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Nature-Based Flood Resiliency Can Safeguard West Virginia’s Future

Nearly all states have disaster recovery plans, and these typically include flood disaster recovery. Recovery is a different concept than resiliency, which is designed to harden communities and infrastructure against future harm. West Virginia has an official Flood Resiliency Plan and is about to get a new, updated version by the end of June 2024.

Senate Bill 677 directs the creation of this updated plan. That law was enacted in 2023. One of the findings in SB 677 was that “between January 2010 and December 2021, West Virginia has been impacted by more than 1,600 separate flood events.” A resiliency plan recognizes the obvious – we are going to have future floods. And because of our warming atmosphere these floods will become more frequent and destructive.

Flooding occurs in West Virginia when rainfall is so heavy in a short period that the natural and manmade channels for it to clear are overwhelmed. The water then just spreads unchecked into floodplain areas, which contains housing and critical infrastructure. One natural way to handle intense rainfall – soil absorption – is hampered by our built environment. Buildings, parking lots, roads and other impermeable manmade structures eliminate huge areas where water could simply disappear into the ground.

SB 677 further directs that priority be given to nature-based solutions to flood resiliency. These are defined as “sustainable planning, design, environmental management, and engineering practices that weave natural features or processes into the built environment to promote flood resiliency and preserve or enhance natural hydraulic function.”

Berkeley County Judicial Complex rain garden

Nature-based solutions include permeable paving blocks and concrete, naturalized swales in runoff areas, rainwater harvesting in cisterns and rain barrels and rain gardens. For example, the Berkeley County Judicial complex has incorporated a rain garden to capture runoff in a low area beside a large parking lot.  Longer term planning for nature-based solutions would include green roofs on state and local government buildings.

Any revisions to the built environment will cost money so there needs to be state-wide strategy for funding resiliency projects. SB 677 created a Flood Resiliency Trust Fund and authorized the State Resiliency Officer to make distributions. The rules for distribution are that:

  • Distributions must be used solely for the purposes of enhancing flood prevention and protection;
  • Distributions must be prioritized to benefit low-income geographic areas, and not less than 50% must be disbursed for the benefit of these areas; and
  • Distributions must be prioritized toward the implementation of nature-based solutions, and not less than 50% of all funds distributed from the Fund must be used for these solutions.

All this sounds great, but as of June 2024 the Legislature has failed to allocate any money for the Flood Resiliency Trust Fund, even though Governor Justice’s 2024 budget called for a deposit of $50 million.

What are our West Virginia Delegates and Senators thinking? Is it going to take more flood disasters, more damage and more deaths before this issue gets on their radar screen?