UVA Team Partners with Local Planning District Commissions to Help Flood Mitigation and Planning Efforts in Vulnerable Communities Across Virginia

Floods in Wise and Scott counties in Southwest Virginia collapsed one road and closed dozens of others, triggered mudslides and a dam failure, repeatedly forced residents to evacuate their homes and inundated a sports complex. And that’s just since 2015.

“I can think of several flood occurrences over the last decade that, with more specific land use plans in flood-prone areas, we may have been able to develop a more flood-friendly type of use,” said Duane Miller, the executive director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission, which serves the counties of Lee, Scott and Wise, and the city of Norton.

The reality is, while Miller’s agency maintains emergency response plans for local and regional disasters, developing creative flood mitigation and planning strategies isn’t something the communities in his district have the means to do. So, when a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Virginia, led by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, proposed a project that could help make his district more resilient to flooding, Miller was all in.

“I’ve seen some outside-the-box thinking for development of flood-prone areas,” said Miller, who also is excited to expand his relationship with the Weldon Cooper Center, where he interned 30 years ago. Since then, he’s worked with the center through UVA’s College at Wise.

“I am hoping this study is able to identify some neat things our communities can do to protect against floods and use land in innovative and fun ways to improve quality of life for our district’s residents.”

The UVA team’s newly formed public service program is called the Community Flood Resilience Initiative. The team’s idea is to help underserved localities meet the challenges of more frequent and extreme flooding events. As part of the initiative, the team has developed a similar partnership with the city of Martinsville and the Southside Planning District Commission, which serves the counties of Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick and the towns of South Boston and South Hill.

VDOT photo of flooded street

Many localities across Virginia struggle to effectively respond to increasing risk from flooding. Photo courtesy of VDOT.

Several units across UVA Grounds are involved in the effort, including the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment. The department’s efforts are led by assistant professor Majid Shafiee-Jood, with support from professor Jon Goodall and associate professor Garrick Louis. The School of Architecture’s participation is led by associate professor of urban and environmental planning Bev Wilson and Tanya Denckla Cobb, an environmental public policy mediator and director of the Institute for Engagement and Negotiation.

Leads for the Weldon Cooper Center are William Shobe, the center’s director for economic and policy studies and a professor of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and veteran project manager Elizabeth Marshall. Kalen Hunter, program director with UVA’s College at Wise Office of Economic Development and Strategic Initiatives, provides additional regional support to the project.

The initiative aligns with the UVA Strategic Plan’s priorities for serving the Commonwealth of Virginia and its communities.

“At UVA, we have economists, urban planners, data scientists and engineers with diverse skills, from risk analysis to hydrology – expertise many communities can’t afford in-house,” Shobe said. “We aim to provide critically needed assistance to vulnerable communities across Virginia through developing partnerships and working closely with localities. We’re excited to work with the LENOWISCO and Southside planning districts as the initiative’s first partners.”

LENOWISCO and Southside are among 21 planning district commissions in Virginia. The agencies are associations of local governments that enable communities to address regional issues, including through cooperative strategic planning.

Both projects will be paid for by grants to the respective planning district commissions from the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund, which the Virginia General Assembly created in 2020. The fund includes money to build flood mitigation projects, but to apply for those grants, localities are required to have flood resilience plans in place.

The state’s urban coastal regions have long been the focus of efforts to combat the effects of climate change, and they have the tax base to support developing such plans. Far less attention has been paid to rural inland localities, which have fewer resources to dedicate to flood preparedness. The Community Flood Preparedness Fund legislation addresses this gap by reserving 25% of the fund for low-income geographic areas, and includes money for “capacity-building and planning.”

That’s where the UVA team will get started.

Majid Shafiee-Jood

"Our goal for the Community Flood Resilience Initiative is to set a standard for our initiative to use in underserved communities across Virginia to address increasing flood risk in a systematic way."

Majid Shafiee-Jood, assistant professor, Department of Engineering Systems and Environment

Under the two grants, the work will include a flood risk analysis based on current and near-future climate conditions for each district. The projects’ multipronged research will examine the localities’ existing knowledge base and needs, communication channels and stakeholder engagement, the effects of past flooding, and how to equitably ensure future planning reflects the interests of the districts’ entire constituency.

By August 2022, the team will hand the planning district commissions a roadmap and timeline to develop an approvable resilience plan.

Key to this effort is coordinating flood resilience activities within the planning districts’ footprints and the broader region, because floods don’t respect geographic boundaries.

“Our partnership with UVA allows us to work with the towns of South Boston and Halifax in our region and support Martinsville in the West Piedmont PDC,” said Southside’s executive director Deborah Gosney.

“The Weldon Cooper Center and Bryan David, the center’s liaison for southern Virginia, have undoubtedly strengthened our relationships with our surrounding communities, including special projects with communities outside of the district’s designated region.

“We are excited about new opportunities on the horizon that may result from this newly formed partnership with the University of Virginia."

Producing the roadmaps to resilience plans is just the first of four phases the UVA teams hopes to complete with the LENOWISCO and Southside districts, and eventually with other jurisdictions as well.

In phase two, the partners will seek funding to develop the flood resilience plans. Phase three will entail additional research and studies to support implementing the plans, and, finally, the districts will apply for funding to develop and execute flood prevention and protection projects.

“Our goal for the Community Flood Resilience Initiative is to set a standard for our initiative to use in underserved communities across Virginia to address increasing flood risk in a systematic way,” said UVA Engineering’s Shafiee-Jood, whose research focuses on the intersection of climate risk management, water management, decision making and policy.

“These first grants help us initiate the program by focusing on localities in southern and southwest Virginia, but our team will actively explore other opportunities to expand our service.”