real time but also archived to properly monitor longer term changes at a greater level of spatial and temporal fidelity;
  • Incentivize "whole of government" practices for each municipality through grants, requests for proposals and other federal and non-federal acquisition practices;
  • Integrate planners' and emergency managers' plans and procedures to address real time threats (such as Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Matthew) and long term trends like sea level rise; and
  • Improve scientific research methods through data integration and model improvement.

The event's final speaker, retired Navy Rear Admiral Jonathan White, suggested a few takeaways from the final report.

White said it's clear that more interdisciplinary study of sea level rise needs to be conducted. He also lauded Old Dominion's multidisciplinary approach to research, which is "providing other universities a roadmap for how to do that."

Finally, White stressed that the goals of the pilot project need financial support. "If you have orders and plans and you don't have resources, those orders and plans are fantasies," he warned.

To view the report, visit the Center for Sea Level Rise website.

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