stormwater solutions

City Says "No" to Development Because of Flood Risk - First of a Kind!

Road Near Proposed Development - Virginian Pilot/Ron Stubbins photo

Road Near Proposed Development - Virginian Pilot/Ron Stubbins photo

For the first time that we can find, a local government has said "no" to a development proposal due to flood risk. The City of Virginia Beach, hammered by increasing rainfall, has been more sensitive to the flooding potential, especially in the low-lying southern part of the City. But lots of localities are concerned about and planning for flooding, but still allow people to develop in dangerous places.

No more in Virginia Beach. The City Council unanimously denied a proposed 23-home subdivision on a soggy piece of land because of concerns about flood risk and future city liability. Recently burned by the flooding in a recently constructed subdivision, Ashville Park, Virginia Beach Planning Commission and City Council members expressed doubts about this proposal. Even though it met the technical requirements, the access roads flood frequently, flooding will increase, and the city did not want to put more people in harm's way.

This follows on the City's work to document the increased rain flooding risk that is equally important and groundbreaking.

Stay tuned for lawsuits and negotiations, but for now the City of Virginia Beach is the first in the country to say "no" to soggy development proposals.

Rainfall Intensity Increasing the Flooding Threat: Most Localities Left At Risk

Hurricane Matthew's Downpour in Virginia Beach  (tan/brown areas indicate intensity of rain; blue lines show rainfall accumulation)

Hurricane Matthew's Downpour in Virginia Beach

(tan/brown areas indicate intensity of rain; blue lines show rainfall accumulation)

Snapshot: Stunned by the rainfall flooding from Hurricane Matthew, the City of Virginia Beach contracted for a study on historic and projected rainfall for the City/region. The study verified what many of us have suspected: rainfall is getting more intense. The City is looking to have stormwater practices and subdivision stormwater systems take this new rainfall record into account. While state and federal authorities use decades-old data to set stormwater standards and practices. Virginia Beach would be the first locality in the Nation to build future flood risk from rainfall into its codes and ordinances. Stay tuned for updates on this innovative work!

Background: People in SE Virginia have been commenting that we have been seeing more intense rain in recent years, those down bursts that dump two or three inches of rain in a short period. Sometimes you get caught in them and become trapped in your car and watch the storms spew pollution onto the streets and into the rivers and bays.

The big moment of realization was during Hurricane Matthew when some areas in Southeast Virginia saw more than a foot of rain in 12 hours - displayed on the graph above. Many areas of the region flooded  and many had never flooded before.

In response, the city of Virginia Beach examined rain gauge records and saw a pattern of increasing intensity. They asked the consulting firm, Dewberry, to do a comprehensive study of rainfall patterns and the result was a confirmation of the observation: the number of intense rainfall events is increasing. Combine more rain with the increased tidal flooding we are also experiencing and there are compounding problems.

Now the city is looking at the next steps - including a stormwater ordinance that anticipates the 20% increase in rainfall intensity found in the Dewberry study. This would be the first stormwater ordinance in the country that anticipates a higher rate and intensity of rainfall.

One of the barriers to more cities taking steps to deal with increasing rainfall intensity is Virginia stormwater standards are set to the rainfall estimates contained in the NOAA Atlas 14. This document was last updated in 2006 and is based on rainfall data from decades before that time. The Virginia Beach study looked at more recent set of rainfall data in coming up with its higher rainfall frequency/intensity numbers. While state regulations allow a locality to enact more stringent stormwater standards than those based on NOAA Atlas 14, as Virginia Beach is proposing, they must have data to support such a move. For localities without Virginia Beach's resources, this means they are left using the decades-old rainfall estimates in Atlas 14 to design stormwater management systems and practices.

NOAA needs the resources to update its Atlas 14, especially in areas that have seen these "rain bomb" events - Hampton Roads, Charleston, Houston, etc. Since this is going to take years, the state needs to act now, developing newer rainfall estimates for use by localities so they don't have to do this one-by-one and ask for variances.

(Postscript 7/2018) - There is growing interest to explore the possibility of a cooperative agreement with NOAA to have the state or a group of local governments pay for the update of the NOAA atlas for Virginia. Also, the administration of Governor Ralph Northam is interested in this issue and looking into it.



Regional Citizen Science Effort Grows - "Measure the Muck" Added

Measure the Muck logo

Measure the Muck logo

Snapshot: While we're out measuring the extent of the flooding, a team will also be measuring the pollution being washed off the land by that flooding.

Backstory: Southeast Virginia/Hampton Roads is embarking on one of the largest citizen science efforts ever with it's King Tide mapping event. Now, another effort has been added, "Measure the Muck."

