Scientists supporting Virginia Beach’s fight against flooding

Kurt McCoy and his team at the U.S. Geological Survey map areas of stressed vegetation along coastal wetland boundaries at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach. In the center of the lake is an island that is slowly disappearing into the water (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)
Kurt McCoy and his team at the U.S. Geological Survey map areas of stressed vegetation along coastal wetland boundaries at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach. In the center of the lake is an island that is slowly disappearing into the water. (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Peppered throughout Virginia Beach are dozens of U.S. Geological Survey sites that monitor groundwater and surface-water.

But beyond the monitoring sites are federal employees of the USGS — experts in the fields of hydrology and geology — who are producing data for use in the fight against sea-level rise and flooding in Virginia Beach and beyond.

Kurt McCoy has worked at the USGS as a hydrologist for 16 years. He operates out of Richmond and travels to Virginia Beach with his team of scientists about every six weeks to survey waterways, maintain equipment and collect data on the city’s groundwater.

So what exactly does groundwater have to do with surface flooding?

“Groundwater is a part of flooding issues,” McCoy said. “The shallow water table of this area and its inability to accept more water is a factor in surface flooding.”

Basically it’s all connected, McCoy said, and his team is busy documenting those connections in Virginia Beach.

A flood… of collaboration and money

Technology is a critical tool in gathering data, and helps scientists like McCoy see the unknown. Using drones, Go-Pro and thermal infrared cameras, the USGS “documents real-time conditions with drones to get data that we wouldn’t get otherwise,” said Cian Dawson, a USGS hydrologist on McCoy’s team. Dawson demonstrated some of the USGS’s drone technologies to city officials Thursday.

The City of Virginia Beach has also teamed up with a private company to better understand flooding challenges facing the city.

In 2015, Virginia Beach received an $844,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study sea level rise. Part of that money was used to hire Dewberry, a professional services consulting firm, to produce a comprehensive sea-level rise and recurrent flooding analysis on the city, which is due to be completed in fall 2018.

McCoy said the USGS is engaged in long term collaborations with many of the organizations researching climate change, sea-level rise and flooding issues in the state.

Dewberry has regular conversations with the USGS, McCoy said, and is also implementing publicly available data from the USGS for their study of Virginia Beach’s Southern Watershed. The region’s StormSense project pulls from USGS data as well, while the city regularly engages the USGS to stay informed of its groundwater monitoring.

The data flows toward policy

McCoy is a self-proclaimed “science geek,” but said that lighthearted designation comes with serious responsibility.

“In order to be a real ‘science geek,’ your science has to have value,” McCoy said. “To create that value, you have to be able to easily translate the science into policy.”

Virginia Beach City Councilwoman Barbara Henley represents part of that policy component. She said she sees the value in McCoy’s research, and met with McCoy Thursday for a discussion on the USGS’s work in the city.

Related story: Virginia Beach captures federal grant to combat sea-level rise

“The Dewberry study will help the city know what’s happening right now, what is most likely to happen next and where. This will be crucial in better prioritizing projects moving forward,” Henley said.

To better communicate the challenges faced by flooding and sea-level rise to Virginia Beach residents, the city is hosting a free symposium series on the topic. The first presentation will be Wednesday at the Advanced Technology Center in Virginia Beach at 6 p.m. McCoy will be one of the speakers, along with Bill Sammler, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

“The public has got to know what we’re doing to understand and fight sea-level rise and flooding in Virginia Beach,” Henley said.

As for McCoy, he has a practical view on his role in everything

“This book has already been written, and we’re starting on chapter 10,” McCoy said. “We have to read and understand chapters one through nine if we want to make sense of the rest of the book.”

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