As the capital region starts reopening, we hear from the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Jeff McKay, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Plus, DCist senior editor Rachel Kurzius gives a preview of D.C.'s June 2 primary.
As the world warms, sea levels rise. And in the Chesapeake Bay, they’re rising faster than almost anywhere else in America. So how will climate change affect coastal and island communities? And what do we lose if those places vanish from the map?
Our series on the local effects of climate change continues with a look at rising seas, sinking islands and “thousand-year” floods.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
Tangier Island lies on Chesapeake Bay between mainland Virginia and the commonwealth's Eastern Shore. Over the next 25 to 50 years, experts anticipate it will be underwater.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. As the world warms, sea levels rise. And in the Chesapeake Bay they're rising faster than almost anywhere else in America and we don't have to look much farther than islands in the Bay or historic Ellicott City in Maryland to see the devastating effects of coastal flooding and harsher storms.
KOJO NNAMDISo how do we fortify vulnerable communities in the Washington region from the threat of sea level rise? And what do we lose when places -- those places vanish from the map? Joining us to discuss rising seas, sinking islands and thousand year floods is Jacob Fenston. He is WAMU's Environment Reporter. Jacob, thank you for joining us.
JACOB FENSTONThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIJacob, what exactly is happening with sea level rise in the Washington region? What have you found in your reporting?
FENSTONWell, so the region, of course, is located on the confluence of two rivers that are a tidal up through the District borders. So what that means is that the rivers are affected by the oceans tides and by the level of the sea. So as sea level rises globally the level of those rivers rises also. It's been -- over the past 100 years, according to NOAA, the sea level has risen more than a foot in Washington. So that has, you know, you can see that in high tide flooding in places like Old Town, Alexandria in 2018, which is that, you know, wettest year on record. There was, for example, September of that year it flooded 30 times just, because of high tides. So that sort of thing is visible. If you go to the Tidal Basin or Hains Point, you can see the flooding during high tide.
NNAMDIHains Point is where I really noticed it first. I was like, "What the heck is going -- where is Hains Point anyway?"
NNAMDIYou reported that in the Chesapeake Bay sea levels are rising quoting here, "faster than almost anywhere else in the United States." Why is that?
FENSTONWell, so if you use an analogy this has to do with the geological forces and, you know, ice sheet that used to cover what's now North America like 20,000 years ago. So if you picture, for example, a mattress, a big squishy mattress as North America and then you imagine a huge heavy block of ice sitting in the middle of that you could picture the sides of the mattress would rise up. So we're on the edges of that mattress in the Chesapeake region. And the ice melted a long time ago and the mattress is now -- the edges are now sinking back down to their level. And that's what is happening here. That's called subsidence. I hope I explained that right, because I'm not an expert in geology.
NNAMDIWell, you're making me thinking about changing my mattress, but go ahead.
FENSTONI know, right. You don't want one with a big dip in the middle. So as the Earth is subsiding, as the land here is subsiding, sea level is rising just as it is around the globe. But that combination of the land sinking and the water rising makes for a relative sea level rise that is higher than elsewhere and it can really be noticeable in, you know, the course of a lifetime.
NNAMDIJoining us now from studios in Virginia Beach, Virginia is Christy Everett, who directed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Hampton Roads office in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Christy Everett, thank you for joining us.
CHRISTY EVERETTThank you.
NNAMDII should add that the Hampton Roads office in Virginia Beach is one of the greenest buildings in the world, isn't it?
EVERETTIt is. So we are using techniques that demonstrate how renewable energy can not only offset what we use, but then send it back to the grid. So we're walking the walk in practice as well.
NNAMDISo why is sea level rise and issue we should all be paying attention to?
EVERETTRight. So in Hampton Roads there is no denying the issues. As Jacob mentioned, there's several reasons. And we're seeing these kind of extreme weather events. So this intense precipitation, it's getting worse. We've built out on a lot of our urban suburban areas and so there's nowhere for that water to go. It's causing flooding on top additional inputs coming from tidal waters.
EVERETTSo we're really kind of ground zero for some of the highest rates of sea level rise. And unfortunately things are accelerating in much faster pace than we're able to adapt and potentially mitigate. There is some good use if we kind of get organized and start to tackle this issue. But we're facing some very extreme challenges with our economy, our communities, of course, military installations and our environment. Wetlands Watch estimates 50 to 80 percent of our Virginia tidal wetlands could be lost as well due to sea level rise as well as many and other issues.