This new effort is the brainchild of Dr. Margaret Mulolland of Old Dominion University, who does a lot of work on harmful algal blooms. While most folks here worry about where the water goes when it tops the bank, she wonders what it brings back with it when it recedes. She suspects that these flooding events bring a load of nutrients and bacteria into our rivers and bays, providing the fuel for algal blooms. Controlling this loading would help manage these algal blooms but no one has measured the amount of nutrients and bacteria being washed from the land.

So a group of volunteers will go out on Nov 5 with field kits for collecting water samples around stormwater outfalls that will later be tested (thanks to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District for providing the funding).

Wetlands Watch's interest in this (other than the fact that Dr. Mulholland is our executive director's spouse!) is to explore the co-benefits of nature based solutions to stormwater and flood management. If the areas that flood are also significant sources of pollution, we can better target our efforts and use one dollar to fix two problems.

Oct 21 Sea Level Rise app test

Oct 21 Sea Level Rise app test

We've got some volunteers signed up for "Measure the Muck," 28 people so far. As shown above, on a sunny Saturday, Oct. 21, a group of Old Dominion University students together with a bunch of Maury High School students tested the app in preparation for the stormwater pollution measurement citizen science effort.


Measure the Muck sampling crew getting trained as the water seeps underfoot.

Measure the Muck sampling crew getting trained as the water seeps underfoot.

On the day of the flooding event, the Muck teams were assembled and given sampling equipment. The teams of students fanned out across Norfolk along the Layfayette River watershed to take samples from flooded areas.

Muck team samples flood waters in Norfolk - Maury High School and Old Dominion University Students (and even a 7th grader in the foreground taking the sample!)

Muck team samples flood waters in Norfolk - Maury High School and Old Dominion University Students (and even a 7th grader in the foreground taking the sample!)

While the samples are still being analyzed, early results are showing high levels of pollution. Most of the bacteria samples had concentrations so dense they were beyond the ability of the lab equipment to measure it!

Landscape Professionals Clean up the Bay


Snapshot: "Nature-based" stormwater practices and conservation landscaping approaches often called "green infrastructure" are being installed throughout the Chesapeake Bay region to manage stormwater runoff, reduce pollution and flooding, and restore habitat. But we won't make much progress until we have a network of consistently trained and motivated sustainable landscape professionals who know how to properly design, build, and maintain these practices, particularly the small-scale practices being installed on private property. The Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional (CBLP) certification program aims to fill that void as they train and certify hundreds of landscape professionals in the Chesapeake Bay region.

The CBLP has moved from an idea, to a pilot program, to one that will soon have hundreds of certified professionals and be nearly self-supporting, all in just four years! Next step is to continue expanding the program in Maryland, DC, Virginia and Pennsylvania and moving into New York, Delaware, and West Virginia. For a personal account of the training experience, see EPA's Jim Edward's Blog.

Backstory: In 2013, Wetlands Watch produced a study looking at reducing stormwater nutrient pollution on private property. We explored model programs and looked at nature-based solutions on smaller lots and private property, wanting to see if: a) residential stewardship practices like rain gardens, permeable pavements, buffer plantings and conservation landscapes could play a significant role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay using private property, and b) stormwater regulations could help drive wetlands and shoreline restoration efforts. In 2014, we partnered with statewide groups and regional experts to hold a two-day collaborative summit: "Protecting Water Quality Through Actions on Urban - Suburban Properties."

The most significant finding from this summit of stakeholders was the need to, "Build an effective and integrated network of powerful water quality and stormwater experts and advocates – or a 'Community of Practice'." If we were advocating for conservation landscaping and wanted "green" stormwater practices on private property to be "counted" in the stormwater regulatory system, we needed professionals able to meet the demand we were creating and overcome the barriers to use and acceptance of these practices. At the end of the summit, we joined forces with several other partners to create a plan and fund our effort to develop a community of practice among landscape professionals.

Our collaboration includes experts and partners in Maryland and Virginia: Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VA DGIF) Habitat Partners©, Maryland Cooperative Extension, Maryland Sea Grant, and Wetlands Watch. Our plan: to develop and pilot a financially sustainable, Bay-wide training and certification program and network of consistently trained landscape professionals ready and eager to be better conservation, habitat, and stormwater partners.

Initially funded with grants and matching funds from the Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the Virginia Environmental Endowment, Prince Charitable Trust, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Maryland Sea Grant, VA DGIF, and the District Department of Energy and Environment, the CBLP program is approximately 75% self-funded through fees charged for the training and certification. As we build the CBLP "brand" we want to see the certifications create a market preference for CBLP services and further increase demand for sustainable landscapes and nature-based solutions to our stormwater and flooding problems.

See Jim Edward's blog of his experience with the CBLP training here.