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U.S. Infrastructure Struggles With New Weather Forecast

Nov 16, 2021

Heat, rain overwhelm systems designed to withstand old climate patterns

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 A 22-foot-high floodwall was supposed to protect Aqua Pennsylvania’s water-treatment facility near the Schuylkill River from a 100year storm. But when the remains of Hurricane Ida barreled through the area near Philadelphia in September, the 18-inch-thick wall proved no match for the record rains.

Waters breached the barrier and inundated the plant. Mud and debris coated offices. Employees rushed to shut down the facility. They barely got out in time, some rolling down car windows in case they got caught in the rising waters and had to leap out, said Chris Franklin, chief executive of Aqua’s parent company, Essential Utili- ties Inc.: “We’ve never seen destruction like this before.”

Across America, historically anomalous weather is overwhelming infrastructure and government systems designed to withstand the weather of the past, forcing cities and utilities to rethink resiliency plans.

In New York City in September, record rains dropped 3.15 inches in an hour in Central Park, overwhelming a sewer system generally built to handle 1.75 inches an hour. In Spokane, Wash., an unprecedented heat wave in June sent temperatures to 109 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing the local electric utility to turn off substation transformers that lose capacity at temperatures higher than 104. In Northern California

this summer, a drought dried up reservoirs and reduced hydroelectric power the state counts on to help keep millions of people’s lights on.

American cities have been battered by severe weather for generations, but recently many have had to contend with more extreme events, including some they have little experience with, local government officials said. Compounding the problem: infrastructure that has deteriorated in many places, leaving cities with weakened dams, aging pipes and strained electrical grids.

“Our cities and infrastructure… are not appropriate for the current situation,” said Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who developed a climate- change adaptation plan for the New York subway system, adding that harsher weather is here to stay.

Some local governments are pursuing projects to guard a range of infrastructure, including power lines, roads and water systems, against increasing climate threats. New York City is investing more than $20 billion in adaptation efforts to address storm surge, tidal flooding, heavy rainfall and extreme heat. The city of Miami Beach, Fla., is spending roughly $1 billion on a plan to raise roads, lift sea walls and install new pump stations to deal with more-intense downpours.

While the number of weather-related disasters has increased over the past half-century, the number of related deaths has decreased because of improved early warnings and disaster management, according to an August report by the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency.

Growing populations along coasts and into fire-prone wilderness and forests exacerbate the impact of climate change in those areas, scientists say.

Using computer models and troves of data, researchers in the emerging field of attribution science increasingly are linking the types of freak events the world has experienced this year to a warming planet. While natural climate variability plays a role in severe weather, most scientists believe climate change is contributing to greater frequency and potency of such events. They are most confident in connecting climate change to heat waves and somewhat less so linking it to events like hurricanes.

“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific panel working under the auspices of the United Nations that assesses thousands of scientific papers, said in a report in August, describing the evidence that humans have helped to heat the planet as unequivocal.

Communities face tough questions over how to pay for upgrading power grids, storm water systems and other aging infrastructure. The U.S. is making only about half of needed investments in infrastructure, and that funding gap is projected to increase to nearly $2.59 trillion over this decade, according to a report this year by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

President Biden has called for the U.S. to make large-scale investments to modernize its public works and mitigate climate-change impacts. On Monday, he signed a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package, which includes around $50 billion in funding for climate-resiliency projects.

Floodwall failure

Calculating what infrastructure is needed for a future that may be different than the past is difficult, however, as Aqua Pennsylvania learned. It completed a $1 million floodwall to protect its plant near the Schuylkill River in 2010. As the company sought approval for the project, some regulatory-commission staff questioned whether it was an excessive investment, Mr. Franklin said.

The rainfall in September was exactly the kind of event the floodwall was designed for: a 100-year-storm, or one with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. Still, floodwaters broke through one portion and overtopped the barrier, forcing the plant to close until repairs allowed for a partial reopening. Aqua Pennsylvania said it has restored the breached section of the wall and is considering several options for future flood mitigation but hasn’t announced a decision yet.

“We are seeing a steady increase in the amount and the severity of the storms and the impact that it has on customers,” said CEO Michael Innocenzo of PECO, an electric and natural-gas utility based in Philadelphia, adding that he saw the trend as persistent.

Ida’s remnants brought high winds and tornadoes—a rarity in that part of the country— that toppled 290 power poles, said Mr. Innocenzo. Flooding engulfed three electrical substations, forcing two to go offline. Six of the 10 worst storms in the utility’s more than 130year history—based on the percentage of customer outages— occurred in the last decade, Mr. Innocenzo said. PECO has more than doubled capital investment in infrastructure over that time to about $1.3 billion this year, driven in part by extreme-weather challenges and including beefed-up design standards for new substations, he said. The weather severity “reinforces the investments that we have been making and makes us continue to look at how we can…accelerate those investments.”

In New York City, climate-resiliency investments have centered in large part on addressing vulnerabilities to coastal storm surge highlighted by superstorm Sandy in 2012, through initiatives such as a flood-protection project along the eastern side of lower Manhattan.

Ida exposed a different vulnerability: Severe rainfall triggered widespread flooding of streets, subways and basement apartments and prompted the first flash-flood emergency the National Weather Service ever issued in the city. “This was a totally different threat,” said Robert Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit that advocates for infrastructure investments to gird communities for more-intense storms and heat. “Our storm water systems aren’t equipped to handle it.”

