This week’s episode is the first in a multipart series called Climate Hits Home, in which guests discuss the effects of climate change in US cities and towns and how local communities are addressing those effects. In this episode, host Margaret Walls talks with Skip Stiles, executive director of the nonprofit Wetlands Watch, about how the coastal city of Norfolk, Virginia, is adapting to sea level rise, frequent flooding, and other effects of climate change. Stiles discusses how flooding and other climate impacts affect daily life in Norfolk; how wetlands can help mitigate the effects of climate change on the coast; and how local, state, and federal policies can support efforts to help communities adapt to climate change.
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- When the reality of climate change hits home, policy can get fast-tracked: “Because we’ve got these impacts, they’re clearly increasing over time, and we’ve got the highest rate of measured sea level rise on the East Coast and the highest rate of projected sea level rise here in coastal Virginia, this issue has become less of an argument over politics and more of what you would call a constituent issue. You’ve got wet, angry people in your community who need fixes, and they don’t want you arguing about climate change. They want fixes. When this issue is turned into a constituent issue for politicians, a lot of the resistance to the needed policy starts to fall away.” (6:37)
- The ecosystem will respond to sea level rise with shifting wetlands: “With the rates of sea level rise we’re seeing, the wetlands cannot stay in place. Wetlands can trap sediments and grow vertically about two feet per century, but we expect sea level rise of at least around three to four feet this century. The only choice for the wetlands is to move inland and upland … That’s the big challenge: How do we allow for marsh migration and the continuance of all of these free [ecosystem] services that we don’t pay a dime for? How do we allow the wetlands to move uphill with sea level rise?” (13:37)
- Local engagement can help advance climate policies: “One of the things that’s worked here so well is that, because the community sees the impacts, they’re energized and engaged in the planning process. They go to the meetings. It’s this constant presence that causes the issue to be at the front of the agenda and at the front of the funding plans.” (26:50)
Margaret Walls: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Margaret Walls.
Today, we have the inaugural episode in our multipart series that we’re calling Climate Hits Home, in which we describe how climate change is manifesting in cities and towns across the United States and how those cities and towns are addressing the effects.
We’re beginning the series with the discussion of sea level rise and my guest today, Skip Stiles. Skip is executive director of Wetlands Watch, which is a nonprofit organization in Norfolk, Virginia, that works on the protection of coastal wetlands, smart land use management in floodplains, land conservation, and citizen education about sea level rise and coastal flooding issues. Wetlands Watch was founded in 1999 and has become one of the most important organizations in Virginia that works with state and local governments on climate adaptation and resilience.
We’re going to talk with Skip about sea level rise in his hometown of Norfolk and the surrounding Tidewater region of southeast Virginia. A recent study found that Norfolk has the highest rate of relative sea level rise on the East Coast, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that the region is going to see between 85 and 125 days per year of high-tide flooding by 2050. These are serious problems—Norfolk is a great place for us to be talking about these issues. We’re going to talk to Skip about what these problems look like on the ground, how they affect day-to-day life, and some of the ranges of policies and programs that are designed to address the problem. Stay with us.
Hello, Skip. It’s great to have you here today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Skip Stiles: Thank you, Margaret. I’m glad to help kick off the series.
Margaret Walls: Thank you. On our podcast, before we dive into the meat of the issues we like to talk about, we always begin by learning a bit about our guests and how they came to do what they do. Can you share a little about yourself and your background and how you came to work on these issues of conservation, flooding, and climate change in Virginia?
Skip Stiles: The work that we’re doing today is, for me, part of an arc that started in the mid-1970s. I took a job with a congressman who was one of the early leaders on climate change. He and Al Gore used to push these issues back then. I worked there for 22 years, and we were constantly pushing for more work on climate change impacts.
So, I had this early introduction to climate change. Fast forward 10 years or so after I left Congress, I got hooked up with Wetlands Watch and reintroduced to climate change. I was quite surprised at how far the impacts had advanced since the last time I looked at it.
But the work that we were doing was at the local level, and it was so much more challenging as a policy issue than the work we were doing in Congress. I was surprised at how complicated this issue is when you begin to try to change things at the community level. It’s been fun to transverse this arc from national politics to local politics.
Margaret Walls: I can see that, and we’re going to talk about some of that.
