California’s Infrastructure Earns a C-. We Need More Equitable and Climate-Safe Infrastructure Now

May 17, 2019 | 5:18 pm
Jamesine Rogers Gibson
Former Contributor

Last week, California’s infrastructure got its report card. Engineers from Region 9 of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) evaluated the state of our roads, dams, electric grid, schools, and other critical infrastructure, as they do every six years. This time around, the Golden State earned a grade of ‘C-,’ or “mediocre and requires attention.”

As the mother of an infant, this assessment struck a special chord with me. I count on the quality and reliability of our roads, water and wastewater systems, and electric grid to help me keep my daughter safe from harm and provide an environment where she can thrive. Many other parents do, too.

These expectations seem reasonable. They will, however, become even harder to meet in the face of continued underinvestment and disinvestment in communities and more frequent and severe climate-related extreme events here in California and beyond. These issues must be key considerations in infrastructure decisions and solutions moving forward.

Making the grade

California’s ‘C-’ grade is better than the nation’s grade of ‘D+’ but worse than its previous 2012 evaluation of ‘C’ – despite billions of dollars in investments since then at the state and local levels. What’s more interesting and sobering are the individual sector analyses. Our roads, energy and stormwater systems, and levees all received poor grades (‘D’, ‘D-,’ ‘D+,’ and ‘D,’ respectively). A couple of the many stated reasons include:

  • Electricity outages affected nearly 4 million Californians per year on average between 2008-2013, and roughly 3 million people in 2017. One study found that California had the most reported outages of any state in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
  • A significant portion of our stormwater drainage infrastructure pre-dates the 1940s and requires repair or replacement for continued use and protection of communities.

ASCE estimates it would take investments of hundreds of billions of dollars over the next couple decades to upgrade these and other critical sectors to a ‘good’ condition or ‘B’. Recent State and local bonds and voter-approved propositions, including SB 1 for transportation and Prop 1 and Prop 68 for water, provide a sizable down payment towards this goal.

Moving beyond averages and historical trends

California is a massive state and home to nearly 40 million people. While a single grade can serve as a helpful benchmark, it also masks the varying quality of infrastructure throughout the state that contributes to disparities in health, economic opportunities, and quality of life. As a result of decades of underinvestment and disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color, families are left relying on infrastructure (or lack thereof) that fails to meet even basic needs. One example is low-income unincorporated communities in the San Joaquin Valley who lack access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water due to pollution, groundwater depletion, and insufficient wastewater treatment and disposal systems. Examples exist for transportation, schools, and other sectors as well. Infrastructure solutions should address these inequities and prioritize investments in the communities that need them most.

In addition, we need our infrastructure to function during extreme weather events, from floods to droughts and wildfires to heat waves. The best available science reminds us that no sector or region will be left untouched as these events become more severe and frequent due to climate change. Efforts to improve and expand our critical infrastructure must plan for this new reality, rather than continuing to assume that the past is a good predictor of the future. The good news is that the work of the AB 2800 Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group provides a useful framework for the necessary fundamental shifts in design, planning, investments, operations and maintenance.

Remembering why

Budget conversations are continuing in Sacramento. Discussions on a federal infrastructure package are moving forward with the introduction of the LIFT America Act, thanks to the leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. It’s important for policymakers to keep in mind during this process the people that the state’s and nation’s infrastructure is meant to serve. UCS will be watching closely to see what and who they prioritize.

We look forward to working with Governor Newsom’s administration and the US House of Representatives and US Senate on equitable, clean, and climate-safe solutions. Our state and nation must invest in such infrastructure as if our safety, quality of life, and livelihoods depend on it – because they do.