Sunday, September 02, 2018

Climate change, water and the infrastructure problem

I was watching an episode of the science-fiction noir thriller "The Expanse" recently. Set hundreds of years in the future, the United Nations has now become the world government and its main rival is Mars, a former Earth colony. The UN is still in New York City and a new fancier UN building is now tucked safely behind a vast seawall that protects the city from rising water resulting from climate change.

It's a world that looks like an extension of our own, but one that has survived the twin existential threats of climate change and resource depletion. But will it be so easy to update our infrastructure to overcome these threats?

The naive notion that we can, for example, "just use more air conditioning" as the globe warms betrays a perplexing misunderstanding of what we face. Even if one ignores the insanity of burning more climate-warming fossil fuels to make electricity for more air-conditioning, there is the embedded assumption that our current infrastructure with only minor modifications will withstand the pressures placed upon it in a future transformed by climate change and other depredations.

That assumption doesn't square with the facts. Take, for instance, the Miami, Florida water system. One would think that Miami's first task in adapting to climate change would be to defend its shores against sea-level rise. But it turns out that the most troublesome effect of sea-level rise is sea water infiltration into the aquifer which supplies the city's water.

Once that happens the city would have to adopt desalination for its water supply, a process that currently costs two and one-half times more than current water purification processes. And, of course, desalinating water for a city as large as Miami, a city of more than 400,000 who consume 330 million gallons per day, would require a huge, expensive new infrastructure.

But the problems don't end there. Superfund sites dot Miami and are already contaminating some of the water supply. The rising waters and more frequent floods will only make matters worse, requiring expensive decontamination equipment even before desalination becomes a necessity.

In addition, limestone mining allowed in many places leaves holes which quickly fill with water and allow much freer movement of chemicals through the aquifer.

At this point I feel like one of those late-night infomercials blaring, "But, wait there's more!" That's because the list keeps getting longer.

Developers have in many cases skipped expensive hook-ups with the area's sewer system and opted for septic tanks. But as the water table rises due to sea-water infiltration and as flooding becomes more frequent, these tanks will increasingly be in contact with the city's shallow aquifer. The writer of the linked piece above asks: Who will pay to hook up these households, and does it really make sense to hook up those households that in a decade or two may be underwater for significant periods during the year?

Which brings us to the next problem. The real estate boom in Miami will come to an end one day. A major slump in property prices could hit tax revenues making it more difficult for Miami to pay for climate change preparations. But the nightmare scenario is that the threat of climate change and sea-level rise could turn Miami from a destination city into a depopulating backwater with plummeting real estate values and contracting economic activity, and with all this happening "before the sea consumes a single house." Who would pay for all the needed adaptation for those staying behind?

The interlocking nature of infrastructure, environmental change, economic activity and political institutions make the problem of adapting to climate change much more complex and expensive than most people and governments realize.

The problem elsewhere will not be one of too much water of the wrong kind, but of too little water to go around. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation which oversees federal water projects recently projected that Lake Mead which provides water to Arizona, Nevada and California has a one in five chance of dropping below 1,000 feet by 2026. That would trigger giant cuts to cities relying on the water; and that would be on top of cuts already made before reaching that level.

A further 100-foot drop would turn Lake Mead into what is called a deadpool behind Hoover Dam which formed the lake. That means no water would flow from the dam.

California and Nevada have already signed on to a plan to manage cuts and reduce water consumption. Arizona has so far refused, continuing to rely on existing water agreements to keep the water wolf at bay. Whereas Miami's problems fall squarely on its municipal government to solve, the problems of water allocation in the southwestern United States are a multi-jurisdictional issue. The complexity of climate adaptation goes up exponentially when several official bodies must act in concert.

As for our hypothetical lover of air-conditioning whom I mentioned at the outset, even that amenity in most places depends on water. This is because thermal power plants including coal- and nuclear-fired facilities use lots of water to create steam to spin electricity generating turbines. That water must be cooled before it is returned to the rivers or lakes from which it is often drawn. That is the purpose of the large cooling towers from which plumes of steam constantly flow. Returning the water to its source without cooling it kills much of the marine life.

But, it's hard to cool off hot water in a cooling tower when the outdoor temperature is also very hot. This is what was behind the shutdown this summer of nuclear reactors in France.

Sometimes the problem is just lack of water to run a power plant. This was the case in India in 2017 when a weak monsoon forced the shutdown of 18 plants for varying lengths of time from a few days to months. The electricity generation lost would have been enough to supply the island nation of Sri Lanka all of its electricity for a year.

This discussion, of course, only scratches the surface of all the water infrastructure that will be affected by climate change. I didn't even mention the effects on the agricultural irrigation infrastructure (and the knock-on effect on food supplies). And, of course, I've said little about other types of infrastructure which are vulnerable as well and won't be easily or cheaply fixed, if they are fixed at all.

Even more alarming is that, at least in the United States, we are starting with an infrastructure that has been very badly neglected—so badly that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a D+ on its latest infrastructure report card. The organization estimated that the country needs to spend $4.5 trillion by 2025 just to bring its infrastructure up to good condition.

If the United States ever gets busy upgrading its infrastructure, perhaps it will include building a seawall to protect New York City as imagined by the creators of "The Expanse." But I'd rather see the money spent first on securing our water systems for the simple reason that nothing, absolutely nothing in our society can function properly without a reliable, clean water supply.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


ChemEng said...

