This is the 18th in our series, “The ABCs of the AJP.”
In August 2020, a wildfire broke out along Route 70 in Glenwood Canyon, a major thoroughfare across the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado. The fire quickly burned through vegetation on either side of the canyon, loosing rocks that shut down Route 70 for two weeks. As the fire spread, it temporarily shuttered the Shoshone Generating Station, a hydroelectric power station that controls water flow in the upper Colorado River, and forced residents of several communities to evacuate to Glenwood Springs, a nearby town of 10,000. By the time the fire was put out in December, it had burned over 30,000 acres and cost over $30 million to contain.
Well before full containment, scientists from the U.S. Forest Service had arrived on-site to map regions where shrubs, bushes, trees, and other ground cover had burned away, increasing the risk of sediment runoff, landslides, and flash floods. The town of Glenwood Springs quickly identified a list of critical infrastructure needs, including upstream structures to prevent flooding in burned regions; new and upgraded water intake systems and treatment facilities to filter out sediment from the town’s water supply; and a new bridge across the Roaring Fork River in southern Glenwood Springs, which would prevent residents on the western side of the river from being trapped if subsequent wildfires closer to town blocked off existing evacuation routes.
The infrastructure improvements proposed by Glenwood Springs do not seek to restore the pre-fire status quo. Instead, they seek to prevent or mitigate the impact of future natural disasters. As one town official noted, they would provide “a lot of resiliency moving into the future. Not just fire resiliency, but [also] a lot of water resource resiliency.”
In essence, Glenwood Springs seeks not only to build back, but to “build back better,” which is the overarching objective of the Biden Administration’s economic recovery and relief package. It should come as no surprise, then, that resilience permeates the President’s American Job Plan (AJP), which the Administration promises will “deliver infrastructure Americans can trust, because it will be resilient to floods, fires, storms, and other threats, and not fragile in the face of these increasing risks.”
The AJP’s emphasis on resilience extends to “building, rehabilitating, and retrofitting . . . resilient housing, commercial buildings, schools, and child care facilities,” and “increas[ing] resilience in the most essential services, including the electric grid; food systems; urban infrastructure; community health and hospitals; and our roads, rail, and other transportation assets.”
This concept of resilience — of aiming to restore natural resources and construct infrastructure in a manner that can resist or adapt to the compounding impacts of climate change and resultant natural disasters — has become a focus of white papers and policy proposals over the past decade, though funding has lagged behind. The appeal is simple; preparing for natural disaster and climate change ahead of time will minimize disruption and save money in the long term.
A study published by the National Institute of Building Sciences in 2017, for instance, found that investing in resilient infrastructure would save $6 for every $1 spent. Natural disasters caused over $300 billion in damages that year, the highest amount on record, and the federal government spent over $100 billion in disaster relief efforts. The federal government certainly spent far less than that on efforts to build climate resilience, though the lack of any comprehensive tracking makes estimation difficult.
The AJP would substantially increase this funding. While climate resilience permeates the entire Plan, the White House proposal also expressly promises $50 billion over ten years in dedicated funding for climate resilience programs, including:
- FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), which provides grants to mitigate future natural disasters in states subject to a presidential disaster declaration within the last seven years. BRIC was established by the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 to replace FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Hazard Mitigation program, which had been funded through Congressional appropriations that could vary dramatically. BRIC instead allows the president to allocate up to 6% of annual federal disaster relief spending. A jump in federal disaster spending last year due to the COVID-19 epidemic has allowed President Biden to allocate more than $1 billion to BRIC grants for 2021, and that number could increase further.
- The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and provides grants to local communities to fund infrastructure and local development projects. While this objective generally allows flexibility in the allocation of funding, Congress has also provided CDBG appropriations to achieve specific purposes or respond to specific issues, including funds for disaster recovery and mitigation.
- A tax credit for low and middle-income families and small businesses that invest in improving their climate resilience.
- Funds to assist vulnerable tribal communities to transition or relocate in response to climate change.
- Other resilience investments in line with the Outdoor Restoration Force Act, a bill introduced by Senator Michael Bennett late last year to restore and improve the resilience of natural resources, particularly in the western United States.
More generally, the AJP’s proposed $50 billion investment will also fund “protection from extreme wildfires, coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes, support for agricultural resources management and climate-smart technologies, and the protection and restoration of major land and water resources like Florida’s Everglades and the Great Lakes.”
Returning to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the total price tag for that community’s proposed infrastructure projects is estimated at $86 million, including $45 million to build the southern bridge across the Roaring Fork River. To fund that, Glenwood Springs is seeking $29 million from BRIC.
But funding is limited. All told, state and local governments have filed $3.6 billion in grant applications for $500 million in available BRIC funds. And Glenwood Springs’ story is hardly exceptional — no lives were lost, few structures were destroyed, and it was not even among the forty largest wildfires that spread across the Western United States last year.
The Colorado community will compete for BRIC funding against much larger Sonoma County in California, one of five counties in which last year’s LNU Complex wildfire burned over 350,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,500 structures; Sonoma County is seeking a $50 million BRIC grant for wildfire prevention programs. Both communities will also compete against grant proposals to combat hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, tornados in the Great Plains, and winter storms in the Northeast.
In order to achieve its comprehensive objectives for climate resilience, of course, the Biden Administration will need to expand beyond BRIC and CDBG, and mobilize resources across federal programs and agencies. Current initiatives to improve resilience include FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance and Hazard Mitigation Grant programs, as well as programs administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Forest Service. The AJP promises to also expand resilience in transportation, the power grid, and other sectors.
Coordinating the Administration’s comprehensive objectives may require more centralized decision-making and cross-agency coordination than are currently in place. Although many advocates of climate resilience emphasize that funding should be decentralized to reflect local knowledge and priorities, the AJP’s ambition to integrate resilience into all infrastructure spending may require a heavier hand. The AJP does not identify any mechanism to exercise this control, but some mechanism may be necessary for the Administration to realize its goal of not just building back, but building back better.