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Preparing California’s water infrastructure for climate change

From 2012–2016, the state of California was under the spell of one of the worst droughts in history. During this four-year time frame, we witnessed expensive media campaigns urging residents to reduce their use, and some cities in the Central Valley actually started rationing water supply for residents. With the rainfall and reservoir levels at dismal lows, farmers lost revenue on crops, California’s electricity supply was reduced by 15% from hydroelectric turbines, and the risk of wildfire was at an all-time high.

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When the rain returned to the state in 2017, it came in the form of an intense surge of storms that proved to be more destructive than an answer to the state’s prayers. In February 2017, heavy runoff in the Feather River watershed contributed to the failure of the Oroville Dam’s primary spillway—culminating in a crisis that forced the emergency evacuation of nearly a quarter of a million people, cost $500 million in repairs, and sparked a larger debate about the condition of California’s aging infrastructure.

From extreme drought to extreme storms, with serious flooding and mudslides in some cases, severe weather patterns brought about by climate change make a compelling argument that California is in serious need of a contingency plan to prepare for the effects of climate change on our cities, buildings, and infrastructure.

This argument became even stronger when Nature Climate Change, UCLA’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, released a study predicting that California would be hit by 40-year floods and a 200% increase in precipitation is expected. Furthermore, the study found that the intensification of rain patterns would seriously challenge California’s existing water storage, conveyance and flood control infrastructure.

It is now a fact that the lifespan of California’s infrastructure is shorter than expected. Because of extreme weather patterns brought on by climate change, if we don’t act swiftly and strategically to rehabilitate pipeline infrastructure, we run the risk of corrupting the conservation and quality of our water supply. Evidence of such risks is already turning up in cities through increased incidents of legionella and lead. The CDC reports cases of Legionnaires, a deadly water-borne illness, have more than quadrupled in the last 15 years in places like Flint, MI, and New York City. Coincidentally, these are also regions struggling with high traces of lead in their water and corroding pipe infrastructure. Even trace amounts of lead are extremely serious and can lead to a host of physical and mental conditions such as anemia, weakness, stroke, and kidney and brain damage.

While we can’t control a drought, we can control how we prepare for what we know is inevitable. At this point, the priority for all cities, counties, and the State of California should be on prevention. We can prevent future floods, bursts, and contamination by assessing the current health of our water infrastructure, which will inform a plan to rehabilitate existing pipelines, dams, and reservoirs.

To assess the lifespan of water infrastructure and prevent relocating displaced residents, municipalities need to gather and track data that tells a story about the amount of time left on water pipelines. With this critical data in hand, cities are empowered to devise a time-oriented plan on when to rehabilitate which pieces of infrastructure and will provide enough notice to determine a strategy for payment. We develop a plan for investing in our retirement, college education, and car payments and yet, we don’t consider how we’ll pay for the infrastructure that carries one of our most precious assets: water. WE_bug_web

Cameron Manners is chief technology officer for Aquam Corporation, a company that creates specialized devices to gather the data needed to rehabilitate water infrastructure safely and sustainably.

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