Marshland in Virginia Beach near Norfolk, at the southern tip of the Chesapeake Bay.

By Dale Morris
Senior Economist, Royal Netherlands Embassy

The Chesapeake Bay is a national environmental treasure in the mid-Atlantic region with thousands of miles of coastline, marshes and wonderful communities — large and small, rural and urban — lining its shores.

The Bay is an economic powerhouse, too, providing tens of thousands of jobs to fishermen, crabbers, oystermen, shipbuilders and longshoremen.

The Bay is also under threat.

Farm runoff (sediment and fertilizers), car oil-drippings, pollution and other gunk from people’s daily lives in communities from central Pennsylvania and Baltimore, through Washington, D.C. and its suburbs down to Richmond and Hampton Roads have overwhelmed the Bay’s ecosystems.

Norfolk, Hampton, Virginia Beach experience routine flooding, both from coastal storms and Nor’Easters, but also “sunny-day” flooding, which occurs when the normal surface drainage system doesn’t work because the ends of the “pipes” are submerged under the rising waters.

The Norfolk Naval Station — the largest naval base in the world — and joint-base Langley NASA also have huge military assets at risk.

Part of the embassy’s work in the region is to help these communities adapt to rising seas.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation fights hard for the Bay’s ecosystem, and for the people who work and live on its shores.  The Chesapeake Bay Program — a joint federal-state program that has made great strides in cleaning up the Bay — is one of the EPA program’s President Trump wants to eliminate.

Coastal resiliency

I recently spoke at a Blue Planet Forum on coastal resiliency, alongside Dr. Don Boesch, President of the University of Maryland’s Environmental Science Center, Dr. Beth McGee, Science Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Dan Burger, Director of South Carolina’s Coastal Services Division.

The forum attracted 300 people and lasted more than two hours. This high turnout shows the people in Hampton Roads are engaged, seeking solutions for the Bay and its communities.

Dr. Boesch presented a compelling, science-based account of climate-change, rising seas, and current and likely future impacts in the US. His story was specifically not about adapting to rising seas, but instead about the changes we need in our energy utilization in order to slow down the increase in the atmospheric carbon.

His point: if we continue on the current path, most coastal communities will suffer large, often irreparable damage and dislocation.

Dr. McGee discussed how pollution and sea-level rise is forever changing the Bay’s biology, hydrology and ecosystems, and with it the lives and livelihoods of the people, businesses and communities that call the Bay home.

Sharing the Dutch approach

The Netherlands has, arguably, the best-protected delta in the world, and flood risk is minimized via Dutch engineering, planning, modelling and design.

Sharing the Dutch approach and explaining Dutch projects inspires Americans to think more broadly about how to protect their vulnerable coastal cities.

My talk focused on how to adapt Bay communities to sea-level rise, and to the challenges of coastal storms to those communities.

The necessity of such adaptation is grounded in two facts: measured sea-level rise in Norfolk is the highest on the East Coast: 14 inches over the past 70 years. And of the 14 most-damaging storms in Hampton Roads in the past century, 10 have occurred in the last 15 years.

The Dutch Dialogues the embassy organized in Norfolk in 2015 energized the region, and its impact was clear. Much work, however, remains to be done.

Rising tides

A Nor-Easter was blowing hard and spitting rain on the day of my talk. The tides were growing higher over five consecutive tidal cycles.

As I parked my car right next to an Elizabeth River marina, next to my hotel, water crept-up over the marina’s bulkhead. Many recreational boats, floating almost at eye-level, were dangerously close to the shoreline.

Cautiously, I found the highest spot in the parking lot to park, worried that it could be flooded during the next high tide. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of water that felt too close-by.

Opening my hotel room door, I found water about two feet lower, covering the bulkhead and much of the parking lot. This insidious force is a way of life in Norfolk and many other coastal communities.

And because we cannot save everything we must make choices about what is worth saving. I hope we’re up to that task.