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A utility’s novel attempt to force farmers to curb pollution in rivers failed. Now the utility is on the hook for millions of dollars to protect the region’s drinking water.
— Read on www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-des-moines-water-utility-lawsuit-farmers.html

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It’s February already!  Where has the year gone?  My apologies for a January without posts.  Things have been busy here and well, blogging got put on the back burner for me with the new semester starting and a new class to design.  But interesting kernels from January:

The World is Trying to Kill You – Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you have a 20% failure rate, does that make a speculative technology a waste of time?  Conversely if your success is 20% is it successful?   I think no and no.

Have you noticed that February is the month we have been getting the worst winter weather in the Midwest and northeast? Not December or January?  I used to shovel snow all January and wait for the February respite.

Killer whales are now a protected species.  What does that say about the killer whales as SeaWorld?

There is a honeybee crisis.  No really, a real one.  Not the Jerry Seinfeld movie.  But the lesson is the same.  No bees, no food.  We need to figure out how we are killing them.  No doubt when we find out it will come back on pesticides, herbicides, monocultures, some combination of the above.  Not a good thing for farming.

The bison are under attack again in Montana.  Maybe Mother Nature is trying to tell us something – buffalo want to roam to their winter grazing fields.   And no brucelliosis, the issue rancher bring up as to why the bison are bad, has still NEVER been transmitted from bison to cattle.  Bison are way better on the land since there hooves are much large and they do not compact the ground as much.  But they are not as stupid as cattle.  They know they can walk thought a barbed wire fence.  They are bison afterall!

A Utah rancher shot and killed Echo, the female wolf that made it to the Grand Canyon last summer and became a national story.  He thought she was a coyote.  Um, I think wolves are a little bit bigger than coyotes.  We have a man with a gun who can’t tell what he’s shooting.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Then there is the bear hunt in Florida because people move closer to the woods and cannot figure out how to secure their garbage of close their garage doors.  Bears get killed.  People…..

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Miami Beach installed $40 million dollars in pumps last summer, with an expected $300 million for.  The nearshore nutrient concentrations increased dramatically (a factor of six), which could adversely impact beach quality, fishing and reefs.  Unintended consequences, but an issue was brought up as a potential concern.


In the last blog we discussed 10 planning steps for sea level rises.  When planning 50-100 years other factors can come into play as well.  As a result, to allow flexibility in the analysis due to the range of increases within the different time periods, an approach that uses incremental increases of 1, 2, and 3 feet of SLR is suggested.  Hence infrastructure is built to meet milestones, not arbitrary dates lessening the potential for stranded assets.. The increments can work as threshold values in planning considerations in terms of allowing planners the ability to know ahead of time where the next set of vulnerable areas will be to allow a for proactive response approach that can be matched to the observed future sea levels.

But prior to developing infrastructure plans, the local community needs to define an acceptable level of service (LOS) for the community. A level service would indicate how often it is acceptable for flooding to occur in a community on an annual basis.  1% is 4 days per years and for a place like Miami Beach, this is nearly 2 ft NAVD88, well above the mean high tide.  The failure to establish an acceptable LOS is often the cause of failure or loss of confidence in a plan at a later point in time.  The effects of SLR of the level of service should be used to update the mapping to demonstrate how the level of service changes, so that a long-term LOS can be defined and used for near-term planning.

With the LOS known, the vulnerability assessment is developed using a GIS based map of topography and the groundwater levels associated with wet and dry season water levels.  LiDAR is a useful tool that may be available at very high resolution in coastal areas.  Topographic maps must be “ground-truthed” by tying it to local benchmarks and transportation plans.  USGS groundwater and NOAA tidal data from local monitoring stations to correlate with the groundwater information. Based on the results of these efforts, the GIS-based mapping will provide areas of likely flooding.

GIS map should be updated with layers of information for water mains, sewer mains, canals, catch basins, weirs and stormwater facilities.  Updating with critical infrastructure will provide a view of vulnerability of critical infrastructure that will be funded by the public sector. Ultimately policy makers will need more information to prioritize the needed improvements.  For example, a major goal may be to reduce Economic Vulnerability.  This means identifying where economic activity occurs and potential jobs.  At-risk populations, valuable property (tax base) and emergency response may be drivers, which means data from other sources should be added.

