Climate Change Vs. City Infrastructure

by Kevin Maloney

Climate change isn’t just coming. It’s here. And municipalities across the state have to start planning now if they want current and future infrastructure projects to last.

That’s according to two civil and environmental engineering experts from the Trumbull-based firm Fuss & O’Neill who spend their days working on projects at the intersection of climate change and public infrastructure.

Those two engineers, Dean Audet and Kevin Johnson, were the two most recent guests on WNHH’s “The Municipal Voice” program as hosted by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

One of the biggest concerns from climate change is that the sea level will rise, said Audet. He said current scientific projections show that there will be an additional 20 inch sea-level rise by 2050. That figure will rise further to seven feet by 2100.

And those projections don’t even factor in changes to water in the atmosphere.

“For every degree Celsius that temperature goes up, there’s two percent more water going into the atmosphere,” said Audet, who focuses mostly on water resources and management. “What that results in is a lot more water available for rain.”

In the real world that means that what once was a 100-year storm in 1979 is a 60-year storm in 2007.

This does not mean that these storms happen only once a century, but that the probability is one out of 100 or one out of 60 that a storm of that severity will happen any given year.

Storms will be bigger, Audet said. High tides and waves will go further inland, and flooding will be a real concern.

For Johnson, an expert on infrastructure, this makes it imperative for towns and cities to begin looking at these climate change-induced effects now, and taking an inventory on all of a municipality’s assets and deciding which ones are vulnerable.

“You don’t need to hire a planner or engineer to find out what you have.”

Connecticut towns and cities need to get creative, a mantra signed off on by both guests.

Suggestions ranged from bioswales, which Fuss & O’Neill designed for New Haven, to a project in Old Lyme which is using natural tide gates. Nature-based projects are not only more cost-effective, but also can outlast concrete-based projects. The two engineers cited the levees in New Orleans as an example.

One issue Connecticut struggles with is funding, they both agreed.

The Town Aid Road grants to towns and cities have been delayed once again, preventing municipalities from making crucial infrastructure repairs.

Johnson said that keeping a road in a state of good repair is not only imperative but cost effective.

Neighboring states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have found ways to provide municipalities with funds for projects that directly deal with climate change. Audet and Johnson said that, if the state won’t provide such funding, Connecticut municipalities should look elsewhere.

“Talk to state reps, or U.S. reps,” Johnson said, “there are funding sources out there, and it’s important with communities to find these grants beyond what engineers typically look for.”

Rhode Island has a project in the works that will reclaim flood plains and create a park system that is being 100 percent funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency not exactly known for creating parks.

Take this as a lesson, they said: don’t just manage storm water, make a park.

If you’re going to put in a bridge, make it higher and wider, and if you’re going to repair a road, build that up to prevent flooding in other areas.

Climate change has already had an effect on our communities, and many have already taken action to plan for these inevitabilities, but some have not, they said.

“We’re trying to educate communities, and let them know it’s here,” Audet said.

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