NNAMDIThe Norfolk Naval Station, it's my understanding could be underwater if a category 4 hurricane struck the coast. What's the situation there?
EVERETTRight. So, you know, think about naval installations, which are part and parcel to our communities here, and people have to get to those installations. So not only are the installations themselves at risk, because, of course, they're on coastal shoreline areas, but there are military families, and the military families that live off base have to get -- I mean, a direct support onto those bases. So a lot of concerns about kind of the bread and butter of our economy down here as well as our safety and security, it really puts a serious threat for sea level rise in our area and flooding. So we've really got to figure out these issues or really the threat of our economy and some say security of the nation is at risk here.
NNAMDIJacob Fenston, tell us about Fox Island and what has happened to it over the years.
FENSTONSo Fox Island, I went out there on a trip with some other reporters. And it is a beautiful magical little dot of land and marsh in the Chesapeake Bay.
NNAMDIHow far from the eastern shore?
FENSTONIt's on the western side of the Bay. So if you drive onto the Delmarva Peninsula it's near the Maryland, Virginia border. And so I think when the boat left from Crest Field -- but yeah. So it's a very small island. And it has been used for the past 40 years or so as an outdoor education center by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. And it's, you know, basically just a little lodge building perched over the water surrounded by marshes, but it has been losing land. It lost about three quarters of the land in the past 40 or 50 years.
FENSTONAnd it's become -- it's lost so much land that the Bay Foundation decided this year -- or last year rather in 2019 that it was no longer safe, no longer viable to have masses of students out there learning about ecosystems and wild life. It wasn't safe to have people there, because it was so exposed.
FENSTONSo it's, you know, it's one sort of small example of the way, you know, sea level rise is affecting the region. It's not -- you know, nobody lives there. It wasn't affecting people's homes or whatnot, but it was sort of a special place for people to learn about the environment. And, yeah, they're no longer having students there.
NNAMDITom Horton joins us in studio. He is an Environmental Writer and author of several books including "Bay Country" and "Island Out of Time." He teaches at Salisbury University. Tom Horton, thank you for joining us.
TOM HORTONGood to be here.
NNAMDIYou started writing about the environment for The Baltimore Sun in the early 1970s. When did you first begin visiting the islands of the Chesapeake?
HORTONYou know, I had visited them growing up fishing with my dad in the 50s, but really began paying attention to them as a reporter back in the 70s. So it's been a long and delightful, you know, 40-some year relationship.
NNAMDIWhat's changed during the course of that time?
HORTONOh, there's a lot less of the islands. I'm talking about Smith Island, Maryland and Tangier Island, Virginia, Fox Island, which is in Virginia. And it's a combination of erosion -- an erosion that is getting worse as sea level rises. So, yeah, the changes are quite dramatic in my time. There are at least two places around that region that I used to play softball with my friends or ...
NNAMDIYeah. Tell us about your lost ball field story.
HORTONYeah. I recently made a little film called "High Tide in Dorchester." Went back out to my dad's old hunting and fishing cabin where I grew up hitting a softball around with my friends in the 50s. And the photographer wanted me to stand about where center field was and I was kind of butt deep in the Chesapeake Bay. And that's how we opened the film. And it was dramatic and it was sobering to me, because the forest around the cabin I used to get lost in that forest as a kid. It's a ghost forest now. It's all just decaying pines, falling down dead trees. You can see it's not a forest anymore.
NNAMDILet's talk about Fox Island and what made it such an ideal setting for environmental education.
HORTONYou know, I could read -- I don't know. Do you want me to read that little -- I said kind of good-bye to Fox Island in a ...
NNAMDIAn editorial in the Bay Journal.
HORTONI could read a couple of paragraphs.
HORTONI'll read fast. The genius of Fox was that it was just so out there miles from the grid, from the sounds of humans. Kids rode an improvised stationary bicycle in the kitchen to pump water for washing and cooking. Composting toilets handled waste, solar panels and a wood stove handled electricity and heat. I loved to climb with kids to the crow's nest atop the lodge, predawn. We'd watch as light began dividing day from night, dawn tugging color and texture from the void, distinguishing land from water, revealing creatures of the air and the sea, winging and splashing to the horizons. One looked upon all of this and knew that it was good, this everyday beginning at Fox Island and a pretty fair summary of God’s creation from the first part of Genesis."
