GREENVILLE — With flooding, storms and rising sea levels likely to bring serious changes to North Carolina, experts and elected leaders gathered in Greenville Wednesday to discuss what government and business can do to make those changes less severe.
The first, day-long Water Adaptation to Ensure Regional Success Summit was hosted by U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C. Joining Murphy were U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., called in via web conference.
East Carolina University’s Reide Corbett, dean of the Coastal Studies Institute, was among two dozen experts who gave presentations on the coastal plain’s water-related challenges. Corbett discussed variations in sea level over the past 150,000 years.
“We have had major fluctuations in our coastline with time,” Corbett said. “Sea level change is not a new concept on a geologic scale. Remember, 20,000 years ago, we had not quite developed our coastal plains to the extent we have today.”
However, Corbett warned that the rates of sea level rise now are much steeper than in the past, citing melting ice as a major contributor. He noted that sea levels in Duck have risen about two millimeters a year, and in Wilmington, that number is just under five millimeters.
“The rates we are seeing today are unprecedented in the last several thousand years,” Corbett said. “What we expect to happen is the sea level to continue to rise, and the rate of that rise to increase. Today, it is about 3.7 millimeters per year globally. We expect that rate to be higher in the future, which leads to some of these projections as high as 1.2 meters, just shy of four feet.”
Greg Williams of the Army Corps of Engineers said his agency is constantly adapting to climate change. Other academics at the WATERS conference addressed dangers brought about by storms and toxic algae blooms.
“Science can be difficult to swallow,” said Murphy, a physician from Greenville. He likened it to telling his patients they need to quit smoking, saying they don’t all believe smoking will affect them — until it does.
Laura Moore from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and director of the Coastal Environmental Change Lab, also said the face of coastal areas will shift in the coming years. She said officials need to be thinking of ways to adapt infrastructure to accommodate the changes.
“There is no panacea,” Moore said. “If we are willing to be creative and admit that living on the coast in the future will look a lot different than now, I believe we can do it.”
Moore applauded Executive Order 80, Gov. Roy Cooper’s directive in October 2018 to address climate change and transition to a clean energy economy.
Speakers from the private sector focused on solutions. Melissa Roberts, executive director for the American Flood Coalition, said lawmakers and others’ focus should be on sea level rise and flooding risk, protecting local and regional assets and making projects shovel ready. She emphasized fixes need to be spread among communities of all sizes, with leaders seeking collaboration and funding at all levels of government.
“Water does not care about partisanship,” Roberts said. “It does not care about our district lines.”
Roberts said that urban parks can help provide sustainable flood prevention. She also mentioned multi-cropping farms, which can increase income, soil quality and reduce flooding by 40-60 percent. The practice has been used in Florida with some success, she said.
“The scale of the challenge is immense, but not beyond our ability to innovate,” Roberts said. “These solutions will look different from community to community.”
Dave Canaan, Mecklenburg County stormwater services director, said 25 years of fighting floodwaters in the Charlotte area has yielded some harsh truths. In the ‘90s, rapid urbanization led to extensive flash flooding. Now thanks to regulation, construction has been reduced in floodplains, and the county uses technology to better predict possible damage and set goals.
Adding international perspective were Saskia Pardaans and Matthijs Bouw of The Netherlands. Living in a country where 60 percent of the population lives below sea level, the Dutch have provided advice in the past on U.S. flood-prevention projects in Houston, Charleston and New Orleans. Bouw said the time to act on ideas is now.
“We go into a period of great uncertainty and possible accelerated change,” Bouw said. “It is very early and I compliment the congressman (Murphy) for putting this together.”
Wednesday’s conference included two breakout panels, one facilitated by Murphy and the other by Rouzer. Butterfield could not participate because of important votes in Washington, D.C.
Murphy questioned if funding is being allocated in the right place. Both Tim Beard, state conservationist, and John Nicholson, chief deputy secretary for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said there are no state funds budgeted for flooding problems.
“Zero percent of my budget,” Beard said. “If we have a flooding event we have to go to Washington, D.C., and then they come to you all and say ‘we need money for this in North Carolina.’ My budget does not apply to any flooding events.”
Nicholson said that DEQ receives funding for disaster in the aftermath of flooding events. “When a disaster occurs, we will get our cut and then go execute on it,” he said.
Murphy mentioned that Greenville is receiving $24 million in federal funding. He said the money would be better spent on dredging and other practices to prevent flooding.
Rouzer’s panel included George Howard of Restoration Systems, Andrea Hawkes of UNC-Wilmington, Tim Baumgartner and Jay Faison of the American Flood Coalition. A key point of their discussion involved communication and education about major policy decisions.
“I would like to work with folks like (Rouzer) and Rep. Murphy to see, does it make sense to start aspiring to a 500-year standard,” Faison said, referring to flooding. “If we can agree on where we are going, then all of the sudden there is clarity from where started and where we are going to evaluate all of these other good ideas in between.”
Murphy promised to host more forums like the WATERS conference in the future.
“If it ends here, we have wasted the whole day,” Murphy said. “It cannot end here.”
A full stream of the event can be seen at Waterwaychallenge.house.gov.