Preparing for Change: Assessing Infrastructure Vulnerability

Climate change is a looming concern for many municipalities and utilities nationwide, particularly those in coastal areas. Infrastructure near coastlines is most immediately vulnerable to rising sea levels, and some states are predicted to lose large amounts of wetlands as water encroaches farther inland than it has in recent history. Extreme weather intensifies the already pressing effect of sea level rise, and the increasing frequency of severe weather events is a threat to infrastructure that might already be in need of repair. Evaluating your infrastructure vulnerability is an important part of developing an organizational strategy and making sure you’re able to provide your community with the services it needs.

Geographical forecasting

There are several aspects of infrastructure systems that will be important to consider in assessing the implications of climate change. Generally, you’ll want to focus on your system’s exposure to climate change impacts, as well as its degree of sensitivity, adaptability, and longevity. In order to begin evaluating how your system will respond to natural hazards, it’s necessary to understand what the expected changes are for your region, so reviewing the available literature on the subject is a great way to start.

There are multiple sources available for this type of research: on a global level, resources include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report. This provides a current appraisal of the scientific knowledge regarding worldwide climate change and a detailed report about the projections for specific regions. Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency has released overviews of projected impacts by U.S. region. The EPA also offers a Climate Ready Utilities program and the Climate Evaluation and Awareness Tool for wastewater utilities, specifically. The Third National Climate Assessment has further information on regional climate change. Look for local resources for even more specific information. State agencies, non-profits, and academic institutions often release reports related to this line of research.

Identifying weak spots

To determine the susceptibility of your infrastructure, each facility within the system should be reviewed. Get a good sense of what each facility’s current practices are in terms of operation, maintenance, and emergency preparedness. Find out what the concerns are at each facility and make note of any past impacts of climate change. Inspecting each site is important, but it’s equally relevant to hear what employees on site have to say.

Preparing a questionnaire that can be administered at each facility ensures that you collect consistent and informative data at each site. Questions could include:

  • What is the facility’s proximity to the nearest flood-prone area?
  • What measures are already being taken to ensure reliability during a flood or severe storm?
  • Does your facility have the physical capacity to withstand severe storm impacts or temporary flooding?
  • Has your facility been affected significantly in the past by a hazard related to climate change?

The goal here is to analyze documented damage and mitigation costs from previous events, understand the history of natural hazards that have affected the facility, and determine what kind of updates or additions might be necessary at each facility in your system. As part of this assessment, you should also document where each of your facilities is located on FEMA flood maps and review hazard mitigation plans for each individual site. If a site has no hazard mitigation plan in place, one should probably be developed.

Developing a strategy

With the needs of your system defined, the next step is to prioritize necessary tasks. Looking at your state’s comprehensive plan for dealing with climate change can be helpful in creating your own strategy. Priorities should be flexible; as communities grow, infrastructure comes due for rehabilitation or replacement, and the circumstances of climate change shift, your main concerns may develop in unexpected ways. Lastly, don’t forget the possibility of teaming up with neighboring utilities and municipalities. This can be an effective way to share costs while addressing common needs.


Mary House Director of Technical Practices Environmental Services

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