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Lack of Discussion of Climate Change Effects on Federal Water Infrastructure

State of the InfrastructureBy Dr. Marc Kodack  

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) released a joint report at the end of 2019 on their water-related infrastructure that went largely unnoticed. Notably, however, the report omits discussion of climate change implications for this aging infrastructure. The report includes infrastructure that the two entities collaboratively operate, as well as respective programs for “power generation, water supply, navigation, flood risk reduction, [and] recreation.” While the benefits and challenges to different types of infrastructure are summarized in the first section of the report – e.g., dams, hydropower facilities, navigation (ports, locks, and dredging), canals and pipelines, bridges and roads, levees –  climate change is inexplicably not mentioned as being a challenge to infrastructure. Thus, there is no consideration of the consequences of climate change effects on any of this infrastructure (see here for effects to interstate highway bridges).

Let’s take dams. Most of USACE’s 716 and BOR’s 491 dams are more than 50 years old and do not reflect modern design and construction standards. Thus, some dams require that the reservoir capacity be reduced to address design-related safety issues. In addition, storage capacity is also reduced by decades of sediment accumulation. Climate change will adversely affect the operation and functionality of the dam and its associated reservoir. And yet this is not addressed in the report.

Both USACE and BOR regularly evaluate dam conditions using “risk-informed evaluation methodologies to assess current asset conditions and the consequences of asset failure.” The results of an evaluation are used to create a risk indicator that guides investment decisions for a project or across a portfolio. While both the dam safety risk management programs of USACE and BOR (see also here) could easily accommodate climate change and its effects, e.g., increased frequency, intensity, and/or duration of inland or coastal storms, as another risk to incorporate into a risk assessment, the report only manages to say this about influences on all water infrastructure—“changes in the magnitudes and frequencies of hydrologic events, resulting in the potential greater damages to exposed areas and a need for continued and improved monitoring and response capabilities so that water-related infrastructure can provide the Nation with vital benefits long into the future.” The cause of many of these recurring, future hydrologic events is not presented.

Alternatively, Mallakpour et al. (2019), modeled climate change effects on 13 dams in California. Some of the dams are owned/operated by BOR, with one operated jointly by USACE and BOR (compare supplemental information here with here). The authors found that flooding is more likely, increasing hazards at the dam and downstream communities. Under the modeled conditions risk to dam infrastructure will increase.

Risks to water-related infrastructure, both federal and private, are many. Climate change risk will exacerbate the current poor condition and the continued acceptable functionality of many pieces of this infrastructure. For the two largest owner/operators of water-related infrastructure in the U.S., USACE, and BOR, climate change should be a high priority risk that receives the prominence it deserves given that USACE has had policies on climate change in the past for the Civil Works program (see also here), as has BOR (here and here) for its own programs. Neither the infrastructure nor climate change risk has gone away in the 10 years.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability

1 Comment

  1. pendantry says:

    Sadly, this is par for the course. If there’s one thing that homo fatuus brutus is good at, it’s sticking its head in the sand.

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