Health

2021 Election Preview: Two Cities, Facing Floods and Aridity, Eye Big Public Works


By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – October 27, 2021

A fast-growing city in the Intermountain West and a low-lying Atlantic Coast city in a hot spot for rising seas both seek the same outcome next week: voter permission to borrow more than a half-billion dollars to address crucial water infrastructure needs.

In Boise and Virginia Beach city officials are asking residents to approve measures on the November 2 ballot that would authorize massive public works projects to respond to environmental pressures, repair aging systems, and position their communities for a future of warmer temperatures and higher waters.

Even as Congress delays passage of a national infrastructure bill, leaders in the largest cities in Idaho and Virginia say that their projects, as with so much of the nation’s water infrastructure, are urgent matters.

“We can’t wait on these needs,” Natalie Monro, communications manager for Boise, told Circle of Blue.

Boise, whose population grew by nearly 15 percent in the last decade, is planning a 10-year $570 million renovation and expansion of its sewage treatment system. The Idaho capital wants to begin recycling wastewater for industrial use and divert a portion of the recycled water to replenish its aquifer.

Virginia Beach, meanwhile, wishes to guard homes and vital infrastructure against encroaching waters. Voters in that city are being asked to support a property tax increase that will fund a 10-year $567 million investment into 21 flood-prevention projects.

Councils in both cities passed the spending plans after a series of public consultations, but the proposals also require voter approval.

In Boise, the oldest wastewater treatment plant was built in 1948 and needs to be upgraded. The city also wants to build smaller treatment facilities near new developments in order to clean up water for reuse and to improve the health of the Boise River.

Bond funding, though it requires interest payments that add nearly 50 percent to total costs, helps spread the financial burden of these projects over a longer period, meaning gentler rate increases today. If the bond measure passes, Boise residents can expect an average sewer bill to increase by 9 to 10 percent per year.

If Boise voters do not approve the bond measure, the projects will still go forward, Monro said. But it will cost more upfront. An average sewer bill in that case would soar by 53 percent in 2022.

Rising Seas, Rising Flood Risk

Whereas Boise is concerned with maximizing use of water in a dry climate, low-elevation Virginia Beach wants to minimize the amount of water that intrudes on public life.

High tides and higher waters have always been problems for Virginia’s largest city. But widespread floods during Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, lifted the issue to new prominence. “It was certainly the catalyst,” Julie Hill, communications director for Virginia Beach, told Circle of Blue.

City Council unanimously approved the flood protection plan, which encompasses 21 projects that will be built over 10 years. If voters endorse it, property taxes would increase by $115 to $171 per year, depending on how the bonds are structured.

Councilman John Moss, a Republican who has called flooding “an existential threat” to Virginia Beach, says that he talks to community groups a couple days each week to rally support for the ballot measure.

“If we don’t make a significant investment and make changes in policies, we are not going to be able to protect about 65 percent of our structures by 2050,” Moss told Circle of Blue. He called the bond measure “the right ask” because the benefits outweigh the costs.

If the measure does not pass, Moss said that projects would be delayed and risk to life and property would rise along with storms and the sea.

A lengthier timeline would go against the spirit of the Phase One projects, which are designed to address nuisance and recurring flooding that is expected through 2050. Many of the projects are designed to protect buildings from a storm that has a one percent chance of occurring each year — a metric that translates to 11.4 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. This is less intense than a major hurricane like Matthew — “It’s not a hurricane protection plan,” Moss said — but it’s more rain than the area typically sees. Some projects also accommodate 1.5 feet of sea-level rise.

To deal with several feet of sea-level rise that is projected by the end of the century, larger structural items like tidal gates, levees, and raising roads would be required. Some of those are featured in Phase One, but more would be needed in later decades, Hill said. The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, a regional body, encourages local governments to plan for 4.5 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. Coupled with sinking land due in part to groundwater extraction, the region has the highest rate of relative sea-level rise along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

“This is a quarter of what we know we need to do long term,” Hill said, referring to the Phase One projects.

The projects that do make the initial cut are a curious assortment. Most are traditional “gray” infrastructure — culverts, storm drains, pump stations, elevating roads — that use concrete and metal to hold back floods or move water. Examples in the plan range from $68.9 million for tidal barriers on London Bridge Creek to $69 million for flood gates on West Neck Creek Bridge and $92.8 million for drainage pipes in the downtown beach area.

There are greener designs in the plan, too. These use nature to buffer and absorb storm flows. One project is $40 million for 260 acres of marsh restoration in Back Bay, which is beset by wind-driven flooding. Another is $83.6 million to convert Bow Creek Golf Course, a public facility, into a park that doubles as a stormwater retention basin.

The plan drew praise from Skip Stiles, director of Wetlands Watch, a Virginia-based organization that focuses on shoreline issues in the state. Stiles called it “well staged and thought out.”

“It’s a major-league ask,” added Stiles, who said the bond proposal was on par with measures approved in other states to address flooding.

Miami voters passed a $400 million bond measure in 2017 that allocated $192 million for flooding-related projects. A year later, Houston-area voters approved a $2.5 billion bond measure for flood prevention.

Moss, who speaks exactingly and passionately about the plan and the flood risks his city faces, said that he fears a big storm will arrive before Virginia Beach can complete the Phase One projects.

“It’s not a question of if,” Moss said. “It’s a question of when.”

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