Designing Infrastructure with Climate Change in Mind: Assembly Bill 2800 Becomes Law

October 4, 2016 | 2:05 pm
Jamesine Rogers Gibson
Former Contributor

It’s no secret that our aging infrastructure is long overdue for a serious upgrade. Recently, this issue received national attention when the presidential candidates from both major parties committed to significant capital investments to improve our infrastructure system.

Indeed, infrastructure systems are critical for supporting our economy, quality of life, and public safety, and if designed well, they can have long lifespans. Yet, climate change is projected to severely stress our already-strained infrastructure. The investments we make today must take the long view, ensuring crucial services in the face of sea level rise and more frequent and intense extreme weather events.

Governor Brown brought California one step closer to addressing these risks by signing Assembly Bill 2800 (Quirk, D-Hayward) into law. AB 2800 establishes the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group, bringing together scientists, engineers, and architects to better design our public infrastructure – roads, bridges, buildings, and water systems – to withstand the impacts of climate change. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support, including 13 Republicans, highlighting the broad support for this approach.

Folsom Lake - an important reservoir for California - at extremely low water levels in 2014 due to drought. Photo: California Department of Water Resources

Folsom Lake – an important reservoir for California – at extremely low water levels in 2014 due to the drought. Photo: California Department of Water Resources

Designing for the “New Normal”

California spends billions of dollars each year on new and existing infrastructure projects. As climate change affects these projects, it puts these investments and our safety at risk. Traditionally, infrastructure project standards have relied on historical data and trends, but with climate change, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. Instead, we need to design our infrastructure for the “new normal,” where we can expect higher temperatures, more frequent and intense storms, drought, and sea level rise.

UCS sponsored AB 2800 to address this disconnect. While California is a leader in climate data and tools, we found that engineers do not always have the information they need to help them integrate climate impacts, including a range of possible climate futures, into how they design and build infrastructure.

A Critical Conversation

Under AB 2800, the Natural Resources Agency will establish the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group composed of state engineers, scientists, and architects by July 1, 2017. They will engage in a nuts-and-bolts conversation between the scientists who produce information on climate impacts and the engineers and architects who design and oversee public infrastructure projects. Their discussion will focus on how to better integrate climate impacts into infrastructure design, examining topics like key barriers, important information needs, and the best design approach for a range of future climate scenarios. By July 1, 2018, the working group must submit its findings and recommendations to the Legislature.

Cars navigate a flooded freeway. Photo: Caltrans

Cars navigate a flooded freeway. Photo: California Department of Transportation

We anticipate these findings and recommendations may also be useful to efforts beyond California. For example, the White House recently hosted a conference on Resilient Building Codes and released its final guidance for considering climate change in NEPA. These and other efforts at the federal level to improve how we design infrastructure to withstand climate impacts also underscore the value of an AB 2800-like dialogue.

Building on Other State Efforts

The Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group will build upon many existing state adaptation efforts. Executive Order B-30-15 and recent laws like SB 246 (Wieckowski, 2015) and AB 1482 (Gordon, 2015) require state agencies to consider climate impacts in state planning and investments, including infrastructure. The working group’s efforts are complementary to these efforts and focus on filling a narrow but important gap – the need for conversations about how we build climate resilient infrastructure to directly involve those engineers and architects who design our state infrastructure projects.

The working group will coordinate with state adaptation planning efforts and other state agencies focused on sustainable infrastructure. This guarantees that its work both informs critical efforts, like the Five Year Infrastructure Plan, and is informed by them as well.

Looking Ahead

UCS is grateful to Governor Brown and Assembly Member Quirk for their leadership to address this disconnect between climate science and engineering design. Just as seismic standards are essential to public safety when a disastrous earthquake strikes, the stakes can also be high if we don’t design our infrastructure to withstand the impacts of climate change. The passage of AB 2800 brings California one step closer to the safe and resilient infrastructure system we need to protect our safety, our economy, and our environment now and for decades to come.