Contaminated water, land erosion, climate refugees: Historic Triangle, Tidewater regions could feel the secondary effects of coastal sea level rises

·11 min read

As land erosion and sea level rise continue to take a toll on America’s first settlements, underwater archaeologists have worked diligently in the past two decades to preserve artifacts left at the bottom of the James River — and it isn’t getting any easier.

With climate change at the forefront of discussions, climate scientists warned nearly a decade ago that Historic Jamestowne will be completely underwater by the end of the century if not addressed. With increased flooding each year, it is becoming a growing reality, and it’s just one part of how flooding and sea level rise will change the landscape.

For many living around Hampton Roads, the threat of sea level rise has become a constant fixture in their lives — a local mark of the global issue of climate change.

While areas of Hampton Roads such as Norfolk and Hampton have felt the direct effects of sea level rise, the Historic Triangle and Tidewater regions are feeling the secondary effects.

As organizations, scientists and lawmakers work to address the issue, the region could face growing problems.

From increased flooding to contaminated waterways to farther-reaching storm surges, scientists across the state have been tracking local flooding and using the information to research the long-term effects of sea level rise.

According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, a Norfolk tide station recorded that water levels had increased by 10 inches in the past 45 years. In Hampton Roads, the water levels have increased by 12 inches in the past 80 years between 1932 and 2012.

Scientists and organizations across the state anticipate water levels will continue to increase if action isn’t taken.

“A huge amount of roadways, homes, businesses, agricultural tourism and vendors that will be affected by (sea level rise) is astronomical,” Chesapeake Climate Action Network representative Lauren Landis said. “The effects of sea level rise cannot be overstated. It’s going to be catastrophic, truly.”

Secondary effects

The woes of repeated flooding in Hampton Roads are well documented. While the Historic Triangle and Tidewater regions do not have the same drastic floods for a number of reasons, there are still long-term secondary effects to prepare for now and in the years to come.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an organization focused on educating legislators and the public about climate change and its effects, has spent nearly 30 years researching these secondary effects.

According to Landis, if actions aren’t taken quickly, the Peninsula will inevitably see contaminated drinking water, land erosion, threats to wildlife and increases in population size as refugees move inward to escape the effects of climate.

“The level of risks are different and it’s important to recognize the different effects by different localities,” Landis said. “These regions, which include Hampton Roads, Williamsburg, James City County and West Point are so intertwined in terms of economy, that it’s not a good idea to separate them too much.”

Effects on drinking water, rivers

A 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of the Interior, in partnership with Newport News and authored by two USGS scientists and VIMS professor Jian Shen, modeled the effects of sea level rise on the York and Chickahominy rivers’ salinity, taking into account the tides, tidal currents and salinity of the Chesapeake Bay.

In its findings, the team found on average the rivers’ salinity count would increase in each of the scenarios they modeled for rising sea levels, because as sea levels rose it would, in turn, move saltwater into the Chesapeake Bay and then farther into the rivers.

That salinity level is “of particular importance to drinking water utilities” if it migrates far enough upstream to affect the water supply.

“We are at the very top of the list for this risk,” Landis said. “There is a big decrease in drinking water aquifers because the clean water is being literally geographically undermined by brackish seawater that is coming in underneath.”

Virginia Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, has spent his career fighting for climate change reform, helping pass bills such as the Clean Economy Act, which will see the state move from coal-fired power to renewable energy by 2050. According to Mason, climate change issues are multifaceted and often affect one another.

According to Mason, sea level rise will have a great effect on the state if it is not addressed. In particular, localities will need to address the effects of sea level rise infringing on the water supply now rather than later, for environmental and economic reasons.

“There are counties looking at long-range water supply,” Mason said. “It’ll be an enormous cost to build a possible desalination plant on the Chickahominy.”

James City County has already begun developing a mitigation plan to help address the potential threat of contaminated drinking water, according to the county’s administrative general manager, Doug Powell.

“I think our issue is the possibility of saltwater intrusion in the water supply,” Powell said. “Our largest water supply right now comes from the Five Forks Water Treatment Plant and that is a desalination plant … so, we do deal with it, but we have the technology in place to address it.”

According to Landis, while sea level rise will have a direct effect on drinking water, it will also impact ecotourism and wildlife.

Between the historic sites, outdoor venues and the natural scenery, Williamsburg relies heavily on tourism each year as visitors pour into the city every week.

With numerous boat tours, water-based activities and scenic walks, ecotourism has become increasingly popular. But, as the city feels the secondary effects of sea level rise, the city’s revenue could take a hit.

“Things like tourism will decline because the water quality will no longer be safe. You won’t be able to eat things that come out of it, you won’t be able to swim in it, which will be a huge detriment,” Landis said.

According to VIMS scientist Derek Loftis, leader of the StormSense project modeling floods and other effects from storm surges, salinity moving further inland will also affect wetlands, changing them “faster than plants can adapt.” And as plants die, the roots that help prevent erosion will go with them, in turn worsening floods over time.

Effects of sea level rise, land erosion

According to the National Weather Service, the Wakefield region, which encompasses the Tidewater and greater Williamsburg areas, saw the highest recorded numbers for precipitation in the past few years. As more rainfall collects, there is more water left standing.

