Virginia launched a program last year to help communities prepare for increasingly severe flooding.
Within the first two rounds of grants, southeastern Virginia received more than $22 million — about 70% of the total doled out — to aid planning and projects.
But the source of help may soon go away.
Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin announced last month in Hampton Roads that he plans to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state program that takes a market-based approach to reducing carbon emissions.
That would cut off the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, which receives just under half of the commonwealth’s earnings from the initiative. Unless provided new backing, the fund would end when it runs out of money.
The decision will curb Hampton Roads’ ability to gird itself for the impacts of sea level rise, officials say.
“There should not be a politician anywhere in Hampton Roads that isn’t objecting to this move,” said Skip Stiles, executive director of Norfolk-based Wetlands Watch. “Because we’ve got it worse than anyone.”
In states that participate in the greenhouse gas initiative, power plants of a certain size must buy allowances for the carbon dioxide they emit at periodic auctions. The money then gets divided among the states.
Virginia joined the program in 2020, one of Democrats’ signature environmental achievements. Lawmakers decided half of the program’s proceeds would go to low-income energy efficiency. The Community Flood Preparedness Fund gets just under the other half, with 5% going to administrative costs.
The commonwealth has received $228 million from the auctions, sending $102 million to the flood fund.
In early December, Youngkin spoke in Virginia Beach at the annual meeting of the Hampton Roads Chamber. The Republican announced plans to withdraw from the initiative via executive action, describing it as “a bad deal for Virginians.”
“RGGI describes itself as a regional market for carbon, but it is really a carbon tax that is fully passed on to ratepayers,” he said. “I promised to lower the cost of living in Virginia and this is just the beginning.”
He cited a Dominion Energy move earlier that week to double the surcharge it would pass onto consumers to accommodate participation in RGGI. Those costs are expected to raise the average home customer’s bill by $4.37 starting this fall.
Youngkin’s press secretary directed a Pilot reporter to his comments at the Chamber for this story. She did not respond to questions about his plans for the flood fund.
Last week, environmentalists expressed more outrage at the governor-elect’s pick for natural resources secretary: Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who led a repeal of Obama-era regulations as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration.
A dozen Hampton Roads resilience efforts received a total of over $5.8 million in the first round of flood funding. Those included a $3 million wetland restoration project along the Elizabeth River in Virginia Beach, coastal analysis in Norfolk needed before a floodwall could be pursued, a “resilience park” in Hampton and a study on the Eastern Shore about how flooding will affect agriculture.
The second round, announced just before Christmas, gave more than $16 million to the region, including four projects in Hampton and a nearly $2 million stormwater upgrade in Virginia Beach.
Norfolk received money in the round for a watershed master plan that “tells you about how water moves through the system,” said Kyle Spencer, the city’s deputy resilience officer. It includes installing sensors throughout the stormwater system to monitor inundation from tides or rain in real time.
Virginia’s flood fund has made it easier to get money for such projects, Spencer said.
Localities can apply for money from federal agencies like FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers, but those often have stipulations, take much longer and require more hoops to jump through.
They’re “a heavier lift for us to take on sometimes,” he said. “In my opinion this was really the easiest for us to access.”
Spencer said Norfolk was excited when the fund was announced, especially after seeing how some other states invest more in tackling flooding challenges.
“They’re putting lots of money into it. Virginia was a little bit behind,” he said. “We saw this as a way to get that support at the state level.”
Stiles put it more bluntly: “Without this fund, we’re just waiting for the next hurricane to bring money.”
Disasters bring federal dollars, he said, but there are fewer opportunities to invest in improvements before a storm blows through.
Even the fund is helping fix a “backlog of yesterday’s problems,” he said. It allows cities to move forward with long-planned efforts, but more is required to get ahead of the roughly $40 billion worth of flooding upgrades needed across the state.
Stiles said a unique advantage of the community preparedness fund is that it grants money not only for shovel-ready projects, but efforts to build capacity and plan. Isle of Wight recently received $68,000 to develop a resilience plan, for example.
Small, rural communities that haven’t had the resources to do such planning were poised to benefit the most, he said, but could be left behind if the fund dries up. Larger localities that are further along with plans often find other opportunities.
Virginia Beach voters, for example, recently passed a $567 million bond referendum that will raise real estate taxes to fund 21 major flood protection efforts over the next decade.
City spokesperson Tiffany Russell said in an email that flood funds Virginia Beach recently received through RGGI will advance such efforts, but grant money coming from the state or federal government is never a guarantee. Therefore, the city “develops contingency plans,” she said.
Localities are now racing to get in proposals for the third round of flood funding that opened last week, thinking it might be their last chance. Applications are due in April, with $40 million available, according to the state.
“It may not be there much longer,” Ben McFarlane, a senior regional planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, said at a recent meeting. “Get the money while you can.”
In an interview, McFarlane said Hampton Roads has proven there is plenty of demand for the money.
“The funding that’s needed is only going to really go up as we get a bigger understanding of what our challenge is,” he said. “The larger concern for our communities is not so much whether or not the funding comes from RGGI. It’s that there is funding from some source.”
The fund is non-reverting, meaning any money deposited will stay there until it’s spent — unless changed legislatively, he added.
A Republican legislator from Richmond introduced a bill for the upcoming session that would create an alternative Flood Relief Fund, diverting money from the existing fund to pay private property owners who suffer flooding damages in major disasters.
If the community flood fund does continue, McFarlane said he’d like to see more transparency about how grantees are chosen.
But some money is better than none, Stiles said. “Meanwhile, time and tide wait for no one. The water keeps going up.”
Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208,