Skip, I gave a little background on sea level rise in the Norfolk area and the seriousness of the problem there, but can you describe for our listeners what this looks like? When we talk about sea level rise, I always like to say it’s an insidious problem, and it’s a gradual thing. It’s not like one day we wake up and the sea is going to be higher. Can you describe it for us and give some examples of the disruptions in daily life that you see and challenges for local governments? I’m also curious about how you’ve seen things change over time and if people in the region recognize the changes and talk about it.
Skip Stiles: What we see are things like increasing sunny-day flooding. Just two weeks ago, we had saltwater on the road, and people were driving through it, and it was completely sunny. You see fish as roadkill. It’s this constant change—people’s front lawns; Bermuda grass being overtaken by marsh grass as the lawns become increasingly inundated from the saltwater. We get calls from my kids’ high school saying there’s going to be a late start to school or after-school activities are canceled due to flooding. When I lived up north, you had snow days; now, we get flood days down here.
It’s this constant reminder that things are changing—and it’s not just sea level rise. I went over to pick my daughter up from track practice at her high school, which is about a mile from the house. We had a downpour, and I didn’t get home for an hour because all the roads were flooded.
It’s this constant problem that we’ve got for the cities, especially a city like Norfolk that has infrastructure that’s hundreds of years old. Our stormwater system is barely adequate today. When you put this additional stress on it, it becomes very expensive and difficult. Stormwater systems that are supposed to take water out of the neighborhoods with sea level rise have water coming the other way and backing up the stormwater pipes into the neighborhoods. We have to elevate roads. There are lots of little things that are changing as the waters come more and more frequently.
Margaret Walls: There are a number of different approaches for managing these problems, and we’re going to talk about a few of them and what’s going on at the local level. But I want to start at the state level, because, as I understand it, the state of Virginia has done a few good things in recent years and passed some innovative new laws that lean into enhancing climate resilience in a number of ways. Can you tell us about that and what you feel are the most important things the state has done?
Skip Stiles: Because we’ve got these impacts, they’re clearly increasing over time, and we’ve got the highest rate of measured sea level rise on the East Coast and the highest rate of projected sea level rise here in coastal Virginia, this issue has become less of an argument over politics and more of what you call a constituent issue. You’ve got wet, angry people in your community who need fixes, and they don’t want you arguing about climate change. They want fixes.
When this issue is turned into a constituent issue for politicians, a lot of the resistance to the needed policy starts to fall away. Starting in 2020 and in 2021, our state legislature began passing a series of laws that probably put Virginia at the head of the line or pretty near the front of the line nationally, in terms of measures to deal with sea level rise.
The state joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which requires power plants emitting carbon dioxide in the state to go buy offsets. You go to RGGI and buy credits. Virginia joined that. It’s the southernmost state to have joined RGGI. When Virginia joined, they said, “45 percent of the money that comes back to the state goes into a flood fund.” So, we have this state-wide flood fund. It’s not just coastal; it deals with riverine flooding, as well. We’ve got a flood fund that has an assured funding source, and we’ve distributed hundreds of millions of dollars so far from that fund.
At the same time, the state became the first state in the country to write climate change into its wetlands regulations. In Virginia, the shoreline behind the wetlands is also protected. They also put climate change in that. So, our shoreline regulatory system has sea level rise and climate change built into it. We’re the only state in the country with that.
They have put sea level rise—well, they’ve put climate change into our septic regulations. One of the things that’s happening with both sea level rise and more rainfall is that septic systems are failing. In rural areas, this is a big problem. Not only do the systems not work, but they’re also polluting the waterways. This year, they’re going to be issuing regulations, and we’ll be the first state in the country to do that.
Then, the Virginia Department of Transportation has issued new engineering guidelines for transportation structures that include a suite of climate change impacts—from increasing salinity in the estuaries to increased rainfall. It’s the first state department of transportation I’ve found that has these regulations and these new design standards.
Across the board, there are all these provisions in place. Here in southeast Virginia, all of our localities have to look at climate change and sea level rise when they’re doing long-range land use plans. We’re starting to build this global problem into the local land use actions that localities are taking.
Our challenge now is to build these programs out and implement them. Because they’re first in the nation, there’s a lot of work to be done in figuring out how you actually work these programs. But the funding, planning, and regulations provide us with a suite of policies that are going to help us get ahead of this issue.
Margaret Walls: The important thing there is that if we’re not taking climate change into account, we’re building infrastructure and other long-term things, and 50 years from now we’re expecting them to do the job they do today. We have to take these things into account. That’s really interesting to me.
