Monday, September 19, 2016

Rain, Storms, Sea Level Rise and Flooding

Earlier this summer, extremely high moisture content in the air combined with a very slow-moving tropical depression resulted in what a blogger at the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) described as an inland tropical storm. Rain over a weekend totaled over 30 inches in some areas. Louisiana is very low and flat so the flooding was wide spread and long lasting. Septic systems and sewer systems were inundated. We heard about the flooding, but not about the sewage in the flood waters.

This was followed by hurricane Hermine, though barely a category 1 hurricane, it brought 10 days of rain and overloaded sewer systems in St. Petersburg and the Gulf Coast of Florida. Officials in St. Petersburg had to release between 100 and 200 million gallons of only partially treated sewage and rainwater to the environment to protect public health by keeping the sewer systems from backing up into homes.

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, grades the infrastructure in the United States, from water mains, sewer systems and plants, power lines connected to homes and businesses and the electrical grid spanning the U.S.; the neighborhood streets and the national highway system, dams, rail roads, airports. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, connecting businesses, communities, and people, making us a first world country, but the ASCE tells us that our infrastructure is in sad shape.

In their last report the grade for drinking water infrastructure was a D. In many parts of the nation, much of the piping that delivers water to our homes and businesses is almost a century old, nearing the end of its useful life. The lead contamination to the drinking water in Flint, Michigan is just an example of the havoc a failing water system can bring. Interruption in water supplies is another problem. The government reports that there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), though new technology is being demonstrated to reduce that cost and extend the life of older piping systems. Nonetheless, our water distribution system needs to be replaced not just broken water mains repaired.

The ASCE grade for wastewater was also a D. The ASCE estimates that $298 billion will be required over the next 20 years to maintain and upgrade the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems. As in the water delivery systems pipes represent the largest capital need, three quarters of the costs. Fixing and expanding the network of pipes will reduce sanitary sewer overflows, combined sewer overflows, and other pipe-related issues like urban sinkholes. In addition, our waste water treatment plants do not have the capacity and in system storage to handle the additional flows from large storms while maintaining public health. These systems need to be expanded and improved.

Before the floodwaters in Louisiana had receded, NOAA weighed in and developed an analysis using the best readily available observational data and high-resolution global climate model simulations. The analysis was conducted by scientists from NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton University, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological institute, and Climate Central’s World Weather Attribution project. It was based on methods, observations, and models that have been widely used before, but this analysis has not yet been peer-reviewed.

NOAA scientists found that heavy downpours along the Gulf Coast have increased since the middle of the last century, and that is consistent with what climate experts have predicted would happen as greenhouse gases warmed the planet: more water vapor in the air to fuel extremely heavy rain. The scientists performing the analysis concluded that warming due to greenhouse gases has made events like the one in August at least 40% more likely and 10% more intense than they were 100 or so years ago.

NOAA stated that due to past climate change and sea level rise (some not due to climate change) we can expect more frequent massive storms and hurricanes in the future in this part of the country. In addition, at the end of August a report from Zillow warned that rising sea levels may inundate more than 2 million homes in the coming decades. Our coastal cities and towns need to be prepared for storms and flooding. These events should be planned for.

Our nation is growing poorer. Our government spends about $3.8 trillion dollars a year while taking in only $2.4 trillion in income tax revenues. You can see all the cash flows in the chart below and it is not a pretty picture. With failing infrastructure, rising sea levels and more frequent storms, rather than repair and restore after each storm event and delay addressing our infrastructure deficiencies, we need to plan for the future. We need to think about abandoning the most vulnerable areas to the seas.

There are over 105 models of the planet and its climate, though the scientist keep refining the models and improving them, there remain simplifications, assumptions and things about our plant and how it responds to change that are unknown. Ignoring all that, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates it is necessary to keep total planetary emissions below 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2100 to have a global warming of between 1.3 degree Celsius to 3.9 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, it seems certain that we will bust through that budget in the next 20 years even if all the promises under the Paris accord are met.

Though I’m not a big fan of the accuracy of many of the climate models, I have no doubt that climate is changing and sea level is rising at least here in Virginia. We need to prepare for the future our nation is going to face. While we as a nation still have the financial flexibility to make changes, we need to plan the future of our nation.
Note that the US borrows $583 billion beyond borrowings from SS

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