System complexity is both easy to overlook and difficult to understand.

In last week’s post you discussed plans to protect the Gulf Coast refineries with a sea wall. But, as I mentioned in my comment, a refinery is not a stand-alone entity. It is part of an enormously complex system involving hundreds of other companies, utilities and workers of all types. If they try to protect those large facilities they will be tripped up by some part of the system that was not protected and that maybe no one even knew existed.

It puts one in mind of John Donne’s,

“No man is an island, entire of itself; . . . therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Regarding Miami, have you seen the new term ‘Climate gentrification’? CNBC ran a story on August 29th showing how property on higher ground toward the center of the city is appreciating much faster than coastal property. The report is based on a Harvard study.

Anonymous said...

Why limit the conversation to saving all of civilization? This is a no-win situation. Many cities like Miami and New Orleans are built where they should not be. The same goes for Las Vegas. Despite our very best efforts, we're not going to win the climate war.

The entire discussion about climate change adaption continues to revolve around saving all of civilization, which is utterly ridiculous. It also presupposes capitalism as the solution when it was the cause. All of the elements that created a climate on steroids need to be abandoned. That is the conversation that should be undertaken.

We do not need more power, more infrastructure, more people, more money, more resources, we need less of all of these things. And we need to evolve our civilization to using less, abandon the ideas of saving the present civilization because we cannot - and because we should not. Why keep repeating the same mistakes of the past?

Human civilization must adapt if we are to survive at all, of which there is serious doubt, a 4C temperature increase destroys all food crops - and water supplies will either be far too much in the form of deluge and flooding, or far too little, in the form of extreme drought. The idea that we can maintain the same infrastructure, resource usage and population in a non-stable climate is absurd. We must adapt everything we've come to accept.

Even "cities" are obsolete in the new world. They are not self-sustaining and require massive energy and resource inputs - and have enormous carbon footprints (by industry, business, per capita, at all levels).

Start thinking of climate change as "forced evolution" at break-neck speed and apply this to civilization. If humans survive, it won't be because we held onto old concepts and ideas. We will be forced to radically re-engineer everything. ~Survival Acres~

Michael Dowd said...

Kurt, here's a better link for the Bloomberg "Miami water problems" article than the one you used:

Great article!

~ Michael

Unknown said...

As long as we are prisoners of a credit/debit-based monetary system that requires infinite growth to avoid collapse, I think we are fubar. Infinite growth on a finite planet, what (else) could possibly go wrong?

september 16 said...

The Achilles heel of modern civilization is its complexity. Take a megacity like New York City. Practically all of its varied infrastructure from sewage and storm drains, electrical wires, internet cables, gas pipelines, old telephone lines, etc. are buried under the streets and are subject to the corrosive effects of ground water penetration. Over time all of this infrastructure which makes city life possible will fail if it is not periodically replaced. The predicament we're in is that all of this infrastructure is presently serviced by fossil fuel driven machinery and when fossil fuels go into terminal decline who will do the work to maintain all this infrastructure? Will millions of people have to dig up the streets by hand? Will there be a functioning economy to replace all this hardware? Very unlikely. As I see it, there is no workaround to this predicament.

Anonymous said...

Just a small point. The American Society of Civil Engineers is hardly an independent un-conflicted party to the infrastructure situation. I am a civil engineer and these "report cards" are an embarrassment to the profession, as they are superficial and self serving. The society is lobbying for more public spending for the enrichment of its members.

Kurt Cobb said...

Michael, thanks for the assist on the link. I've now updated it.

Vivi said...

"The Expanse", while being one of the very, very few US/Canadian sci-fi shows that even just take climate change into consideration when making a prediction of the future, clearly isn't interested in dealing with the topic in any depth. We see an arctic ice shelf melting and the Statue of Liberty being rebuilt on a higher platform in every episode intro, but that's about it as far as acknowledgement of climate change goes. Even the massive overpopulation of Earth (30 billion) is only rarely mentioned, and the books the show was based on don't even show that the vast majority of the Earth's people live in cramped, slum-like squalor. The books just say that reproduction is regulated / taxed and that most people live off of the equivalent of food stamps because there just isn't work for many of them. The books' and show's writers have a socially important message to tell, but it's primarily about the brutal exploitation of the people working in ressource-mining colonies in the asteroid belt (much like "third world" countries today), which is largely the result of leaving space colonization to capitalist companies.

A sci-fi show that actually dealt with climate change head-on, resulting in a scarily realistic vision of the US in 2075, was last year's "Incorporated". (The first episode mentions that New York had to be abandoned just like various island nations. The show is set in Milwaukee, which now seems to have a hot and arid climate, at least outside the still well-watered, climate-controlled, walled "green zones" where the middle and upper classes live.) Plus, that show was even more bitingly anti-capitalist by showing what life would be like for most people if governmental structures (like FEMA or police) were to be overwhelmed by the flow of internal refugees and mega-corporations got even more free reign to price gouge and exploit working-class people desperate for a steady income. Of course, the North American public didn't want to see a realistic version of their society's collapse (as opposed to all those comfortably impossible apocalypse scenarios caused by aliens or zombies) and the advertisers probably didn't like the much more in-your-face anti-corporate message than in "The Expanse", so "Incorporated" was quickly cancelled after the first short season.