Swept Away: Municipalities drowning in the flood

In the face of increased volatility in precipitation, what threats do municipalities face regarding floodwater controls, and what strategies can they deploy to meet this coming threat?

As we have seen in many TOM Cases, the most dangerous element in an operating model is not change, but volatility. Discussion about climate change often focus on the linear movements in natural systems, such as sea level and temperature rise, but the most disruptive elements are those that can’t be predicted and planned for, such as violent changes in rainfall, increased dramatic weather events, and seasonal shifts in biological systems. In our relatively constant world of predictable seasonal variability, humans have deployed trillions of dollars in fixed assets, such as dams, dykes, irrigation systems, etc., that may become obsolete as the resources they control shift. Corporations have the luxury of being able to adapt in both their operational models and their geography, but in this conversation I would like to focus on municipalities, and the constraints that are placed on an organization with a fixed location, limited ability to grow, and a permanent constituency, focusing primarily on stormwater control.

In the built environment, humans have covered vast swaths of natural space with impermeable surfaces, which have in turn forced us to develop complex infrastructural systems to deal with the surge in water runoff associated with large storms. As climate change leads to more volatile weather patterns, both higher highs and lower lows, the systems will be inundated, leading to massive property damage, business disruptions, and potentially human harm. In natural systems, buffers such as swamps, streams, and porous ground sources create a buffer of flow, absorbing water as it enters the environment and then slowly releasing it over an extended period of time, meeting the ability of streams and rivers to alleviate the strain. In the city, the whole volume of water enters the system at once, with virtually no ability to buffer the volume. In the eyes of local leaders, they are faced with the task of either building up new infrastructure to meet system changes, for which they likely have no budget, or making existing infrastructure work better.

Already, organizations are deploying technologies and strategies that allow them to anticipate variability without large capital expenditure. For example, companies such as OptiRC, based here in Boston, are applying a smart sensor and software layer on top of existing ‘dumb’ flood infrastructure that allows systems to anticipate stormwater and not just react. The first step is deploying sensors on stormwater buffers such as flood ponds, cisterns and reservoirs, building a complete picture of the system. The next is the integration of remotely controlled motors on penstocks and pumps to allow for the system to work in sync. Finally, the system picture is married with complex weather forecasts and local hydrological models to predict the total volume of expected water and how each of the resources in the system will be effected, which allows the system to move in advance of a future stress. For example, if the model shows a large weather event moving in, the system will automatically accelerate the depletion of a reservoir to allow for increased capacity. These sorts of models have been used in the past for large reservoir and hydro dam operators, but advancements in integration technology and rapid declines in sensor costs are now making these strategies accessible to even some of the smallest operators, like individual companies or municipalities.

Beyond changing the physical systems, some municipalities are using the power of market forces to adapt without deploying public funds. One example is Washington DC, which created a stormwater fund that allowed property owners to generate tradeable credits, similar to carbon credits, by voluntarily building green infrastructure that reduces stormwater runoff. By building distributed, small projects like natural wetlands, bioswales and permeable surfaces, each property can slow the release of water from their area into the broader system, reducing the ‘peak flow’ for which the system needs to be designed. In this case, the municipality can create the guidelines and incentives, and individuals can discover and implement the optimal strategies, whereas a top-down approach would lead to unrealistic overhead costs given the scale of some of these projects.

Going forward, I think municipalities need to more aggressively implement biological controls to manage storm surge; systems have evolved to manage these fluctuations, there is no need to reinvent them! It has been demonstrated that these systems are some of the most cost effective in handling stormwater, and with low engineering costs, they can be deployed by lower-skilled partners. Ultimately, these strategies need to be codified in more aggressive zoning and building codes to ensure that new constructions and rebuilds all lead to a decreased storm load. Without smart building design, connected infrastructure and intelligent market incentives, municipalities will be crippled with unforeseen expenses from damages or burdened with exploding infrastructure costs. (787 words)


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Student comments on Swept Away: Municipalities drowning in the flood

  1. I really enjoyed reading about your views on how municipalities can actively use existing funds and technologies to evolve their infrastructure systems to better accommodate climate change. I liked how you showcased specific companies and municipalities that could serve as good examples for others, and am curious to uncover some of the municipalities that are on the other side of the range: ones that are simultaneously very susceptible to climate change-driven risks and highly unprepared (resources, planning) to address them. I wonder what types of incentives can be instituted at local, state, and national levels to encourage more proactive and preventative thinking and planning, and what types of resources must be made available for municipalities to seriously focus on implementation.

  2. I was impressed in how this laid out opportunities given the restraints local governments face due to funding shortages. We all remember the images coming out of New Orleans after Katrina and more recently in Texas and want to believe there are preventative solutions. This post laid out two very strong solutions, with adapting technology on top of existing infrastructure and encouraging businesses to help. When thinking of maximum impact, I wonder if the latter is the best path forward? The private sector more and more has become the responsible party in fighting climate change and encouraging them to take part at the local level is something that the media has not really focused on. The initiative in DC seems like a great example of what other cities should be doing.

  3. The OptiRC sounds like an incredibly practical innovation. Has it been employed in any towns or cities yet? In older cities such as Boston, I could see a project to install this technology taking a significant mount of time, and meet roadblocks based on the city plan. I wonder is this technology would work better in a more organized city with a grid system such as NYC. It was great that you mentioned that future city planning needs to take these factors into consideration.

  4. Hi Ron, interesting that you should write about this. As a tiny, flat island that is not self-reliant in water supply, Singapore is very concerned about rising sea levels and floods. So the forward-looking government built dams and pumps on the Marina bay area; the bay also doubles as a reservoir.

  5. Super interesting article about the opportunities for municipalities to manage storm flooding. One question I had was related to the capacity of these systems to really mitigate the effects of freak storms. The images coming out of Katrina or even the most recent flood Louisiana make it seem like even substantial investments in infrastructure would not be enough to contain the scale of impact of some of these storms. Do you see some of these new technologies as being useful in areas that are prone to such severe weather phenomena? Are there other low cost solutions that can be pursued in places like Louisiana?

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