Bipartisan group pushes for greater awareness of the risks of sea-level rise

By Evan Lehmann, Peter Behr | 10/27/2015 08:50 AM EDT

The Atlantic will sneak up to one of its highest points tomorrow as celestial influences create king tides along the East Coast, three years after similar tides and rising seas added to the huge wall of water that crashed onto the coastline during Superstorm Sandy.

The king tide comes amid new warnings that electric utilities could face serious flooding as low-lying power plants are exposed to higher oceans over the coming decades. Experts are also concerned that floods reaching farther inland could unlock bacteria that have been stuck in dry soil and spread disease in public waterways.

"There’s hundreds of different diseases that can be passed by waterborne fecal contamination," said Chris Sinigalliano, a microbiologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He’s researching whether new flooding in Miami could expose more people to things like cholera and E. coli.


King tides occur in certain areas once or twice a year when the moon is close to Earth. The gravitational forces can cause water levels to surpass a normal high tide by a foot or more, filling storm pipes in low areas like Miami with placid water and overtopping sea walls.

Miami plans to spend about $500 million over five years to install almost 60 pumps along its beaches to fend off the rising water. Tomorrow’s king tide is predicted to reach 3.1 feet in Miami. It comes days after about 40 public officials met in New Hampshire for a bipartisan effort to discuss the mounting costs of coastal flooding. They urged both parties, and their presidential candidates, to address rising damages from climbing seas.

"Imagine the trillions of dollars at risk from rising seas across the country when you consider the tens of thousands of miles of U.S. coastline facing increasing flooding," New Hampshire state Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Republican who helped organize the event, said in a statement. "Perhaps some of our candidates who are coming into New Hampshire will begin to talk about this and figure out just how we can do it together."

Electric utilities are also underestimating the growing risks to the power grid in coastal areas, warns a study being released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"A large share of the major substations and power plants that provide electricity to more than 70 million coastal residents is already exposed to flooding from hurricanes, nor’easters, or other severe storms," the UCS report says. "Even more electricity infrastructure stands to be exposed, and to increasing floodwater depths, as seas continue to rise and drive storm surge higher."

The UCS analysis says grid planners misjudge the threat because they are looking backward, not ahead. Storm preparations and infrastructure defenses are based on estimates of flood hazard zones prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For the highest-risk flood zones, FEMA assumes that the area will be inundated once every 100 years, UCS said.

Vulnerability creeps higher

But FEMA’s estimates, based on historical data, "do not yet incorporate future sea level risk into their designations." Relying on this view leaves major parts of the grid increasingly vulnerable to "shifting realities," UCS said.

UCS coupled its appeal for stronger grid defenses against extreme weather with a call on utilities and policymakers to speed up the transition to carbon-free sources of electricity and energy-saving strategies, to lessen the impact of rising sea levels and extreme storms affected by global warming.

The massive devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 thrust grid vulnerabilities to massive storms to the top of agendas for the utility industry, regulators and lawmakers. Utility spending to protect key facilities is increasing, the Department of Energy noted this year in its Quadrennial Energy Review. But state policies toward these investments vary widely, it said.

Hurricane Sandy
Louise McCarthy carts her belongings through the fire-charred ruins of the Breezy Point section of Queens after Superstorm Sandy brought floods, fires and blackouts to New York City. New studies show future risks of such storms will be worse. | Photo courtesy of AP Photo.

The UCS report found only a few examples of utilities that are trying to create new cost-benefit models to determine how additional ratepayer dollars should be divided between "hardening" the grid and reducing carbon emissions.

And the DOE report said, "Quantitative measures of adequacy of resilience investments, or even a commonly accepted method for determining the appropriate level of resilience at either the transmission or distribution level, do not exist."

Industry practices, customer pushback and politics undermine a serious recognition of the threat, said Steve Clemmer, UCS’s director of energy research and analysis and a report co-author.

"There is certainly a focus on the short term because utilities want to avoid outages from extreme weather. They take a lot of heat" when that happens, Clemmer said. In addition, he said, "there is sort of an institutional barrier" in being willing to plan for climate change and extreme weather, in many cases.

"Some utilities’ [executives] acknowledge that climate change is happening. Others don’t, depending on what states they are from," he said. "In a lot of these states, costs is always an issue."

Blackouts from hurricanes will be more common

The UCS report includes maps of projected flooding affecting large power substations and power plants in five major metropolitan regions: the Delaware Valley, southeastern Virginia, the South Carolina Low Country, southeastern Florida, and the central Gulf Coast.

In one example, if a Category 3 hurricane were to hit Virginia’s Tidewater region, 15 of the 18 major substations in Norfolk and nine of the 11 major substations in Hampton would be at risk of flooding, the report said.

"Between now and 2050 — well within the lifetime of major equipment being installed today — an additional 13 major substations could face flood waters five to 10 feet deep, and an additional three could be exposed to depths of 10 to 15 feet," it says.

In all five regions, 68 power plants and 415 major substations could be flooded by a Category 3 hurricane today unless protective actions are taken, UCS said.

But sometimes addressing the impacts of global warming might cause its own challenges. In Miami, the new pumps that push the floodwater back into the ocean screen out bottles and other trash. But they can’t stop bacteria.

Sinigalliano, the NOAA microbiologist, and other researchers are searching for waterborne bacteria during king tides to help determine if new sources of contamination are being set free by the floodwaters, and then sent back into the waterways.

Bacteria can lie immobile in soil for long periods before being mobilized by moisture. As floodwater goes farther inland, it might flush through septic fields containing aging human waste. Sinigalliano, who is based in Miami, said there are thousands of such areas along Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway.

"Even without the pumping, you get this coastal flooding of the interior. That’s not just like seawater coming in and coming out. It’s picking up all sorts of stuff off the land," he said. "And this is going to be an increasing ongoing problem with sea-level rise and climate change."