One of the things that Virginia is doing is making “living shorelines” legislation that makes nature-based approaches in coastal areas for preventing erosion and loss of wetlands a default option. Can you talk about that a little bit? I know wetlands protection and restoration is a goal that Wetlands Watch was founded on. Maybe just tell our listeners a bit about the value of coastal wetlands and salt marshes, and what you have seen in terms of the loss of wetlands, and how things look today.
Skip Stiles: I forgot to mention living shorelines, because that actually predated all of the climate change legislation. In Virginia, if you’re going to build a structure along the shoreline to control erosion, the state says it has to be a living shoreline unless you prove that you can’t build one because of geomorphic and other conditions. The default is a living shoreline, which is a much gentler way of protecting erosion while also expanding the ecosystem services and environmental benefits.
Our colleagues at the North Carolina Coastal Federation have a great bumper sticker that says, “No wetlands, no seafood.” 80–90 percent of the fish—fin fish and shellfish species, both sport and commercial—spend part of their time in tidal wetlands. Wetlands are an essential fish habitat and an essential bird habitat. They provide a great deal of nutrient take-up—nutrient pollution, nitrogen, and phosphorus. These wetlands soak those up like sponges and process them, and the plants grow on those nutrients. Wetlands keep the excess nutrients out of the waterways and keep the algal blooms down. The wetlands help buffer wave action. So you have storm-loss reduction because of wetlands.
There’s a whole suite of values that the tidal wetlands we’re talking about here provide. The non-tidal wetlands provide a whole other set of flood-control protections and the rest. They’re all free. You’ve got all of these free services, and all you’ve got to do is keep your wetlands. But since John Smith showed up here, we’ve already lost about half of our wetlands in Virginia because of development and not taking care of our wetlands. The wetlands laws didn’t really kick in until the ‘70s. We’ve lost about half of our tidal wetlands already.
The problem going forward is that with the rates of sea level rise we’re seeing, the wetlands cannot stay in place. Wetlands can trap sediments and grow vertically about two feet per century, but we expect sea level rise of at least around three to four feet this century. The only choice for the wetlands is to move inland, move upland—whatever you want to call it. As the waterline moves up the shoreline, the wetlands will move with it and stay in the intertidal zone until they hit a bulkhead, a road, a marina, someone’s house—until there’s a hard structure in the way.
When we started our work back in 2006, we sat down with some scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and looked at the projections and said, “It looks like we’re going to lose between 50 and 80 percent of our remaining tidal wetlands unless we can get these hardened structures out of the way.” That’s the big challenge: How do we allow for marsh migration and the continuance of all of these free services that we don’t pay a dime for? How do we allow the wetlands to move uphill with sea level rise? That is the big challenge, because, with higher rates of sea level rise, we’re seeing estimates for wetlands loss that go as high as 80 percent and 90 percent by 2080, and that’s very disturbing.
This is the challenge that we’re facing. We got into this. We went out with a message that said, “Hey, save your wetlands from climate change.” Initially, the challenge was getting people to accept the problem, and then it was to get them to begin adapting. In Virginia, as I outlined earlier, we’ve made great progress on that so far. Is it enough? Can we keep up with the tide? That’s what we’re facing now.
Margaret Walls: I want to turn now to talk about hard infrastructure, like levees and seawalls. I want to ask you about the planned approach in Norfolk, and, as I understand it, that’s a set of flood walls, levees, tide gates, and pump stations that would be constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and jointly paid for by the Corps and the city. Norfolk is not the only coastal city embarking on such investments, and they are controversial in many locations. Miami and New York are other examples. Can you talk about this planned approach? What’s the sentiment in Norfolk? Where do things stand right now in terms of implementing this large infrastructure project?
Skip Stiles: This is a fresh issue for us, because we just approved the partnership agreement with the Corps this week. Our city council moved ahead. We were arguing for a pause. We pointed out that Miami had paused it; so had Naples, Florida, in Collier County. These places paused their projects for coastal storm risk management because they had concerns about it.
We have a lot of concerns about the fact that this is primarily hardened infrastructure. There are some places where you’ve got to have hardened infrastructure. We’re a big port city, and you can’t tie a tanker up to a living shoreline. You’ve got to have a hardened shoreline. But the rest of the city doesn’t necessarily need all of that. We were arguing for more nature-based solutions.
