Climate Resilience on the High Plains

For those who think only in terms of the politics of red and blue states, the conference I attended March 30-31 in Lincoln, Nebraska, may seem like a paradox, if not an oxymoron. It is neither. It is a matter of looking beyond labels to facts and common sense, and ultimately toward solutions to shared problems. The problem with climate change is that the subject has been politicized into federal policy paralysis. But the scope for local and even state action is wider than it seems.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Public Policy Center with support from the High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) sponsored the conference on “Utilizing Climate Science to Inform Local Planning and Enhance Resilience.” I spoke first on the opening panel. The sponsors have been working with communities across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. Planners, floodplain managers, and civil engineers from eleven municipalities in those states participated, along with UNL staff, climatologists, the Nebraska emergency manager, and myself.

My job was to provide a national perspective on the subject from a national professional organization, representing the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. I talked about two projects we are conducting with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Building Coastal Resilience through Capital Improvements Planning” and “Incorporating Local Climate Science to Help Communities Plan for Climate Extremes.” I made light of the fact that there was not a single coastal community among the four states of the region, but I added that the lessons from the first project are still relevant because every community plans for capital improvements, which generally constitute the biggest investments they make in their future. Capital improvements cover long-term expenditures for transportation and waste and wastewater infrastructure as well as other facilities potentially affected by climate change. In the Midwest and High Plains, instead of sea level rise, communities are watching a rise in the number and severity of extreme events on both ends of the precipitation curve—in other words, both prolonged drought and more intense rainfall. Drought taxes water supply while heavy rainstorms tax local capacity to manage stormwater. Both may require costly improvements to address vulnerabilities.

This park is part of the new urban amenity created for Lincoln residents.

I simply set the stage, however, for an increasingly deep dive over two days into the realities facing the communities represented at the workshop. Such input was an essential point of the conference. Different professionals speak differently about the problem; if planners or local elected officials are to interpret climate data in a way that makes sense politically and makes for better local policy, it is important for, say, climate scientists to understand how their data are being understood. There must also be effective information conduits to the general public, which is often confused by overly technical presentations. Moreover, what matters most is not the same for every group of listeners.

Glenn Johnson explains some of the planning of Antelope Valley.

Some of the challenges, as well as the successes, were clear from presentations by two speakers who followed me to talk about the situation in Lincoln. Glenn Johnson is retired from the Lower South Platte Natural Resources District. Steve Owen is with the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department and spoke about the challenges related to water supply and quality, as well as flooding. At the end of the conference, we spent three hours touring Lincoln’s Antelope Valley project, an interesting combination of using a weir (small dam) and landscaping tools to create adequate water storage to reduce flooding in the downtown area. This had the interesting impact of removing some land from the floodplain and sparking redevelopment in what are now some of Lincoln’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods. At the same time, the project through creative urban

Now you know what a weir looks like (if you didn’t already). Photo courtesy of UNL.

design has allowed the city to create new urban park space and trails that enhance the urban experience for residents. Responding to climate and flooding challenges need not subtract from a city’s overall prospects; it can help enhance its attractiveness to both citizens and developers. The result is that good planning has helped make Lincoln a more interesting city than it might otherwise have been. That is a message worth considering amid all the political hubbub over climate change. We can create opportunity, but we must also embrace the reality. My guess is that this is why the other ten cities were present.

Jim Schwab

Engaging Preparedness for Drought

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

Drought has historically been the disaster that fails to focus our attention on its consequences until it is too late to take effective action. While other disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and most floods have a quick onset that signals trouble, and a clear end point that signals that it is time to recover and rebuild, drought has been that slow-onset event that sneaks up on whole regions and grinds on for months and years, leaving people exhausted, frustrated, and feeling powerless. Our species and life itself depend on water for survival.

Over time, our nation has responded to most types of disasters both with an overall framework for response, centered on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and with resources for specific types of disasters with operations like the National Hurricane Center. It took longer for drought to win the attention of Congress, but in 2006, Congress passed the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Act, creating an interagency entity with that name, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NIDIS was reauthorized in 2014. Its headquarters are in Boulder, Colorado.

