Defending Infrastructure

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to better understand the local flooding risks caused by the sea-level rise caused by climate change.  (Of course, we should also continue to  do all we can to control climate change).

It’s hard to know how much the seas are going to rise.  First, no one knows how much the people of the world will be able to reduce carbon emissions.  Second, even within a given emissions scenario, the uncertainties are considerable.  For example, if we just assume continually growing emissions, the estimates of probable local sea level rise vary by a factor of two from 3.2 feet to 7.4 feet by 2100.

Much of Boston lies quite low, so these uncertainties matter. Given the huge uncertainties about long term sea level rise, local planners are mostly not looking past 2070.  Within that horizon, the uncertainties are more manageable.  In that time frame, it is clear that Boston will not be submerged like some low-lying islands in the Pacific; rather, what we face is a modestly increased risk of extreme storm flooding.

My senate district includes Belmont, Watertown and Boston along the Charles.  These areas are either elevated or well-protected by the seawalls at the mouths of the Mystic and the Charles.  They therefore face fairly limited new risks through 2070.  Some coastal areas face much more immediate risks.

We all need to be concerned to protect our shared regional infrastructure — our tunnels, our transit system, our power grid, our water and sewer systems.  If storms knock out critical infrastructure components, the losses go well beyond just the cost of repair.  For example, if the central artery/tunnel or our subway tunnels were flooded and unusable for a few weeks or months, the regional economy could be damaged and take years to recover.

My sense from the recent studies is that many smaller projects have clear value in improving near and medium-term resiliency.  Gaps in land barriers need to be filled, tunnel entrances enclosed, vent structures elevated.

To identify and implement those higher payback projects, we need to do two things:  We need to push for the formal vulnerability analyses to continue.  At the same time, we need to assure that each of the agencies that own infrastructure has the resources necessary to build and retain institutional knowledge of the particular assets they own.  The engineers and operators who work outside every day are the ones who can most readily identify specific vulnerabilities.

It will remain a continuing priority for me as a legislator to assure the comprehensiveness of infrastructure vulnerability assessments and to support infrastructure agencies with the funding they need to maintain strong teams.

It will also remain a continuing priority for me to keep up with the climate science. As new results emerge, we may need to change our approach.  The world’s big ice masses in Greenland and Antarctica are the wild cards.  New understandings of how they are responding to warming may force upward revisions in our expectations for sea level rise.   Changed expectations could give more urgency and credibility to the more ambitious defensive proposals, like a harbor barrier.

Finally, it will remain a continuing priority for me to keep talking about these issues.  Citizens and business need to have access to the latest available understandings and make their own judgements about how they want to manage risks.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

17 replies on “Defending Infrastructure”

  1. Thank you for your continued attention to these issues. Many of us in Allston Brighton are relieved that we are inland and not in immediate proximity to costal flooding, However, we do have an aged storm drain/ sewage infrastructure that will not be able to handle increased volume in the event of extreme weather events. This is of particular concern with the level of new development in the neighborhood, the loss of green space and the use non permeable surfaces which increase the speed and volume of runoff.

    On a regional level I share your concerns about transportation infrastructure but also wonder how the Pilgrim Nuclear Power station fared in the recent storm give the level of unprecedented costal flooding.

    1. Thank you. Yes, in many areas, storm drainage will be an issue.

      Have not heard that the recent storm affected Pilgrim, but I do know a lot of people are talking about their exposure to extreme events.

  2. This last storm had mini-glaciers flowing in the Atlantic ave area of Boston even though this was above sea level storm surge was backing up storm drains preventing free flow. (pipes too small?) something to look at. This could happen at Alewife looks like seawater inundation but it is just backup not making its normal flow.

  3. Does everyone government of the Commonwealth recognize that this is a real threat? Or are the climate deniers in power?

  4. Thank you — this series is very helpful to those of us concerned with the future of the Alewife area. The regional focus is critical since many of the vulnerable assets are shared.

  5. One issue that needs thought is how we are going to handle the residents of Boston flooded out of their basement apartments after a storm surge. How many of these will there be? What is Boston’s refugee capacity right now?
    Is it practical to think of their going to hotels? Most of the citizenry would be fine with putting refugees up in their own homes for a while, but it would be useful to think about the best ways of doing this.

      1. Bear in mind we are not just thinking about the areas that will be flooded — we are thinking about the areas that will be taking in refugees from those areas, and how best to handle them. I have read numbers (that I do not trust) to the effect that the accommodations of upwards of 100,000 Bostonians are at risk and that Boston can only set up — locally — around 5,000 refugee beds in a short period. If anything like those numbers are right, the areas you represent might easily be involved. But I guess it is possible that no advance preparations are practical. We’ll just have to deal with it.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful assessment. Could you now address the important bills that are currently in front of the Legislature, which deal directly with climate issues? And please let us all know what actions you plan to take related to these bills–as well as which ones are likely to come up for a vote in this session. That would be very helpful.