NNAMDIThat's Tom Horton reading from an editorial that he wrote for The Bay Journal. When you discovered the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was shutting down its operation on Fox Island, what went through your mind?
HORTONOh, I was sad, but I wasn't shocked, because we had seen it coming. Just as the land buffering that lodge from the wind and waves shrank, it became more and more unsafe to be out there with school kids in boats and canoes. You could have squeezed a few more years out of it probably, but you would have been maybe courting disaster. So it was, yeah, one more nail in the coffin for those places I grew up kind of thinking they would outlast me.
NNAMDIJust becoming too dangerous to be there. Not just Fox Island that holds a special place in your heart. What can you tell us about Smith Island and the time you spent there?
HORTONWell, I lived on Smith. Put my kids in a little one room school with 14 kids in kindergarten through six grade. And it was unique. You know, the people have a distinctive dialect. Most of them are descended from people, who came out there in the 1600-1700s from England and Wales. And it's a fishing culture. And, you know, it's Maryland's only true offshore inhabited island just as Tangier six miles away is in Virginia. And those cultures, once they're gone, there ain't any place else, so ...
NNAMDIAnd just to talk about those cultures. Who lives on those islands, Smith and Tangier, and what is life like there?
HORTONOh, life for us, no one locked their doors. There was no government. Everybody was Methodist even my Catholic wife and kids, because that's the only church out there. And if my kid acted up in Sunday school he'd have to stand in a corner Monday morning in the public school. Try that in Montgomery County without a lawsuit. You know, all this stuff we were big city, Baltimore liberal Democrats. They like Donald Trump a lot, but, you know, everybody got along. It worked on that little small scale. So that's -- I'm a big fan of one room schools.
NNAMDIThose sea levels -- the sea level rise is causing us to -- to these islands to be sinking. So what are we losing out on?
HORTONWell, I think we're just seeing the disillusion of a couple of the most unique cultures in both Maryland and Virginia. You really -- there's nothing else like them. Even the main islands, the Georgia, South Carolina Sea Islands are different. So, I mean, it's like losing an endangered species, I guess in a way. Except it's worse, it's part of human culture. You know, the people there will survive elsewhere. Some are already moving off. And it's not just sea level rise and erosion. Sometimes it's teenage girls, who don't want to pick crabs for the rest of their life like their mothers and grandmothers. You can't do much about that. So I just think it's a loss of cultures that don't -- won't exist anymore.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to this continuation of our series on the effects of climate change in this region. We're talking with Jacob Fenston, who is WAMU's Environment Reporter. Christy Everett directs the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Hampton Roads office in Virginia Beach, Virginia. And Tom Horton is an Environmental Writer and author of several books including "Bay Country" and "Island Out of Time." He teaches at Salisbury University.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Stephanie who said, "I have lived on Shadyside on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Anne Arundel County for several years, but we are selling our house this year to escape the rising waters. We joke we've had a front row seat to climate change for long enough. And we don't want a mortgage in the flood plain anymore. It's sad to leave our community and friends, but it's time to move uphill." And here is Patricia in Arlington, Virginia. Patricia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICIAThank you, Kojo and your guests who are all focused on climate change. Here in Arlington we find that we're lacking political will to implement one of the more inexpensive and effective ways to fight climate change and reduce floodwater runoff and that is trees and preserving urban forestry and canopy. As a Jill Jonnes, who wrote a history of urban forest points out forests are -- or trees are a natural bulwark against climate change. And I just hope that all of us who care about the future will help get our political leaders to look at this simple, important solution.
PATRICIARight now Arlington is being paved at over nine acres a year, clearly not sustainable. So let's all try and work together. And thanks to the guests and you for being part of this. Let's really speak up for the trees and let them help us fight climate change. Thank you all.
NNAMDIPatricia, thanks to you for sharing your thoughts. Tom Horton, speaking of actions, what actions are being taken to slow this sinking that we're talking about particularly for inhabited islands like Tangier and Smith?
HORTONWell, the caller who mentioned trees is on to something good. I mean, I advocate trees not just because they sequester carbon and hold shorelines in place, but they're great habitat. They also sequester a lot of the nitrogen pollution that's affecting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Forests -- or a friend of mine used a bumper sticker, "Trees are the answer," you know. He was into harvesting trees and replanting. But trees are the answer. I mean, that's a biggie and it's something that there are programs to do around the Chesapeake. They aren't moving anywhere near far enough.
