Bay Region Remains Unprepared For Flooding, But Maryland Better Than Many States

A December 15 Bay Journal article found that the Chesapeake Bay region remains unprepared for a predicted increase in coastal flooding exacerbated by sea level rise, although Maryland is better positioned than many other watershed states.  The article also discussed strategies to offset flooding, resource challenges, and how states and local governments are addressing the issue in lieu of a national policy.  While the lack of preparation is a nationwide problem, the article noted that the Chesapeake Bay region is especially at risk.

People in New Jersey and New York never expected the scale of damages from [Superstorm] Sandy, and here in the Chesapeake Bay, a big storm could give us a similar nasty shock. Rising sea level is projected to increase flooding and worsen the effect of storm surges in this region — not only in small waterfront communities but also in larger cities like Annapolis, Baltimore and Norfolk.  …

The risks of coastal flooding and sea level rise are especially great in the Chesapeake Bay region. Its land elevation is one of the lowest in the United States, and sea level here is rising faster than the global average. In Maryland, scientists’ best estimate is an increase of more than 3 feet by 2100.

The article explored the three primary strategies to address coastal flooding: (1) armoring; (2) adaptation; and (3) retreat.  The article noted that while retreat is not popular, it has been required in certain areas due to natural conditions such as erosion.  While armoring and adaptation generate less controversy, they are expensive to implement and maintain.

To do what is necessary to protect against coastal flooding and the effects of sea level rise, there are basically three options. One is armoring: Property owners and governments can protect shorelines with hardened structures like stone jetties and seawalls. Another option is adaptation: Governments can require that homes be raised, and property owners can do so voluntarily. A third option is retreat: moving away from places that people have called home. Some governments have offered to buy out homeowners in low-lying, flood-prone areas, like Somerset County did on Maryland’s Smith Island last year. (Residents rejected the offer.)

The article noted that communities undertaking armoring and adaptation projects are often delayed due to a lack of funding.  Federal assistance primarily comes through the United States Army Corps of Engineers but the available assistance cannot meet the current demand.

Such delays are common because these small communities wait in line with many others — including coastal cities like Norfolk, New Orleans and Miami — for funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for their construction projects. The Corps currently has an enormous backlog of such projects nationwide, amounting to about $60 billion. But Congress allocates only about $2 billion per year for these projects and others to improve waterways and harbors.

Based on the lack of a strong national policy to address sea level rise, the article explained that it has been up to the states and local governments to formulate responses.

In the absence of a national policy to prepare for sea level rise, states have taken on the job of crafting their own solutions. State leaders decide which parcels of land to preserve through conservation easements and which roads to elevate. Through partnerships with federal agencies, state officials can coax and encourage development into areas where it is suitable and away from places where it floods.  …

[Former Environmental Protection Administration Deputy Administrator Bob] Perciasepe and others said that they believe that Maryland is well-poised to be a model. Under Gov. Martin O’Malley, the state has enacted its own plan for adapting to climate change.  …

Now, all state-funded infrastructure must factor both sea level rise and flooding into construction and design. Structures must be 2 feet above base flood elevation. (The base flood elevation is the level at which water is expected to rise during a once-in-a-100-year flood, and is generally set by the federal government; states and counties follow that recommendation.) Nearly 40 communities have decided to adopt the 2-foot rule in their own ordinances, and [Zoe Johnson of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources] said more will follow suit as the planning continues.

“We do have control over projects that the state invests in, if it receives any state funding,” Johnson said. “And we are starting to condition our funding that these issues be addressed.”  …

“When this country has a large issue to tackle, it’s the states and the local governments who tend to tackle it first, and they set the course,” [Chesapeake Bay Commission Executive Director Ann Swanson] said. “With the Chesapeake region being so forward-thinking, it seems fitting that we could go first.”