Virginia as the “Silicon Valley” of sea level rise? It could happen

March 21, 2019

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Originally published by The Virginian-Pilot, Written by Gordon Rago, March 21, 2019

Can Virginia make money off sea-level rise?

The very idea sounds backwards — usually frequent flooding from bigger and more destructive storms is costly. Remember Hurricane Florence? One study showed a direct hit could have cost the region $5 billion of its gross domestic product in just three months.

But some are looking at the rising seas and sensing opportunity.

“What we haven’t seen yet is sort of the Google of climate change,” said Robert McNab, an economics professor at Old Dominion University who worked on the Florence impact study last September.

“Cities and regions will be competing over the coming decades to essentially become the next Silicon Valley with regards to climate change and sea-level rise,” McNab said. The cities and states that best show they can adapt and have a willingness to solve a problem will see a cluster of engineering and architecture firms wanting to move in to help out.

The question of who becomes the hub is up for grabs, McNab said, but Virginia appears on its way.

The commonwealth is one of those states looking to build up an economy around what experts call water management. It joins California, Washington, Louisiana, Florida, Massachusetts and New York, among others. Virginia boasts one of the fastest acceleration rates of sea-level rise in the country.

Ann Phillips, a retired Navy rear admiral who Gov. Ralph Northam appointed as his de facto sea level rise czar, is tasked with creating a first-of-its-kind coastal resilience master plan. That plan will help figure out where cities and regions stand on responding to rising seas, and help them improve.

Armed with that information, cities and regions along with companies can move forward on solutions, experts say.

“There is a broad interest in the state in being able to take advantage of what we learn and share that with others,” Phillips said. “A piece of that has the potential to be economic lessons learned.”

Virginia lawmakers behind the creation of Phillips’ position clearly point her in that direction, writing in the bill that she will “initiate and assist with economic development opportunities associated with adaptation” as well as “development opportunities for the creation of business incubators.”

A water economy is no small money.

In the Netherlands, a country widely seen as a leader in building up a water management economy, roughly 4 percent of the GDP — or about $30 billion — is related to “water sector work” like flood protection and managing floodwaters in cities like Rotterdam.

That’s according to Dale Morris, director of strategic partnerships at the Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge who is the former senior economist at the Netherlands embassy in Washington, D.C.

About half of that 4 percent is related to knowledge the country exports to other countries.

“In short, the Dutch are good at this stuff and other nations want their goods and services,” Morris said in an email.

Getting Virginia there, however, will take political will of a state government and a progressive mindset on what can be a controversial topic of climate change.

The Dutch approach is to live and thrive with water, not fight it. In one example, Morris described how Rotterdam officials put a water storage tank in a city parking garage to store floodwater when it comes rushing in.

In another, he talked about how the city designed a skate park to store floodwater, so taking rainwater off the streets. When it’s dry, the community can still use the space.

“The mindset here is to not just build a skate park or a basketball court,” Morris said. “It’s to combine the functions.”

It also allows for cities to stop focusing on building up what he calls “gray infrastructure,” like pumps and concrete levies. That’s a 20th-century approach, one that may be necessary moving forward but not sufficient.

In Hampton Roads, some are already focused on pushing away from gray infrastructure-only solutions.

Troy Hartley, director of the Virginia Sea Grant program and a research professor at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, calls it the “next generation” of being able to manage water. He points to a collaborative ODU-Hampton University project in Norfolk’s Chesterfield Heights neighborhood. Students came up with an idea to put cisterns in the front yards of homes in the community to store floodwater instead of raising homes in the historic community.

He also pointed to the idea of protecting shorelines by building oyster reefs or planting seagrass.

One nonprofit, RISE, is also laying groundwork for this type of innovative work. The organization plans to fund small businesses that are working on solutions to flooding and other problems caused by climate change and sinking land.

In short, it’s looking to deal with the problems of a rising tide while turning the potential economic ruin into a growth industry.

The nonprofit’s executive director, Paul Robinson, said Hampton Roads is home to four or five big stakeholders like the Port of Virginia, the naval base, ODU, the coal piers and Sentara hospital system. The question, he said, becomes what the region can do beyond building new roads and raising homes.

“What can we do here that can be translated to other communities?” he said.

He doesn’t want his company to solve one problem here and be done with it.

“We wouldn’t be interested in funding a process that does that, “Robinson said. “It’s got to be something that, it it’s done here, there’s a growth path and it can be taken elsewhere.”