Climate centers help cities plan for climate variability, risk

A participant pays close attention during a session at the climate and planning workshop by the High Plains Regional Climate Center, Nebraska State Climate Office and Nebraska Public Policy Center, all at Nebraska. | Tarik Abdel-Monem
A participant pays close attention during a session at the climate and planning workshop by the High Plains Regional Climate Center, Nebraska State Climate Office and Nebraska Public Policy Center, all at Nebraska. | Tarik Abdel-Monem

LINCOLN — City planning experts from 13 cities across the Midwest recently gathered to talk climate: Climate extremes, variabilities, thresholds, risks and how they should utilize the information.

The two-day workshop brought together experts from the High Plains Regional Climate Center and the Nebraska State Climate Office, both at the School of Natural Resources, and the Public Policy Center, all based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The workshop is part of a two-year project, co-led by Natalie Umphlett, interim director for the HPRCC, and Martha Shulski, Nebraska State Climatologist, to incorporate climate information into long-term municipal planning strategies for cities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

A common thread from participants was the difficulty in getting climate change projections included in future planning projects; to justify long-term projects, local officials and engineers need hard data on climate trends. That is just what this project intends to deliver.

“The goal is to bring together the scientists and stakeholders,” Shulski said, “so that useful climate information is presented in a meaningful way, and ultimately reduces risk of municipalities across the region to future weather and climate events.”

During the workshop, each of 13 participating cities received a personalized climate adaptation report that included historical trends for temperature, precipitation and general climate, as well as projections for 50 years into the future. For example, historical data shows Lincoln has warmed an average of 2 degrees over the past 44 years. It also shows a 5 percent increase in annual precipitation, though spring and autumn have been drier, and summer and winter have been much wetter. Projections show those trends will continue.

“Locations across the four-state region already experience a wide range of weather and climate conditions,” Umphlett said. “However, for some areas of the region, changes in the frequency of extremes, such as heavy rainfall events, have made those cities more prone to certain hazards.”

Energy needs will change, with decreased usage in the winter and increased need in the summer during peak delivery times. Continued increases in single- and multi-day heavy rainfall events could increase the intensity and frequency of flooding, leading to soil erosion and decreasing water quality. If droughts occur more frequently — a strong possibility with reduced precipitation and higher temperature projected during summer months — water quality and quantity again will decrease.

These projected changes have implications for public planning, utilities, city budgets and for public health, particularly for vulnerable populations such as the young, elderly and poor.

And that means cities have to decide where to invest and how much to plan for. Do they need larger wastewater sites? Do they need larger water storage units? Do they need to plan for cooling shelters? What is the best way to implement water restrictions during a crisis? Do they plan and build for 50-year, 100-year or 500-year floods? And how do they justify the costs to taxpayers when choosing to plan for the worst-case scenarios?

The answer for most during the discussion groups? Increasing awareness.

“The minimum we have to do is make sure people are aware what we have today may not be the same tomorrow,” said Glenn Johnson, of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District. “We can’t change the protection level (of floodplain projects), but we can inform the public.”

Planners also have to keep city councils and engineers informed with the latest numbers and to help shape future decisions, participants groups said.

“The only way to implement change is to get support,” said Nate Schnieder, city planner for McCook. “It’s easier to show the facts and to use those facts as a frame of reference.”

Swaying cities to plan further than five to 10 years into the future will be the challenge, participants agreed, but with the adaptation plans in hand, they felt they had a useful tool available to help sway decisions on everything from waterways to building codes to snow removal. In future tools and reports, though, they’d like to see anecdotal evidence based on projections as well as comparisons to similarly-sized cities. Planners liked the idea of being able to look at a southern city’s plan to see how rainfall, pest control, and energy and water needs were handled.

That will be NSCO and HPRCC’s next step: Analyze the information collected through the workshop and create usable tools for cities to use in their planning. The ultimate goal is to create a suite of tools available online that provide up-to-date projections.
Schnieder and coworker Jesse Dutcher, utility director, were excited about the research and already have made plans with McCook City Council to utilize the information.

“They were extremely interested in the results,” Schnieder said. “We are going to incorporate quantifiable data into some of our codes in order to better spell out for our citizens what would cause a need for water restrictions. My hope is to make the process less arbitrary when we experience drought conditions.”

“I really think this is a program that other communities would benefit from,” he added. “The more involvement, the less stigma attached to climate issues.”

In an evaluation of the event, another participant wrote, “I found the data presented by the researchers to be both educational and eye-opening. The long-term trends are useful” and will be a useful tool for long-term planning. A lot of municipality representatives noted that getting personalized climate projections for their community would have been impossible without this project.

This is the second such project conducted by Umphlett and Shulski in the Midwest. The first provided city-specific climate projections for planning purposes to Lincoln; Iowa City, Iowa; Columbia, Missouri; Lawrence, Kansas; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This project targeted smaller cities in the same four-state region and also is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Program Office Sectoral Applications Research Program.

Aiding in the project are Tarik Abdel-Monem, research specialist with the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center; Zhenghong Tang, Community and Regional Planning Program associate professor; and Frank Uhlarik, Lincoln Public Works and Utilities compliance administrator.

It will conclude with an evaluation by the Bureau of Sociological Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that will help the climate centers and policy institute shape templates that additional municipalities can use as a guide to planning for climate issues.

Shawna Richter-Ryerson, Natural Resources