The Challenge of Change: Climate Change and Water Infrastructure
By Anthony Zuena, PE, Water Market Manager
Over the last six months, I’ve read Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Dessert, The American West and its Disappearing Water” and Mark Heatsgaard’s “Hot-Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.” Yes, I am truly a nerd at heart and proud of it! While each book had a different focus, a common thread was Climate Change. As a trained and experienced water supply engineer my “ah ha” moment was that all of my basic design training and experience was no longer applicable for the challenges we will face over the next 50 years. For example, I am working on a flood mitigation assignment where on a river north of Boston, we have had a statistical 50-year or greater storm event five times in the last 16 years. This is just one small example of the dramatic changes we will need to adapt to in the way we analyze and design our entire water infrastructure ranging from our water supply, wastewater and stormwater systems to management of surface water resources including the country’s elaborate system of dams and levees.
I find it quite interesting that even among my peer group of highly trained and very intelligent engineers and scientists, we are mired in a debate of is this a real phenomenon, is it something society has caused and what, if anything, should we do about it? I certainly have my own position in this debate but that misses the point entirely. One only needs to look at the weather around the globe over the last decade and here in the U.S. where winter, for the most part, forgot to show up this year. I would submit that reasonable minds should agree the weather is changing. It’s probably pointless to try to place blame on who caused it or if it is a natural cycle. More to the point, as water management professionals, we should be taking a leadership role in understanding and preparing for climate change as society at large will expect nothing less from us and will be very critical of us if we continue to take a wait-and-see attitude.
I, for one, see an enormous opportunity for our profession to step out from the shadows that we have labored in for too long and set a clear and compelling vision that must rival the boldness of the WPA program of the 1930s and 1940s, the “Man to the Moon” goal of the 1960s and the still unfulfilled vision of energy independence in the U.S. which has floundered since the 1970s. Couple this bold vision with a completely aligned and complementary benefit of dramatically reducing unemployment in the U.S. by designing and modernizing this ageing infrastructure which, in many cases, is approaching 70 to 100 years old and well past its design service life.
Where’s the downside in all of this? The reality is we have to find a way to pay for it. Why is this such a big hurdle when we can find ways to pay for disaster relief annually after spring floods and summer hurricanes and tornadoes? The preponderance of scientific research suggests these events will only become more common, more intense, more damaging and more expensive to recover from. Unplanned disaster relief will have real cost (not to mention loss of life) that historically we never factored into our typical cost/benefit analysis. My gut tells me when we start including these disaster relief costs, we will develop starkly different conclusions in terms of financial justification of water infrastructure renewal programs. We can then build upon the emerging science of infrastructure asset management where condition assessment and risk and consequence of failure will help us establish necessary priorities.
Finally, we must take a leadership role to educate our elected officials and the public at large that it is time to financially contribute for the benefit of our children and grandchildren as our parents and grandparents did for us over the last 50-80 years. They paid for and created the high quality infrastructure fundamental to the quality of life we now take for granted. It’s our turn to do the same thing and yes, make some modest sacrifices if that is what it will take.
Continue the conversation with Anthony Zuena, Water Market Manager at email@example.com