HORTONWe still don't have a no loss of forests law. So we continue to lose forests. No surprise. You know, one good thing, a lot of the things you would do to save the Bay are a complete overlap with what you would do to combat climate change. And cutting back on fossil fuel burning is a dramatic way to both reduce CO2 and the nitrogen oxides that are a big part of Chesapeake pollution. So it's kind of a two for one.
NNAMDIAnd do you think that would help to slow the sinking with inhabited islands like Tangier and Smith?
HORTONYou know, the hard truth is that we have to think about what we can do in the short term for those places. No, I think if we did everything we can do tomorrow night probably between now and the end of the century those places are toast. But we can if we put enough rock around them, we're already doing it at Smith. Tangier badly needs it. We could buy them another 10 years, another human generation, maybe two. You can't say for sure. And we could do it for not billions, for millions maybe, low tens of millions. So I personally -- of course, I'm a little biased. I like those islands a lot. And I know people.
NNAMDIAs do the residents.
HORTONYeah. They do too. And I think it's worth it. That won't save them till 2200 or even 2100. But I think to buy another generation or two of people making a livelihood supplying us with seafood, using them for very effective environmental education as the Bay Foundation does, just going out there to muck in the marsh and fish and bird watch, I think that's worth some money.
NNAMDIChristy Everett, we've been talking about the islands of the Chesapeake, but the coastal regions are also being threatened by rising seas. What's at stake here?
EVERETTRight. And so we're looking at about a foot and a half of sea level rise in the last century, three to five feet over the next century. VIMS just came out with a report card for 32 cities across the U.S. and their rates of acceleration are even higher than NOAA's rates that you mentioned at the beginning of the call. So we do have a lot at stake. We have these increased storm events with climate change. So faster, more frequent intense rain events and we have very heavily paved areas in these coastal areas of Virginia, and so nowhere for the water to go. It can't drain. It's coming up from the storm system from that rising tidal water as well as the water table rising.
EVERETTSo we need to find places in our communities where we can really treat this runoff and hold this runoff. We call it retention detention infiltration. Places for this water to go for holding native plants that can filter out that pollution, hold that water, prevent flooding and send it back to the aquifer where it should be going. It would be going if we didn't have such developed areas.
NNAMDIWhat are organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation doing to protect the shorelines and prevent further erosion?
EVERETTWell, as Tom mentioned, the things that will save the Bay can also help us adapt more wisely and mitigate with climate change. The Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blue Print that just came out with its third watershed implementation plan across the Bay states this summer actually has kind of a plan to clean up the Bay. But it includes things that will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate change, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
EVERETTAnd fortuitously as your caller from Arlington mentioned our political officials can do something about that today. Very today in committee we'll have that Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is going through consideration in Virginia's General Assembly. So there's that. There's also a General Assembly measure to consider making sure that buffers are along streams and farm land, which helps, again with that tree growth to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, shade those streams.
EVERETTIt can do a lot to help save the Bay while at that same preventing climate change. So both of those are on the docket this afternoon almost as we speak. So a lot political will can do to address this issue. But they must act and they must act now.
NNAMDIJ.H. Langerman writes on webpage, "The most important bill that you never heard of is pending in the Maryland General Assembly right now, the Climate Crisis and Education Act. How do we mitigate CO2 emissions and find the money to protect our shores and seaside towns from rising sea levels? We put a price on CO2 emissions. We force the fossil fuel companies to internalize the terrible cost that their commodity creates." Now on to Kelvin in Silver Spring, Maryland. Kelvin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KELVINYes. I'm just curious. I know that the Mall was basically a drained area. And I understand it's where there was a confluence of the Anacostia and the Potomac. And I know that when the African American Museum was built it literally hit water. And they had -- and it was an issue they were able to resolve. But nevertheless, you know, it was there. And also the archives have had some problems in the past.
KELVINSo what -- do you know what the National Park Service is doing from a long term perspective of addressing that potential issue of global warming with the National Mall, because also, I believe, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial was having some problems. So, I'm just curious about what are the long term...
NNAMDIOkay. Jacob Fenston, do you know?
FENSTONI could address that a little bit. Yeah, I mean, there has been pretty bad flooding along the Mall and in the Federal Triangle area. The National Archives has, you know, flooded in the basement. The EPA has flooded, you know, various of those federal buildings right there. And I think, you know, the newer ones, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for example, has very high-tech, you know, flooding pumps and such to prevent that from happening.