West Point is feeling the effects as its Sunny Slope Cemetery has seen standing water cover grave markers and pathways leading to headstones. In January and February alone, the town saw roughly 6 to 10 inches of rain.

According to Town Manager John Edwards, the issue has become more pressing throughout the years.

“With the unprecedented rainfall amounts we have received in January and February, as you have likely seen, there is water standing all over town in areas that don’t typically hold water. The cemetery is one of those places,” Edwards said.

As flooding increases in the region as a result of sea level rise, erosion and land subsidence — the gradual sinking or sudden settling of surface land as earth under the surface shifts — has also become a topic of concern for many localities in the region.

“West Point has a higher rate of subsidence than much of the rest of the coastal plain of Virginia,” Loftis said. According to a USGS study from 2013, that subsidence is in part caused by water pumped from the aquifer system. As the land resettles faster in West Point, the flooding in that area will increase faster over time than it will in the rest of the state, even though flooding there might be less extreme right now.

For State Delegate and West Point native Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, the effect of land erosion and subsidence in the region has driven his legislation.

“Water goes everywhere. It doesn’t discriminate whether you are rural, suburban or urban. We have opted to look at it as an asset, not a liability,” Hodges said in a 2019 House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “In reality, a great deal of those areas are people’s yards. It’s where people’s lives are. Where they grill out. It’s their homes. Their sense of place.”

According to Hodges, if the effects of stormwater and land subsidence are not addressed, West Point residents will see a decrease in property values and their homes continue to subside into marshland.

Flooding can be caused by either land subsidence or by long periods of precipitation, as rain or snow causes the water table to rise and prevents the ground from absorbing any more water. Both of these issues are in turn made worse by sea level rise — as land shifts and sinks away, water moves inland more easily, and as more water moves inland, it becomes harder for the land to take on rainfall.

The flooding in West Point, mostly due to land subsidence, is distinct from the flooding in James City County and Williamsburg, which is more often caused by long periods of precipitation. As high levels of precipitation cause the water table to rise, the region is less prepared for storm surges when they occur. The precipitation simply prevents the ground from absorbing any more water.

Right now, the difference in flooding from year to year is in millimeters in each region, regardless of cause. But subsidence and storm surges play into each other to worsen flooding over time. The other problem is that climate change also makes an already complicated-to-predict system harder to predict, according to VIMS scientist Molly Mitchell.

“There aren’t really good long-term forecasts for how precipitation will play out across the landscape,” said Mitchell, whose research focuses on sea-level change. That makes it difficult to forecast precipitation and resulting flood changes over time.

“We’re getting better at predicting days in advance,” but precipitation changes decades in advance is still difficult, in the same way that we still can’t predict the number of hurricanes in a year at the beginning of the season.

Even so, keeping all the causes of flooding due to sea level rise in mind, “to consider it as a holistic system,” is important, Mitchell said. Otherwise, the solutions put in place to respond to one part — like a dam to stop flooding from rivers — can worsen the effects of another, like precipitation.

There are actions being taken to help mitigate the problem. In previous years, localities built concrete infrastructure to help keep floods from reaching homes. But, over time, the structures have weakened. Now, across the region and state, scientists are developing green infrastructure to help create long-lasting improvements.

This includes introducing certain plant species that have a natural root structure that will help keep the water at bay. Additionally, it will improve water quality, Landis said.

Effects on population

In the weeks and months following a natural disaster, the country watches as thousands are displaced and relocated after homes are destroyed by high winds, storm surges and flooding. The people displaced by extreme weather conditions are referred to as climate refugees.

As sea levels continue to rise in Hampton Roads and the surrounding areas, Landis predicts inland communities will have an increase in climate refugees as a result of coastal flooding.

With drastic increases in populations, the region will need to plan to meet the growing developmental and economic needs.

“The term climate refugees is really going to need to become a very familiar term,” Landis said. “Somebody who is living under the flood line is going to move as close as possible to friends and family which will equate to localities needing more schools, more transportation, more infrastructure.”

In King William, the county has plans in motion to address the problem if it arises, which includes ensuring enough power generators and enough water supply.

“Climate change is always in the back of our minds,” the county’s former director of operations and current county administrator Steve Hudgins said. “We have to make sure that we’ve got enough backup power generators, and having the right sizing for our water storage tank and making sure that it’s going to be enough in case of emergency situations.”

While several climate scientists predict there will be an influx in populations as a result of climate change, Landis said there is still time to help address the problems and mitigate the plans.

Through education, many of the primary and secondary effects associated with sea level rise could be mitigated if people begin to plan for the future, Landis added.

“One of the important things is for people to be active. In some ways this is a relatively slow process,” Mitchell said. Scientists know what is likely to happen in the coming decades, and there’s time to plan. By letting local officials know that it’s an issue that matters to their constituents, “I think we can actually be really well prepared 30 years from now.”

Em Holter, emily.holter@virginiamedia.com, 757-256-6657, @EmHolterNews; Maggie More, mmore@virginiamedia.com