Duluth Mayor Don Ness thinks about infrastructure a lot these days. Warmer Minnesota winters have brought more freeze and thaw cycles, which means more potholes to patch and more roads to replace. Storm and wastewater systems pose even bigger problems, as the amount of rain has increased noticeably in recent years. Since 2000, Minnesota has experienced five largest-ever rainfalls, including a June 2012 deluge which overwhelmed Duluth’s storm water tunnels – flooding homes, roadways, parks, and public spaces.
“It was a real eye-opener for our community to see that our infrastructure wasn’t up to the task, given our change in realities”, said Mayor Ness. Duluth has spent $500 million to rebuild, while also creating a more resilient infrastructure to handle the bigger storms they expect to see in the future.
Even though the city is indeed adapting to climate change, water resources engineer Liz Stout said she focuses on the data, the documented increase in extreme rainfalls. “To be honest we don’t usually refer to climate change. That tends to be a little bit of a hot button word.” Some have referred to this as “adaptation by stealth,” preparing for climate change without using that specific language.
Other Minnesota cities and neighboring states are also rallying around climate preparedness – by assessing their infrastructure vulnerabilities, updating design standards for their highways, storm water pipes and storage basins, and experimenting with things like urban rain gardens and permeable pavement. And they’re finding that these fixes can be fairly manageable, if adequate attention is paid to planning and smart policies. Ultimately, the end game is to ensure that the biggest storms don’t threaten lives or severely damage property and livelihoods.
In Duluth, city workers have replaced 8-foot culverts wiped out in a 2012 storm with two sections 10 feet wide, more than doubling their capacity.
In Minnetonka, the city is creating computer models to see where increased rainfall is putting the most pressure on its stormwater system.
In north Minneapolis, a street has been torn out to make room for huge tanks that can store stormwater and prevent it from overwhelming the city’s system that drains into the Mississippi River.
In all three cases, whether officials say it in so many words or not, they are adapting their cities’ infrastructure to a changed climate, one that has been dumping more rain and bigger rains on Minnesota.