FENSTONYou know, there's basically a levy system built into the National Mall. On 17th Street, there's a new sort of gate that they can put in place when flooding may be happening. So, they are addressing it. I think part of the problem, too, though, is that there are, you know, multiple ways that the Mall can flood. And, you know, the levy's great, but it's not going to stop all types of flooding. And we can talk about that a little bit more.
HORTONI would venture to predict a tide gate across the Potomac River in Washington's future, much as London has had one for a long time on the Thames. I think Venice is looking into one. Those are big, massive, expensive engineering projects, but they can buy you quite a bit of time.
NNAMDIChristy Everett, why are wetlands so vital? What role do they play?
EVERETTRight. So, I think we all know the importance of tourism to the Chesapeake Bay region, as well as the economic boon of recreational and commercial fishing. And they're just quality of life. And think about the property values of homes near water, and especially clean water, with so much more than areas along degraded waterways. --
EVERETTAnd so, while the Chesapeake Bay and its waterways are such an important part of our system, many of those features -- fish, seafood -- they all spend some time of their life in wetlands. So, wetlands not only act as great nursery grounds, feeding areas for those critters that grow up and become economically or important recreationally, but they're also critical for reducing pollution coming off the land, capturing it, and then acting like a sponge. So, as a storm surges, that holds that floodwater. It keeps it in place, so it doesn't cause damage to homes and our streets and businesses.
EVERETTSo, they're kind of critical infrastructure. And, unfortunately, as we're losing those wetlands, we don't have that ecosystem-based protection. And so we're going to need to kind of work overtime to put constructed wetlands in places where it can hold that water, put areas aside to make sure that we've got those benefits that come with wetlands that, unfortunately with development, as well as sea level rise, are two current threats that seem to be damaging and challenging something that could be a real asset as we move forward.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, Jacob Fenston, tens of thousands of acres of wetlands will lose protection under a new Trump administration rule. What does this rollback entail, exactly?
FENSTONYeah. So, this was something that happened last week. It's been a long time in coming, but it has to do with sort of how you define which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. It's something that has been discussed and argued over since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. And Obama tried to, you now, some would say expand that definition. Others would say clarify that definition. But, in 2015, the Obama administration put forward something called the Waters of the U.S. rule, WOTUS. And that protected a lot of wetlands that were sort of disconnected from large bodies of water, as well as streams that, you know, might only flow after a big rainstorm or something.
FENSTONSo, within the Chesapeake, there's a lot of these -- there's what's called the Delmarva Potholes. So, there are these little sort of low-lying areas throughout the Delmarva Peninsula that are not touching the Bay, but have a great impact on the quality of the water in the Bay, because, you know, they capture water when it rains and they hold it and filter it. And, you know, there's lots of wildlife that uses these areas. So, there's tens of thousands of acres of these in the Bay watershed that will lose federal protection because of a rule change that was finalized last week.
NNAMDI(overlapping) What was the Trump administration's motivation for this rule change?
FENSTONWell, I could read it, if I find it. So, the EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, said that it would provide much-needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses. So, a lot of people had complained about it, you know, being sort of a burden for property owners...
FENSTON...developers, farmers, and particularly farmers who wanted to, you know, sell their land and have someone build something there. Golf course owners -- people such as Donald J. Trump -- didn't like it, because it makes it hard to build a golf course if you have to worry about wetlands on your property. So, there was a lot of, sort of, land owners who did not like the Obama administration rule. And Trump has been talking since before he was elected about getting rid of this. And one of the first things he did when he was elected in February, or, you know, after he was inaugurated in February, 2017, was an executive order promising to do this. It took a few years, but it finally happened.
HORTONWhen you realize we've eliminated over half the U.S.'s original wetlands for farming and development, you wonder how much more regulatory certainty we can stand. But, anyway...
NNAMDIChristy Everett, what would an action like this mean for the Bay's health?
EVERETTRight. So, we really do have to not only think about the population's habitat that this supports, but if we want to prevent flooding, we need places for this water to go. So, as it rains -- and as we mentioned we're going to have more intense and frequent rain events with climate change -- we need to find a place for this water to go that won't cause damage.
