Norfolk OKs $2.6 billion federal floodwall agreement – with new funding and equity stipulations
After several delays and last-minute add-ons to allay concerns, Norfolk leaders have decided to move forward with a federal agreement that includes building a floodwall.
City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night in favor of the massive plan, dubbed Resilient Norfolk.
It’s a $2.6 billion suite of projects to protect the city from flooding from major storms in the face of climate change.
Council’s decision allows the city to sign a Project Partnership Agreement with the Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
That unlocks $400 million awarded under the 2021 federal infrastructure law and can move the project into the construction phase, according to Norfolk chief resilience officer Kyle Spencer.
But the agreement comes with new commitments to address qualms about leaving out certain marginalized communities, as well as the project's hefty price tag.
It follows more than a month of back-and-forth between community activists and local, state and federal officials.
The project would build a series of flood protection structures over the next decade in five phases, starting with the floodwall.
Alternating with a series of levees and nature-based elements, the wall would wrap around the waterfront on the Elizabeth River from the Campostella Bridge area to Lambert’s Point, including Ghent, Freemason and downtown.
Residents of historically Black neighborhoods on the city’s southside across the river, including Berkley and Campostella Heights, raised concerns in recent months after learning that the floodwall project would largely exclude their communities.
“We were told some basements would be filled with concrete and some homes would be elevated on stilts,” Sharon Hendrick, president of the Campostella Civic League previously told WHRO. “And that wasn’t sufficient enough for us.”
Dozens of residents showed up to city meetings, urging officials to follow the principles of EJ40, an environmental justice initiative under President Joe Biden.
Council’s approval now includes a resolution to address those concerns, which stem from the potentially discriminatory way that the U.S. Army Corps evaluates environmental projects using a cost-benefit analysis.
The Norfolk District of the Army Corps agreed to ask federal headquarters to change its calculations in order to possibly include flood protection structures in the southern part of the city along Pescara and Spotico creeks.
Congress would then have to approve the changes and update the Water Resources and Development Act in 2024, according to district spokesperson Mark Haviland, who called such a change “unprecedented.”
The federal government plans to pay for 65% of the total project cost, leaving Norfolk on the hook for the rest, just over $931 million.
Those looming costs led the city to add another resolution this week, stating they plan to get the state of Virginia on board to pay for at least half of the city’s share.
Norfolk’s already received $25 million for the floodwall from the state so far through a flood preparedness grant program funded by Virginia’s proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
“Though the protections to be provided to the residents of Norfolk by the CSRM Project are worthy of investment, the funding obligations of the City of Norfolk under the Project Partnership Agreement are daunting and will present challenges throughout the construction,” city staff wrote in the resolution, using the Army Corps' name for the project, Coastal Storm Risk Management, or CSRM.
The document also ensures that if the city can’t come up with the money, the Army Corps won’t consider the funding shortfall a breach of the agreement.
At Tuesday’s meeting, several local environmental advocates also spoke about their ongoing concerns with the project as currently proposed.
They argue the city has not done enough water quality analysis and needs to outline how it will address major issues that are not part of Resilient Norfolk, such as tidal flooding from sea level rise, and make that clear to citizens.
Skip Stiles of the nonprofit Wetlands Watch said Norfolk’s own cost estimates from almost a decade ago recommended the city spend $60 million per year for the rest of the century just to address stormwater needs.
“So the total costs I think are something that we need to be looking at as well,” Stiles told council members.
He also noted the government’s sea level rise projections for the floodwall project come out a foot below the projections currently used by the city of Norfolk.
One of the city’s new resolutions passed by the council hints at these concerns.
“While the CSRM Project will be designed primarily to combat storm surge, the City will work with USACE to ensure best practices are followed to protect the bay, rivers, and coastal lands," it reads.