For the last five years, I have been involved in various ways with NIDIS and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), an academic institute affiliated with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. To date, the major byproduct of that collaboration has been the publication by the American Planning Association (APA) of a Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report, Planning and Drought, released in early 2014. Both NIDIS and NDMC have helped make that report widely available among professionals and public officials engaged in preparing communities for drought. The need to engage community planners in this enterprise has been clear. Much of the Midwest was affected by drought in 2012, at the very time we were researching the report. Texas suffered from prolonged drought within the last few years, and California has yet to fully recover from a multi-year drought that drained many of its reservoirs. And while drought may seem less dangerous than violent weather or seismic disturbances, the fact is that, in the last five years alone, four drought episodes each exceeding $1 billion in damages have collectively caused nearly $50 billion in adverse economic consequences. The need to craft effective water conservation measures and to account adequately for water consumption needs in reviewing proposed development has become obvious. We need to create communities that are more resilient in the face of drought conditions.

A subgroup of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Part of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Over the past decade, NIDIS has elaborated its mission in a number of directions including this need to engage communities in preparing for drought. It was this mission that brought me to Lincoln at the end of April for the NIDIS Engaging Preparedness Communities (EPC) Working Group. This group works to bring together the advice and expertise of numerous organizations involved in drought, including not only APA, NOAA, and NDMC, but state agencies like the Colorado Water Conservation Board, tribal organizations such as the Indigenous Waters Network, and academic experts in fields like agriculture and climatology. Over ten years since the creation of NIDIS, this and other working groups have made considerable strides toward better understanding the impact of drought on communities and regions and increasing public access to information and predictions about drought in order to give them a better basis for decision making in confronting the problem. NIDIS has conducted a number of training webinars, established online portals for databases and case studies, and otherwise tried to demystify what causes drought and how states and communities can deal with it. Our job for two days in Lincoln was simply to push the ball farther uphill and to help coordinate outreach and resources, especially for communication, to make the whole program more effective over the next few years.

Much of that progress is captured in the NIDIS Progress Report, issued in January of this year. More importantly, this progress and the need to build further national capabilities to address drought resilience, captured the attention of the White House. On March 21, the White House issued a Presidential Memorandum signed by President Obama, which institutionalized the National Drought Resilience Partnership, which issued an accompanying Federal Action Plan for long-term drought resilience. This plan enhances the existing muscle of NIDIS by laying out a series of six national drought resilience goals: 1) data collection and integration; 2) communicating drought risk to critical infrastructure; 3) drought planning and capacity building; 4) coordination of federal drought activity; 5) market-based approaches for infrastructure and efficiency; and 6) innovative water use, efficiency, and technology.

Drought clearly is a complex topic in both scientific and community planning terms, one that requires the kind of coordination this plan describes in order to alleviate the economic burden on affected states and regions. With the growing impacts of climate change in coming decades, this issue can only become more challenging. We have a long way to go, and many small communities lack the analytical and technical capacities they will need. Federal and state disaster policy should be all about building capacity and channeling help where it is needed most. The institutional willingness of the federal government to at least acknowledge this need and organize to address it is certainly encouraging.

 

Jim Schwab

 

Water: Our Public Policy Challenge

R1-08402-021AI grew up in suburban Cleveland. After a seven-year hiatus in Iowa and briefly in Nebraska, my wife’s home state, we ended up in Chicago. I am unquestionably a Midwesterner with most of my life lived near the Great Lakes. It will therefore not be surprising that for most of my adult life, I have heard people speculate about moving some of our abundant water to places that have less, mostly in the West. For just about as long, I have been very aware that their speculations were merely pipedreams (pun very much intended).

Because most people have at most only a cursory understanding of our nation’s intricate water laws and treaties (in the case of the Great Lakes), to say nothing of the costs and challenges of water infrastructure development, I suppose they can be forgiven for their naivete in even entertaining such notions as piping water from Lake Michigan to California. For both legal and practical reasons, the water is not likely any time soon to leave the Great Lakes Basin, let alone find its way to the West Coast. Enough said.

That is all backdrop to noting that, at the moment, Lakes Michigan and Huron, which essentially share identical water levels because they are joined by a strait, are experiencing rising water levels after declining to levels well below average in 2012, in the midst of a drought and high temperatures. The lack of precipitation and high evaporation levels reduced the two lakes to 576 feet above sea level, about 2.8 feet below the average since 1918, when the Army Corps of Engineers began keeping records. All the Great Lakes tend to rise and fall over time, and somewhat in tandem because they are part of a continuous system that flows into the St. Lawrence River and out into the Atlantic Ocean. But Lake Superior is higher before it dumps into Michigan and Huron, which are higher than Lake Erie, and certainly Lake Ontario, which is on the receiving end of Niagara Falls. Gravity is obviously how all this water finds its way to the sea.

