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With the EPA AWOL, Minnesota cities prepare for climate change alone

Duluth's 2012 flooding at least helped teach the city what it wasn't prepared for.

Duluth's 2012 flooding at least helped teach the city what it wasn't prepared for. Associated Press

With global temperatures rising and federal action evaporating, Minnesota cities are taking it upon themselves to cut emissions and prepare for a climate they weren’t built for.

Across the state, cities are readying themselves for the dangers of climate change and working to  shrink their carbon footprints. But making a city more resilient is costly, and efforts to reduce emissions can seem paltry compared to the scale of the problem they’re trying to solve.

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of rainfall in Minnesota, bringing with it a greater risk of flash flooding that threatens cities whose current infrastructure has never weathered a 100- or 500-year flood. Since 2000, the state has had eight “mega-rain events,” when at least six inches of rain fell in an area greater than 1,000 square miles, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. There were only three in the 30 years between 1970 and 1999. The eight since 2000 included the largest, earliest and latest mega-rain events on record — in keeping with the longer, more severe rainy season climate scientists expect to become the new normal.

One of those mega-rains led to the catastrophic 2012 Duluth flood, which served as a Hurricane Katrina-like wakeup call for a city built on rocky sediments and permeated by 43 creeks and streams. After getting deluged with seven-plus inches of rain in two days, floodwaters turned roads into rapids and ruined infrastructure, inundating neighborhoods and causing well over $100 million worth of damage. The scale of the destruction was unprecedented. City officials realized unless they started making major changes, they’d risk being swept away.

Climatologists are hesitant to attribute any one storm, like the one that swamped Duluth, to long-term climate change. But what they're sure of is that this century, cities will see bigger storms more often.

In repairing the damage, Duluth factored in climate change's flood-inducing effects. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson (elected 2015) says the city has stopped building in floodplains, and started enforcing stricter building standards, especially for bridges and culverts. The city is also investing in shoring up existing housing stock, rather than building outward, which would only serve to cover porous, water-absorbing land with concrete. 

The extensive flooding Hurricane Harvey caused in Houston last year was made far worse by the sprawl of concrete and other impermeable surfaces in that city.

However, Duluth's changes made since 2012 offer a piecemeal approach to an existential threat.

“Our built environment was built for the climate of the 1950s and '60s,” said Larson. “Our built environment was not built for this.”

The prospect of more intense rainstorms has made storm water management a top priority in Edina, which has learned to be nimble to in preparing for floods  in a suburb that’s been almost completely built out over the decades.

“We’ve got parts of town that are in the floodplain that were never in the floodplain before,” said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland. “We’re steadfast in trying to figure out some solutions.”

One of those solutions is to repurpose land to help absorb flood water. Edina’s Fred Richards Golf Course closed in 2014, and last July, the city council approved a master plan for a new park on the land that includes a “nature bank,” a restored wetland that stores water and makes the area more resistant to flooding.

“Citizens in our town have a keen interest in a safe and protected environment,” says Hovland.

Adapting to climate change is a pricey proposition. Duluth’s recovery was helped along by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds, and Edina is a relatively populous and economically secure suburb. Smaller, less wealthy towns are struggling to find funds for proactive measures.

The city of Carver on the bank of the Minnesota River is also trying to prepare for the next big rainstorm. Carver Mayor Mike Webb says concern for residents in his town increased after a flood damaged the city’s levy two years ago. But the price tag associated with improving the levy has proven too steep. Webb said he’d like to get the levy certified by FEMA — which would require rebuilding most of it — but the funds just aren’t there for a small exurb of 4,600 people. Even the initial $350,000 feasibility study is prohibitively expensive.

“We don’t have the funding to fix our levy,” said Webb. “All we can afford is the bandage every year.”

Funding for infrastructure to make communities -- especially smaller ones -- better prepared will be a major issue going forward, according to Laura Millberg, a sustainable development planner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“These places do not have the tax bases to adapt,” Millberg says. “The challenge is for our state government to help our local government.”

The state is offering to help local governments through the GreenStep Cities program, which Millburg serves on as a best practices advisor. Since its creation in 2010, the non-regulatory program has advised cities on becoming more sustainable, giving cities a toolbox of methods to increase their resilience and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

For Edina, that meant first developing a greenhouse gas inventory to account for all the city's emissions, and then an electricity action plan laying out how to reduce its output.

“Our residents really want us to be environmentally conscious,” says Hovland. “It’s on the top of the list.”

The city of Falcon Heights was a pilot city for the GreenStep program. Sandwiched between Minneapolis and St. Paul, Falcon Heights is home to the Minnesota State Fair Grounds and parts of the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, both of which draw people from all over the state to the tiny municipality of 5,500. Mayor Peter Lindstrom says addressing climate change is a top priority, and he wants the city to be a model for what willing local governments can do.

“Climate change is the number-one issue that we are facing today,” said Lindstrom. “We needed to take action on this years ago.”

Since Lindstrom became mayor in 2007, Falcon Heights has opened a community garden and an organic local food hub. In January, the city gave away LED lightbulbs to its residents for free, which both lowered utility bills and reduced homes' impact on the planet. In 2011, Falcon Heights installed a solar garden on the roof of city hall, which now provides 25 to 40 percent of the building’s power in the summer. That number drops to just 5 percent in the winter. To compensate, the city has also subscribed to a community solar garden in Chisago County, which sends them the sun’s energy through the grid.

“There’s no silver bullet to addressing climate change,” said Lindstrom. “It’s more like silver buckshot.”

While progress can seem insignificant compared to the scale of the issue, Lindstrom is optimistic that cities can make a huge difference in moving toward a cleaner future. When he’s not working as the city's mayor, Lindstrom serves as an outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Team, where he helps other cities come up with financing schemes for sustainability and energy efficiency.

Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom shows off the solar panels that help power city hall in that suburb.

Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom shows off the solar panels that help power city hall in that suburb. Jacob Steinberg

One unlikely city taking up the cause of energy efficiency is Warren, in northwestern Minnesota. The hamlet of 1,500 people seems remote, sitting two hours north of Fargo, but its residents take a global view of things. The city is part of the Climate Smart Partnership, a program that pairs Minnesota cities with a German counterpart to collaborate on how to be more sustainable and energy efficient.

After visiting Warren’s German partner city of Arnsberg, city administrator Shannon Mortenson started working on ways Warren could emulate the efficiency efforts she’d seen in Germany. The city government has since started using a drone to take thermal images of all the houses in town, to show residents where they could prevent heat loss and save energy. Warren also banned disposable silverware in city hall, started a curbside recycling program, and is working on installing solar panels on its new rec center.

Mortenson even bought an electric car after her trip to Germany, which she says performs just fine on her 70-mile round trip commute. She’s working on getting a charger in town to show others they can do the same.

“We want to do things differently than we have in the past.” Mortenson said. “Participating in the program has just brought to light for residents that we can make changes in our everyday life.”