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State Department of Environmental Quality staff in charge of developing an online tool to help decision-makers address flooding in their communities took steps to include historically underrepresented and underserved voices in the planning processes, and a state advisory board is joining the effort to include more of those voices.
DEQ’s Division of Mitigation Services held during the Secretary’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board quarterly meeting Feb. 9 in Raleigh and online the first public meeting about the Flood Resiliency Blueprint, which is “a statewide initiative to develop an online-decision support tool and associated planning to address flooding for communities in North Carolina’s river basins.”
Project lead Elizabeth Christenson asked for direction on how to create the blueprint through an “environmental justice lens.” After hearing the full presentation, board members decided to appoint a four-member subcommittee that will be involved in an advisory capacity moving ahead.
The North Carolina General Assembly allotted the division that works to restore and protect wetlands and waterways $20 million in 2021 to develop the blueprint, which officials say is the first for the state and represents the largest statewide flood mitigation investment in North Carolina’s history.
Christenson emphasized to the board that division staff understand how critical it is to incorporate historically marginalized groups and to use an environmental justice lens throughout a process, “not just at the beginning, and not just at the end.”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Christenson said the blueprint is going to include strategies specific to the state’s 17 river basins that end users can consult to help prioritize resiliency strategies and track progress over time. The Neuse River basin is the first that will be studied. It was chosen because of the amount of already existing data and a study taking place.
“We want this tool to visualize flood risk,” she said, and help understand the impacts different mitigation strategies can have in each basin, including nature-based and structural solutions.
Christenson, who also is a policy adviser for DEQ, requested the board suggest representatives or groups to help guide the blueprint, because the division is “trying to get a diversity of thought.” Staff also asked for ideas on public engagement such as where to hold workshops and public meetings, and provide any additional feedback to ensure staff understand how to prioritize historically marginalized communities throughout the entire blueprint development process.
Hope Morgan, global information systems specialist and project manager with AECOM Technical Services of North Carolina Inc. based in Raleigh, the consulting firm the division brought on in December, reiterated the request that board members join in the stakeholder process to make sure there’s “a say from an environmental justice perspective” on every angle of the project.
Environmental Justice board members suggested the division engage with other environmental justice groups, contact short-term and long-term disaster recovery groups, volunteer organizations, riverkeepers, stakeholders in other similar engagement processes, community elders and local leaders in unincorporated areas, before Chair Dr. Jim Johnson suggested a subcommittee.
Johnson said the subcommittee would be available to assist the division in an advisory capacity. “This is such a rich and important issue we’re not going to solve it all today,” he said, adding they should put the “smartest minds around the table.”
Heading up the committee will be La’Meshia Whittington, who will be joined by Veronica Carter, who is a board member with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review, Naeema Muhammad and William Barber III.
Joseph Pitchford, Division of Mitigation Services and State Energy Office public information officer, explained in a follow-up email last week that the subcommittee will help advise DEQ staff in moving forward.
“We look forward to continued advice and input from the Board members over the course of the project,” he said. Adding, “Looking ahead, AECOM is in the process of finalizing its stakeholder engagement plan for DEQ approval. The plan will include various opportunities for stakeholder input, including public meetings.”
About the Blueprint
Pitchford said that the two major components of the project are an online decision-support tool and the blueprint process document.
“The online decision-support tool is intended to help users visualize flood risk for different conditions and choose from a suite of flood mitigations strategies. The process document is meant to detail methods of conducting resiliency planning at multiple scales, which can be applied anywhere in the state. This approach takes into account that North Carolina basins have different flood exposure, data and modeling needs,” he said.
Blueprint development is broken up into three phases.
The first phase began Dec. 28, when the division signed a contract with AECOM to design the stakeholder engagement process, create a draft blueprint, a mockup of the online decision-support tool, and the Neuse River Action Strategy, so they can test the tool using the pilot basin. Phase one is expected to be complete by Dec 1, 2023, he said.
Phase two, which will run parallel to phase one, is to see the online decision support tool be completed. Phase two is also expected to wrap up by December.
Phase three will see the online support tool be used for river basins statewide. This will include action strategies for certain targeted basins, which will also be used to test and validate the online support tool. This phase is expected to begin and end in 2024.
Why the Neuse River basin?
