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Written by Alison Mooradian   
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Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Infrastructure and Climate Change

Weather patterns are no longer predictable and extreme weather events have become more common than rare. By now, the impacts of climate change on the natural environment have been well documented. However, as climate change brings more extreme weather patterns, we are seeing that manmade infrastructure is at risk, as well.

Infrastructure in the United States
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a core component of the New Deal, a collection of policies designed to pull the United States out of the Great Depression.1 The WPA employed over eight million people, and for an average salary of $41.57 per month, these employees built much of America’s infrastructure, from bridges to roads to public parks. Harry Hopkins, the director of the WPA, said of the philosophy behind the program, “Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.”2 After the Great Depression and World War II, there was another infrastructure spending boom in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. During this time period, the majority of the interstate highway system was built.3

Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins speaking to reporters i

Infrastructure Vulnerability
Unfortunately, since infrastructure is often out of sight, such as sewer systems, the average person does not pay much attention to infrastructure modernization issues until infrastructure fails. Patrick Natale, the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, explained, “We’ve been talking about this for many, many years. We really haven’t had the leadership or will to take action on it. The bottom line is that a failing infrastructure cannot support a thriving economy.”4 The American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 report card for the United States was as follows in key categories: 5;6;7;8;9;10;11
  • Bridges – C+
  • Dams – D
  • Drinking water – D
  • Energy – D+
  • Levees – D
  • Roads – D
  • Wastewater – D+
These poor grades are largely due to the fact that the United States’ infrastructure was built decades ago and has not been rebuilt or even modernized since. The American Society of Civil Engineers report shared that the average age of the 614,387 bridges in this country is 43 years old.12 The average age of the 90,580 dams is 56 years old.13

Spotlight: Oroville Dam’s Failure
The recent failure of the Oroville Dam in California perfectly portrays climate change’s potentially devastating impact on the United States’ vulnerable, aging infrastructure. When the dam failed due to high water volume (which was caused by higher-than-average precipitation levels this year), 188,000 people had to evacuate their homes in case of extreme flooding. Peter Gleick, the chief scientist at the Pacific Institute, shared that California’s water system, “was designed and built for a climate we no longer have, for yesterday's climate, not tomorrow's climate.”14 However, officials in Butte and Plumas counties, which are the counties that surround Lake Oroville, were not surprised by the dam’s failure. In 2008, these counties had filed a lawsuit against the State of California arguing that the State had recklessly failed to account for climate change in its long-term management plan of the dam.15

Oroville Dam ii

The Oroville Dam was built in the 1960s, when more precipitation was stored as snow because of cooler temperatures. Now that warmer temperatures bring more rain instead of snow, which additionally melts the snowpack, the downhill rush of water is much faster, which overwhelms the capacity of California’s dam system.16 In fact, most of the dams in the United States were built between 1950 and 1980. They weren’t designed for communities living around them or for today’s climate. As of 2013, nearly 3,000 of these dams had no emergency plans, which is furthermore concerning.17

Scientists predict from climate models that the future of California’s climate will oscillate between extreme droughts and extreme storms. For infrastructure that is unprepared for these swings, the results could be disastrous for the State.18 Adrienne Alvord, Western states director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, shared, “What's happened at Oroville Dam, it's an example for us and a warning to us of what we need to be thinking about. We can try to mitigate how much climate change we see, but we also need to respond to what we believe will occur.” So far, climate impacts are occurring faster than models believed that they would, and Alvord believes that focus needs to be put on building climate-resilient infrastructure.19

The solution seems clear, building new infrastructure that reflects the changing nature of our resources. However, since climate change is a divisive political issue, the author of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, said:

Given the political difficulties in some places around anything related to climate change, the long timeframe of the projected changes, the relative uncertainty about the exact extent of changes, and the natural tendency of most elected officials to focus on challenges likely to arise during their term of office, changing land use decisions to respond specifically to projected climate change is difficult at best.20

Let’s hope that our country’s leaders can finally address our infrastructure needs as a nonpartisan issue, and the sooner the better.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 20 February 2018 )