EVERETTThese pockets of areas that are wet hold that water, great for letting it filter out, go back down to our aquifer, recharge our drinking water which is obviously critical for the populations in the Chesapeake Bay region. But also, at the same time, it filters it out. So, before it runs off into a local creek or stream and that water moves into waterways where we fish and swim, it can be filtered out. And that pollution can be filtered before that excess nutrient ends up in our waterways creating too much algae and too many algae blooms that create low-dissolved oxygen. So, a whole host of negative effects, so very frustrating to see this rollback.
NNAMDIHere is Barton in Federalsburg, Maryland. Barton, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARTONThis question is for Tom. Tom, in your most recent Bay Journal article, you spoke about ecological amnesia. Would you speak to that?
HORTONYeah, and I should disclose, Bart and I grew up together in Federalsburg, Maryland. Hi, Bart. That was referring to sort of one generation losing memory of how good things were in the Chesapeake, and then so on down the generations, to where you can sit here missing half or more of our wetlands, debating about how much of the other half you go ahead and trash. And it applies to everything from crabs and oysters to air quality. Yeah, we really have to -- if you don't set a baseline and stick to it, that baseline is going to shift. It's kind of like just slowly going to hell. It's easier than rapidly going to hell, I think.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Barton. We got an email from Mary. What about Hooper's Island? I'm doing my part in Winchester, Virginia, as we are in the watershed. Anyone care to respond to Hooper's Island?
HORTONWell, was there a question about Hooper's Island?
NNAMDINot really. She just wants to know what about Hooper's Island?
HORTONWell, Hooper's Island, yeah, that's my old stomping grounds and kind of the other ground zero. It's in Dorchester County, which is the biggest county in Maryland, the lowest-lying. By 2100, it's going to be one of the smaller of Maryland's 23 counties, because it's going underwater. It's low. And after we made the film, we came across a woman down there. And I hate to say it, but she's not a typical -- she is trapped in her house, Kathy Blake. They put everything into that house after the last big storm. They can't sell it now. They need to get out.
HORTONThere are days she has to canoe her granddaughter to the school bus. She sits there with a tide up to the level of the living room, hoping that a passing truck doesn't create a wake that will slop into her living room. It's a mess, and there's no real program right now to help out people like her.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about flash flooding in the region. We'll talk with Linda Poon of CityLab, who has been covering this. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the effects of climate change in this region. We're talking today about sinking and flooding. Jacob Fenston, you've written about D.C. weather becoming warmer, wetter and wilder as the climate changes. We've seen all of these flash floods recently. What makes the Washington region especially vulnerable to flooding?
FENSTONWell, yeah. It goes back to sort of where the city is located, where it's built on these two rivers. And also the way the drainage system was built. So, there are three types of flooding that can happen here. Coastal flooding, even though we're not, you know, technically on the coast. When there's a big storm and it pushes water, you know, up onto the land, that comes up these tidal rivers up the Potomac, and can flood the city.
FENSTONThere's also riverine flooding. So, if it rains upstream somewhere in the Potomac watershed and the Anacostia watershed, you know, it could storm really hard upstream of us. And all that water comes down the river and floods the city. And there's interior flooding, which is, you know, it rains really hard here over a short period of time, and it overwhelms the storm sewers and the drainage system.
FENSTONSo, I think you were alluding to the morning in July last summer when it rained a month's worth of rain in about an hour. That's, you know, the sort of thing that we can expect to happen much more often with climate change. And, yeah, our sewer system just can't handle it, so it builds up and floods people who may be really far from a river or from a stream. And, all of a sudden, there's water filling the streets.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Linda Poon. She's a staff writer at CityLab, covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. Linda Poon, thank you for joining us.
LINDA POONThank you.
NNAMDIYou wrote for CityLab, quoting here, "100-year storms, like the kind that triggered the region's first ever flash flood emergency this past summer, are becoming the norm." Are they really 100-year storms if they're happening much more frequently?
POONYeah. So, there's a lot of debate within the academic community to sort of change that sort of wording, because if you're not an expert, you expect a 100-year storm to happen every 100 years, which is not true. A 100-year storm simply means a storm statistically that happens that has a 1-in-100 chance of happening in any given year. So, there is this effort to make the name more accurate.
POONAnd then, also, with the frequency of storms, that's sort of no longer true. So, D.C.'s own analysis has shown that a quote-unquote "100-year storm" will soon be a 1-in-25-year storm by 2050. And by 2080, it'll be a 1-in-15-year storm. So, there's a lot of need to emphasize the frequency of intense storms like that.