High recent rainfall—in June we had seven inches in Chicago with lower temperatures than normal—has kept the lake levels rising. Colder winters because of the polar vortexes have maintained ice cover, reducing evaporation. As a result, the lakes are now three feet higher than they were in 2012. Amid all this rise and fall, some facts should be noted: These lakes are thousands of years old. They are the result of glacial melt as the Ice Age receded, so most of the water is the result not of precipitation but of ancient glacial retreat. And our record keeping is less than a century old, so what we think we know about the long-term fluctuation in water levels, let alone what we can accurately predict about long-term impacts of climate change in the Midwest, remains far less than what we might ideally like to know. There are big gaps in our knowledge that can only partially be filled with other types of scientific analysis.

Nonetheless, based on such limited knowledge, the urge to build on shoreland materializing from nothing more than historical fluctuations sometimes motivates unwise development. Communities along the Great Lakes need to invest in wise lakefront planning that takes those fluctuations into account and does not create new hazards that are sure to arise in the face of lake levels that often rise again faster than we anticipated. Adequate buffers based on such fluctuations must be a part of the zoning and development regulations throughout such areas. It is best we approach what we know about Great Lakes water level fluctuations with a dose of humility and caution, lest nature make a fool of our aspirations.

There are resources for that purpose. Many of the state Sea Grant programs, based at state universities, can offer technical assistance. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose Coastal Zone Management Act responsibilities include the Great Lakes, has been developing resources for Great Lakes states. Using NOAA funding, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, with partners like the American Planning Association (APA), has developed, and is still expanding, a website containing its Great Lakes Coastal Resilience Planning Guide. It consists of case studies, a Great Lakes dashboard, and other tools. NOAA’s Digital Coast Partnership has been working with cities like Toledo, Ohio; Duluth, Minnesota; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Milwaukee to address flooding and development problems along the Great Lakes in varying contexts.

I mention all this because, even amid this temporary abundance of water on the Great Lakes amid a withering drought on the West Coast, water, as always, remains a preoccupying public policy challenge everywhere around the world and across the United States. It is not nearly enough of a focus of public debate, however, and the complexities of the issue seem to evade most people’s attention, including those who ought to be thinking harder about it. Even those who do focus on the question are often siloed into narrow segments of water policy—wastewater, drinking water, flood protection and mitigation, drought planning, coastal zone management, and so forth. We need to approach water challenges more holistically.

APA’s board of directors approached the subject with that larger picture in mind in empowering a special task force to examine the issue. About two months ago, the task force released its report, which began by emphasizing that “water is a central and essential organizing element in a healthy urban environment.” It went on to call for viewing water resource management as “interdisciplinary, not multidisciplinary,” in other words, calling for collaboration among the professions involved. But it also called on the planning profession and university planning schools to provide more training, more education, and more resources centered around the subject of water and its importance to our society. And it calls for APA to “partner with national water service membership agencies” to “foster cross-industry participation and learning opportunities.” It is a far-reaching document that planning leadership in the U.S. is still absorbing, including me. But I commend it as an overdue conversation so that our future conversations about who uses water how, and for what purpose, can be considerably more sophisticated, as they clearly need to be.

We need to move away from pipedreams to serious conversations. Whether in California, where there is too little, or the Great Lakes, where there is currently plenty, we need to get it right because the stakes are high. Very high.

 

Jim Schwab

Yes, Floods Are More Frequent

If you live in the Midwest, you’re over, say, 50 years old, and you’ve had the impression that floods are happening more frequently than they used to, your memory is not playing tricks on you. A pair of researchers at the University of Iowa have studied the daily records collected at stream gauges in 14 states by the U.S. Geological Survey from 1962-2011. Four times as many stations (264, or 34 percent) showed an increase as showed a decrease during that time (66, or nine percent).

Iman Mallakpour and Gabriele Villarini published their findings, “The Changing Nature of Flooding across the Central United States,” in the February 9 advance online edition of Nature Climate Change, a scientific journal. Villarini is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Mallakpour is a graduate student in the program who served as lead author on the paper. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, the Iowa Flood Center, and IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering supported their work, along with the National Science Foundation.

