An article about sea level rise in Sunday’s Washington Post came just a bit late for discussion at the quarterly meeting of the Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) to the Chesapeake Executive Council in Easton, Maryland last week, but the issue wasn’t far from anyone’s mind.
LGAC’s members are appointed by the Governors of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Mayor of the District of Columbia who, along with the EPA Administrator and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, make up the Chesapeake Executive Council. Five of Virginia’s six LGAC members – Supervisor Ruby Brabo of King George County, Supervisor Janine Burns of Mathews County, Councilman Richard Baugh from Harrisonburg, Larry Land from the Virginia Association of Counties’ staff, and Ernie Lehmann from Alexandria – are brand new, appointed by Governor McAuliffe in September. I was honored that the governor decided to extend my term on LGAC; I was appointed originally by Governor Mark Warner more than 10 years ago.
LGAC’s charge is to advise the Executive Council about local governments, what they need to participate in restoration of the Bay, and how partnerships between the federal, state, and local governments might foster policies and procedures that will have a positive effect on the Bay, its tributaries, and its economy. The Post article, “The Rising Sea,” focused on Virginia’s Assateague Island, which is not part of the 64,000 square mile Bay Watershed, but which is a microcosm of what is happening in low-lying areas along the eastern seaboard. Sea level rise is real, not imaginary. Just ask Supervisor Burns from Mathews County, a small rural county at the very tip of the Middle Peninsula, jutting out in the Bay. Amazingly, only 86 square miles of Mathews’ 252 square miles size is land; the other 166 square miles is water. Between the spectre of sea level rise and the geologic subsidence caused by natural gravity, the fewer than 9,000 residents of Mathews have plenty of concerns. Mathews’ economy, like many rural areas around the Bay, is water-based. Fishing, aquaculture (both fin fish and shellfish), and traditional rural land uses have provided the backbone of Mathews’ economy since Colonial Days. Recently, Mathews County arranged for a dozen commercial fishermen to re-train and become certified as aqua-tourism guides. This is a step in the right direction toward re-fashioning traditional economies that have supported communities for decades, but which most likely must change with the time (and tides).
While much of Northern Virginia is less susceptible to the deleterious effects of sea level rise, at least in the foreseeable future, much of Virginia’s celebrated shoreline is, and will be susceptible. As we seek to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, we must take careful measurement of the challenges that restoration might bring to established economies. Just as the Bay may take decades to recover, so, too, will some traditional economies take decades to morph into new approaches that can support entire communities facing unprecedented change.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.