Cities spend billions to prepare for extreme rain. Most lack climate data Thanks to a new federal law, cities will get better forecasts about how climate change intensifies rainstorms. Still, it won't be in time for billions of dollars of federal infrastructure spending.

Federal climate forecasts could help prepare for extreme rain. But it's years away

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DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Californians have been navigating flooded roads and intersections after weeks of heavy rain. All that concrete isn't prepared for storms that are getting more extreme with climate change. A new law passed by Congress in December could change that. But the big question is how soon will it make a difference? Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk joins us this morning. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi there.

BROWN: Of course, we need the rain due to the drought, but why are we seeing so much flooding in California because it's not just next to rivers, right?

SOMMER: Yeah, that's right. You know, this is flooding that often happens far from rivers. It's inside cities and neighborhoods. And it happens because a lot of rain falls, and the storm water infrastructure, you know, which is those drains and pipes that go underground...

BROWN: Right.

SOMMER: ...It simply can't handle it. You know, sometimes they get clogged, but other times they're just not designed for that much water.

BROWN: Why aren't they designed to handle these types of storms and water?

SOMMER: That's because in most places, the infrastructure is based on really old rainfall records. I spoke to one utility in Kentucky, the Louisville & Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District. And their stormwater infrastructure is based on rainfall data from 1961. The problem is that storms are getting more intense. The utility did a study that found extreme rainstorms have already gotten worse and with climate change will drop 2 to 3 more inches of rain by 2065. Infrastructure planning manager Stephanie Laughlin says they're feeling those effects.

STEPHANIE LAUGHLIN: Because those climate change storms are happening more frequently, now is the time to invest in updating those systems that were installed 100 years ago.

BROWN: Yeah, Lauren, it makes sense, right? Why don't these utilities switch to more recent rainfall records or design better infrastructure?

SOMMER: Yeah, I mean, some big utilities are doing that. But in general, the problem is that they rely on the official rainfall data from the federal government. That's put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In late December, though, President Biden signed a law that requires NOAA to update these records for the entire country and to include climate change forecasts about future storms. And NOAA is already working on that update.

BROWN: Right. Infrastructure - a big focus right now with a bipartisan infrastructure law rolling out, talking billions of dollars being spent. Will that update, do you think, be ready in time for this?

SOMMER: Yeah, the problem is that NOAA won't have that new climate rainfall data until 2026. The vast majority of the infrastructure funding, which is almost $12 billion for these water systems, will be distributed by then. NOAA officials say it will take that long because doing this analysis for the whole country is pretty complex.

BROWN: Yeah. So what should cities and states do in the meantime if they're planning some big water projects?

SOMMER: Yeah, yeah, that's the key question, because what's built today will last 50, 60 years, even longer. I spoke to Rachel Cleetus, who works on extreme weather policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. And she said, even without this updated rainfall info, cities need to build in some kind of margin of safety to deal with climate change.

RACHEL CLEETUS: What we need to do is make sure that we're mainstreaming it into all of our infrastructure decisions from here on out. Otherwise, we'll be putting good money after bad, you know? We will have roads and bridges that might get washed out. We might have power infrastructure that's vulnerable.

SOMMER: What needs to happen, she says, is a real shift in how we build things. You know, infrastructure that's around us is based on the idea that the future is just like the past, and that's not true anymore. And many cities are struggling to make that shift.

BROWN: That's Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk. Thanks, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thank you.

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