By Christian Flinn
A Reflection on American Infrastructure Needs
A recent study published in the Nature Climate Change journal discusses new calculations surrounding the dangers of sea-level rise (SLR) and the ways in which those dangers are exacerbated by neglecting investment in infrastructure. The main purpose of the study is to emphasize consideration of the metrics surrounding population growth in calculating predictions of the impact of SLR over time in coastal counties throughout the United States. This is accomplished by demonstrating the difference between the number of people SLR would impact, assuming unchanged population levels by the year 2100, and the number it would affect given population growth predictions by the same year. The measures of SLR lie between 0.9m and 1.8m. The differences lie, in many cases, in the hundreds of thousands.
While many States are already aware of the inherent risks they face from SLR, part of the issue in tackling the problem is how unequally those risks are distributed across the country. Furthermore, because population growth rates vary as much as geography and infrastructure vulnerability, those rates have the potential to exacerbate risks differently in every county in question. This is evidenced by comparing SLR impact predictions for coastal counties in California with those in Maine. In California, the estimated number of people impacted by SLR at 0.9m, assuming current population levels, is 94,217. With population growth, this number jumps to 472,248 people. In Maine, SLR at 0.9m is predicted to affect 6,849 people given current population levels. Taking population growth into account, that number increases to 15,230. Both instances represent high increases proportionally – Maine’s “at-risk” population more than doubled given population growth. However, the biggest change still lay in California, with at-risk population more than quadrupling with population growth. What I intend to convey through this discussion, then, is that certain States and counties will require more intensive investment and infrastructure planning than others in order to mitigate against SLR. As posited by the study, ignoring this fact underlines the weaknesses and inadequacies of a “one-size fits all” approach to combatting SLR. It also strengthens the argument for increasing and promoting investment in coastal infrastructure aimed at improving resilience.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure indicates a similar conclusion. While the overall grade of the country was a D+, the report card details the infrastructure investment requirements of individual states for optimum operation, as well as the costs associated with forgoing these investments until 2020. A particularly telling intersection of the report card and the SLR study lies in the state of Florida. The study looked at 22 states with coastal counties potentially at risk from SLR. Of those states, Florida coastal counties were found to hold the highest vulnerable population – both today and by 2100 given growth projections. While not every state was graded individually in the report card, none that were received above a C+. Florida received a C- overall, a D- for coastal areas, a C for stormwater, and a D+ for flood control. Similar grades exist in other States, but they are particularly concerning in Florida given its high at-risk population.
The study states, “Florida accounts for nearly half of the total at-risk population.” Furthermore, because of the “hyperlocalized impact from SLR,” low-lying counties are vulnerable to “extreme exposure” while others nearby may be much more protected. To put this in context, of the top three most vulnerable counties in the country, Monroe, Florida is second with 88 percent of its projected population at risk. Again, the reasons for this extreme vulnerability relate to neglected coastal infrastructure. The report card supports this claim, as in 2008 both coastal areas and stormwater infrastructure in Florida had earned a grade of C+ and had fallen to the current D- and C, respectively, by 2013. Unpacking those declines reveals a combination of neglect and shortsightedness at both the state and federal level. Relating to coastal areas, around 8.6 miles of Florida inlet beaches are now critically eroded, something for which navigation inlet construction is partially responsible. Additionally, 398 miles of beach (of 825 total) are also critically eroded and offshore sand sources depleted, again due to poor management of navigation inlet construction, thus complicating renourishment efforts. Such neglect will only get more expensive, adding to the already astronomical estimate of a necessary $3.6 trillion investment in the country’s overall infrastructure by 2020.
The study and report card also coincide with predictions for the next four states with the highest estimated at-risk populations: Louisiana, California, New York, and New Jersey. Louisiana, under the 1.8m SLR scenario, could find 10 percent of its entire future coastal population vulnerable. Meanwhile New Jersey, also assuming 1.8m SLR, could see over 837,000 people displaced or at risk. With Louisiana’s overall infrastructure grade at a C-, a particularly troublesome figure given the destructive effects of Hurricane Katrina on the state’s vulnerable coast, such predictions make sense and again add urgency to the need for increased investment in the nation’s coasts.
To conclude, it is necessary to understand the importance of both the study and the report card outside the context of an immediate disaster. Infrastructure is often only given proper updates or new structures built after a disaster proves these actions necessary. Instead of sustained investment and proper operation and maintenance, a cycle of disaster-driven one-time investment ensues. The predictions offered by the study on SLR and the telling grades issued in the report card demonstrate an empirical need to break that cycle and take coastal safety and resilience seriously. With Congress about to move forward with the next Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which is responsible for ensuring proper investment in the nation’s water infrastructure, the time is now to make assessments and request that the Federal government take the future seriously.
For more information, please contact Christian Flinn at Christian.Flinn@warwickconsultants.net.