Tidal flooding in Annapolis, Md. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

As the scope of floods and rising sea levels is becoming increasingly clear, the next question is what can be done to address a changing landscape. Plenty of attention has been given to reducing the drivers of climate change that result in water damage to fragile coastlines and inland riverbanks. Resilience1 is a popular term of art to describe steps to prepare structures, shorelines and habitats to reduce impact, to weather and recover from climate-induced stressors, changes and severe events, and adapt over time. Land-use designs that account for future flooding can help build resilience for the people who live there.

Building Defenses, Moving, or Living with Water?

There have been at least two schools of thought about the best approach to reducing the impact of rising water levels and increasingly severe storms. The structural approach favors building sea walls and raising the height of buildings, roads, utilities and other “gray” infrastructure to escape anticipated higher water levels. On the other side, advocates for “green” solutions suggest: “Rather than build ever higher walls and rip rap monuments, we should be developing strategies for moving the human footprint away from the shore—while also looking for ways to restore wetlands, add trees along shorelines, diversify urban landscapes and encourage the growth of wave-attenuating marsh grasses. These natural systems absorb the energy of storms while also reducing storm surges and runoff. The improvements also benefit water quality, increase habitat for animals and beautify communities.”2

Baltimore, Annapolis, Norfolk and other coastal cities are not likely to pick up and move entirely to higher ground. A strategic retreat may be the best approach for less developed, smaller areas and vulnerable neighborhoods in our coastal cities. Reverting at-risk, developed coastal areas to a more natural state allows nature-based solutions to provide flood resilience as well as numerous other benefits to the environment and people; and avoiding development close to the water allows for future landward migration of the green infrastructure as the coastline is inundated, recedes, or erodes. For other areas, “living with water”—that is, designing infrastructure that can hold flood waters and be used for other purposes when flooding occurs—is a solution that can meet additional needs, including access to green space for recreation and wellness.

Newer schools of thought aim to integrate green and gray infrastructure approaches as an innovative way forward to address flooding. An example of green-gray infrastructure that also allows for living with water is Delaware’s South Wilmington Wetlands Park. Here, the city is cleaning up and converting an abandoned lot and brownfield site into a wetland park for an underserved neighborhood with a boardwalk to nearby markets. Upgraded stormwater pipes will direct rainwater overflow to a restored wetland to prevent and minimize flooding in neighborhoods. Another example is the Annapolis, Maryland City Dock Project. Design includes a new elevated green park to provide stormwater infiltration and defense against rising seas, which, when not flooded, offers people a place to gather.

Vanishing Land

Virginia’s Tangier Island provides a famous example of where a strategic withdrawal might be more feasible than building more defenses against the rising waters and sinking land. According to a bleak new assessment published November 8 in Frontiers of Climate, Tangier’s options are few and hugely expensive. Chesapeake Bay Magazine’s summary of the report’s findings: “A large-scale effort to save the island is estimated to cost $250–$350 million and would entail wrapping jetties around erosion-prone shorelines, raising the town’s elevation by 9 feet with sand dredged from the bottom of the Bay and upgrading the community’s plumbing and electricity networks. The only other alternative—abandoning the island and relocating the town’s 400 residents to the mainland—would come with a $100–$200 million price tag.”

In some cases, the options are heartbreaking for those losing their homes or land. Managed retreat is a long term choice for building resilience that comes with a price, as costly in dollars as it is in loss. Yet the alternative—not acting to get ahead of the problems—may come at a much steeper price. Investing in smart, nature-based solutions will help us all to better weather the storms to come.

A guide titled Adaptation for All: How to Build Flood Resilience for Communities of Every Size offers some innovative examples of flood resilience strategies. Two Virginia examples of strategic thinking involving retreat and green solutions: Norfolk is incorporating a resilience quotient into their zoning ordinance for new development to address flooding from sea level rise; and Alexandria worked with a citizen-led joint task force to plan Four Mile Run Park, a project that integrates pedestrian and recreational use, wetland restoration, and flood risk reduction.3

For any given approach, one of the many challenges is to find the funds needed to attack the problem.