The big problem with these projects, though—and these are all of them, from New York to Miami—is that they’re only focused on preventing big storm surges, like the one from Hurricane Sandy. They don’t deal with rainfall flooding and the increased rainfall that we’re seeing.
In Virginia, they just did a statewide study, and they said rainfall intensities increased 18 percent in the last 20 years. So, we’ve got more rainfall. This hardened infrastructure doesn’t deal with it at all. It doesn’t deal with sea level rise, because the gates they’ve got in place will stay open most of the year. It’s not going to deal with that sunny-day flooding that I was talking about. We’re still going to have fish as roadkill, because the floods that we get are not high enough to trigger these gate closures.
Our big problem with it was that the study in Norfolk does not have all of the water-quality impacts outlined. I’ve been in and around projects with the Army Corps of Engineers since the mid-1970s when I worked in Congress. I’ve never seen a project this size go forward without water-quality studies.
The project is approved; it’s going forward. We’re just going to have to work with the city and the Corps and see what we can do with it. We are in touch, though, with the folks in Naples and in New York. Because Norfolk is further ahead than any other city, we’re working with local organizations to inform them about what worked and what didn’t work in Norfolk so that maybe those localities can get a better deal out of this than we did.
Margaret Walls: I also want to talk about zoning and land use regulations. These are important ways that we guide development to particular areas and establish what kinds of development we want to see in different locations and so forth. But, of course, we have a system of private property rights in the United States, so changing zoning codes could be fraught.
Could you tell us a bit about what’s going on in Norfolk with this? I know the city has adopted a resilience overlay zone. Can you tell us a little about that? What are some of the components, in terms of implementation and how it might affect development patterns?
Skip Stiles: We quickly concluded that local governments are the key to sea level rise adaptation, because they do control land use. They’re the only entity that does. Where a person is safe or unsafe on the landscape has to do with the land use issues. Have the zoning laws allowed you to build there or not, or are there conditions if you build there?
Norfolk has put in place a zoning ordinance that is beginning to impose conditions on the whole city. You have to have a certain number of what they call resilience points. You have to do things that are resilient, environmentally sound. In the lower-lying coastal areas, they’ve imposed an additional set of restrictions. For example, if you landscape, you have to use salt-tolerant plants, because the saltwater is there so often that it’s killing everything off—little things like this.
In terms of big things, like if you want to develop in the higher part of the city, you can go down to this coastal overlay area in the lower part of the city and actually purchase the development rights of somebody who says, “My house floods too often. I’m willing to sell it.” The developer can buy that property and then transfer those rights to develop and get the resilience points to build in the higher part of the city.
The idea is it’s a transfer of development rights, but it’s using a market approach. The government’s not involved at all. You’re telling a builder, “You want development points. Here’s somebody over here who wants out of their house. Go do a deal, and I’ll give you the resilience points, and you can build the apartments in the higher part of the city.” The idea is to try to transfer the development out of the lower, soggier parts of Norfolk into the upland. It is innovative. It’s the only one of these systems that we were able to find in the country.
We’re working with the city to also bring some other financial incentives into it—like using land trusts, for example, to sweeten the deal. Put a conservation easement on a house that the developer is willing to buy, and allow the person to stay in the house until some trigger point is reached. These are called rolling easements. The deal would go down today, but the resident of the house would be able to stay in their house for a while until either they decided they wanted to leave or the property got too wet. At that trigger point, the easement is executed and the person needs to leave.
We’re trying to provide a soft landing for people who through no fault of their own are in the “wrong part of the landscape” and incentivize this Norfolk zoning ordinance to help move people uphill. If it works, we can export it to other areas.
Margaret Walls: I’m really interested to follow this.
Now, I want to turn our attention to the distribution of impacts of sea level rise and coastal flooding. By now it’s widely recognized that lower-income and socially vulnerable populations tend to be more heavily impacted by flooding than their wealthier counterparts. These populations live disproportionately in floodplains, whether that’s due to historical discrimination or lower prices or what have you. They have greater difficulty recovering from disasters and often a lack of flood insurance, personal savings, and so forth. People have found that these neighborhoods are left behind, in terms of where the money goes for hazard mitigation and resilience investments.
The Tidewater region, the Hampton Roads region, and Norfolk, in particular, is pretty diverse. You have some fairly wealthy neighborhoods and some poorer ones. Can you tell us about what you see, in terms of the distributional impacts of flooding in the region? Is this an issue that is getting attention in the policy world when we’re trying to build resilience?
