Building in infrastructure resilience in our warmer world #ActOnClimate

The City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department (OSMP) has begun a major restoration project that will improve native fish habitat in Boulder Creek and restore natural areas surrounding the creek. This ecological project also will repair damage from the 2013 floods by returning Boulder Creek to its pre-flood channel, and will include the planting of more than 11,000 native trees and shrubs. These plantings will help improve the creek’s sustainability and resiliency, and help mitigate damage to private and public property during future floods. These efforts are occurring in two areas east of Boulder. Photo credit the City of Boulder.

From The Conversation (Thaddeus R. Miller/Mikhail Chester):

Unfortunately, Harvey delivered and then some with early estimates of the damage at over US$190 billion, which would make it the costliest storm in U.S. history. The rain dumped on the Houston area by Harvey has been called “unprecedented,” making engineering and floodplain design standards look outdated at best and irresponsible at worst.

But to dismiss this as a once-in-a-lifetime event would be a mistake. With more very powerful storms forming in the Atlantic this hurricane season, we should know better. We must listen to those telling a more complicated story, one that involves decades of land use planning and poor urban design that has generated impervious surfaces at a fantastic pace…

Invest in and redesign institutions, not just infrastructure. When analyzing breakdowns in infrastructure, it is tempting to blame the technical design. Yet design parameters are set by institutions and shaped by politics, financing and policy goals.

So failures in infrastructure are not just technical failures; they are institutional ones as well. They are failures in “knowledge systems,” or the ability to generate, communicate and utilize knowledge within and across institutions…

Design for climate change. When it comes to infrastructure’s ability to handle more extreme events that are predicted to come with climate change, the primary problem is not bad engineering or faulty technical designs. Instead, it’s that infrastructure are typically sized based on the intensity and frequency of historical events. Yet these historical conditions are now routinely exceeded: since 1979, Houston alone has experienced three 500-year storms.

Climate change will make preparing for future storms much harder. These events are not just associated with precipitation and inland flooding but include more extreme heat, cold, drought, wildfires, coastal flooding and wind. Buildings, roads, water networks and other infrastructure last decades and designing for historical events may result in more frequent failure as events become more frequent or intense with climate change. Infrastructure designers and managers must shift from risk-based to resilience-based thinking, so that our systems can better withstand and bounce back from these extreme events…

Manage infrastructure as interconnected and interdependent. In his 1987 essay, “Atchafalaya,” writer John McPhee explores efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control the Atchafalaya and Mississippi River systems. He brilliantly showed that rather than bringing predictability to a complex and meandering riverine system, the Old River Control system created unpredictability. “It’s a mixture of hydrologic events and human events… This is planned chaos… Nobody knows where it’s going to end.”

While floodplain management has made advances since then, the impact of development and infrastructure design is still often considered on a piecemeal basis. As Montgomery County engineer Mark Mooney noted in a recent Houston Chronicle article, “I can show you on any individual project how runoff has been properly mitigated. Having said that, when you see the increase in impervious surfaces that we have, it’s clear the way water moves through our county has changed. It’s all part of a massive puzzle everyone is trying to sort out.”


Create flexible infrastructure. Given that our infrastructures are centralized and satisfy demands that don’t change rapidly (we use water and electricity much in the way we did over the past century), they tend to be inflexible. Yet we need our urban systems and the infrastructure that support them to be resilient. And flexibility is a necessary precondition for resilience.

Current designs favor robustness and redundancy. These infrastructure tend to be difficult to change and the managing institutions are often structured and constrained in ways that create barriers to flexibility. Consider the difference in flexibility of landline versus mobile phones, in terms of both use and changing the hardware. Similarly, new strategies are needed to incorporate flexibility into our infrastructure. In the case of hurricanes, roadways with smart signaling and controls that dynamically adjust stoplights and reverse lanes to allow vehicles to evacuate quickly would be of significant value.

Design infrastructure for everyone. Large disasters almost always highlight systemic social inequalities in our communities, as we saw in the 1995 Chicago heat wave, Hurricane Katrina and now Hurricane Harvey.

Yet as cities rebuild and other cities watch to glean lessons, we consistently sidestep the historical legacies, public policies and political-economic structures that continue to make low-income and minority populations, such as homeless people, more vulnerable to extreme weather events. For this to change, infrastructure must be designed with the most vulnerable in mind first.

From American Rivers (Daniel Nylen):

American Rivers, funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, is working to help the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) improve and expand the Yolo Bypass to provide more frequent inundation of this critical floodplain habitat while reducing flood risk for Sacramento and other downstream communities. As part of this grant, American Rivers is also conducting an outreach campaign to help promote multi-benefit flood management and floodplain restoration throughout the Central Valley. We realized that high quality compelling imagery of completed projects, projects in planning stages, and floodplains in action were missing from our campaign. So we tasked ourselves with creating an image archive that could be used indefinitely by us and our partners for advocacy and outreach for years to come.

In order to document conditions along the San Joaquin River following an epic winter and collect stock imagery of the San Joaquin River for the image archive, American Rivers teamed up with LightHawk, a nonprofit that accelerates conservation through the powerful perspective of flight. Pilots volunteer their planes and time to fly missions that create new imagery, collect data, or inform the public about some of our environment’s most pressing issues. This work could not have been done without LightHawk and their volunteer pilots, who fill a critical gap that is often hard to fund.

Back in June, I met up with Bill Rush, one of LightHawk’s dedicated volunteer pilots, for a flight along the San Joaquin River. Bill lives in the Santa Cruz mountains and volunteers for LightHawk, Flying Doctors, and Baja Communidad. As a photographer, I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity even though I have a fear of flying. During the 2-hour flight, we followed the river from Stockton to Mendota and back up again. Luckily, the pilot’s many years of experience, combined with the fact that I was intently focused on what was 2,000 feet below me, resulted in a smooth and productive flight.

Though it was June, the river was still relatively high (around 5,000 cubic feet per second) – high enough to see a few activated floodplains, but low enough to see impacts from the high flows that were endured for many months. Smaller levee breaches were clear in some areas (notice the beautiful sand patterns on farm fields in some of the photos), and other areas were still green and vibrant even though it was nearing mid-summer. I was also able to document several completed floodplain restoration projects and ones in planning stages that are being led by American Rivers and its partners. Overall, the flight provided invaluable imagery and data on the San Joaquin River after one of the wettest winters in recent years.

Given projected impacts to rivers due to climate change – increased frequency of wetter winters and drier summers – the imperative for more resilient approaches to water and flood management are more important than ever. By working with nature, instead of against it, we can improve the resiliency of California’s water infrastructure to more extreme floods and droughts.

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