Media Briefing Report: Climate Change and Infrastructure Risk

by
Climate Nexus

Introduction

Following the Oroville Dam spillway failure in February 2017, Climate Signals hosted a national media briefing to discuss how climate change to date has elevated the risks for aging infrastructure in the United States.

In the discussion highlights below, experts shed light on specific dangers facing state and national infrastructure and measures policymakers can take to prepare for the new weather extremes of the present as well as the coming weather extremes of the future.

Thousands of dams in the US are in need of rehabilitation to meet current design and safety standards. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials listed nearly 2,000 state-regulated dams across the US as “high hazard” in 2015 and estimate it would cost more than $60 billion to repair all potentially hazardous dams. The amplification of extreme weather by climate change has put the country’s infrastructure under additional stress, a trend that is projected to grow in years to come.

In California, climate change has amplified the state's historic drought/flood pattern, pushing conditions past historical norms at both ends of the spectrum as the weather pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. 

Click here to access the full transcript, following the download link at the bottom of the page.  For science reports and more on the trends discussed in this briefing click here.


Speakers

  • Noah Diffenbaugh, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, expert on climate change and impacts in California
  • Juliet Christian-Smith, Senior Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, expert on water infrastructure
  • Ethan Elkind, Director of the Climate Program at the UC-Berkeley Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. Leads the climate change and business research initiative at UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law. Expert on transportation infrastructure.

Selected quotes

Noah Diffenbaugh

Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, expert on climate change and impacts in California

What we're seeing in the historical record is an emergence of a climate characterized by greater frequency of warm, dry conditions punctuated by extremely wet conditions. This has been predicted for decades, it's absolutely being seen in the historical record of California, and it’s clearly projected to intensify should global warming continue in the future.

As the climate warms there's a shift towards more rainfall rather than snow, particularly at lower elevations. And what this means is that not only do we have less reliable water storage from snow pack, but also that we have less reliable flood controls. Because when there's earlier melting of snow, that fills up reservoirs during the rainy season.

We are now living in a climate that's very different from the climate in which our water system was designed and built.

It's clear, from the historical record of climate that we are now in a different climate and it’s one that is characterized by more frequent hot, dry periods punctuated by wet conditions.

[W]ithout any climate change at all, the risk of Oroville-type events is increasing as the infrastructure ages and the maintenance gets further and further out of date. When you add on the changes in climate that are increasing the probability that we encounter a lot of runoff in these episodes of heavy precipitation…the combination of those two increases the risk that we experience the kind of events that we've seen at Oroville and elsewhere in the state during this winter.

In terms of increasing resilience in the context of a changing climate, there are a lot of win-wins. Meaning that there are decisions, investments that can be made to make us more resilient to the climate that we have now. Good choices will improve the safety and security of Americans right now. That's one half of the win, and then those same decisions and investments will also prepare us for further changes and climate in the future. That's the second half of the win. In order to create those win-win solutions, those decisions start with an acknowledgement that the climate has changed.

An investment in infrastructure in California can help to improve the safety and security of Americans right now and also prepare us for continued climate change that is likely to occur over the next several decades.


Juliet Christian-Smith

Senior Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, expert on water infrastructure

A warming world is causing a major shift in California's water supplies. We have to change our approach to water management fundamentally. Adapting to the future of more extreme conditions means we have to rethink how we capture, store, distribute and use our water resources.

[R]eservoirs can't deliver maximum benefits during drought periods when they are very low, or during rapid onslaughts of water. And that's what we’re seeing right now. Rapid onslaughts can occur due to more intense precipitation events…Rapid onslaughts of water also occur when snow melts earlier and faster.

Not only is our infrastructure old, but it was also constructed and is operated often for past climate conditions. And while we know that the past is no longer a predictor of the future, we continue to plan for the past. It’s easier, it seems less expensive, but it has huge-hitting costs.

[C]limate change is worsening both droughts and floods; rapid onslaughts of water can't be effectively captured by our existing water systems; our infrastructure is designed and managed for the past. Californians and many others, are shifting to greater exploitation of groundwater. So better groundwater management is key to both more severe droughts and floods.

When we're talking about long-lived infrastructure that's going to cost hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, we really need to have a higher bar, because we have a lower risk tolerance there when there are human lives at stake and that amount of money being spent.

We want infrastructure that's designed for the future so that it can actually deliver benefits for generations to come.

...when it rains, we can slow, sink, and capture runoff in the ground over a much larger area to recharge depleted groundwater aquifers – by redesigning storm water capture and management infrastructure in urban areas, and by developing aquifer recharge systems in rural areas above accessible aquifers. This can help reduce flooding, prepare us for dry periods, and this water can be stored to make up for the loss of snow pack and snow melts in the future.


Ethan Elkind

Director of the Climate Program at the UC-Berkeley Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. Leads the climate change and business research initiative at UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law. Expert on transportation infrastructure.

[T]he state of California has estimated that we need $77 billion just to maintain the existing transportation infrastructure here in the state. Nationwide, I've seen estimates as high as $740 billion in terms of backlog of repair needs and again, this is not to build new roads and bridges, this is just to repair what we've already built.

[W]e're not well positioned to have resilient infrastructure in the face of this new climate era that we're entering in.

If we want to ensure that [public] dollars are spent in sensible ways for taxpayers, for the environment, for being resilient in the face of these coming climate impacts and climate impacts that we're dealing with just now, we need some strong performance standards on how the dollars are spent. We don't want these dollars to become, essentially, ways of furthering political goals but not furthering goals related to spending the dollars wisely and sustainably.

The fact is that we've got really low interest rates now; it's exactly the time where you would want to be borrowing to pay for these needed infrastructure investments. My hope is just that if an infrastructure bill does come out, that it’s not used to just further spend money on bad projects or come with a lot of strings to weaken environmental protections that might go along with it.