  7. Will, appreciate your efforts on this matter and the focus on matters that we must address. With this in mind and in conjunction with your interest in a new Belmont high school building, I remind you that the site of both the existing and new building has flooding issues. Would Belmont be wise to consider local flooding risk caused by climate changes before invest untold hundreds of millions?

    1. Yes. They are on it — I’ve discussed this with the building committee.

      The coastal flood risks at Alewife do not directly connect to the High School level — it’s enough higher according to the models.

      The problems occur within the Claypit area, but those are a matter of maintaining the flow pies out of Claypit as I understand it. I’v recently asked for an update on this maintenance issue from the Town.

  8. The issue of rising seas and erecting protections against them is a reality that must be addressed. Using 2070 as the projection date seems reasonable. The world is starting to take action to slow down climate change, and hopefully, we won’t suffer the worst case scenario but things will get worse since we are not moving fast enough in that direction. Thank you for your vision.

  9. Wow Senator you have analyzed an amazing amount of data and done the herculean job of reporting it out in a comprehensive format with obvious implications for all of us. I look forward to digesting every bit of it.
    I am going in with the preconceived
    conviction that we need to stop driving personal cars in their current form and we need to radically reform population control so that abundant and unlimited progeny stop heating up and destroying the atmosphere and the ocean/land due to sea rise. Thank you as always for devoting your current career to public service.
    Regarding the upcoming 2020 presidential election, I believe President Obama was a state senator in Illinois who then ran for the US Senate where he served ?2 years before running for and winning the Democratic nomination and presidency. You’re more than fabulous at what you are currently doing but I hope you grasp every opportunity to save us in the USA.
    Abundant thanks.

  10. Thank you so much for your leadership on this issue, thoughtful analysis, and practical suggestions. Please keep us apprised of ways we can be helpful in implementing the preventive measures you suggest.

  11. I would like to share some ideas that would create funding for critical infrastructure and economic development. They would also encourage collaboration between municipalities around shared climate risks. I live in Belmont and feel that it is important to think regionally. For example, even if Belmont proper does not face major flood risk from sea level rise, but a third of Cambridge and half of Boston does, that is still going to affect my well being.

    Thank you for your continued support of S.2232 a bill to create the Massachusetts Least Developed Countries Fund, currently under review in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. I hope that a favorable opinion will be found coming out of the Ways and Means Committee.

    I would be happy to provide further research and assistance on any of these climate resiliency ideas:

    The creation of resiliency bonds for climate resilient infrastructure: As we saw yesterday, many potential environmental hazards cause natural clusters of communities based on a shared hydrological or other geographical feature. For example, the Alewife corridor, Mystic River, or Charles River. A resiliency bond would provide a carrot that would require a group of two or more jurisdictions to work together, create a plan, and provide funding that would pay for capital intensive infrastructure that would prevent a future risk to those communities due to climate change. That way the jurisdictions would have to work together, and the state would take on the risk burden allowing for the communities to tackle something that will have a long-term benefit.

    Disaster risk insurance: We are going to see an increasing amount and intensity of annual extreme climatic events that will cause damage especially due to storms and flooding. The state should think about subsidizing an insurance scheme for property and business owners who are assessed to be especially vulnerable. Such a scheme would mitigate the amount of economic damage caused by individual climatic events- the benefit should outweigh the cost. One caveat is that at some point this insurance couldn’t apply to properties that will not make sense to rebuild, like the Boston Seaport. It should also be the carrot to go hand in hand with regulations requiring property owners and builders to assess climate change projections as they choose building materials and building sites. We should be prioritizing a site’s flood management potential for surrounding properties.

    Community buybacks: In the time frame of 20 years or so, coastal property owners throughout MA are going to face the reality of a precipitous drop in their home/property values due to flooding and repeated storm damage from climate change. At the same time, the state should prioritize coastal areas for wetland and other ecological restoration to mitigate the potential effects of flooding further inland. Now is the time to plan for wide-scale buybacks of properties that we are sure will be the first to be affected by rising sea levels and at the same time prevent more economic damage than is necessary.

    State Cooperative Business Development Fund: Despite our overall prosperity, MA is plagued by persistent economic, racial, and social inequity. A different but concurrent challenge is that there are many small and medium sized businesses run by baby-boomers that will soon retire and have no succession plans, meaning a near-future loss of many jobs and economic engines. New York City has seen a great deal of success in job and business creation to address both of these issues with its Coop Business Development Fund. It is shown to create greater equity and retain/grow jobs; these jobs are also unlikely to quickly disappear from MA and take less money to create than continuously relying on huge incentive packages to lure big businesses (like GE, among others). It could be big a win-win.

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