VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The resort city of Virginia Beach has a major problem — flooding.

That was never more visible than seven years ago when Hurricane Matthew drenched the city in unheard of rainfall amounts. Some of the hardest hit areas were The Lakes, Princess Anne Plaza and Windsor Woods.

Streets that had never flooded before went underwater. Now, seven years later with research showing that future hurricanes may bring more heavy rain as a result of a warming climate, concern is growing over what the next storm could do.

Aerial photos from 1949 show the area was originally forest surrounded by farmland. Much of the area has relatively low elevations, so when the water comes, it has nowhere to go.

For more than 40 years, Tom Leahy worked for the City of Virginia Beach. Through hurricanes Isabel, Sandy and Irene, he saw what storms could do, with battering waves, high winds and flooding. But none of those storms prepared him for Matthew.

“It was a terrible, gut-wrenching time,” Leahy said. After the storm, public meetings were held to address citizens’ concerns. Hearing the pain in their voices is something that still sticks with him.

During his time as acting city manager, Leary oversaw public works for the city.

“Our systems are designed to keep the water out of the road in a 10 years storm, barely passable in a 100-year storm. Matthew was a 500-year storm,” Leahy said. Adding to the issue was the fact that heavy rain fell on the city in the weeks leading up to Matthew — saturating the ground and leading to an enhanced risk for flooding.

When Matthew hit, upgrades were underway, but money was an issue. The recession and other financial struggles of the late 2000s and 2010s caused projects that they knew needed to be done, to be put off.

“There were major canals that city works was designing to clear … if they had a few more years before Matthew hit things would have been vastly different.” 

Following Matthew, demand for action was high, and now the city has more than 20 projects scattered throughout to combat rising sea levels and rainwater flooding.

In 2021, voters approved a flood referendum to help fund critical projects.

One of those calls for converting the Bow Creek Golf Course into a stormwater park. The Bow Creek Stormwater Project aims to reduce the flooding in the The Lakes, Princess Anne Plaza and Windsor Woods neighborhoods.

The idea is simple: to store the water when it comes in retention ponds, and provide a recreational outlet for all ages. When complete, the park will have multi-use trails, overlooks, mountain bike trails, an event lawn, overlooks, piers and playgrounds. Volleyball and pickleball courts, wildlife viewing structures and skating spots are also planned.

When the water comes, it will flood – but that’s by design. The retention ponds will hold the water until it can safely drain out.

Chad Morris is the planning, design and development administrator for the project. Morris says “the project is designed to be a living and breathing facility – it’s designed to take on large amounts of water. Some of the park amenities that do go underwater during large flooding events will have some cleanup to do – but it should be minor.”

Crews are currently working on clearing trees. Then, the major digging begins.

80,000 truckloads of material will be removed from the site to form the ponds. Much of the dirt will be used at the city landfill.

Over the next 3 years, phase one of the project will be constructed. Another phase of the project will expand the park in the coming years.

The city says that “during the construction of Section I, the northwest portion of the golf course will be open to the public for passive recreation. The existing cart paths will be re-purposed as walking trails while the work on the eastern side is underway. Once complete, the public will have access to the trail networks and wildlife viewing platforms of Section I, while design and construction efforts will shift to Section II construction.”

For more on where the sections are, see the Bow Creek Stormwater Park brochure.

When finished, it’ll tell a story that started with unwanted water — and now — morphs into living with the water.

“A 100-year flood or 500-year flood, those are becoming more frequent, but the goal is to take on and contain flood levels with any of those types of storms.”

This project is just one of many ongoing or planned across the city to address flooding issues. While this one step won’t eliminate flooding entirely – its goal is to minimize the impacts. 

You can check the status of this project over the next few years, and other projects in Virginia Beach here.

There’s also more info on the Bow Creek Stormwater Project from the project brochure