Recent projects in two Minnesota cities demonstrate how communities can protect themselves from worsening storms. These projects continue a ten year program in New England and the Midwest providing practical and affordable plans tailored to local conditions.
"Our goal is to help communities begin the steps to protect themselves," said program co-leader Latham Stack, of Syntectic International, Portland, OR. "It's important because storms have already worsened. We help communities move beyond feeling paralyzed from the lack of local information and the sense that the problem is overwhelming."
Recent news stories and White House actions cite the need to adapt to changing conditions. Minneapolis and Victoria, MN, through the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, took this to heart and asked to be project sites. At these and previous sites in New England, program results consistently show that portions of existing drainage systems are already undersized. At the same time, significant portions of these systems should be adequate for even pessimistic mid-21st century projections.
"Uncertainty in climate projections is not a show-stopper," said Michael Simpson, program co-leader and Chair of Environmental Studies at Antioch University, Keene, NH. "For over a century, engineers have designed drainage systems using models and data that are more uncertain than is generally acknowledged. Preventing loss of life and flood damage was more important than waiting for perfect knowledge that never came anyway. In spite of the uncertainty, these systems perform remarkably well."
According to the Government Financial Officers Association, planning for the future is especially critical when projections are uncertain. By starting to adapt now, communities can spread costs over a number of years. This is easier to afford, especially because significant portions of systems should not require upgrading.
"The decision of how large to build a drainage system has always been a gamble, even ignoring the uncertainty in methods", said Stack. "Designing systems for a certain sized storm is a gamble that the damage from storms exceeding design will cost less than building a system with larger capacity."
For many communities, extreme storms are already exceeding designs more frequently than intended. This is reflected in rising flood insurance costs. Public works departments, emergency responders, and financial resources are stressed beyond capacity. Communities are not always able to recover.
"So the question becomes, how do we respond, as individuals, as communities, and as a nation?" asks Simpson. "Do we use common sense and take responsible steps now, or do we ignore what's in plain sight? We're saying that communities need to act now."
A conference on local solutions for climate change, May 19-21 in Manchester, NH, sponsored by Antioch University, is open to anyone interested.