May 12, 2021
Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
600 East Main Street, 24th Floor
Richmond, Virginia 23219
RE: 2021 Grant Manual for the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund
On behalf of our over 83,000 members and supporters in Virginia, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) Draft Grant Manual for the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund (Fund). EDF is a leading international, non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment by effectively applying science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships.
EDF applauds the leadership of the Northam Administration and the Virginia Legislature for taking steps to address and invest in flood resilience across the Commonwealth through this statewide Fund. We appreciate the work of DCR staff on the Fund to date, including the previous comment period earlier this year and responses to those comments provided by DCR in early May.
With the first-quarter Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative auction generating nearly $20 million, EDF looks forward to seeing the Fund continue to grow. The final Grant Manual will guide applications for capacity-building, studies, and eventually projects to reduce flood risk for communities across the Commonwealth. However, we have concerns with the draft Grant Manual provided by DCR and request substantive updates prior to the initiation of the first round of grant funding in order to ensure localities’ applications are set up for success and the funding process is transparent for applicants and the communities they serve.
Our primary concerns are highlighted here and explained in further detail in our comments and recommendations below:
Clarity in Eligibility
First and foremost, the final Grant Manual must explicitly allow Fund monies to be used as local match. This is critically important to allow localities to leverage additional investments, including federal funding opportunities such as NFWF, HUD, USACE and FEMA grant opportunities, to truly get ahead of flood risk. Based on DCR’s responses to public comments on the Draft Fund Policy, we believe this issue has been clarified and Fund monies will be permitted to be used as local match. Thank you for providing this important clarification that will build capacity and provide an important multiplier to the Fund. We recommend that the three year timeframe for projects be increased to five years to accommodate for lengthier federal funding cycles, although timelines for capacity-building activities and studies could remain the same or be shortened.
The draft Grant Manual is not clear in regards to if federally- or state-recognized tribes are considered eligible entities. We appreciate the clarification provided by DCR that PDCs are eligible entities and recommend tribes also be considered eligible for funding in the final Grant Manual. We also note that the Budget and SOW information should be included under Part II (Eligibility and Application Procedures) of the Grant Manual, rather than under Part III (Eligible Activities).
Clarity in Definitions
In general, the draft Grant Manual lacks consistency in terminology used throughout the document. In many instances, terms used are not the same as those defined in the beginning of the manual, such as the use of “low-income localities” instead of the defined term “low-income geographic area[s].” Another common example is the use of “locality” instead of the defined term “local governments” and the alternating use of “community resilience plan” and “resilience plan.” Although “nature-based solution” is defined, the term “green infrastructure” is also used frequently; federal programs and legislation typically refers to natural- and nature-based features and we recommend removing all references to “green infrastructure” in the final Grant Manual for clarity and consistency. We also note that some terms are used without any definition, such as “environmental justice community.” The most glaring example of this is the lack of a definition of “community-scale,” a statutorily-established priority for funding. The final Grant Manual must resolve these inconsistencies to allow for consistent and transparent evaluation of submissions.
The statutory language that establishes the Fund refers to a “locality-certified floodplain manager,” which the draft Grant Manual defines as “a Certified Floodplain Manager [CFM] according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers...who is in the employ of a local government.” These terms are not interchangeable. If DCR will require localities to have a CFM to certify areas of recurrent flooding within their locality, DCR must provide more resources to localities to support the utilization of private sector or pooled resource CFMs and/or support training of internal staff. While the fees associated with CFM certification could reasonably be included as capacity-building under this Fund, the minimum application cost for capacity-building in the draft Grant Manual is $25,000, which far exceeds certification costs even if multiple localities applied together for multiple staff certifications. Additional clarity must be provided by DCR and alternative guidance provided if CFM certification is required moving forward. If CFM certification is required in the final Grant Manual, we urge DCR to adopt a phased approach given the present limited training capacity in Virginia due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Commitment to Equity for Low-income Geographic Areas
The Grant Manual must clarify how low-income geographic areas will be determined and do so in such a way that eliminates the possibility of a locality “gerry-mandering” these areas for their advantage. With additional clarification in defining these targeted communities, DCR should consider providing or referencing specific tools necessary to identify such communities. DCR must ensure that low-income geographic areas are full participants and beneficiaries of the Fund and not just included to access the set-aside or raise the application score. The Grant Manual, staff, and reviewers must clarify metrics to ensure that funds used for the 25% set-aside realize significant impacts to these communities as a primary intent.