The next step is to analyze vulnerability spatially, by overlaying development priorities with expected climate change on GIS maps to identify hotspots where adaptation activities should be focused. This effort includes identification of the critical data gaps which, when filled, will enable more precise identification of at risk infrastructure and predictions of impacts on physical infrastructure and on communities. The final deliverable will include descriptions of the recommended concepts including schematics, cost estimates, and implementation plan.

So why go through all this.  Let’s go back to the beginning.  It has to do with community confidence in its leaders.  Resident look at whether their property will be protected.  Businesses look at long-term viability when making decisions about relocating enterprises.  The insurance industry, which has traditionally been focused on a one year vision of risk, is beginning to discuss long-term risks and not insuring property rebuild is risk-prone areas.  That will affect how bankers look at lending practices, which likely will decrease property values.  Hence it is in the community’s interests to develop a planning framework to adapt to sea level rise and protect vulnerable infrastructure through a long-term plan.  Plan or….


I read a recent article in Roads and Bridges on the reconstruction of the roadways to Estes Park.  An excellent effort by state officials and private contractors to rebuild over 20 miles of roads that were wiped away in mid-September when unprecedented rainstorms cut Estes Park off from the front range.  I actually had reservations in Estes Park as part of a plan to go hiking at Lawn Lake, among others.  Lawn Lake was one the harder hit areas in the park.  Went to Leadville.  If you have never been, go.  The early money in Colorado came out of Leadville – silver was the money-maker.   I did a 12 mile hike thought the mining district as it snowed – note it is the 2 mile high City.  Great hike in the am – the photos were fantastic as well.  

But the point is that people expect government to solve problems like the roadways in Colorado.  They expect we will solve water, sewer and storm water problems.  We have done a great job of it because people take these services for granted.  What we don’t want is to have a catastrophic failure, natural or otherwise.. ..


I went to Colorado in July, and it was bone dry like I noted in a prior blog.  The trend was expected to continue, but then something happened.  It rained.  A lot. It’s been raining for almost a month.  Last week it was wet out there, really wet, devastatingly wet on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park (Boulder, Estes Park, Longmont, Lyons). The rain has not really let up so mountain streams are over-running their banks, flooding streets, washing away bridges, damaging property and businesses.  Helicopter evaluation of the damage indicates that miles of roadways are badly damaged. Route 34/36, the primary eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park may have 17 miles (of 20) damage pavement and foundation needing immediate repair.  Estes Park is cut off from the world and there was mud in the streets.  Rocky Mountain National Park is closed to allow access from Grand Lake for emergency vehicles, residents and supplies.  And eastern emergency route from Nederland is also available.  Tourism has halted in the peak of Fall tourist season.

How fortunes have changed, and continue to change.  Three years ago it was the west side of Colorado with 300 inches of snow that flooded downstream communities.  Three months ago was drought. Are these changes part of a larger issue, or a continuation of the status quo?  Hard to know, but certainly both events were far above any prior events experienced in the area.  The local infrastructure was not constructed to meet these conditions, so either the climate is changing, our models are wrong, or both.  We see the same issue playing out regularly around the world when the 100 year or 500 year storm event occurs and wreaks havoc on a community which does not have infrastructure planned for events like this.

 Expect NE Colorado to be a federal disaster area.  Expect billions to be spent on reconstruction of roadways.   But the larger question is whether the new, replacement infrastructure will survive a similar, or larger climate event in the future.  Will our infrastructure planning be short sighted or will it be adjusted accordingly?  The potential for us to protect infrastructure, and property is completely related to our ability to adjust to infrastructure needs and to minimize exposure to weather events.  Keep in mind our economy and way of life is directly related to our infrastructure condition.  But people want to live near rivers and streams, but rarely consider the real risk and consequences. 

How do we address these risks?  FEMA evaluates the probability of flooding to set flood insurance, but FEMA does not prevent construction in flood zones.  Where construction can occur is a state or local issue.  Of course, few local entities want to limit development in any way, so we keep putting people at risk.  Local officials, like those in Florida, keep pushing FEMA officials to reduce flood risks, despite evidence of increasing rainfall intensity that would increase flooding.  Florida is not alone.  No doubt Colorado officials have the same views.  We need to impress upon local officials the risks and encourage them to reduce risks to citizens.  It’s our tax money and insurance premiums they are raising.  But they are rarely held accountable.  Nor are non-elected officials.  Somehow, this needs to change.  We need leaders to stand up and draw the  line in the sand.


