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North Carolina Is Spending Millions on a Flood Blueprint

The state’s Flood Resiliency Blueprint will be an online tool that compiles research and data about flooding in North Carolina in one place. This can be used to inform future plans.

When local officials are deciding whether to tear down flood-prone houses, clear a stream of debris or build a living shoreline to protect against rising waters, they want to be able to describe the project’s benefits.

That’s what a new tool being developed by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, in concert with the consulting firm AECOM, will be able to do. Officials will be able to home in on the area where the project is proposed and see exactly how many people, homes, roads and community assets the project will protect.

DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser, project manager Todd Kennedy and AECOM officials gave the N.C. General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery an update Tuesday on where the project stands. Here are the key takeaways.

What’s a Flood Blueprint and Why Does NC Need One?

The N.C. Flood Resiliency Blueprint is meant to bring all of the research and data available about flooding in North Carolina to one place and use it to develop a framework that can guide future adaptation and mitigation efforts.

DEQ will use that information to build an online tool that anyone can use to understand the impacts of a proposed project based on the full gamut of existing knowledge.

“To make sure we know what the projects with the best return on investment are, we are developing a standardized methodology to analyze flood risk and prioritize flood mitigation strategies across the state. We are ensuring that decision makers at all levels will be able to identify and select which strategies are most impactful where they are,” Biser said.

DEQ is developing the blueprint along with six river basin-specific action strategies, starting with the Neuse River basin.

“The ultimate judge of success of what we’re doing here is not developing a pretty tool. It’s having something that’s helping us make decisions that actually affect our residents and how their experiences are going to be helped,” Biser told the committee.

One key, Biser said, is using two-dimensional modeling that allows planners to evaluate the impacts of flooding from rivers and flooding from heavy rain events. The N.C. Climate Science Report found that extreme precipitation is likely to become both more frequent and more intense as the climate warms.

How Much Will It Cost?

In its 2021 budget, the General Assembly allocated $20 million for the blueprint and for prioritized lists of projects for six river basins. Those project lists will start with the Neuse River basin, which will serve as a pilot for the rest of the state.

DEQ has spent $1.9 million developing the draft blueprint and working on the Neuse basin plan. The department has committed to spend an additional $4 million building the online planning tool.

Once those efforts are complete, DEQ will model and develop plans for the Cape Fear, Tar-Pamlico, White Oak, Lumber and French Broad river basins. Each of those river basins experienced significant flooding in recent years, either during hurricanes like 2016’s Matthew or 2018’s Florence or Tropical Storms like 2021’s Tropical Storm Fred.

Also in the 2021 budget, the General Assembly allocated $96 million to fund the construction of projects identified in the river basin planning documents.

Biser hinted several times that the $96 million to implement flood mitigation efforts across six river basins could go quickly and that DEQ officials may ask the General Assembly for additional allocations to fund more projects.

“The key now is prioritizing those projects because we don’t have an infinite amount of funding available,” Biser said.

When Will The Planning Tool Be Ready?

Lawmakers are eager to see the blueprint, and for it to result in actual projects that have measurable outcomes in their communities.

The web-based tool will be available for beta testing to about 100 potential users in mid-April, Todd Kennedy, DEQ’s program supervisor for the flood resiliency blueprint, told legislators. A timeline on the blueprint’s website says the completed tool is expected to be ready by December.

“We want to make sure we spend this money wisely but at the same token we’ve got to get it moving so we can get something done,” Sen. Brent Jackson, an Autryville Republican who is also a key budget writer, told Biser.

When Will the Blueprint Lead to Projects?

DEQ and its contractors have identified more than 1,000 projects in the Neuse basin and are trying to determine what can be done quickly, with Biser telling lawmakers Tuesday that some projects would be done “in the coming months.”

“It’s important to start implementing some key projects while we continue development of the statewide and basin-specific strategies,” Biser said.

Can DEQ Tell a Government Not to Build a Flood Mitigation Project?

During Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Mark Pless, a Haywood County Republican, and others expressed concerns that the blueprint and basin planning document could be used to stall actions a local government wanted to take.

Biser assured lawmakers that is not the case.

“We are not becoming a decision-making entity in this,” Biser said. “They have the ability to move forward their projects however they would like. We are delivering a tool that they can use, but we are not an impediment or a bottleneck.”

Biser added that DEQ is not becoming a “flooding czar” or making decisions about which projects local governments should fund. The agency will decide how to spend the $96 million, but local governments will be able to move forward with projects as they see fit and can fund.

Will the Blueprint Be Updated?

Biser told legislators she would like to see them fund permanent staff to work on the resiliency project. Those staff members would keep the data that informs the online planning tool up-to-date and provide rolling updates for each of the state’s 17 river basins, ideally on a five-year basis.

Jackson and Pless expressed some skepticism about establishing a new, permanent program. But the General Assembly’s 2023 budget did provide $1.48 million in the 2023 for six time-limited positions that will work on the blueprint, positions DEQ plans to post soon.

Biser emphasized that without recurring funding from the legislature, that team’s work could quickly become outdated and less useful to the people who need it most.

“The value of the tool is going to be directly correlated with what data is supporting it because the tool is basically just going to be a way of interpreting the data, but the data has to be maintained. And so if we do it one time and walk away that’s going to be great for a few years and then you’re going to have kind of a wasted investment,” Biser said.

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