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Floods and the Urgency of Climate Adaptation Infrastructure

Last weekend and probably later this week, this region has seen and will again experience floods from intense precipitation and damage from intense wind. This is the new normal as climate change exacerbates extreme weather events, and basements, streets, and homes are flooded. More and more people directly experience these hazards, and emergency shelters have become a way of life. The impact of climate change will only get worse over the next generation as we gradually move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy.

The transition is underway, but it is happening slower than we need here in the United States. According to New York Times reporter Elena Shao:

“America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry rose last year, moving the nation in the opposite direction from its climate goals, according to preliminary estimates published Tuesday by the Rhodium Group, a nonpartisan research firm. Emissions ticked up 1.3 percent even as renewable energy surpassed coal power nationwide for the first time in over six decades, with wind, solar and hydropower generating 22 percent of the country’s electricity compared with 20 percent from coal. Growth in natural gas power generation also compensated for coal’s decline….The report does contain some good news: Last year, the country’s economic growth, measured in G.D.P., outpaced emissions growth, indicating that the economy was less carbon intensive…. This “decoupling” of economic growth from fossil fuel consumption is crucial in charting an economically sustainable path toward decarbonization.

In other words, the transition has begun, faster in some parts of the world than in others, but we are in for many more years of flooding, wind, and fire. When New York City’s population grew and its groundwater got too polluted to drink, we spent billions of dollars to build the infrastructure needed to deliver clean water. Civic leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries understood the need to invest in the future. Except for Mike Bloomberg, today’s civic leaders are too busy protecting their images to think about protecting the public by building to address coming threats. Bloomberg invested billions in the city’s third water tunnel and managed the post-Sandy multi-billion-dollar climate adaptation infrastructure program. The problem is a simple one in the New York metro area: How do we direct the water from overflowing rivers, streams, oceans, and rainstorms away from streets and buildings? Perhaps New Jersey Governor Murphy could take a break from his shameless criticism of congestion pricing and join New York’s governor and New York City’s Mayor on a trip to Tokyo, where flood control has been a major civic initiative for many decades. According to Diego Arguedas Ortiz of the BBC:

“In the past several decades, the Japanese capital perfected the art of coping with typhonic rains and moody rivers, and its intricate flood defence system is a global wonder…Tokyo’s battle with flooding stretches back through its history. The city sits on a plain crossed by five rowdy river systems and dozens of individual rivers that naturally swell each season…Tokyo’s planners must be wary of serveral different kind of floods. If heavy rain falls upstream, maybe a river breaks it banks and inundates a centric neighbourhood downstream. Perhaps a downpour in the city overpowers that area’s drainage system or a high tide or tsunami could threaten the coastline. What if an earthquake destroys a dam or a levee? After decades of planning for these scenarios and non-stop construction, the Japanese capital now boasts dozens of dams, reservoirs and levees. Cut into the city’s ground, as you would with a birthday cake, and you will find an underground maze of tunnels alongside the subway lines and gas pipelines that criss-cross the city. The $2 billion Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (MAOUDC) and its ‘floodwater cathedral’ is one of the capital’s most impressive engineering feats. Completed in 2006 after 13 years of works, it is the world’s largest diversion floodwater facility and the result of Tokyo’s continuous improvement efforts.”

The Tokyo system also faces challenges related to the impact of climate change on weather, but at least they have a system. New York City relies on a combined sewage system where wastewater from homes is combined with rainwater, and during extreme weather events, the water is dumped into our bays and rivers without treatment. While New York has drainage infrastructure, the system is not built for today’s weather or the rains we are likely to see in the future. Tokyo benefited from a national government that saw flood control as a national priority and devoted significant resources to building a water storage system in the second half of the twentieth century. By contrast, we have a federal government dominated by ideologues who question the need for a federal government and will provide the region with no help in addressing this critical issue. New York City shares these problems with cities in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and California (among others), and before long, there will be no state in the nation spared the impacts of extreme weather.

The federal government contributed very little to the creation of New York City’s water system, and today, the city’s water system capital debt and operations are largely funded by user fees. The problem with flooding is that New York City’s topography, and that of the entire region, ranges from places like Morningside Heights, where I live, which is well above sea level, to Rockaway and Howard Beach, which are only a few feet above sea level. How do we pay for a flood control system that some city residents will never need? New Jersey has towns like Patterson, with huge problems of river flooding, and other places that rarely flood. How do we build the political support to address a problem that is not equally shared across the region? In Tokyo, they had the motivation of 1947’s Typhoon Kathleen, which killed over a thousand people. It would be tragic if a similar event happened here, but it is not beyond imagination.

Typically, political processes depend on catastrophes and crises to motivate major programs and expenditures. On the other hand, Americans have reason to be skeptical about large-scale construction projects. Boston’s $15 billion “Big Dig” comes to mind. That project turned highways into tunnels, reduced congestion, and reclaimed land, but was delayed and characterized by massive cost overruns. By contrast, the reconstruction of New York’s LaGuardia airport was amazing: on time and on budget. Well-managed infrastructure construction is possible but difficult. Nevertheless, even if we could figure out a management process, the revenue stream for massive flood control in the New York region is difficult to imagine. Who would pay for it? What concerns me is that the issue isn’t even on the political agenda.

New York City’s 600 miles of coastline, added to the rivers and shorefront in New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester, and Connecticut, call for a regional approach to flood control. Nationally, there is a growing need for infrastructure to build a more climate-resilient built environment. The trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure program enacted by the Biden Administration is a small step in the right direction, but it is far from sufficient to meet national needs. I see little chance of more federal funding, given the deep mistrust Americans have for the federal government. It may be more politically feasible for the three states that comprise the New York metropolitan region, or at least New York and New Jersey through the Port Authority, to plan and finance a regional approach to flood control. Despite the heroic work of our first responders, a large-scale flooding disaster with massive death and destruction may be in our relatively near future. I’m afraid that only such an event would result in the political support needed to fund a flood control system that could meet our region’s needs. While we don’t need a system as elaborate as Tokyo’s, we certainly need more than we have.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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