Climate Change Plus Aging Infrastructure = Multiplying Disasters
February 15, 2017
As climate changes, one of the most reliable predictions is that precipitation patterns will change – with more water coming in extreme events rain (or snow) events, like we’ve witnessed recently in California and elsewhere.
US infrastructure, already badly frayed by decades of neglect from a congress willing to spend any amount for oil war, but stingy when it comes to actual responsibility.
LOS ANGELES — The St. Francis Dam was a proud symbol of California’s engineering might and elaborate water system — until just before midnight on March 12, 1928, when it collapsed, killing more than 400 people in a devastating wall of water. Ever since, the state has had a reputation of diligent inspections as it has built the largest network of major public dams in the nation.
But the threat of catastrophic flooding from the damaged Oroville Dam in Northern California this week — forcing the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people because of what environmental groups had asserted in 2005 was a design flaw — presented a warning sign for California, where a network of dams and waterways is suffering from age and stress. It also demonstrated that older dams may not be designed to deal with the severe weather patterns California has experienced because of global warming. The Oroville Dam was completed in 1968, toward the end of the golden era of dam building.
The culprit at Oroville was a faulty emergency spillway, used for the first time since the dam was opened after days of drenching storms, driven by what are known as atmospheric rivers, that filled the reservoir to capacity. But engineers and environmentalists said similar problems could occur at many of the roughly 1,500 dams that dot this state.
“We are not maintaining the water infrastructure adequately,” said Peter H. Gleick, a founder of the Pacific Institute, a think tank dedicated to water issues. “We are not maintaining it in Flint, Mich., and we are not maintaining it at our big dams in California. We need to spend more money and time on maintaining these.”
Matthew Chynoweth, MDOT’s deputy region engineer, noted an increasing frequency of heavy storms, which could be caused by climate change. The infrastructure simply was not built to handle this new reality. In the case of the I-94 pump house, the “1965” stamped on several pipes highlights the challenge. But Chynoweth described an obvious complication.
“We could make this able to handle a monsoon, but we’d still be limited by how much we can pump into the local system,” Chynoweth said.
Still, MDOT does have a goal of upgrading its pump houses to 90% good by 2035. With all highway projects, however, the budget is limited — $3 million per year, and each pump house rehab costs about $1.5 million.
A comprehensive, long-term solution, which would involve not only MDOT but also local communities and a host of other stakeholders, however, does not appear to be in the works.