Planning for Climate Change Effects on Public Infrastructure: A Long- and Short-term Challenge

March 29, 2013

Extreme weather events are increasing in severity and frequency, and although unusual and severe droughts are occurring in unexpected places, the average precipitation in the Gulf of Maine region has increased by 12 percent over the past century.

According to the State of the Gulf of Maine report published by the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment (GOMC), in the post-1970 period many sites in the United States-Canada cross-border area have “experienced the only four years on record with precipitation greater than 1,400 mm (55.11 in) and eight of the 10 wettest years on record.”

In particularly vulnerable areas, public infrastructure is at great risk: transportation is affected if roads wash out or train tracks are submerged. If sewage treatment facilities are overwhelmed, they may cease to function and also cause the spread of dangerous bacteria, perhaps to drinking water supplies.

Around the Gulf of Maine, municipalities—with assistance from the GOMC, the two federal governments, state and provincial entities—are planning now for future infrastructure adaptation needs.

“The needs are similar for larger and smaller communities,” said Sabine Dietz, provincial coordinator for the New Brunswick Regional Adaptation Collaborative (RAC). “But it’s a difference of degree—a small coastal community may be looking at a more immediate infrastructure adaptation or eventual relocation plan of 25-30 years, where for a larger community, it may be a 100-year plan.”

01 Climate Change 1NBFloodplainFig 5.4New Brunswick created a floodplain map of the Greater Moncton area for municipal officials to use in their climate adaptation planning.

Two projects the RAC recently concluded are those in Moncton and Dieppe, where the communities have received reports and maps to help them develop adaptation strategies. These two cities, along with the town of Riverview, make up the Greater Moncton area in southeastern New Brunswick, at the head of the Bay of Fundy, bisected by the Petitcodiac River, a tidal estuary.

The area contains low-lying marshland and wetlands and both coastal and inland flooding occurs as a result of extreme precipitation events. Predicted sea level rise will only increase the area’s vulnerability.

“Both communities have a huge challenge in terms of cost to make changes to the infrastructure,” said Dietz. “Where people live, work and shop, there is a need for public support and understanding, or else there wouldn’t be the financial support to make the millions of dollars worth of changes.”

Stormwater infrastructure in the region is old and expensive to change, Dietz added.

“There are certain weak points that are well-known in both communities,” she said. “However, others came up in a report as being things to consider as high-priority items. The three main general issues are transportation, stormwater and sewage treatment.”

Dieppe faces primarily transportation issues, while Moncton has all three “in a heavy way,” Dietz said. Recommendations include setting the most vulnerable roads higher and planning new standards for new construction. “For Moncton, relocating is not very practical at this time, with billions of dollars worth of infrastructure already sitting in flood risk areas.” But standards will be implemented so new construction takes place only in areas above sea level.

In Nova Scotia, the primary focus for infrastructure adaptation involves drinking water, wastewater treatment facilities, their distribution and collection systems, public roads, and all associated structures, said Graham Fisher, senior planner with Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations (SNSMR).

“We’re a provincial government department that works with municipalities,” Fisher said. “We inevitably became involved with climate change because it’s a planning issue. We’re trying to assess vulnerabilities now, then we’ll take the next step.”

“The province has developed a guide for municipalities which is designed to help them understand how climate change will impact them, and the kinds of information that is necessary to make informed decisions regarding public infrastructure and adaptation,” said Fisher, who prepared the guide. Environment Canada and his agency funded the guide and two February workshops for municipalities.

The Municipal Climate Change Action Plan Guidebook is available for use by any municipality and may be found at the website for the Canada-Nova Scotia Infrastructure Secretariat.

“It is critical that municipalities first identify those parts of their municipality that are most vulnerable and at risk, prior to making decision about what to build, what to redesign, what to move and what to reinforce. Municipalities throughout Nova Scotia are preparing their Municipal Climate Change Action Plans (MCCAPs), and in undertaking and preparing these plans, they are taking into consideration risk and vulnerability, and applying this information to their capital projects, in terms of both maintenance and renewal,” Fisher said.

The MCCAPs will be submitted to SNSMR in December 2013, and each individual plan will have high-risk areas delineated, and existing infrastructure will be marked on the maps, and described within the plan. The MCCAP Guide includes a Self-Assessment Spreadsheet, that covers climate hazards and risks,” Fisher explained. “It also allows municipal engineers to assess the vulnerabilities within their existing systems and extrapolate into the future, based on their understanding of the existing systems and where there are already issues and problems related to climate.

“Once this information is captured, municipalities will have to determine if the information they have so far, is enough to inform future decisions regarding infrastructure; or if more data, modeling, etc. is required to hone-in on particular issues,” said Fisher.

01 Climate Change 971365DF-E53D-4968-BFFA-A28560A59CDFParticipants in New Brunswick climate change adaptation workshops learn to plan for hazards using maps.

The steps that follow the analysis, will involve looking at the types of best practices and potential adaptation actions that will warrant the most adaptive response to public infrastructure within these high risk areas. When the municipalities, collectively reach that point, “there will be a much closer examination with respect to the individual adaptation challenges presented by each infrastructure project, and the most appropriate ways to proceed.”

To provide further assistance to the process, Fisher said the province collaborated with the Bay of Fundy Ecosystem Partnership (BoFEP) and hosted two workshops in Nova Scotia in February.

