William and Mary Law School

Virginia Coastal Resource Issues

Wetlands at sunsetVirginia’s coastal shoreline stretches more than 5000 miles.  The mighty Atlantic provides the Commonwealth with its ocean waterfront, while the Chesapeake Bay and its hundreds of small branches enrich the state with their natural beauty and productivity.  Four tidal rivers emptying into the Chesapeake – the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, and York – have long served as critical transportation routes.  Virginia’s coastal heritage is likewise rich – the coastal region is home to the Jamestown Colony, founded in 1607, as well as Yorktown, where General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, ending the Revolutionary War.

USS WisconsinThe region hosts the oldest naval shipyard in the country, and is home to the world’s largest active Navy base.  Hampton Roads, one of the world’s largest natural harbors, sits at the mouth of Chesapeake.  As one of the largest cargo ports in the United States, major container and bulk cargo terminals are located in the area.  Virginia is also one of the nation’s largest producers of seafood, landing “562 million pounds of finfish and shellfish that contributes to 123 million meals annually.”  Meanwhile, an estimated 2.75 million tourists visit Virginia Beach yearly.  The Eastern Shore of Virginia boasts thousands of acres of pristine beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest, drawing visitors from around the world to enjoy its natural, secluded splendor.

The immense value of Virginia’s coastal resources do not make them immune, unfortunately, to environmental degradation, sea level rise, storm surges, and recurrent flooding.  Some of the issues our coastlines and coastal waters face include:
 

Dead tree in marshSea Level Rise and Subsidence.  Virginia has the highest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast.  Rising ocean temperatures are raising sea levels, but regional subsidence – sinking land – also greatly contributes to the problem.  VIMS projects that the Commonwealth faces up to one foot of sea level rise by 2050. Virginia’s Tangier Island, for example, is routinely paired with the low-lying Maldives in the Indian Ocean as being at extreme risk for extinction due to erosion and sea level rise, as scientists have concluded that Tangier Island is losing approximately 16 feet of land on the western side and 3 feet on the east yearly.  The Mayor of Norfolk has discussed his concerns about the city having to “retreat” from certain areas on national television. According to a recent report by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, low estimates of sea level rise indicate approximately 59,000 residential homes in the Hampton Roads region will be permanently or regularly inundated by the end of the century, with high estimates at 175,000. 

Sidewalk endsRecurrent Flooding.  The number of flooding events have increased dramatically over the decades. Last year, the General Assembly passed S.J. 76, directing VIMs undertake a Recurrent Flooding Study and summarize what is currently known about the risks of recurrent flooding due to tidal flooding, storm surge, sea level rise and precipitation runoff in Virginia’s coastal zone.  In January 2013, the Center for Coastal Resource Management at VIMS released a detailed plan for the General Assembly's 2013 session describing how the Commonwealth can best respond to the ongoing challenges that high tides, storm surge, intense rain storms, sinking land, and rising sea level pose to residents and localities along Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic shorelines.  The report makes clear that no single response will fully address the complex web of social, legal, and environmental issues that contribute to Tidewater’s vulnerability to coastal flooding. Instead, it calls for a multi-step approach with enough flexibility to allow policymakers to adapt as conditions change and knowledge grows — and the time for action is now.

Hurricane raveged pierStorm Surge Flooding.  Many Virginia residents living in coastal zones are highly vulnerable to storm surges.  According to a report on storm surge vulnerability by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, for example, “estimates range from over one hundred thousand (100,000) people living in Category 1 storm surge areas to over one million (1,000,000) living in Category 4 storm surge areas.”  CoreLogic, a private consulting firm, ranks the Virginia Beach metro area second only to the New York/Northern New Jersey/Long Island area in the value of the total number of properties at risk from storm surge inundation – above cities such as Tampa, Miami, New Orleans, and Houston.

ExcavatorWetlands Loss.  Estimates find that Virginia has lost approximately one-half of its original pre-colonial wetlands acreage.  According to a 2011 Department of Environmental Quality and VIMS report, of the one million acres of wetlands remain, 75% of these are nontidal wetlands, and the remaining 25% are tidal.  Tidal wetlands are often converted to developed lands, typically associated with shoreline hardening.  Sea level rise is also a culprit, converting tidal wetlands into open water.

PollutionDegradation of Ecosystems.  Excess nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment – fuel abundant algae growth, which ultimately blocks sunlight necessary for aquatic plant growth as well as depletes much-needed oxygen for aquatic organisms from the water.  Stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, and air pollution deposition are major sources of nutrient or “non-point source” pollution.