A recent Rolling Stone article outlines a potentially dismal future for south Florida.  I was quoted in the article and give the author a bunch of information.  It is hard to write articles that “pop” in the popular press while conveying facts and figures.  But I would suggest that the future is not quite as dismal as the article depicts.  The sea level rise has been ongoing for at least 140 years as indicated by the Key West tidal station, the longest running tidal gauge in the world, but the amount has been 9 inches since 1920.  True it appears that the sea level rise may be accelerating as a result of warming temperatures in the atmosphere that causes the oceans to expend, plus the loss of ice that runs off from glaciers, but 3 feet by 2100 seems the average or maybe the high average.  That is unlikely to inundate all of south Florida, but keeping the water table low will be a challenge.  I suggest that the challenge can be met and accomplish two goals.  In low lying areas the impact of sea level rise is really manifested as increasing groundwater tables.  An increased groundwater table means less soil storage capacity, which means smaller rainstorms will cause flooding.  The increased flooding is already creating a demand by residents for solutions from local public officials.  We have used exfiltration trenches (French drains) for many years, but increasing water tables will mean many of these systems will not function as they may be currently.  But what if we reverse the concept?  Instead of exfiltration, what if we allowed the water to infiltrate the pipe and go to a central wet well, and then pump the water out of the wet well?  I further suggest that the dumping large quantities of groundwater to the ocean or canals may not be permittable as a result of high nutrients, so what if this water is instead pumped to a water plant as a raw water supply?  Wouldn’t that solve two problems at once? Lots of excess fresh water supplies in an era where there are significant limitations in fresh water supplies?  Just thinking….. 

 

 


Based on my last blog, his inquiry came to me.  And I think I actually have an answer:  when bakers and insurance companies decide there is real exposure.  Let’s see why it will take these agencies.  There is very little chance, regardless of good faith efforts, significant expertise, or conscientious bureaucrats to stop growth and development.  The lobby is simply too strong and local officials are looking for ways to raise more revenues.  Development is the easiest way to increase your tax base.  As long as there are no limits placed on develop-ability of properties (and I don’t mean like zoning or concurrency), development will continue.  But let’s see how this plays out.  Say you are in an area that is likely to have the street inundated permanently with water as a result of sea level rise (it could be inland groundwater, not just coastal saltwater).  For a time public works infrastructure can deal with the problem, but ultimately the roadways will not be able to be cleared.  Or say you are located on the coast, and repeated storm events have damaged property.  In both cases the insurance companies will do one of three things:  Refuse to insure the property, insure the property (existing) only for replacement value (i.e. you get the value to replace) but no ability to get replacement insurance, or the premiums will be ridiculous.  We partially have this issue in Florida right now.  Citizen’s is the major insurer.  It’s an insurance pool created by the state to deal with the fact that along the coast, you cannot get commercial insurance.  So Citizens steps in.  The state has limited premiums, and while able to meet its obligations, in a catastrophic storm would be underfunded (of course in theory is should have paid out very little since 2006 since no major hurricanes have hit the state, but that’s another story). 

As the risk increases, Citizens and FEMA, the federal insurer, have a decision to make.  Rebuilding where repeated impacts are likely to happen is a poor use of resources and unlikely to continue.  Beaches and barrier islands will be altered as a result.  The need will be to move people out of these areas, so the option above that will be selected will be to pay to replace (move inland or somewhere else).  Then the banks will sit up.  The banks will see that the value of these properties will not increase.  In fact they will decline almost immediately if the insurance agencies say we pay only to relocate.  That means that if the borrowers refuse to pay, the bank may not be able to get its money out of the deal on a resale.  We have seen the impact on banks from the loss of property values as a result of bad loans.  We are unlikely to see banks engage in similar risks in the future and unlikely to see the federal insurers (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) or commercial re-insurers like AIG be willing to underwrite these risks.   So where insurance is restricted, borrowing will be limited and borrowing time reduced.  That will have a drastic impact on development.  The question is what local officials will do about it?

There are options to adapt to sea level rise, and both banking and insurance industries will be paying close attention in future years.  Local agencies will need a sea level rise adaptation plan, including policies restricting development, a plan to adapt to changing sea and ground water levels including pumping systems to create soil storage capacity, moving water and sewer systems, abandoning roadways, and the like, and hardening vulnerable treatment plants.  Few local agencies have these plans in place.  Many local officials along the Gulf states refuse to acknowledge the risk.  What does that say about their prospects?  Those who plan ahead will benefit.  Southeast Florid a is one of those regions that is planning, but it is slow process and we are only in the early stages.

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