A storm-water resiliency plan that the city released in May said that scientists project intense rainfall to increase in coming decades and that modeling of both moderate and extreme events showed them overwhelming the existing drainage system.

In August, the city completed more than $230 million in drainage improvements in Staten Island, and work is continuing on a $2.2 billion plan launched in 2015 in southeastern Queens to overhaul the area’s drainage system.

Consolidated Edison Inc., which provides electricity to about 3.3 million customers in the New York City region, invested heavily in its infrastructure after Sandy and then undertook a study to assess the potential effects of climate change on the system.

CEO Timothy Cawley said two findings grabbed his attention: The study anticipated significant increases in temperature and in sea level. That would almost certainly strain electrical equipment sensitive to high temperatures and render a larger part of the network susceptible to flooding. The utility has reoriented its planning to explicitly account for those contingencies.

“If we have to install a new transformer,” Mr. Cawley said, an engineer “is checking to see the expected life of the asset and sea level rise,” adding: “Each step we make recognizes that the climate is changing, and we’ve got to get ready for it.”

California’s drought has revealed the fragility of its interrelated power and water systems. The California Department of Water Resources, which manages much of the state’s water supply, had long anticipated a challenging year, in part because the Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds into reservoirs was below average levels in the spring.

The situation turned out to be far worse than it anticipated: The snowpack yielded only about 20% of the expected runoff, said John Yarbrough, assistant deputy director for the department’s State Water Project. That forced the agency to encourage water users to conserve, find other supplies and begin considering new interconnections to bring in water in anticipation of more dry years to come. It is now working to improve its modeling capabilities and working with the Army Corps of Engineers to better use water and weather forecasts in making operational decisions at reservoirs.

“That translation from snowpack to runoff is a pretty stable relationship that we’ve observed back historically, until this year,” Mr. Yarbrough said. “With climate change, one of the things we’re worried about is seeing these stable relationships start breaking down.”

The lack of water also crimped hydroelectric power production, which supplied about 16% of California’s electricity in 2019, according to state data. The water level at Lake Oroville, which feeds California’s largest hydroelectric plant, has lately risen to nearly 669 feet, or 29% capacity. This summer, it reached a record low since it was first filled in 1968 and went offline for the first time in August for lack of water.

That has exacerbated a tight supply on California’s power grid, which has been aggressively shedding fossil-fuel electricity generation to meet state climate goals but faces challenges when the sun falls and solar power drops off. The state asked residents to conserve electricity to avoid rolling blackouts several times this summer and recently installed four temporary natural-gas generators at power plants to help alleviate the shortages.

In the Pacific Northwest, where summer weather is so mild that many homes and businesses never installed air conditioning, the June heat wave strained cities and electric utilities. Avista Corp., which provides electricity to nearly 340,000 customers in four Northwestern states, anticipated a demand surge as temperatures crested, reaching a record of 109 degrees in Spo- kane on June 29, said Heather Rosentrater, Avista’s senior vice president of energy delivery.

Managing it proved even more difficult than expected with more people working from home and blasting their AC units, which have become more prevalent in the region in recent years. Four of the company’s substation transformers sounded heat alarms, forcing it to take them offline to avoid serious damage to the equipment. About 18,000 customers experienced outages as a result of that and other equipment challenges.


Ms. Rosentrater said the company is considering upgrades to its power-delivery infrastructure and assessing whether it should build its equipment to withstand higher temperatures in anticipation of more severe heat waves in the future. “It was unprecedented,” Ms. Rosentrater said. “We haven’t had to take these kinds of actions before.”

Weather extremes have led governments such as Minnesota’s to rethink not only infrastructure, but also vital services that may become more necessary in years to come, such as wildfire protection. In Minnesota, which is experiencing a severe drought, more than 2,000 wildfires have ignited this year, significantly more than the yearly average of 1,172. The fires have so far burned more than 69,000 acres, more than five times the average annual amount, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Bill Glesener, wildfire-operations supervisor for the department, said the agency has had to borrow personnel to assist with firefighting. The drought has caused the region’s many lakes to shrink, forcing crews to rely on portable tanks and increasing the time needed to fight each fire. The agency anticipates having to shift its strategy in anticipation of longer, more-severe fire seasons that might be characterized as “fire years,” Mr. Glesener said. “The weather can change on a daily basis, but the climate is there for the long term,” he said. “And that’s really what we’re adjusting our plans for.”

A February cold snap caused many of Texas’ wind farms and power plants to freeze, resulting in widespread blackouts that left millions shivering and caused the deaths of more than 200 people. The state’s Public Utility Commission recently approved weatherization requirements for the power market, devised with help from a state climatologist. A recent report by the climatologist found that Texas will see more extreme heat and more severe storm surges in the next 15 years as a result of climate change.

Commission Chairman Peter Lake didn’t draw a connection between climate change and the state’s actions, but characterized the previous lack of weatherization standards as skydiving without a backup parachute: The chance of needing one is small but carries critical consequences. “It’s very difficult to predict anything, and we’ve seen that in spades over the last several years,” Mr. Lake said. “When it comes to power, you can never guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong, but you can damn sure do a lot better than to live on the fallacy of averages.” —David Harrison contributed to this article.

‘Our cities and infrastructure…are not appropriate for the current situation,’


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