Skip Stiles: Anybody along the shore here is getting wet—rich or poor. The impacts are universally felt. It’s the access to solutions that then becomes the issue. One issue that came up was with our flood wall, for example. There’s a lower-income neighborhood, and, because the house values are not as high there, the benefit-cost analysis process that the Corps of Engineers goes through to figure out what solutions make the most economic sense precluded this neighborhood from getting a flood wall. They were going to have their houses elevated, and that was it. That caused quite a controversy and exposed the problems that we have with the way that people compute benefits.
This was fixed, because the city and the Corps are going to seek some exemptions to the conventional way they compute these benefits. But that’s a big problem. A lot of these programs bypass lower-income areas, because they’re not “worth as much” monetarily. It’s only when you put in some of the historic and socioeconomic pieces that the playing field gets leveled. That’s something I think that needs to be done more and more.
We do a lot of work. We have a program where we bring engineering and architecture students into neighborhoods to do resilience design work for the community. We produce it in partnership with the residents. We specifically pick these low- or moderate-income areas. The idea here is that if the funding becomes available, these communities will have design plans in their hand and will move to the front of the line for the distribution of the money. We’re trying to see if we can give a leg up to some of these neighborhoods, because the impacts are felt universally, but the political and regulatory processes disadvantage them in the ways that the monies are distributed.
Margaret Walls: That’s great, because technical assistance of various kinds is really needed. That’s a neat program you’re doing.
I recently saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about Norfolk and the Hampton Roads region. The theme of that piece, which came out on April 26, is that you all are ahead of others in addressing sea level rise and coastal flooding issues. There was an interesting quote from the chief resilience officer in Charleston, South Carolina, where they have their own problems. He said, “We’re about two years behind Norfolk.”
My last substantive question here is that you all have had the problems longer. You have a big government presence in the region—military bases and so forth—which may have helped bring attention to the issues. I know you’ve been involved at Wetlands Watch for many years. So, I want to ask you big-picture questions about the lessons you’ve learned and maybe some important things or advice for other communities on how to make progress on this building coastal resilience problem.
Skip Stiles: The biggest thing is to organize the support in the community and engage the process early. One of the things that’s worked here so well is that, because the community sees the impacts, they’re energized and engaged in the planning process. They go to the meetings. It’s this constant presence that causes the issue to be at the front of the agenda and at the front of the funding plans. It’s basic politics: organize and make your presence known.
The other thing that we’ve seen here is the partnerships that develop. There are some nontraditional partnerships here. It’s always the environmentalists saying, “Fix this, fix that.” But we’ve reached out to the faith communities. The business community is being affected here; this is an economic issue. We’ve engaged the private sector on this, as well, because resilience is not just resilience from the natural resources side; resilience is also from the finance side. Is your economy going to remain intact? Finding those partners is essential.
One other thing that’s proven useful is taking full advantage of these teachable moments. We see sea level rise as a daily impact, so unfortunately it’s easier and easier for us to get our message across. When I was in politics, there was this cynical phrase: “Never let a good disaster go to waste.” We have seen such progress following storms and flood events. Being prepared to move into the policy space and the community-organizing space on the heels of an event is critical, because that’s when you can make a tremendous amount of policy progress.
Margaret Walls: You’re not the first person I’ve heard make that point, so it’s good to hear.
Skip, this has been great. We want to close our podcast with our regular feature, which we call Top of the Stack, and that’s where we’re going to ask you to recommend something to our listeners: a book, an article, a podcast—anything, really. Do you have something you’d like to suggest to our listeners? What’s on the top of your stack?
Skip Stiles: I have two books. Edward Wilson’s The Future of Life is one. He’s such a great writer, and it’s about the problems we face and solutions. And Edward Wilson is just wonderful. Then, every Earth Day, I go back and I read the classic Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, and it really is a book that has stood the test of time. His essay, “The Land Ethic,” in that almanac is one that I go back to a lot for inspiration during those dark moments where I go, Oh my gosh, are we ever going to be able to fix this?
Margaret Walls: I recommend that book, as well. Skip, it’s really been a pleasure having you on Resources Radio. I’m so glad we’re able to get you to kick off our Climate Hits Home podcast series. It’s fascinating to learn about what’s going on in Norfolk. So much is going on there. It’s great to hear about all your work at Wetlands Watch. I appreciate you taking the time to come on the show. Thank you very much.
Skip Stiles: Thank you for taking this initiative.
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