Spotlight on the waterways

Published 9:46 pm Friday, April 25, 2014

A panel discussion at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts on Thursday, hosted by the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance and Suffolk River Heritage, involved some lively debate on Suffolk’s waterways and natural environment.

The Birdsong Theater may not have been packed, but a strong audience turned out for the latest River Talk, a series usually held in the Ruritan hall at Eclipse, to hear from three knowledgeable panelists.

After opening remarks from Mayor Linda T. Johnson, local waterman Robbie Johnson, former Naval Station Norfolk commanding officer Joseph F. Bouchard and Chesapeake Bay Foundation president and CEO William C. Baker discussed opportunities for Suffolk, focusing on wetlands, wildlife and sustainable development.

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“Education is truly one of the best long-term investments we can make in our river, our bay, our environment and our planet,” said Baker, who started the foundation in 1976, fresh from college.

Concentrating on common ground can help negotiate the “very polarizing issue” of global warming, he said.

“I say, ‘Forget about the issue; what do you think about pollution?’” Baker said. “That’s really all people working on addressing climate change are talking about, reducing pollution.”

The science behind global warming, he said, is “clearly not finished … but we have a terrific understanding;” current laws and regulations related to it are “good;” and “we very well know that the economy and the environment are simply two sides of the same coin.”

But he described unwillingness by the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act, which has prompted the foundation to sue the federal agency, as well as counter-litigation from groups opposed to enforcement.

Baker encouraged the city of Suffolk to “define where you want to grow, how you want to grow … and then set up mechanisms to achieve it.”

Bouchard, whose expertise is sea-level rise, explained how insurance costs in localities like Suffolk are destined to climb along with the high tides; but he also offered advice on how the city can mitigate this effect.

New flood risk maps are due out soon, he said, and “if you are concerned about it, encourage the city of Suffolk to look into the Community Rating System.”

The voluntary incentive program encourages floodplain management activities exceeding minimum requirement, resulting in reduced flood insurance premiums.

Bouchard broadsided man-made global warming deniers in the General Assembly, saying, “You are not allowed to say ‘sea-level rise,’ because it’s a left-wing term.”

Awareness in the business community “is still relatively low,” he said, and inter-governmental planning needs better integration. “They need to develop plans that will work together in unison,” he said.

The only panelist with a hometown audience, Johnson admitted to feeling “a little bit inept speaking behind two such distinguished gentleman,” but he offered a no-nonsense perspective from someone whose livelihood depends on the health of the bay.

The city’s Wetlands Board, which he chairs, is “trying very hard to do what the code (of Virginia) tells us,” while allowing property owners some flexibility, “as long as they come under the constraints,” Johnson said.

He recounted ongoing efforts by the Department of Public Utilities to “smoke-test” sewers to ensure raw material is not escaping into waterways, as well as to connect unsewered neighborhoods to the city system.

Johnson also defended the practices of farmers in the watershed. “Through education, I think everybody realizes that they can do better, and we are moving forward in that direction,” he said.

The waterman of over 30 years was critical of the marine scientists coming out of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“They are indoctrinated, not educated,” he said, adding later, “They are getting master’s degrees for things the Dutch were doing in New York.”

Oyster-planting efforts by environmental groups pale in comparison to the replenishment efforts of folks like him, Johnson said, adding that sanctuary reefs should be open to commercial fishing, because watermen have a vested interest in their health.

When the panel was opened to questions from the audience, one man asked whether drones could be used to monitor waterways, and other questions ranged from clearing in the 100-foot buffer zone to the role of citizen scientists.