The two authors studied the data for both changes in peak flow—the magnitude of the events—and the frequency with which floods occurred. They did not find a statistically significant pattern of increased large events, but the data on increasing frequency of flooding was quite convincing. They also examined seasonal differences and found some differentiation between the central Midwest and its perimeters, where the pattern of increased flooding was generally less pronounced. They also found an “overall good match” when they overlaid the areas of increasing flood frequency with those experiencing heavy rainfall events. Although the two authors did not go so far as to relate these results to climate change, this does not mean there is no connection; they simply chose not to speculate beyond the information provided by the stream flow data they examined. As the article states, “a direct attribution of these changes in discharge, precipitation and temperature to human impacts on climate represents a much more complex problem that is very challenging to address using only observational records.”

However, as this blog has noted previously (“Iowa Faces Its Fluid Future”), this tracks well with the prevailing theory among climate scientists that, as the atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more moisture, resulting in more intense events of higher precipitation—offset, at other times, by an increased propensity for drought. The expected tendency is for a flattening of the bell curve of weather events—more on the extreme ends in both directions, lessening the dominance of more moderate events. The article by Mallakpour and Villarini is one more in a long string of indicators that change is afoot with regard to weather and flooding patterns. The science of climate change has not been and will not be built on one or two studies, but hundreds, if not thousands. That is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involves thousands of researchers from 195 countries. It is important to pay attention to both individual pieces of evidence and its massive overall accumulation to understand how the case for the human impact was built over time.

Jim Schwab

Creative Economic Development for College Towns

College towns can be as different from each other as they are collectively from most other communities. Some literally dominate the economic landscape of their communities. Others are comfortably lodged in a setting that involves a larger community or even a state capital. They have different histories, different strengths, and different outlooks.

What they tend to have in common is a high average level of education and a large number of young people and faculty brimming with new ideas. But they don’t always tap that imagination effectively, sometimes at all, and not all are good at bridging the famous gap between town and gown. So how do they chart an economic future for themselves?

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium's Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron--that was in Fenway Park in April 2011--but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium’s Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron–that was in Fenway Park in April 2011–but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

On Saturday, September 20, I was in Iowa City listening to, and sometimes asking questions of, a series of panels that comprised an all-day Midwest Creative College Town Conference. The event did not occur in isolation. It was part of the 50th anniversary of the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, whose creation in 1964 some far-sighted folks back then thought made sense in a largely rural, agrarian state. Over time, Iowa has become considerably more urban: It was noted that the two areas of the state gaining population are the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor and the Des Moines metropolitan area. Almost all others have been losing population steadily for some time. There are reasons for those trends. I attended in a dual capacity, as both an alumnus (Class of 1985) and adjunct faculty. I teach a course each year on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” Not so coincidentally, this course became part of the school’s curriculum in 2008, following massive floods that severely affected both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The school offers a graduate-level curriculum, in which students earn a master’s degree in planning, many of them, however, in combination with degrees in other fields like law or public health. I was the oddball. I earned a second degree in journalism.

SURP Director Charles Connerly organized four panels, three to discuss economic development strategies in college towns, and a final one to discuss the role of the arts in Iowa City. Of the three, I found the panels from Iowa City and East Lansing, Michigan, to have very substantive thoughts on the subject, but was more disappointed with the panel from Lincoln, Nebraska. I will offer more on that later.

But note the differences. Iowa City, once the territorial capital of Iowa prior to statehood, lost that distinction after statehood to Des Moines, but the capitol building became the core of a state university. Old Capitol remains open as a museum that one can visit, the heart of the Pentacrest, a complex of buildings immediately adjacent to the downtown. As panelist Geoff Fruin, the assistant city manager, noted, this has afforded a “tight integration between the campus and the community,” which allows the university’s “energy to spill out into the streets.” East Lansing, on the other hand, is adjacent to the state capital, more isolated from the action in that sense as a college town, and in the middle of an older industrial area with its own manufacturing heritage. Lincoln, like Madison, Wisconsin, is a major state university within a state capital. Its primary business, in addition to the University of Nebraska, is state government.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City's Summer of the Arts.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City’s Summer of the Arts.

One can find many other variations not represented on any of the panels—small towns with small, independent or church-affiliated liberal arts colleges, as well as universities in suburbs of major cities, like Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As an undergraduate, I attended a truly urban institution, Cleveland State University, which occupies prime real estate in downtown Cleveland. No one would think of Cleveland as a college town, of course, but most big cities contain such universities. Every community must fashion its own strategy based on its own circumstances.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