“Among the many topics touched upon, were identifying and assessing vulnerability and risk within the context of public infrastructure and service delivery. These workshops were a great success, and provided a forum for dialogue between municipalities, experts, engineers, planners, geologists, ecologists and other municipal and provincial staff. Participants were able to share knowledge, discuss common themes and challenges, and get a better understanding of what is meant by the terms ‘risk’ and ‘vulnerability’ and how this information can be used by local governments to make the best possible decisions regarding the future of their communities. Together, the province and municipalities are working closely together to fully understand the implications of climate change, and address the challenges it presents to communities.”

The BoFEP is described by steering committee member Patricia Hinch as being modeled after the GOMC with a membership that includes government agencies, non-governmental organizations, representatives from business, industry, First Nations and the general public—”anyone who is interested in the Bay of Fundy” from New Brunsick and Nova Scotia. Hinch is the group’s climate change project manager. She chaired the GOMC working group for two years and said the BoFEP adapted its mission statement from the GOMC.

BoFEP contracted with Anne Warburton’s Elemental Sustainability Consulting Ltd. from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to organize and conduct the workshops—one in Bible Hill, February 7 with 32 participants, and another in Annapolis Royal, February 13, with 18 participants. Most who attended were municipal officials and planners from Nova Scotia, but a few also came from Moncton, New Brunswick and the University of Ottawa, where a climate change program is in the works.

Prior to the workshops, the consulting firm surveyed municipalities to assess which issues were of most concern to officials and which things they would find most useful, using the guidebook that outlines a 6-step process. The guide was tested in four communities prior to the workshops.

“They decided to focus on steps 2 and 3,” Hinch said. Step 2 identifies impacts and hazards, while Step 3 identifies locations within the municipalities that are at greatest risk for those hazards.

“They talked about how historical perspective can inform and help mitigate future risks,” said Hinch. Hazards in the Bay of Fundy region include dykes that can be breached by floodwaters, Karst terrain that is susceptible to sinkholes and heavy metals that can be released when the types of rocks that contain them are broken down under certain biological conditions.

“The most valuable exercise was looking at case studies to learn to use the overlay maps to identify areas to work on,” said Hinch. “The participants could take that experience and the maps back to get started in their own area.”

Ogunquit Sewer District

In the United States, planning is underway at the Ogunquit sewer district in southern Maine where the GOMC provided a grant that funded a study to evaluate the effect sea level rise and coastal flooding will have on the sewage treatment in the future.

Already, the plant—located near the sea in a coastal sand dune system, within a coastal barrier resource system, near the banks of a tidal river—was flooded by the Patriots Day storm of 2007. The initial grant for $36,000 was supplemented by municipal funds. Grants are funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Change Office, through the Gulf of Maine Council (GOMC) in partnership with Northeast Regional Ocean Council (NROC).

“We also had a smaller grant for the same engineering firm to evaluate the risk to a nearby pumping station, and to give us a heads-up on how long before it would be impacted by sea level rise,” said Phil Pickering, superintendent, who has worked for the district for 28 years. “We needed to know a time frame for all our challenges and the kind of prices we’d be looking at.”

“We determined that the plant is not under imminent threat, but in 40 or 60 years, things will be different,” Pickering said. Meanwhile, he added, that all parties concerned with the district continue to talk monthly about options. “We are coming up with game plans. We hired another engineering firm to review the last evaluation.”

Although relocation is not needed now, Pickering said, it may be necessary sometime in the future. The sea level is predicted to rise by 1 foot in the area by the year 2050 and 3.2 feet by 2100. A 100-year storm occurring in the present would see a surge of 8.5 feet. In 2050, a 100-year storm would see a 9.5-foot increase, and 11.8 feet in 2100. Another thing Ogunquit officials are doing is talking to their counterparts in neighboring Wells.

“Their plant is on the opposite side of the river, on a higher elevation and about a mile further down the road,” said Pickering. “We are talking with them about possible regionalization in the future.” The Wells location is also more likely to be accessible by road if flooding occurs.

Meanwhile, as equipment in the aging Ogunquit plant comes due for replacement, every new upgrade is considered with an eye to the plant’s future needs.

“We have two return pumps in the basement. When we replace them, we will purchase ones that will last 20 years and survive a flood,” said Pickering. “We’re also trying to work up a project with the local college to study the dunes.” The dunes protect the treatment plant now, and all the town’s plans for this important piece of infrastructure will be continually reassessed to make sure they gibe with expected changes to the surrounding ecosystem.

“Twenty years out, we’ll be at greater risk. Twenty years after that, even more. So we have to make sure our designs adapt.” Pickering said. The nearby pumping station may have to be replaced, and when it is, he said it will be built high enough to survive another 40 years.

In Rhode Island, the Block Island Ferry Terminal received a GOMC grant to assess adaptation strategies for ferry terminals and associated infrastructure at Block Island and Point Judith. There, engineers developed short and long-term plans for engineering solutions that include elevating the port infrastructure—piers and roads; realigning the roads or structures to higher elevations in the future, and increasing the height of the breakwaters and fortifying existing structures.


Ogunquit Sewer District

Bay of Fundy Ecosystem Partnership

Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations

Regional Adaptation Collaborative

Greater Moncton Infrastructure Assessment Project

Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Oceans Management

NOAA Climate Program Office

Northeast Regional Ocean Council



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