By Jeanne Janson, NFU Intern
America’s infrastructure has a climate change problem.
The Edenville Dam in central Michigan collapsed in May after heavy rain—nearly five inches in 48 hours—falling on already saturated land pushed the Tittabawasse River to record heights. The torrent poured into the surrounding area, destroying roads, homes, businesses, dams and farmland in its path.
This story might sound familiar. Last year, a wet spring across the Midwest, followed by an explosive late-winter “bomb cyclone” storm, caused rivers to breach their banks and dams and other infrastructure to fail. The historic flooding that ensued affected nearly 14 million people and left more than 19 million acres unplanted—an area roughly the size of South Carolina.
Much of the water infrastructure in the U.S. was built more than half a century ago, before there were concerns about rising sea levels and changing weather patterns due to climate change. Now, after decades of wear and tear and very little upkeep, more than 90,000 dams are at risk of failure.
But even as the infrastructure failures mount, it is unclear if efforts are being made to ensure new and existing dams are resilient to the effects of climate change.
In some rural communities, there aren’t a lot of conversations about how climate change is compounding the problem of old infrastructure. “Right now it’s just, ‘climate change is a dirty word,'” said Richard Oswald, former president of the Missouri Farmers Union, whose land was submerged in last year’s floods. “Even though we are getting some good service out of the Corps of Engineers fixing what’s wrong from this last flood, there’s no acknowledgment of why it occurred and what we might do to handle future floods.”
Oswald is a fifth-generation farmer from Rock Port, Missouri, a rural town of 1,318 people that sits just eight miles east of the Missouri River. At this time last year, three-fourths of his land was under river water￼—one of the many farms across the Midwest and the South affected by the Great Flood of 2019. Last fall, as the waters subsided, he told Politico, “‘I’m standing right here in the middle of climate change.”
The Oswalds moved to Rock Port in 1845 because its fertile glacial plains and easy access to water made for great farming. Floods are nothing new in Rock Port, which has lived in a precarious harmony with the river for generations. Those who live near the river are not naïve to its powerful, destructive potential. The seven different soil types peppered across the Oswalds’ family farm tell the tumultuous story of this land.
“You know the song ‘We Built This City on Rock and Roll?’ Well, we built this land with river floods basically.”
But a year after the floods, Oswald is optimistic. He has built a new home on higher ground, replacing the flood damaged 80-year-old white farmhouse where he grew up. The water has receded or drained, the debris has been cleared away, and a relatively dry spring allowed him to plant his crop without a problem. The farm was converted to no-till practices in the 1980s, which helped to protect the land from the water and collect the fertile silt left by the river. But the destruction wrought by the flooding still lingers, as do his fears that this could happen again.
Unfortunately, those fears are not unfounded. While no two floods are the same, as the climate warms, there will most certainly be more of them.
The frequency of heavy precipitation events across the Midwest is expected to increase by 40% by the end of the century, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. This is on top of the increase in flooding already seen over the last fifty years.
“The last few years as the climate has changed—and it is changing— we’ve seen this kind of rain,” Oswald said. “It used to be an inch of rain. Now we either don’t get rain or we get a whole bunch of rain.”
As the weather gets more extreme, he’s concerned about the aging infrastructure in his community. “I don’t think those dams were made to handle the amount of water that we see coming down the rivers now,” he said. “In fact, I know they weren’t because that amount of water wasn’t happening when all those things were engineered.”
Despite the relationship between increasing extreme weather events and dam failures, the politics around climate change make talking about the need for resilient infrastructure difficult. Over the past few years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pushed for broad infrastructure funding, recognizing that the nation’s bridges, roads and waterways are aging rapidly and often poorly maintained. Thus far, they have been unable to agree on how to tackle what is likely a trillion-dollar problem. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans are still at odds over the causes (and in some cases, the mere existence) of climate change and what, if anything, should be done. That leaves climate-resilient infrastructure advocates a narrow path to tread as they try to make the case for improvements.
“To be blunt, we don’t lead with climate change, but we do talk about how the storms are getting worse,” said Michele Nellenbach, director of strategic initiatives for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “I think that’s pretty well documented, and we talk about the cost of all that.”
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which oversees the nation’s dams and inland waterway system, was instructed to include climate resilience and preparedness in its work. However, the Trump administration reversed that mandate and has also proposed deep cuts to USACE’s budget that opponents say would cripple ongoing and new dam projects—cuts Congress has repeatedly rejected.
To be sure, regulators are aware of how fragile much of the nation’s waterway infrastructure is, and both the Spencer Dam and the Edenville Dam had caught their attention. The 93-year-old Spencer Dam had been rated by USACE as a “significant” risk, and a 2018 report by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources found that deficiencies in the structure “would lead to dam failure during rare, extreme events.” The 95-year-old Edenville Dam was rated as “high” risk by USACE. The private owner of the dam, Boyce Power, had been notified as far back at 1998 that the spillway capacity needed to be increased to avoid failure.
If the stalemate on Capitol Hill over infrastructure funding and climate change preparedness continues, this problem will only get worse. Certainly, lawmakers must ensure they tackle both issues in order to curb this rate of dam collapses and the havoc they wreak to farmland and rural communities.
“Most farmers—with their conservative beliefs and tendency to vote Republican—don’t really want to talk about climate change,” noted Oswald. “They know that things have changed and it’s worse, but they don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to break ranks and stand out among their friends for saying the forbidden word of ‘climate change.’ Everyone here acknowledges that things need to be done, like the improvements to infrastructure, it’s just the reasons why that they don’t really address or want to talk about. The real reasons why.”
For more information on policy efforts related to climate change and agriculture, check out NFU’s climate resource center here.