Flood Fund’s future uncertain as Youngkin pushes for carbon market exit

In January, high winds resulted in high tides drowning parts of Hampton. Some roads were impassable, with water levels reaching near the top tread tires. Nearly two years earlier, stormwater had caused flooding severe enough

In January, high winds resulted in high tides drowning parts of Hampton. Some roads were impassable, with water levels reaching near the top tread tires. Nearly two years earlier, stormwater had caused flooding severe enough to sweep cars parked on the roads.

With climate change raising sea levels and altering rainfall patterns, Hampton will certainly continue to be impacted by flooding. What is less certain is where he will get funds to fight it.

Over the past two years, Virginia has raised more than $200 million for flood protection through the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But the future of this fundraising pool is uncertain as Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has made it clear he wants to leave the initiative.

Governor Glenn Youngkin. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“RGGI is a bad deal for Virginia,” Travis Voyles, acting secretary of natural and historic resources, said when he describe the administration’s plans to remove Virginia from RGGI late last month.

RGGI is the 11-state cap and invest program in which energy producers must purchase allowances at auction for the carbon they emit, and a cap is placed on overall carbon emissions.

Proceeds from these auctions are donated to the state. In Virginia, half is for energy efficiency programs for low-income peoplewhile 45% goes to the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, a pool of money that provides relief to communities and local governments in the event of a flood.

Including the last quota sale on Sept. 7, Virginia received some $452 million from RGGI, which means $203 million will go towards flood resilience efforts.

Local flood protection

Whether flooding occurs on Virginia’s coast from rising sea levels or in its inland areas from increased rainfall, the impacts are real, said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch. , a Norfolk-based non-profit organization that works on adaptation to sea level rise, floodplain management and other impacts on waterways.

Before Virginia joined the RGGI in 2020 — a Democratic priority during the party’s brief time in office — flood protection was left to local and regional planning bodies, with no central pool of funds that governments could draw from. Since joining the state, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which administers the Flood Fund, began paying out grants from revenues.

“Before Virginia joined RGGI, there were NO state dollars for these resilience efforts,” Stiles said in an email.

Any state spending on these efforts through the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, Virginia Sea Grant or Virginia Department of Emergency Management used money from federal agencies, he said.

“We have to assume that if we leave RGGI, we will revert to that low priority status for this work,” Stiles said.

The Flood Fund has proven “absolutely helpful” in tackling climate change issues, particularly stormwater issues and rising sea levels, said Carolyn Heaps-Pecaro, head of the resilience of the City of Hampton.

“We have a lot of projects going on,” she said. “We have a lot of ideas on how to fix the city. We need this money to make it a reality.

Hampton was the greatest recipient of the second round of grants announced in December from the proceeds, receiving about a third of the $24.5 million disbursed by the Flood Fund. Funded projects included plans to raise a roadway, improve drainage channels and reduce nutrient pollution.

Millions in local funding are needed to complete the projects, but state funds help cover the design and engineering costs to get them started, Heaps-Pecaro said.

“Many of these projects probably wouldn’t have progressed as quickly as they did if we hadn’t received the grant,” she said.

Dollars from the Flood Fund also go to projects outside coastal areas. In the first round of grants, announced in October 2021, $400,000 was awarded to Buchanan County.

An underpass in Big Rock, Buchanan County, Aug. 31, 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

The southwestern Virginia locality had been hit by devastating flooding the day before August. The region has also suffered severe flooding in July and, according to a Thursday morning update from the National Hurricane Center and the Central Pacific Hurricane Center, may be in the path of Hurricane Ian.

Buchanan’s funding is intended to go towards a technical analysis that would lead to a local flood resilience plan and the training of a staff member to become a certified floodplain manager.

A quarter of Flood Fund dollars must go to low-income communities, a designation Buchanan qualifies for, with a median income that in 2019 was less than half the state average.

“Buchanan County and our neighbors in southwest Virginia have experienced devastating recurring flooding that has increased in recent years,” the county said. application declared. “Flooding is often seen as a coastal issue, but we are happy to see that DCR is looking to direct some of this fund to mountainous and disadvantaged communities like ours.”

An uncertain future

Although Youngkin has been adamant that he thinks Virginia should opt out of the RGGI, the administration’s plans for how the state will help local governments pay the huge costs of flood protection are less clear.

Youngkin has argued for months that RGGI proceeds are generated by an unfair “tax” on electric utility ratepayers. Virginia utilities, which are responsible for about three-quarters of carbon emissions subject to RGGI, are allowed to pass on the cost of purchasing allowances to their customers, an approach Youngkin says is flawed.

“RGGI was sold to Commonwealth residents under a deal that returned ‘proceeds’ to taxpayers to offset program costs, but that’s not what’s happening,” a statement from the office said. from Governor to Mercury. “We can provide flood resilience funding seamlessly without using an RGGI levy on Virginians.”

Youngkin’s office said the administration intends to develop a plan to provide direct funding for flood resilience with the General Assembly. That would require the buy-in of Senate Democrats.

But when pressed for details of the plan, such as whether it will be worked out through legislation or through the budget process, which can involve fluctuating revenues and regular competition between different interests competing for a slice of the pie, the governor’s office did not clarify beyond saying it “will provide direct funding and coordination for flood resilience.”

“We can do this in a transparent way and not as a hidden tax that has been twisted to Virginians,” the governor’s office said. “This will ensure that we have a comprehensive, long-term strategy to support flood resilience efforts in Virginia.”

Millions of dollars remain uncommitted

Although the future of the Flood Fund remains uncertain, millions of dollars remain on its books.

Prior to leaving office, Governor Ralph Northam’s administration awarded two rounds of grants in the last three months of 2021 for $32.3 million.

A third round of $13.6 million was announced Wednesday, nine months into Youngkin’s tenure.

Oversight of the Flood Fund will remain with the executive

Round 3 was originally announced to award $40 million, but with requests asking for nearly $93 million, DCR said it was cleared to release an additional $30 million. The agency is allowing 32 applicants to revise and resubmit their proposals and expects to make a decision on them by the end of the year.

If the DCR awards all of the $70 million it was authorized to award in the third round, Virginia will have spent about 50% of its Flood Fund revenue to date, with just over $100 million dollars remaining to be designated.

A DCR spokesperson said plans for this unused funding include “future rounds of grants as well as lending opportunities in the future.” A fourth application round is expected to open in early 2023, along with the first round of the new Virginia Resilient Revolving Loan Fundwhich will provide loans or grants for resilience not only to local governments, but also to residents.

Increase in climate impacts

Stiles pointed to data from Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University’s Northeast Regional Climate Center and the RAND Corporation showing precipitation intensity has increased by an average of 18% since 2006.

Increased rainfall in the state has been documented for yearsand the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan predicts that between 2020 and 2080, the number of people living in homes exposed to major coastal flooding will increase from about 360,000 to 943,000, an increase of 160%. The report also revealed that more residential, public and commercial buildings will be exposed to extreme coastal flooding, while annualized flood damage will rise from $0.4 billion to $5.1 billion.

Additionally, a recent study by Climate Central found that rising water levels on land reduce the number of properties that local governments can tax.

“Climate change is not going away,” Heaps-Pecaro said. “We must accelerate” the fight against it.

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