November 11, 2009
The Army Corps of Engineers must consider the effects of climate change as it draws up plans for flood control, navigation and other water projects under a new agency policy.
The idea is to keep rising seas from swamping major federal investments.
“You don’t want to make stupid large investments that are difficult or impossible to undo,” said Jeffrey Gebert, the Army Corps’ chief of coastal planning in the Philadelphia district and a member of the team that drafted the policy.
In some cases, extra up-front investment could armor projects against worst-case scenarios, the policy’s authors say. In others, the corps could leave room for future adjustments.
“If you look at something like a levee in the Sacramento area and say we’re going to design it to a certain height, well, if we get a higher sea-level rise, then a levee won’t provide 100-year protection anymore,” said Kevin Knuuti, engineering chief in the Sacramento district and the lead technical author of the policy. “We can either build it extra-high now, which is expensive and will cost more to design, or maybe we can do things that will make it easier to modify the project in the future, if the need arises.”
Planning for future changes in the case of the Sacramento levee, Knuuti said, might mean purchasing extra land to accommodate future widening.
Officials said existing projects also will be evaluated with rising seas in mind.
“There is no grandfathering,” said Kathleen White, the corps’ senior leader for global and climate change initiatives. “It’s going to apply to everything. We are going to have to undergo a large effort to evaluate our projects to see what this guidance may mean to them.”
Experts said the policy signals a shift in the culture of corps leaders, some of whom rose in the ranks during a time of growing awareness about rising seas.
“The people who had just joined this corps when we were pushing this idea, 25 years later, they’re now the bosses,” said Jim Titus, a U.S. EPA researcher who specialized in sea-level rise.
Titus last month privately published a study in the journal Environmental Research Letters that showed 60 percent of coastal lowlands along the Atlantic Coast are likely to be developed in the next century and less than 10 percent of that area is set aside for conservation.
“To ignore rising sea level in the design of civil works would be like ignoring the health effects of smoking a cigarette,” Titus said. “We’ve gotten to that point.”
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