New Funding Opportunities

The recently adopted infrastructure bill includes various sources of funding that can be used to address flooding and other environmental impacts resulting from projects to repair facilities and adapt to climate change. In a presentation to the 2021 Chesapeake Conservation Partnership (CCP) Annual Meeting, Steering Committee member Tim Male summarized that these funding sources include:

  • Transportation funds (++$300 billion) that can be used to pay the compensatory mitigation costs of wetland/stream/wildlife/stormwater impacts of those projects.
  • $11.2 billion for Abandoned Mine reclamation.
  • $1.4 billion for PROTECT green infrastructure program offering formula and competitive grants for transportation resiliency.4
  • $1 billion for FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program.
  • $1 billion for culvert replacement and removal program (which will open stream miles to fish passage).
  • $492 million for National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund (grants supporting communities to adapt to sea level rise).

These new or expanded federal funding sources will be supplemented or matched by state and local funds. Many of the provisions under this and other future sources in the making will allow the dextrous decision-maker to find ample avenues for innovation.

In Maryland, the latest development in finding money is a resilience authority. A recently enacted law enables cities and counties to establish finance authorities for climate resilience projects and those entities can borrow money for infrastructure projects through municipal bonds. The City of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County are discussing a joint launch of the first such authority in the state for the afore-mentioned $50 million project to dramatically re-imagine and reconfigure City Dock. Having the authority in place will provide resources needed to begin construction, without first having to wait to save the money for the entire project—which would likely take more years than the rising tides could wait.

Planning for natural disasters and other changes occurring due to climate transcends many facets of life, including fiscal structures. Financial institutions and businesses are preparing their own “treasury readiness” as a wise measure. Being smart about investments and funding innovation are key to building resiliency.

“The choice is either to work with nature or to react after it works us over. Reacting will be far more expensive and likely futile.”5

Contributors to this piece include Warren Brown, CCP Communications Specialist; Amelia Lowe, CCP Chesapeake Conservation Corps Member; Britt Slattery, NPS Chesapeake’s coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Program Fostering Chesapeake Stewardship Goal Implementation Team; and Julie Reichert-Nguyen, Chesapeake Bay Program Climate Resiliency Workgroup Coordinator, NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office.

1 What is Climate Resilience? The Chesapeake Bay Program Climate Resiliency management strategy defines resilience as ensuring “that the region’s living resources, habitats and communities are prepared for changing conditions, are capable of withstanding impacts, where appropriate, and are able to recover and adapt to climate change impacts over time.” Another definition, from Building Local Community Resilience Against Climate-Related Flooding: the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to climate. Improving climate resilience involves assessing how climate change will create new, or alter current, climate-related risks, and taking steps to better cope with these risks.

2 Doug Myers, Maryland Senior Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation — blog post Let’s Choose Nature Over Higher Flood Walls.

3 Some examples provided were also highlighted in the Local Government Advisory Committee’s forum report: Building Local Community Resilience Against Climate-Related Flooding (September 2020)

4 PROTECT (Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient and Cost Savings Transportation) is a new formula and competitive grant program under the Infrastructure framework. Executive Order on Implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act | The White House

5 Myers, Let’s Choose Nature Over Higher Flood Walls.

In-text Images:

  1. Mattawoman Creek and the Potomac River in Charles County, Md. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)
  2. Image of the reimagined City Dock presented at the February 2021 City Council Meeting via https://www.annapoliscitydockproject.com/
  3. Tangier Island in Accomack County, Virginia (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program with aerial support by Southwings)
  4. Cover of Adaptation for All: How to Build Flood Resilience for Communities of Every Size

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
To share a success story, news, or important event, send your information to:

[email protected]

Don’t forget to send us your 2021 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.