Saturday, July 13, 2019

The New Normal – Rising Waters

Noted author John McPhee wrote a book called “The Control of Nature” containing stories about how humans battle nature, whether by channeling the Mississippi River, stopping a lava flow in Iceland or trapping landslides in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles.

His book came to mind amidst the continual flooding throughout the Midwestern U.S. last spring. If living on the floodplains of the American Midwest is a battle with nature, nature is winning. Levees were breached, farms drowned, and towns were turned into islands.

A recent article in the Washington Post showed satellite photographs of the upper Midwest from Missouri to the Canadian border, one from Spring 2018, the other this year. Normally green, the 2019 photo displayed vast areas of brown because so much farmland was flooded that crops either died or were never planted.

In a comment on the article, a heartland farmer stated: “In my 40 plus years of farming nothing has come close to this one. Nothing will grow in floods every week. It makes all the microbes, worms, and life in our soils die.  Even the old guys 80 plus say this has never happened before.  Many of my friends and neighbors aren't going to make it financially this year, some aren't going to survive physically, lots of emotional pain.“

Towns and cities along the Mississippi and its major tributaries saw repeated flooding last spring unlike anything before. According to the NY Times, in heartland cities like Davenport, Iowa, mayors and officials are loathe to officially associate the floods with climate change - the euphemism is “weather-related challenges.”  Regardless, they are just looking for ways to deal with a new normal, but climate change is the specter looming over their shoulder though, and they know it.

Nashville, Tennessee, realizing the cost of funding flood response, initiated a new policy I have long expected cities would eventually pursue. Instead of repeatedly and futilely attempting to protect and repair all homes and businesses, they are buying out, demolishing them and turning the neighborhoods into parkland. I have no doubt that this policy, partly funded through the National Flood Insurance Program, will spread.

On the coasts, towns and cities are moving from “if” to “when” regarding rising waters. The title of another recent NY Times article says it all: “Which U.S. Cities should be saved first?” The numbers are huge. By 2040, it will take $42 billion to provide basic storm surge protection for municipalities with populations greater than 25,000. Barnstable, Mass will require over $899 million for seawalls - over $20,000 per person. The cost for Jacksonville, Florida? A staggering $3.5 billion.

Smaller towns aren’t even on the radar screen.

Where is the money going to come from? All eyes of course look to Washington DC, which has plans for $16 billion in grants to help cities, a shortfall of $26 billion. The program will be forced to perform triage, deciding which cities would be the best investment, or as the article states, the biggest bang for the buck. 

Take New Orleans, for example. The Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt its levee system after 2005’s Katrina at a cost of $14 billion. Due to subsidence, the upgrades may be useless as soon as 2023. Not sure the Big Easy would be worth further investment by the above criteria, since most of it is already below sea level and sinking fast.

Expect a competition by cities to prove they are worthy of these grants by starting local resiliency programs, including moving people out of harm’s way, like Nashville.

Another option would be to divide up the funds by the economic or historic importance of a city. Is Barnstable more important than Boston? Massachusetts will likely have to make that call in our lifetimes.

The former chair of the Massachusetts Sierra Club told me she talked to legislators in Boston, who admit that their districts are vulnerable, but their focus is still on more immediate problems demanding their attention. Very soon, the rising waters problem will be immediate. 

Ignoring rising waters is no longer possible, even if you don’t want to admit what is causing it. Governments at all levels and locations will have to confront the reality of “weather-related challenges” whether they be in Davenport, Barnstable, Boston, Jacksonville, and especially Washington, D.C. 

Welcome to the new normal folks. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Published in the Westborough News, July 19.2019

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