Low-income geographic areas have historically been left behind in resilience efforts and often suffer from compounding risks. To make the most effective use of the 25% set-aside, DCR should consider removing match requirements, significantly lowering match requirements to 5% in the capacity-building and studies categories and a maximum of 5-10% in the project category, as match requirements will further limit such communities’ ability to access these funds. Additionally, in-kind contributions should be acceptable forms of match for all applicants, but especially for low-income geographic areas who face already limited resources and capacity.
Specificity for Capacity Building and Studies
The Grant Manual must further clarify and define the various projects, plans, and studies that are eligible for the Fund. The draft Grant Manual defines “projects” as “all phases of proposed uses of the fund including plan development, permitting, research, and data gathering as well as implementation and installation.” This use of this singular term throughout the manual to encompass all proposed applications for the Fund is confusing and should be broken apart into separate terms with their own respective definitions. These additional definitions are especially needed as the draft Grant Manual refers to funding categories throughout, but does not define these categories. This is likely due to the similarities between the draft Grant Manual and the Grant Manual for the Virginia Dam Safety Program and must be addressed in the final Grant Manual.
Given the real capacity needs faced by many localities across the Commonwealth, capacity-building applications should not require the inclusion of supporting documents in the Scope of Work Narrative. If the purpose of an application is to build capacity in a community, the applicants may not have access to the supporting documentation required, such as historic flood damage data and/or images.
Transparent and Robust Scoring Processes
Along with distinct definitions for “capacity-building” and “studies” as eligible activities, we strongly recommend DCR create separate scoring criteria for these categories, distinct from the project scoring criteria, to provide necessary clarity for applicants. The Scoring Criterion in the draft Grant Manual seems to only apply for project grant categories, but it includes 5 points for “Capacity Building” and 10 points for “[r]evisions to existing resilience plans and modifications to existing comprehensive and hazard mitigation plans.” Scoring criteria should reflect the priorities of the Fund, and these allocations seem inconsistent with the Fund’s programmatic and legislative intent. A separate scoring criteria for capacity-building and studies would allow reviewers to compare similar applications to one another (“apples to apples” rather than “apples or oranges”).
Although nature-based solutions are included in the Scoring Criterion, there are no metrics provided for “community-scale,” in addition to lacking a specific definition of this term in the draft Grant Manual. As this is a statutory requirement of the Fund, the final Grant Manual should explicitly detail how to both define and score this element of applications. Providing examples of community-scale hazard mitigation activities would be a welcome addition to the final Grant Manual to give localities a better idea of what these projects could look like. Resilience plan criteria applicability should also be clarified.
We recommend review and further alignment of scoring criteria referring to NFIP and the Chesapeake Bay TMDL with regards to the Fund’s priorities. NFIP participation, while important, is not required by the grant manual and those efforts can be supported with alternative funds. Although supporting water quality and resilience co-benefits will ensure efficient use of resources, scoring criteria related to Chesapeake Bay TMDLs will bias certain geographic areas. A scoring criterion referencing documented water quality/watershed management co-benefits would be a better fit, if it is determined to align with the stated purposes of the Fund.
Demand for Fund resources is likely to significantly exceed resources for well-qualified projects. As such, additional clarity is needed on how DCR will compare and prioritize projects that have the same score and similar cost, based on the scoring rubric. “Cost effectiveness” is a statutory mandate that has no framework or methodology incorporated into the draft Grant Manual’s scoring criteria. EDF does not recommend a cost-benefit analysis requirement due to the additional burden and methodological limitations that consistently undervalue nature-based solutions as well as ecosystem benefits and impacts due to projects. However, additional assessment of 1) the number of people or communities benefited or 2) another form of quantifiable risk reduction should be incorporated into the project scoring rubric in order to provide additional context to the application. DCR should be clear and transparent regarding the review process and provide unsuccessful applicants with details about why projects do not receive funding, so they have the opportunity to improve future applications.
