Army Corps of Engineers embraces uncertainty in planning for climate change

Leaders at the Army Corps of Engineers say the science is clear: The effects of climate change mean its vast network of civil works projects are going to have to stand up to weather events more severe than they’ve ever seen before, and those storms and droughts are going to be much harder to predict.

So the corps is adjusting its business model in a way that attempts to embrace climate uncertainty as a fact of life, and says its response to climate change has to be much more comprehensive than building bigger dams and higher levees.

Like other federal agencies, the Corps of Engineers is in the process of identifying its vulnerabilities and drawing up plans to adapt to climate change, in response to a 2013 executive order.

But Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the corps’ commanding general, says the agency has been thinking through how to make its dams, levees and locks more resilient to giant storms for a long time. For the corps, the signal event was the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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Bostick says it was a wakeup call that future projects needed to account for a much broader range of weather events than they’d addressed in the past.

“Pre-Katrina, we developed all of our projects considering a single most likely future condition, and we built based on that,” he told reporters Thursday. “Post- Katrina, we considered a much broader range of options: All of the past and potential future storms and their frequency as we developed the costs and benefits associated with each of these designs. In building that $14 billion system, we looked at 152 historical and theoretical storms and ran approximately 62,000 simulations to determine what the appropriate system elevations should be for those projects.”

As a result, the Corps of Engineers insists New Orleans is now better protected than ever before, but its overall climate change response plan can’t rely solely on huge infusions of new cash from Congress to build bigger and better infrastructure. Indeed, it will cost another $24 billion that the agency doesn’t yet have just to finish the projects it’s already started.

So to make the $250 billion worth of civil works projects it already manages across the country more resilient to climate change, Bostick said the corps is rethinking its entire planning process to protect communities from floods and droughts. Rather than thinking of its projects as one-off responses to extremely specific vulnerabilities, he says the agency needs to start thinking about watersheds as integrated systems, which in most cases contain numerous other projects managed by other state, local and federal agencies.

“And at some point, we need to budget in a way that looks at it as a system instead of a collection of projects,” he said. “Because in that system, you have an interagency that’s also interested. You’ve got the Fish and Wildlife Service, you’ve got Interior, you may have the Bureau of Reclamation, you may have EPA, you have local businesses and they all have a dog in this fight. It cannot be always an answer for the federal government. There’s not enough money to go around for the federal government to fight the climate change fight by itself.”

And Bostick said the corps is now thinking about its responsibilities to build and maintain infrastructure as just one of several tools at its disposal to protect U.S. populations from severe weather. It may be able to do as much or more in pursuit of that goal by sharing more information.

For example, the agency has a lot of expertise and information on coastal flooding patterns along much of the U.S. shoreline — but that data is not routinely shared and communicated with other agencies or the public.

“There are several things that will help you define the resilience of a system, and some of them are not expensive solutions,” he said. “If our ultimate goal is to prevent the loss of life, you can either build it bigger, stronger and more costly, or you can say, ‘We’re gonna get the information out on inundation and the risks that you as an individual are taking if you build in a certain area. We’re going to look at the evacuation routes.’ We can communicate the risks of being on a barrier island. I don’t think many people are going to run and leave, but we can look out 25 years and we’ve got a pretty good view of what sea level rise is going to do to some parts of the country. If we provide that information, that will change the system. It will change the dynamics of where people are willing to live, how quickly they will leave an area, how much insurance will cost. It will be a lot less expensive than trying to build a system that will ensure we’re not going to have lives lost, which is something we can’t do.”

The Corps of Engineers is conducting several pilot programs with other agencies that attempt to treat entire watersheds as systems, and to manage them accordingly.

It’s launched several other pilots that are trying to evaluate specific adaptations to climate change, including how agencies along the Ohio River in Cincinnati would respond to future droughts and how changes in building technologies in Connecticut might alter how the Corps manages its hurricane protection projects there.

Bostick said there’s a common thread that runs through those pilots and the corps’ new approach to resource prioritization: He’d like to create an ecosystem that ensures state, local and federal agencies are as good at preparing for the unexpected as they are at responding to disasters.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, bureaucratic differences over how to manage infrastructure projects seemed to melt away. It also helped that Congress provided up-front money to shore up the northeastern coastline.

“The country is really good after a disaster,” Bostick said. “We come together as an interagency team and we move forward. That’s what we’re seeing in the Sandy recovery. Part of it is because we have up-front funding. If you’re hiring a contractor to build a house, you don’t tell them, ‘OK, I want you to do it over five years, start with the kitchen and the bathroom, and then come back next year and work on the living room, and make sure you get your small business teams in.’ That is more expensive. If you come in and you know you’re going to get this thing done as rapidly and effectively as you can, you can plan and you can manage. If we could prioritize the same way we do during a disaster and say, ‘We’re not going to take 50 years, we’re going to get the interagency together, we’re going to prioritize the money and we’re going to finish this work,’ I think we could be a lot more effective.”

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