Two board members expressed their concern during the meeting about the Neuse River basin being selected as the pilot, because what may work in the Goldsboro area may not be applicable when developing other basin strategies, such as the one for the Cape Fear River basin.
Staff explained to the board that the Neuse River basin was selected because of the amount of already existing, accessible data, and there is currently a pilot natural infrastructure flood mitigation project. While each strategy will be basin specific, the process used to develop the Neuse River basin will help guide other river basin strategy development.
Pitchford expounded in the email that the focus on the Neuse River basin is because it is likely the most data-rich basin in the state and will likely serve as a best-case scenario for current decision support tool functionality.
“While we are beginning in one basin, DEQ plans to learn from the Neuse Basin and validate the decision support tool in all the other basins in North Carolina in 2024, incorporating the unique needs of each basin along the way,” he said. “The Neuse River Basin serves as a pilot river basin to test assumptions, approaches, watershed models, scenario exploration tools, and other elements as the Flood Resiliency Blueprint is developed. The implementation of the draft Blueprint will result in the Neuse River Action Strategy in 2023 with state-wide basin-specific action strategies in 2024.”
The division signed a contract with AECOM in late December to begin work on the first of the three-phases of the blueprint, which includes creating a stakeholder engagement process and a mockup of the online flooding risk tool.
Pitchford said that AECOM, which was selected through the Department of Administration’s purchasing and contract process, is the principal vendor for the first phase of the blueprint project. The firm is expected to create the draft blueprint, the draft Neuse River Basin Action Strategy, and requirements needed to develop the online decision-support tool.
AECOM’s Morgan expressed to the board during the meeting that they are focusing on bringing to the conversation marginalized groups, experts and others and coordinating with federal, state and local governments, environmental groups, nonprofits and other organizations that have done work on flooding.
“We want to talk to people that have been flooded and that understand what that flooding has done to their area and their ability to recover,” she said. They want to look at the historically marginalized communities that may not have been talked to in the past and include volunteer organizations that have spent time on the ground responding to these events. “We want to focus on the impacts from specific projects.”
Pitchford said the environmental justice board meeting provided “a great opportunity for input on the development of the stakeholder process.”
AECOM’s team for phase one includes ESP Associates, Inc. consulting firm with an office in Morrisville, Wildlands Engineering, Inc. water resources engineering firm based in Raleigh, Elite Disaster Consulting emergency management planners in Mint Hill, Geomatics Workshops continuing education provider based in Charlotte, Wilmington-based Insight Planning and Development LLC Inc. planning and grant management consultant services, Singhofen and Associates Inc. engineering firm in Florida, and Dr. Barbara Doll, a water protection and restoration specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant.
Early stakeholder input
The North Carolina Inclusive Disaster Recovery Network wrapped up the presentation to the environmental justice board by sharing ideas they hope DEQ would consider as well as explore opportunities to partner on the blueprint planning process, and advocate for more equitable community engagement as a best practice across government, Kathryn Gaasch, program director, told the board.
The network is a group of public, private, nonprofit and faith-based organizations “seeking avenues for community voice and equitable access to resources” in the disaster recovery system.
Carol Caldwell, founder of the Columbus County DREAM Center community organization and member of the network, explained to the board that they have been working on developing a framework and needs they want to be addressed.
“We know that disasters do discriminate,” she began, “Flooding does not impact all people equally because of public policies that affect lives of especially Black, Indigenous and Latino communities. One of the questions we will be asking is what practices will ensure that the people and communities most impacted by flooding have the power and resources to adapt to increasing climate and uncertainty?”
She continued that the second point is that racial and economic disparities are as obvious in outcome as they are in engagement and planning processes. The question is, “What support do government officials and community advocates each need to collaborate on this shared vision of more resilient communities?”
Time didn’t allow for the network to go over selected recommendations for state government, which was detailed in the slideshow. These recommendations are to build upon any related planning or work being done to address issues of flooding, engage stakeholders that reflect the diversity of the community, and exercise patience and find consensus on a shared vision for the project with planning participants.
“The NC Inclusive Disaster Recovery Network is one of the many stakeholders that DEQ continues to engage as part of the Flood Resiliency Blueprint,” Pitchford said. DEQ strives to be inclusive of interested stakeholders in the blueprint development process including federal, state, county, municipal, and tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations, commercial partners, as well as interested public parties across the state.