With Climate Change Looming, Water Experts Weigh How to Shore Up Aging Infrastructure

The Oroville Dam spillway after it ruptured due to erosion by heavy outflows. Photo taken on Feb. 11, 2017. (Photo: California Department of Water Resources)

In recent years, the United States has seen many water-related extreme events – drought, flooding, hurricanes – that have placed immense strain on America’s aging infrastructure. To address an issue that is particularly salient for the American West, major players in water infrastructure from across the country convened a workshop at Stanford University entitled “Planning for America’s Water Infrastructure Needs.”

Held on February 5-6, 2018, the workshop brought together leaders from Stanford, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and a number of institutes and government agencies, to discuss strategies for modernizing America’s water infrastructure. The event was organized through a partnership of Stanford Law School, Stanford’s Water in the West project, the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and the former Chief of Engineer of the United States Army, LTG (Ret.) Thomas P. Bostick.

That event has resulted in a consensus document that is now available. It encompasses the ideas participants discussed at the conference, namely  five challenges that all water managers must overcome to successfully modernize their water infrastructure. They must:

  • Secure funding, usually from a variety of sources;
  • Find leaders who can establish priorities and assemble stakeholders;
  • Make use of streamlined investment procedures in order to maximize efficiency and minimize cost;
  • Promote education to inspire public investment in water infrastructure; and
  • Be mindful of interconnectivity, which means that changes in one water system can affect others.
The workshop took place on February 5-6 at Stanford.

Moving from Linear to Cyclical Thinking in Water Systems

The concept of interconnectivity has particular resonance when considering that through both hydrological processes and the organization of water systems, water infrastructure is characterized by loops. The amount of water on earth is finite and varies in its distribution, moving in cycles of precipitation and evaporation. Water systems also operate as loops: what happens at one point of the loop affects all others. However, water infrastructure is currently conceptualized in a largely linear fashion – supply is followed by use, then disposal. Workshop participants suggested moving towards a model of water infrastructure that more accurately reflects the cyclical nature of water, emphasizing efficient use and recycling. This approach will maximize the use of available water resources, as well as streamline their distribution.

The Importance of Adaptability in the Face of Uncertain Conditions

Workshop participants also advocated for greater flexibility in infrastructure planning. As climate change intensifies, extreme weather events will occur unevenly, and although it is impossible to predict exactly when these will occur and at what intensity, their occurrence is a near inevitability. As a result, water infrastructure must be adaptable to worst-case scenarios. Consider the 2017 near-failure of Northern California’s Oroville Dam after operators opened an emergency spillway to prevent rising waters from overtopping its embankment. The intense outflows that resulted tore a hole in the spillway and threatened to rupture the dam itself. This led to the evacuation of over 200,000 people, as well as massive repair costs; though these are still being tallied, the current estimate is $875 million. Additional flexibility in both policy and structure, which participants termed “nimble planning,” could have prevented such a disaster, or at least minimized its costs, they said.

An example of this is designing structures to “fail gracefully.” In a time of extreme climate events, it is impossible to completely avoid failures, but by embedding “trigger points” and considering the resiliency of entire water systems, the costs of a given failure can be reduced. A counterpoint to the Oroville Dam scenario would be the 2011 Mississippi River Valley Flood, during which the US Army Corps of Engineers established a trigger point at which they would allow water to enter a floodway. Once the river reached this trigger point – water levels above 60 feet at Cairo, Illinois – the Corps determined that the costs of opening the floodway (which entailed evacuating 230 residents and sustaining flood damage to levees and agricultural land) were outweighed by the potential costs of not opening it (which might have precipitated the failure of levees downriver). Estimates said that by opening the floodway, they may have prevented as much as $234 billion in damages.

Considering Reform of Federal Financing Policies – and Public-Private Partnerships

Planning and constructing flexible and resilient infrastructure, however, requires navigating complex procedural webs and bringing together funding from multiple sources. Participants called for reform in federal financing policies, as well as an increase in the proportion of total funds devoted to water infrastructure. Federal funding, which once constituted 45 percent of all direct governmental investment in water infrastructure, now represents only ten to fifteen percent. In addition to reforming funding policies, participants discussed making use of private investment through the private-public partnership, or “P3,” model. These cooperative agreements between governmental and private organizations can lead to greater appropriation of funds for water infrastructure. However, these agreements must be drawn carefully in order to manage liability and benefits for all parties involved.

Public Education Will Be Key to Unlocking Funding Streams

Participants also highlighted research and education as important components in securing funding, particularly when it is subject to local voter approval. It is always difficult to muster public support for delayed-impact investments in which the benefits of will be realized later on. Support for flexible water infrastructure – the projects that “fail gracefully” – is even more difficult to garner, as the public is understandably unenthusiastic about investing in “failure.” Further research on methods of communicating water infrastructure needs may result in increased public support, and therefore increased funding, for the water infrastructure that Americans will need.

Cooperation is Vital to an Interconnected System

Above all, workshop participants stressed cooperation and collaboration as ideal modes of conduct when looking to the future. As all water systems are interconnected, managers and leaders at the local, state, agency, watershed, multi-watershed, federal, and other levels must work together to provide strong and effective infrastructure nationwide. Outreach and education about infrastructure and the processes that support it is important not just for the public, but also for experts in the field. To that end, participants stressed a need for “continuing education” for water managers, so that they may deepen their understanding of the systems they manage, and share knowledge within their jurisdiction and with other affected water systems.

Water infrastructure in the United States is in need of extensive reform, but with increased education, funding, and collaboration, it can be made ready for the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.


Related Content

Read the Consensus Document

Download the White Paper: Planning for America’s Water Infrastructure Needs




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