Communities confronting ‘Sunny Day’ flooding woes

Cars navigate flood waters on Fitzwater Street, last Thursday afternoon in Downtown Salisbury. Rising Wicomico River waters came up through storm drains — despite the fact that no storm was occurring anywhere in the region.

As floodwaters rose last year, so did records across the Chesapeake Bay region.

A new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, shows that rising seas are inducing a particular type of increased flooding around the country. The phenomenon, known as high-tide or “sunny day” flooding because of the absence of rainfall as a trigger, struck a median of five days last year at nearly 100 coastal locations, tying the record set in 2015.

The “median” is the level at which there are as many occurrences below the value as above it.

The problem was worse in the Northeast, which includes the Chesapeake watershed.

Salisbury has seen a significant increase in sunny day flooding over the past five years, said Amanda Pollack, the city’s Director of Infrastructure and Development.

“We’re very aware of it and we’re monitoring it,” she said.

The city recently completed a nuisance flooding plan – something that is now required in all Maryland counties and municipalities — and officials are looking at several options such as tide gates to help alleviate the problem, Pollack said.

The worst flooding is generally along Fitzwater Street and Germania Circle, Pollack said.

“Fitzwater is our prime offender for that,” she said.

The city plans to relocate a pump station there to the intersection of Fitzwater and Pearl Streets and raise it 2 feet above flood elevation.

The city’s nuisance flooding plan, written by George, Miles & Buhr, also identifies a section of Downtown Salisbury that tends to flood frequently along Main Street and Market Street at Poplar Hill and Baptist. Flooding there threatens the nearby State’s Attorney’s Office, the Riverwalk and numerous commercial buildings along with about 10 residences.

Portions of Lake Street and Mill Street also see flooding affecting the mostly commercial and industrial area that includes Fire Station 16 and the Mill Street pump station.

In addition to tide gates, the Downtown Salisbury Master Plan also calls for the creation of a park between the North Prong of the Wicomico River and Lake Street as a natural buffer to flooding.

The park would remove vulnerable properties from the flood zone and provide an area that could be inundated during flood events.

The NOAA report, released on July 10, showed the Chesapeake Bay region with a median of 10 days of high-tide flooding. The following Chesapeake-area cities carved out new records:

  • Washington, D.C. — 22 days.
  • Wachapreague, Va. — 17 days.
  • Annapolis — 12 days.
  • Baltimore — 12 days. 

Overall, a dozen locations nationwide broke or tied their high-tide flooding records, NOAA reported.

Don’t expect to dry out anytime soon. This year is projected to be another higher-than-normal year for 40 locations around the United States as a minor El Nino, the periodic phenomenon that brings more rain to much of the United States, lingers into early next year, researchers said. The national median frequency of high-tide flooding is expected to be twice as high as it was in 2000.

The Northeast Atlantic is forecast to have a median of eight days of flooding, up 140 percent from 2000.

New records for such flooding are expected to be set next year and “for years and decades to come” as seas continue to rise, according to the report. The number of high-tide days is predicted to reach a national median of 25 days to 75 days by 2050, depending on how much action is taken to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

High-tide flooding is already wreaking havoc across the country, disrupting traffic, exacerbating beach erosion and lowering property values, according to the report’s authors. Another consequence they point to cites a March 2019 article in the Chesapeake Bay Journal, which described how high-tide flooding is contributing to saltwater intrusion on cropland on the Delmarva Peninsula.

“Once communities realize they are susceptible to high-tide flooding, they need to begin to address the impacts, which can become chronic rather quickly,” said William Sweet, a NOAA oceanographer and lead author of the report. “Communities find themselves not knowing what to expect next year and the decades to come, which makes planning difficult. Our high tide projections can play a vital role in helping them plan mitigation and other remedies.”

The evolution of high-tide flooding at Sewell’s Point, near the mouth of the Chesapeake in Virginia, offers a glimpse of what many area communities have seen — and can expect to see in the future.

In 2000, Sewell’s Point recorded five high-tide days. Last year, it saw 10. And this year, NOAA is calling for 10 to 15 such days. By 2050, that number could soar to as much as 170 if carbon dioxide emissions remain high.

Reporter Liz Holland contributed to this story.

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