NNAMDIHow should policymakers be responding to the threat of increased flooding? Jacob Fenston, who suffers the most when D.C. floods? Which neighborhoods are most vulnerable?
FENSTONWell, thankfully, a lot of the -- you know, there's hills around the rivers, so there's not a ton of, you know, housing right along the rivers. A lot of it's park land, which can, you know, absorb flooding without a lot of damage. There are low-lying neighborhoods, though. In, you know, Old Town Alexandria, for example, there's neighborhoods along the Anacostia River like, you know, on the east side of the river that are close to the river that can flood from it.
FENSTONAnd then, you know, there are places where just the drainage doesn't work well. And, you know, there's places, like in Arlington, there was a lot of flooding last -- in this storm that I mentioned from July. So, you know, it's people all over the region. And, of course, you know, some of us has the means to sort of, you know, fix the basement when it floods. And other people, you know, it could be a real hardship. Or, you know, if you're renting a place and your landlord doesn't fix it, I think it, you know, obviously will have very disparate impacts on people.
NNAMDILinda, you write about smart cities and climate change for CityLab. What kinds of infrastructure improvements help a city adapt to heavier rainfall?
POONYeah, so, there's a couple things. There is a lot of effort to try to get more better data to understand flood risks and who's vulnerable. And there's sort of this desire to get better data in terms of predicting floods, right, because they're becoming more unpredictable. They're becoming more frequent. So, that's sort of the smart data side of it.
POONBut the other stuff really is not so much about technology. There are cities that are working on creating more green infrastructures, as Christy says. You know, if you build more parks, they can absorb the water and sort of slow down the runoff. There is a big need to update storm drainage systems. I think that's one of the biggest things we have. I think D.C.'s own drainage system, as Jacob said, are decades old, and they're going to take a lot of funding just to upgrade them. So, it's stuff like that.
POONThere's also this sort of socioeconomic component, right. So, there are certain neighborhoods, certain people who are more vulnerable to flooding. So, there's some efforts in cities to sort of identify who they are and help prepare them, because all these infrastructure improvements are going to take years to implement, and the next storm can come any day.
NNAMDIWe can't talk about flooding in this region without mentioning the 1,000-year storms that devastated Ellicott City, Maryland. Linda, can you tell us about the two rain events that struck the historic river town in 2016 and 2018?
POONYeah. So, this is where the wording really, really had an effect, had a consequence on the people. So, what happened was, in 2016, there was a, quote-unquote, "1,000-year storm," and that devastated Ellicott City. It basically sent a river of water rushing down Main Street in Ellicott, destroying buildings, killed two people. But there was this huge effort to rebuild after 2016, because everyone saw it as a freak storm. It wasn't going to come for another 1,000 years.
POONSo, when it happened again in 2018, people were blindsided. They were caught by surprise. They didn't really -- they were thrown into this sort of dilemma about whether to rebuild or retreat when, you know, the next storm can come any day. And a lot of these owners have poured their life savings into rebuilding. And now they're left with the same issue, two years later. So, there's this dilemma about, you know, when is it safe -- or when is retreating the only ethical thing to do?
NNAMDIWhat makes Ellicott City so susceptible to flooding, especially as the climate changes?
POONRight. So, there are a couple components. One is the more intense storm, which is affecting, you know, across the globe. And there's also the topography, right. So, if you look at the watershed that Ellicott City is in, Ellicott City sits at the bottom of a valley, where there are four river channels converging onto Main Street, and then emptying into the Patapsco River. So, when it rains really hard, all those river (word?) becomes overwhelmed. And so they basically jump out of the river and send water rushing down Main Street, which, in itself, is also a hill. The upper-end of Main Street is 140 feet higher than the lower end.
POONAnd then there's the development aspect, which is a topic of huge debate within Ellicott City. So, Ellicott City population sort of boomed really quickly. Like, between 1980 and 1990, it doubled from 22,000 to 40,000. And today, there's about 76,000 people in the Ellicott City area. So, of course, in and around Main Street Ellicott City, there's been a lot of housing developments to accommodate this sort of population boom.
POONAnd what happens is, when you build a housing development with very little storm drainage requirements, you get a lot of impervious service. You don't get -- you're not preparing the city -- this drainage system to, you know, be able to handle such an amount of water pouring in at once.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Jim, who says: Ellicott City's woes are largely due to overdevelopment uphill from the historic part of town combined with poorly designed, poorly implemented runoff control. All of that new, impermeable surface is funneled into two small creeks that converge in downtown historic Ellicott City. Chalk that up to an over-cozy relationship between developers and local government and said government's failure to implement and enforce appropriate zoning policies. Add to that extreme weather events and you have the mess we now see.
