To build for the future, we need updated rainfall records

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more resilient future. But to pull that off, communities must understand something so common we scarcely think about it: rain.   

Rainfall data is one of the most overlooked and highest reward opportunities to ensure our cities and towns are built for a future of more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Many communities, however, have little access to accurate, forward-looking rainfall data, through no fault of their own. 

A recent NPR report finds that states across the country use outdated rainfall records, sometimes as old as 50 years, when upgrading infrastructure. Not only that, but despite more frequent and extreme weather events, this same data fails to consider future rainfall patterns.  

The report finds that 22 states and the District of Columbia use rainfall numbers that are over 15 years old. And five states haven’t updated rainfall records since at least 1975. 

Many flood infrastructure decisions — the height of seawalls, the elevation of roads, the size of storm drains — depend on accurate data. Without it, city planners and engineers may invest in infrastructure that is ineffective, wasteful and even dangerous. 

Last year, impacts from Hurricane Ida stretched across the country, inundating neighborhoods overwhelming storm sewers and killing more than 50 people in the Northeast. When building and updating infrastructure, cities need resources that consider these recent impacts. 

Part of the problem is that if states or municipalities want to update state rainfall maps, they must request and then pay for a report from the federal government. Another problem is that this report is based on historical data, not future impacts.  

One solution is for the federal government to update rainfall records with data that looks forward, like it already does with sea-level rise: New sea-level projections from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA, for example, consider how sea level will rise in the next 30 years.  

One thing communities on the frontlines of flooding all have in common is that they must rely on shaky rainfall data from the federal government. 

Another solution is to provide federal dollars to get an agency like NOAA to provide regular nationwide updates, not just when states request and pay for it. That’s why I support the FLOODS and PRECIP Acts, two bipartisan bills in Congress led by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.). The bills would provide communities with more regular, accessible and timely updates of rainfall data. 

Of course, some states and communities conduct their own rainfall surveys to avoid working with the federal government altogether. New York, for example, recently worked with Cornell University to project future rainfall patterns. San Francisco conducted something similar with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Small, rural and less wealthy communities, however, often lack resources to take on such efforts.  

In other words, even if funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law are distributed fairly to communities who need it most — like those most at risk of flooding and most historically underserved — we’ll still have a lot of inequity: Lacking updated rainfall records, lower-income communities may use federal money on projects that can’t withstand stronger storms and heavier rains. 

To build effective, resilient infrastructure, we need data that reflects recent trends and projected impacts. By upgrading infrastructure with a clear-eyed view of future risk, we can keep our citizens safe, prevent wasteful spending and build a more resilient future. 

Understanding rainfall is key to that future.

Melissa Roberts is the founder and executive director of the American Flood Coalition, a nonpartisan group of more than 280 cities, elected officials, military leaders, businesses, civic groups and 26 federal champions, working together to drive adaptation to the reality of higher seas, stronger storms and more frequent flooding.

Tags Climate change Cory Booker extreme weather Flood flooding Gary Peters Hurricane Ida Melissa Roberts Mikie Sherrill rain fall Roger Wicker

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