Finally, the Scoring Criterion in the Grant Manual should accurately prioritize low-income geographic areas. In the scoring criteria, the low income geographic area score is 10 points, while the 25% threshold statutory requirement for the Fund is not a priority threshold, it is a set-aside. The use of the ADAPT VA Social Vulnerability Index as a scoring criterion is confusing, as there is no explanation of the relationship of a score on that Index and the Fund’s definition of a “low-income geographic area.”
Considerations for Nature-based Solutions
The draft Grant Manual outlines project matches required based on the inclusion of nature-based practices as calculated by “the relevant percent of project implementation cost.” Prioritizing project matches in this way is problematic because a small percentage of the area proposed in a project could be utilizing nature-based solutions, but take up a large portion of the proposed project cost due to high expenses of contractor fees, natural plants, etc. In the alternative, a nature based practice could provide 70% of the protection but be a small percentage of the cost, compared to an impoundment or hardened structure. Instead, matches could be structured based on the percentage of area that will include nature-based solutions, rather than the relevant percent of project implementation cost.
Recognizing there are constraints with this first iteration of the Fund’s Grant Manual, future iterations of the Grant Manual should modify grant matches to promote the most successful flood resilience methods and capture the complexity of the solutions needed to be successful. In order to do this successfully, a stakeholder advisory group should be created to identify these methods after the impacts of the first grant rounds and their successful and unsuccessful implementations are examined.
Reducing Locality Burdens
Localities need lead time to develop applications and, where necessary, obtain required approvals from elected leadership. With future iterations of the Grant Manual, DCR should establish a routine cycle with advanced notice and regular opportunities for a stakeholder advisory committee and applicants to provide input and refine the administration of the Fund.
The final Grant Manual and future iterations should clearly detail the number and duration of grant periods per year, indicate how much funding is available (or projected), and allow sufficient time between requests for proposals (RFPs) and proposal deadlines. This information is crucial to assure localities can best prepare to apply for these funds. Under-resourced localities have complained about the short time between RFP announcements and deadlines on grants, especially those that require additional locality oversight or approval, as these certainly will. The administrative burden of preparing grant proposals is significant for localities and they should have some estimate of funds available in advance to guide their determination on whether to apply, as is provided by the Virginia Dam Safety Program. Localities should be encouraged to partner with other organizations to help increase their capacity.
Additionally, the Grant Manual should not contain a requirement that applicants have to provide two alternatives to their proposed activity within their application to the Fund that consider costs and benefits. Although we agree that an applicant should outline what taking no action would mean in their proposed project scenario, it is unnecessarily burdensome to require localities to provide an additional alternative to their proposed activity, particularly without specific guidance on how to assess costs and benefits, and even more so for low-income geographic areas and localities lacking staff and resource capacity.
The final Grant Manual must clarify local resilience plan requirements for the upcoming grant round, detail how and at what time those requirements may change for future grant rounds, and provide examples of acceptable local resilience plans. Integrated planning should be utilized as much as possible so that communities are not required to create an additional plan, as many localities already have plans in place (such as comprehensive plans, hazard mitigation plans, floodplain management plans, capital improvement plans, etc.). Resilience plan requirements should not include a heavy emphasis on specific project identification if achievable goals, mitigation strategies, and potential project types are identified. DCR should establish a clear and transparent process for how resilience pans will be evaluated, with a process occurring early enough in the application process to allow sufficient time for review and localities to respond to questions and provide additional information as needed. This section of the draft Grant Manual also includes unnecessary language from the Dam Safety Grant Manual related to dam safety requirements, which should be removed.
In an effort to continually improve the administrative process for both DCR and funded localities and avoid missed milestones, DCR should provide for interim progress reports, especially those of a longer duration. Additionally, adequate operation and maintenance plans are essential for successful proposed projects, particularly for the early life of nature-based projects, and help ensure locality buy-in to a project. The final grant manual should provide a model O&M plan that requires cost estimates for the mandatory five-years after project completion as an example to applicants.
Thank you for the work you have done to develop a Fund Grant Manual and award program that has the potential to fund transformational flood resilience across Virginia at a scale unlike any other in the Commonwealth. We look forward to supporting DCR and localities as the Fund Grant Manual is finalized and rolled out for applicants this year.
Virginia Director, Coastal Resilience
Environmental Defense Fund