NNAMDILinda what are Ellicott City residents in general saying now, because after 2016, it looked like they were talking rebuilding, and then after 2018, maybe retreating. What are they saying now, rebuild or retreat?
POONSo, since the 2018 storm, much of Ellicott City -- Main Street Ellicott City has refilled. If you go there now you do see shops up and running. A lot of shops that are at the lower end have moved up. So, there is this, really, desire to keep the community fabric. It's been the case, every time Ellicott City floods, the town has rebuilt. And this is just a continuation of it. But there is also a $140 million plan in place to basically adapt Ellicott City to the kind of storms that they're going to face.
POONSo, you know, residents are mixed. There are some who can't -- they don't want to leave the city. But there are some who are really worried that, you know, lives are being put at risk. So, there's a lot of, you know, debates going on, but I think for the most part, I wouldn't say they're putting their faith in the county to, you know, put this flood mitigation plan in place, but because Ellicott City is such a local tourist attraction, they want to keep that character. But then there's the question of preservation. If you have to tear down buildings, is Ellicott City still the same? So, a lot of components there.
NNAMDIHere is Gary in Severna Park. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARYThank you. For a decade, I've tried to get an op-ed into one of the major papers where we simply ask for an endowment from, like, an Amazon or a Google or a Northrop- Grumman, with their engineers and money. Let's say they set aside $3 to $5 billion and complete an entire Chesapeake Bay restoration in our lifetimes. Because I'm 65, I'd like to see it come back to what it was 50 years ago. I think a lot of people would.
GARYAnd I think the money's there from these enormous tech companies, that they could set it aside and help us achieve it, and in the process build, another large company that restores wetlands around the world.
NNAMDIWe have an advisor to the major tech companies (laugh) here.
FENSTONI hope Jeff Bezos is in the city today and listening to the radio, because -- and get some ideas.
NNAMDIIndeed, yeah. Here now is Saeed, in Gaithersburg. Saeed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAEEDHi. I just wanted to point out, I'm originally a Pakistani American. And we were talking about trees earlier in the call. And I wanted to point out kind of a case study that was actually done in Pakistan, where the current prime minister -- but, in the past, wasn't a prime minister -- had taken on an ambitious project of planting over a billion trees and, you know, what effect that had on the environment.
SAEEDAnd the project went into effect in 2013, and the country actually achieved its goal of planting a billion in that province within less than five years simply because, you know, government and policyholders kind of took it upon themselves to lead the charge. And it had a profound impact on, you know, flooding, which was a pretty rampant problem in those areas, which are also hilly.
NNAMDIOkay, we're running out of time very quickly. Do you have a question associated with that?
SAEEDSo, the question is, from a bipartisan point of view, how can we get, you know, both sides of the aisle to kind of take on projects like this, you know, to do some...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Christy Everett, we only have about 30 seconds left. I'll ask you to respond.
EVERETTSure. So, call your delegate and senator. They're in General Assembly session right now. There are a lot of bipartisan measures in place to restore the Bay, to mitigate climate change. And now is the time. These decisions are being made as we speak, and so just let them know you care about water quality. You care about stopping climate change. And go to our website, CBF.org, for more info on the bills. But now is the time to raise our voice and let them know we care.
NNAMDIChristy Everett directs the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Hampton Roads office in Virginia Beach. Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab, covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. Tom Horton is an environmental writer and author of several books, including "Bay Country" and "An Island Out of Time." He teaches at Salisbury University. And Jacob Fenston is WAMU's environment reporter. Thank you all for joining us.
NNAMDIToday's conversation about rising waters in the Washington region was produced by Julie Depenbrock. It's the third of our five-part series on how climate change is affecting the Washington region. Tune in next Tuesday, when we look at the local legacy of Rachel Carson and her similar work, "Silent Spring." Mark your calendars for the next Kojo in Your Community conversation. We'll talk about changing immigration rules and their impact on local students and families. It's on February 25th at the Columbia Heights educational campus. Learn how to get tickets and more at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIAnd join us tomorrow, when we talk with Diane Rehm about her new book and how families can talk about a tough topic, death. And we'll also discuss right-to-die bills under consideration in both Maryland and Virginia. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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