On Tuesday, a legislative oversight committee heard from officials from North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) and AECOM on a plan to identify areas prone to flooding and ways to mitigate it.
NCDEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser, Todd Kennedy, Flood Resiliency Blueprint project manager, NCDEQ, John Dorman, vice president, Emergency and Risk Management, AECOM, and Dave Canaan, Senior Program Manager, AECOM, testified before the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery on creating the North Carolina Flood Resiliency Blueprint.
Catastrophic flooding from hurricanes like Florence and Matthew and Tropical Storm Fred led the North Carolina General Assembly in 2021 to pass legislation appropriating $20 million to NCDEQ to develop a statewide flood resiliency blueprint to study river basins prone to flooding and create a decision tool for flood mitigation investments and strategies from local watersheds to river basins.
The Blueprint is supposed to assess flood risk, identify data gaps, and offer recommendations to reduce flood risk for each target watershed. As part of the Blueprint, an online tool is being developed to guide decisions and strategies that reduce the likelihood and impact of flooding.
“Two years later, this committee wants to know where we are in that process and what progress DEQ made on this mandate,” said John Bell, R-Wayne, House majority leader and co-chair. “How has the department spent the $20 million? What are problems and data gaps that have been identified?”
He also said the committee wants to understand any regulatory hurdles that DEQ faces that the GA might be able to help with in the upcoming short session.
Biser said that North Carolina is no stranger to flooding, with weather events like hurricanes and tropical storms, but things are getting worse with more frequent and intense storms causing flooding in communities without such major events.
She also said the state’s growing population and record economic development bring more roads, buildings, and infrastructure, increasing the flood risk and putting more residents at risk.
The Blueprint, the first of its kind in the country, according to Biser, will take existing resources and knowledge from communities across the state, like Mecklenburg County, which has had a flood resiliency program since 1998, and combine it with information gathered by talking with those in the public sector, like North Carolina Farm Bureau and those in the private sector. She stressed that those talks will be ongoing throughout the future.
“The blueprint is designed to unify all of the existing resources and knowledge that we have onto one platform to help decision-makers at all levels make better policy and funding decisions,” she said. “It will serve as a one-stop shop that provides a comprehensive approach to flood resiliency across the state by creating a standardized methodology for flood planning, an online decision support tool, and river basin-specific strategies to address flooding for communities in North Carolina.”
Biser said it would especially be important for ways to come up with different strategies for flooding that occurs in the mountains versus coastal flooding.
A key tool that NCDEQ will be using is something called 2D Modeling, which uses both hydrologic and hydraulic modeling and goes beyond traditional modeling used by FEMA, which only used analysis from past events from river-based flooding. 2D modeling will allow for looking at future conditions for not only river flooding, but also for flooding caused by heavy precipitation events.
NCDEQ broke down the $20 million into three phases:
- Phase 1 – $1.9 million – Develop draft blueprint – January-December 2023.
- Phase 2 – $4.08 million – Develop flood resiliency blueprint tool – November-2023-November 2024
- Phase 3 – $14.02 million – Apply to targeted basins statewide – April-December 2024.
Biser said they will start with the Neuse River Basin, quickly implementing a list of projects as they expand to the Cape Fear, Tar-Pamlico, White Oak, Lumber, and French Broad River basins over the next year.
“We’re building this plane as we fly it,” Biser told the committee. “So, in order to get these projects started as efficiently as possible, we are working in parallel on a process to begin funding the highest priority projects while refining our methodology to continue prioritizing additional projects.”
She said they are working on a “one-stop shop” for all federal and state funding opportunities, which will be listed online for communities to utilize.
“In order to achieve the objectives that you set forward in a timely manner, what do you need from us?” asked Bell.
Biser replied that contracting flexibility would be important to deploy projects as quickly as possible.
When asked by Rep. Mark Pless, R-Haywood, if funding would be needed on a recurring basis, Biser replied yes, with a recommendation of refreshing the Blueprint on a five-year cycle rolling basis for each river basin. Otherwise, she said, if it was done only once without maintenance, it would be a waste of funding.
Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, asked how many people were working on the project. Biser replied that in addition to Todd Kennedy, who serves as the Blueprint project manager, there are six time-limited positions that opened up on Jan. 1, of which they are currently hiring for and maybe some others, but she doesn’t envision the group growing much larger in the future.
“I think the $20 million was a great start to support implementing the vision that has come from the General Assembly, said Dave Canaan from AECOM. “I believe that the future expansion and how it’s going to work is going to be highly dependent on the implementation of the 28 recommendations that are contained in the blueprint.”
Bell concluded the hearing by saying that everyone involved has a tremendous opportunity in front of them.
“Not just an opportunity to help protect lives and property and to be able to gauge how we navigate the flooding, but an opportunity to show the rest of the country that we can get it right and be a model for them to use for their states,” he said.
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