OF ALL THE environmental issues facing Virginia, from the mountains to the sea, two that stand out are the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and rising sea levels in military-job-rich Tidewater Virginia. They deserve an early nod of recognition by the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Scientists and researchers are finding some significant signs of improvement in the indicators they use to measure the bay’s health. In an annual “report card” issued earlier this year, blue crab populations showed an increase, underwater grasses were showing more widespread growth and overall water quality was better under the “pollution diet” established by the Environmental Protection Agency.
All aspects of the Chesapeake’s ecosystem are related to one another. The health of the crab population depends in part on the growth of underwater grasses that serve as habitat and protection from predators that feed heavily on unprotected baby crabs. The growth of underwater grasses depends on water quality, or clarity, which allows sunlight to penetrate the water and encourages the grasses’ growth.
But this progress won’t occur unless the science is implemented by way of financial commitment. And just as the aspects of the ecosystem are interwoven, the responsibilities for managing the bay program are interdependent as well. So these signs of improvement suggest that private industry, agriculture, the public and government at all levels are working together to set goals, allocate funding and track accountability. Prior to EPA oversight, the states were working autonomously and often at cross-purposes.
In the meantime, federal officials have successfully rebuffed lawsuits by plaintiffs such as the American Farm Bureau and the National Association of Home Builders who object to the burden of regulations while ignoring the real value of jobs and economic vitality that a clean, healthy bay can provide.
Localities upgrade their sewage-treatment plants so the effluent discharged is cleaner to begin with. They also work to prevent stormwater runoff—filth from roadways and parking lots—from fouling the bay and its tributaries.
Farmers are employing best management practices to prevent nutrient pollution by, among other things, establishing buffers to limit and filter runoff of fertilizers and manures.
Enormous sums of money and decades of study and work have gone into realizing the nascent improvements being observed today.
We hope the new administration takes its lead from President Ronald Reagan, who in his 1984 State of the Union address called for federal funding “to clean up a productive recreational area and a special national resource—the Chesapeake Bay.”
When it comes to sea-level rise and the threat it poses to employment and security at military installations in Tidewater Virginia, the top priority must be to address the problem now.
Long-term solutions aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change and discussions about its origins or causes are, of course, essential to the future well-being of the planet.
But there is no debating the impact that sea-level rise is already having in Hampton Roads, Virginia. And there is no debating that the area is home to Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base. These days, even modest rainfall causes flooding in low-lying military and residential areas there.
If nothing is done to mitigate the coastal flooding threat, a recent study conducted by the North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute, and released by the College of William & Mary Law School’s Virginia Coastal Policy Center, found that the Tidewater region stands to face monumental damage and costs each year.
While typical annual sea-level damage costs are currently around $12 million, that figure leaps to $50 million by 2040 if the level rises the projected 1.6 feet by then. Major storms worsen the damage potential. Damage done by Hurricane Matthew alone cost an estimated $13.2 million.
Tidewater is of huge economic importance to Virginia—roughly 20 percent of Virginia’s economy, income and population—but rising sea level poses threats to military jobs, property values, commercial development and the area’s overall economic vitality. If the Pentagon decides the area is no longer suitable for naval operations and looks to move elsewhere, the impact on the region and Virginia as a whole would be devastating.
Saving the bay and protecting Tidewater may be environmental initiatives, but the importance of both objectives to Virginia’s economic health is indisputable. First District Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican from the Northern Neck, has championed bay preservation efforts and knows the importance of taking steps to deal with the rising sea level.
Virginians should hope that Wittman and other members of our state’s congressional delegation will keep these topics on the new administration’s to-do list.