A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Department of Defense (DOD) is not measuring whether its climate resilience grant programs are achieving their intended objectives.
Military installations rely on nearby communities for commodities and infrastructure, which are vulnerable to climate and extreme weather events. In fact, 62 of the 63 installations (98 percent) that responded to GAO’s survey are relying on communities for electricity, access roads or bridges, and telecommunications. To help protect its installations from the effects of climate change and extreme weather, DOD coordinates with communities to improve infrastructure resilience. Examples of resilience measures to protect infrastructure include raising river or coastal dikes to reduce the risks to infrastructure from sea level rise, building higher bridges, and increasing the capacity of stormwater systems.
In its own report, The Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense and other documents, DOD has identified the primary climate change and extreme weather events that pose a risk to its installations:
- Recurrent flooding. Recurrent flooding can be coastal or riverine. Coastal flooding occurs as gradual sea level changes eventually result in recurrent or permanent inundation of coastal property, with increasing coverage of land from nuisance flooding during high tides. Coastal flooding can also cause saltwater intrusion into fresh water sources. Riverine flooding can occur if precipitation events or ice melt routinely cause an inland waterway to overflow its banks or manmade flow control infrastructure.
- Drought. Drought is a period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged to cause serious problems such as water supply shortages in areas dependent on surface water. Droughts dry out vegetation and significantly reduce soil moisture. This may result in deep or wide cracks in the soil, which may affect infrastructure. Drought may also increase the chance and severity of wildfire.
- Desertification. Prolonged drought can cause desertification. Desertification reduces vegetation cover, leading to increases in runoff from precipitation events. Greater runoff contributes to higher erosion rates, increased stream sediment loads, and deposition of sediment in unwanted areas, reducing the effectiveness of flood risk management infrastructure while increasing the potential for siltation of water supply reservoirs. Eroded soil may be less suitable for native vegetation, resulting in bare land or revegetation with non-native, weedy species.
- Wildfire. Wildfires are uncontrolled fires in an area of combustible vegetation that occur in the wilderness or countryside. People and communities feel the damage to infrastructure from wildfires at the wildland-urban interface, where human development meets undeveloped wildland. As GAO found in 2014, wildfires can also affect DOD installations by, for example, reducing the availability of training areas.
- Thawing permafrost. Thawing permafrost is melting of in-ground ice to water at or near 32°F. Thawing of permafrost affects soil strength, ground subsidence, and stability, which can decrease the structural stability of foundations, buildings, and transportation infrastructure and require costly mitigation responses that disrupt planning, operations, and budgets. In addition, thawing permafrost exposes coasts to increased erosion and can increase wetland areas.
- Extreme heat, cold, or precipitation. Extreme heat, cold, or precipitation are three weather phenomena that can also affect installations and communities. According to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, extreme weather events are events that are unusual or unusually severe for a particular place.
GAO’s survey found that 43 of the 63 installations (68 percent) experienced past disruptions in the supply of community infrastructure and support services that aid installation functions due to at least one type of climate change or extreme weather event in the last 5 years. Extreme precipitation events (31 installations) and recurrent flooding (21 installations) are the most reported extreme weather events causing past disruptions. Thawing permafrost and desertification are the least reported, with one installation reporting being affected by one and another installation by the other.
DOD administers three grant programs that support community coordination with local installations on climate change and extreme weather: the longstanding Compatible Use Plan (CUP), and the Military Installation Resilience (MIR) and Defense Community Infrastructure Pilot (DCIP) programs established in fiscal year 2020. During GAO’s review, DOD and community officials emphasized the value of these grant programs as a means of facilitating and funding coordination with surrounding communities, including through joint land use studies and community infrastructure development. In fiscal year 2020, about $67 million was awarded under the three grant programs.
While DOD monitors the status of individual CUP grant expenditures and deliverables, and plans to similarly monitor its MIR and DCIP grants, GAO found the Department is unable to determine the effectiveness of the grant programs. The watchdog said in its December 10 report that DOD has not developed performance measures to benchmark and to track overall program performance. A lack of performance measures makes it difficult, if not impossible, to assess if desired outcomes are being achieved and whether current and future investments in the grant programs are delivering their intended value. The absence of such measures may also hamper decision makers’ ability to prioritize resources when considering these programs’ efficacy vis-à-vis other means for enhancing installation resilience to the effects of climate change and extreme weather.
Consequently, GAO recommends that performance measures are established for CUP, MIR and DCIP. DOD concurred but stated that many times the benefits of such programs are not evident until after the grant expires.