Shoring up coastal infrastructure is long past due
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It’s nearly Labor Day weekend and for millions of Americans that means heading to the coasts to enjoy a vacation of sun and surf at the beach. But imagine Labor Day in a few decades’ time with no beach to enjoy and coastal communities isolated by flooded roads.

Accelerating beach loss is a very real scenario for places like Virginia Beach and the southern California coast according to latest research. Our future doesn’t have to be filled with flooded roads, airports and other infrastructure, but it’s much more likely with the Trump administration decision to kill a 2015 building standard requiring federally funded infrastructure to account for sea-level rise.

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Beach erosion and flooded infrastructure are just two of the multiple threats endangering our coasts due to sea-level rise and higher storm surges. The scientific community has advised policymakers that seas are rising at alarming rates. Regionally, this could have devastating effects for places like Hampton Roads, Virginia and Miami Beach, Florida, where nuisance flooding is already challenging everyday life and where sea levels could rise one to three feet by shortly after mid-century. For these coastal communities, impacts are occurring now and, without dedicated attention, risk is becoming unmanageable. They need the infrastructure to mitigate these hazards, and they needed it yesterday.

 

The drive to revitalize our infrastructure is supported by rare bipartisan agreement. The administration has announced a plan to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure spending from the private sector by leveraging $200 billion in federal dollars and the Democrats have released “A Better Deal” plan that focuses mainly on infrastructure.

This is excellent news, as the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ on its 2017 infrastructure report card for failure to invest sufficiently in infrastructure construction and maintenance. At the same time, sea-level rise threatens our nation’s coastal communities, complicating the lives of more than 123.3 million U.S. citizens living in coastal counties — causing trillions of dollars in residential and commercial property damage and affecting at least 128 military installations. If we invest in infrastructure, we must ensure those investments are resilient enough for a climate-threatened future.

In a few locations where impacts are already being felt, local governments are investing in resilient infrastructure. For example, the Central District Wastewater and Treatment Plant on Virginia Key, a barrier island in Miami, Florida, included longer-term climate resiliency in a rebuild project to meet Clean Water Act standards. Taking projected sea-level rise, worst-case scenarios for hurricanes and high tides into account, the facilities at the plant will be elevated by 17 to 20 feet rather than the previous usual practice of 10 to 15 feet.

As residents of a low-lying state with 1,350 miles of coastline, many local officials in Florida see the benefits to investing early in resiliency to avoid expensive infrastructure replacement later.

In fact, spending the money upfront on resilience is more cost-effective than paying for post-disaster cleanup. Over 22,000 communities across the United States have adopted local flood risk reduction standards, which have resulted in an annual savings of nearly $2 billion in damages from flooding. 

The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard ensured that federal government investments in infrastructure at risk of flooding achieved the same reductions in flood losses as those communities. It required that, where federal funds financed construction in or near floodplains, the construction had to account for increased flood risk, including from future sea-level rise. The federal standard was a powerful incentive for increased resilience, linking access to taxpayer dollars with attention to the scientific information about risks from rising seas. In killing that standard, the Trump administration told the nation to build foolishly — that they needn’t prepare for the increasing risk of flood. 

Of course in doing so, the Trump administration guaranteed that American taxpayers would end up paying twice: once to build the structure and then again as part of the disaster recovery when the structure sustains damage in the next flood. New York City spent $545 million to open its South Ferry subway station in 2009 — and spent $369 million rebuilding it after Superstorm Sandy hit just three years later.

Where critical infrastructure is concerned, its failure can cause cascading damage elsewhere. We witnessed this in Superstorm Sandy when increased storm surge flooded an electrical substation thereby plunging Lower Manhattan into total darkness. The failure of the energy system led to the evacuation of over 6,000 hospital patients down darkened stairways and brought transportation to a halt because, as it turns out, you can’t pump fuel without power.

A robust economy and vibrant community depends on excellent infrastructure. We need top-quality roads, bridges, airports and powerlines to stay competitive. We also need infrastructure that lasts. Building in sites that become unusable or with techniques that don’t address the challenges of rising seas is effectively throwing money into the ocean. Our nation was built on a combination of hard work and careful planning. Being able to look over the horizon — opening the West, constructing the interstate highway system or protecting spectacular national parks — is a hallmark of our national character. Now, more than ever, we need to take advantage of that ability, as we roll up our sleeves and build our infrastructure for the rest of the 21st century.

Roger-Mark De Souza is the director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience for the Wilson Center. Chris Field is the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Alice Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She previously served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Resilience Policy at the National Security Council and led the White House process to develop the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. Katharine Mach is director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility.


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