Of necessity, earthquake-prone California has long been a leader in advanced infrastructure standards. An important piece of recent legislation, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, is paving the way to advance that leadership well into the realities of the effects of climate change in the 21st century.

The cost of climate-related natural disasters has been expanding geometrically over the past few decades, yet the engineering profession has not substantially changed its design standards to meet that challenge. Sustainable infrastructure involves adapting our infrastructure to be more climate resilient while also reducing impacts on the environment. To do this, more concrete design standards are necessary to move this thought process into the engineering profession.

The California Assembly passed Assembly Bill 2800 in 2016. Its intention was to bring together specialists across professional disciplines and integrate scientific data about the projected impacts of climate change into statewide infrastructure engineering standards. The bill requires state agencies to take those multidimensional impacts into account when planning, designing, building, operating, maintaining and investing in state infrastructure until July 1, 2020, while updates to the state’s climate adaptation strategy are explored.

Such a broad charge has the potential to affect infrastructure design codes — with implications for both the public and private sectors — and raises questions about how to finance the necessary modifications. California is in the spotlight now, but others could choose to follow.

Public markets dislike uncertainty, but by attempting to quantify the impending risks, the state aims to explore reasonable and sensible design standards. The process began with the appointment of a working group. Although I am not a member of that committee, I have followed its development and discussions with interest.

Working Group Digs In

The Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group was born of AB 2800. Its members are a cohort of professional engineers, scientists and researchers from state agencies and the University of California and California State University systems, as well as licensed architects.

The group was established to collect and consider informational and institutional barriers to integrating climate change considerations into state infrastructure. Its members were to determine what critical information infrastructure design and construction engineers need to address. They also investigated how to select an appropriate design for a range of climate scenarios.

AB 2800 required the working group to make specific recommendations to the legislature and the state’s Strategic Growth Council by July 1, 2018. The panel was fully selected and empowered in January, and it promptly began conducting frequent webinars to explore and discuss a variety of topics relating to its charge.

A critical aspect of this legislation is the intersection of resilience and robustness. Resilience is the ability of infrastructure to withstand climate-related shocks; robustness is a measure of that resilience over a wide range of uncertainty. Defining our terms related to risk, probability and uncertainty creates important distinctions that help us to identify the essential aspects of climate adaptation standards-making.

Here’s a sampling of topics the working group has focused on to assist in getting more clarity:

  • University of California, Irvine professor Amir AghaKouchak is researching bivariate flood hazard assessment. Unlike traditional flood risk analysis, this approach considers the interdependencies between ocean and fluvial flooding. His work demonstrates how flood control mapping is still truly in its infancy, as it does not consider the full extent of a natural system and only focuses on past natural variations. This alone suggests updating design standards is overdue.
  • It may take time for design codes and standards to be revised institutionally, so the group has discussed working with voluntary, third-party rating tools like the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision program and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program to integrate climate-safe building standards. LEED and Envision credentialing are already widely adopted in the architectural and civil engineering professions and are proven, tested platforms for driving sustainable and resilient solutions into our built infrastructure.
  • Given the importance of quantifying the effects of climate change, the working group has looked at various statistical and analytical models. In one example, RAND Corp.’s David Groves discussed using an iterative analytical process called Robust Decision Making (RDM), which enables comprehensive decision-making under circumstances with deep uncertainty. RDM starts with a strategy and uses analytics to identify failures in the strategy. These types of tools and thinking are essential first steps since the science must translate the inherent uncertainty of natural systems into tangible engineering design standards. There is no doubt that probability-based predictive tools get us closer.

Getting Ready for the Report

As we await details from the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group’s report, we can appreciate the depth and breadth of materials explored by its appointees. Their work represents a significant step toward prioritizing resilient infrastructure, in keeping with California’s longstanding leadership on environmental matters.

To date, most climate adaptation discussions have lacked concrete design criteria. It will be interesting to see what sorts of feasible and tangible changes to design criteria have been proposed. Depending upon the recommendations, their permanence and repercussions into the broader engineering community will be followed keenly.

For example, design recurrence levels of 1-in-100-year storm events seem to be increasingly insufficient for infrastructure systems with long life spans and increasingly costly maintenance efforts; the probability of more severe consequences progressively increases each year. However, some systems have greater maintenance and protection systems in place, so the recurrence interval mentioned may be too high. This is a well-recognized phenomenon, yet have design standards been significantly upgraded?

Regardless of the outcome, Burns & McDonnell will participate in the conversation and continue to provide personalized, tailored solutions to project challenges with attention paid to safety, cost effectiveness and sustainability. In three recent projects, we initiated — and achieved — Envision accreditation simply to advance the notion that sustainability considerations need to be a normal part of our profession going forward.


See how the Burns & McDonnell team in California is addressing and preparing for natural disasters and other coastal concerns in a Q&A.

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Joel Farrier, PE, ENV SP, is regional manager of environmental services for Burns & McDonnell. He leads a team of professionals who deliver resilient and sustainable environmental solutions for clients.