But there were some common themes that I find fascinating because they relate to the new knowledge economy and suggest changes in the landscape of economic development that many communities are still slow to recognize. That is because, as Jeff Smith of East Lansing noted, many economic development professionals are still tied to the old “hunt and gather” approach, which he says is dying. That approach can be loosely defined as trying to find businesses elsewhere that would be willing to move to or expand into your community, if only given the right incentives. These often involve tax breaks, free land, or similar public giveaways. Ultimately, to the extent that one community’s gain is someone else’s loss, it becomes a zero-sum game. Smith’s answer: “You need to water your own garden. The momentum [from doing so] is contagious.” Smith is director of the New Economy Division of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

Watering your own garden means fostering entrepreneurship, collaborating with potential business startups, and producing the conditions that will allow new businesses to succeed. It is more difficult work because it involves some serious effort to understand the economic ecosystem in which these businesses will operate. Every college town has its own unique strengths. In East Lansing, said Smith, “Our culture is we are extremely good at making things. . . . We’re engineers, we make things.” Over time, he said, the Michigan State University engineering school bred manufacturing, much of it in Michigan’s automotive industry, which grew an insurance cluster because “people got injured on jobs,” and in time that insurance cluster was followed by software development. Still, Lori Mullins, community and economic development administrator for the City of East Lansing, noted that the city had long been “content to be a bohemian town, humble for too long,” and did not harness the resources that the university offered. “We needed to change that culture,” she stated. Smith seconded that assessment by noting “a stagnant entrepreneurial climate” in which General Motors, which went through bankruptcy in 2009, laid off more employees than all other companies in the region.

The key, as highlighted by both Mullins and Paul Jaques, director of community and student engagement for Spartan Innovations, an enterprise of the university, was both that the city in 2006 was bold enough, in the face of a local culture that did not particularly favor entrepreneurialism, to invest in a hub for innovation in a former downtown department store, and to work with the university, which fostered its own ecosystem to  support entrepreneurship. The result is a series of home-grown enterprises and a gradually evolving cultural change that encourages innovation. This includes competitions and monetary incentives for new ideas, as well as classes to teach entrepreneurial skills.

Interestingly, the Iowa City speakers seconded the notion that “chasing after companies” as an economic development strategy “doesn’t work anymore,” as Fruin noted. In fact, he went further, stating that “older trained economic development professionals need to toss out everything you have learned. Older traditional models are wasteful if not harmful to cities.” Instead, the top talent is already in the community, and you need to “make sure faculty and staff feel invited to the community.” Economic development professionals, he added, need to “stop thinking like economic development professionals and start thinking like progressive urban planners. Promote high-quality architecture. Invest in memorable spaces and make them accessible by all modes [of transportation]. Let your public spaces speak for you.”

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

In short, what he was telling the audience was that quality of life will attract talent, and the answer is to “cultivate young students, faculty, and staff, and the rest takes care of itself.” David Hensley, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, and Associate Vice President for Economic Development for the University of Iowa, outlined a series of university initiatives similar to those at Michigan State, starting from his primary point that “innovation and creativity are drivers of prosperity.”

He was backed up by Andy Stoll, co-founder of the Seed Here Studio, which has fostered numerous new enterprises in Iowa City by holding coffees with groups and entrepreneurs, introducing them to each other and creating a network among people who had thought they were alone, but eventually comprised more than 700 people in a culture of collaboration, which he described as “the new competition.” That collaboration often needs to be between apparent cultural opposites, for example, “the tucked and the untucked,” referring to people’s sartorial habits, and the fact that those with the imagination eventually need to be paired with those with the means to invest. “You need both elements in the same room connecting energy and creativity with knowledge and experience,” Stoll concluded.

The more disappointing of the three college town panels was the one from Lincoln, though that was not entirely the fault of the panelists. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons they may have had, city officials in Lincoln chose not to participate in the panel despite encouragement. This left a noticeable gap in the discussion of economic development strategies in Lincoln compared to the other two cities represented, and the panel could only offer the observation that they would be happy not to have the city get in their way. They had their own interesting approaches from both the university and community organizations, but it still seemed that something was lacking in the absence of similar engagement from City Hall, and there was no particular explanation for that relinquishment of opportunity and collaboration.

What was encouraging, however, was that there was explicit recognition to varying degrees of the importance of anticipating the social and environmental impacts of the kinds of businesses we choose to encourage and support. This is an emerging issue within the economic realm that is changing the way many of us eat, shop, and travel. The conversation regarding sustainability could certainly have gone farther and been deeper and more substantive, but the first step is to recognize that it is a serious question worthy of debate, which may take us back to one opening comment by Dan Reed, the University of Iowa’s vice president for research and development, quoting William Gibson:

“The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

 

Jim Schwab