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Kansas City, Path to Climate Resilience

11-10-2021

“The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future – but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.”
Kansas City’s Office of Environmental Quality website quotes the fourth national climate assessment (NCA4)

 

As part of our effort to raise awareness of the need to improve our home resilience and educate homeowners in the U.S on solutions to climate risks, we gather information on resilient actions, strategies, and challenges from key cities in the U.S.

In this blog, we focus on the city of Kansas City, Missouri, and its climate resilience efforts. 

Kansas City is the largest city in Missouri in population and area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city had a population of 508,090 in 2020 that spread over 319 square miles.

The city lies in the Midwestern United States, at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers. It has a humid subtropical climate. Summer months are hot and humid, with moist air coming from the Gulf of Mexico, and high temperatures surpass 100 °F. The winters are cold and dry, with 22 days that their high temperature is below 32 °F.

Kansas City is located in "Tornado Alley", a broad region where cold air from Canada collides with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, leading to the formation of powerful storms. The Kansas City metropolitan area has experienced several significant tornadoes in the past. The region may also experience ice storms during the winter, such as the 2002 ice storm during which hundreds of thousands of residents lost power for days and weeks. 

I spoke with Andrew Savastino, Chief Environmental Officer in the city of Kansas City, who laid out the approach, strategy, challenges, and hurdles the city faces as it is working to incorporate climate adaptation into its actions.

To learn more about resilience vs adaptation climate change, check out our blog on the difference between the terms.


Climate Risks

The Climate Change Assessment for Kansas City analyzes the change in local climate conditions through the end of the 21st century. The report is based on two of eight global human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): the first being a high emissions scenario (current state) and the second, a moderate emissions scenario, in which the rate of increase in GHG emissions slows due to mitigation efforts.  

The assessment discusses the following climate risks as the city’s primary climate concerns:

Extreme heat: Kansas City is expected to see an increase in the annual average temperature of 4°F by mid-century (2021-2060), and roughly 7°- 8°F by the end of the century (2061 - 2100).
Heatwaves are projected to increase, on average, by 5°F by mid-century and by 11°F by 2061 - 2100. Hot nights, in which the temperatures remain high after sunset, are projected to increase in temperature and frequency, providing fewer opportunities for recovery from the heat.
Cooling degree days are projected to increase, meaning an increase in the need for cooling in the summer. Savastino mentions that Kansas City already experiences a high energy burden and electric bills will increase further as heat rises. 

Climate Resilience
 

Drought: Summers are expected to become hotter and drier, raising the potential for prolonged droughts in the remainder of this century. The number of annual consecutive dry days is projected to increase as well.
Although access to adequate drinking water is not an issue in Kansas City, there are still concerns that increased periods of drought would increase water needs, loss of urban tree canopy and wildlife habitat, crop damage, low crop yields, and infrastructure damage.

Increased flooding:  Kansas City is projected to experience an increase in annual average precipitation of roughly 4 percent by midcentury, an increase in extreme rainfall amounts, and the number of excessive rainfall days. These prospects raise concerns about extreme flooding events. 

Kansas City has a high risk of tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hail, yet the city doesn’t assess those risks as primary risks in its climate protection and resilience plan. The city relies on the Regional Climate Risk & Vulnerability Study in prioritizing the strategic risks

 

The City’s Climate-Resilient Actions

The city of Kansas City is launching its journey toward climate resilience. 

In 2008 the city implemented its first climate protection plan that focused on mitigation strategies. In May of 2020, the City Council passed a resolution to update the Climate Protection Plan to include new GHG reduction goals, resilience, and equity. 

The Office of Environmental Quality is working on a Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan that will include a framework to help the city adapt to the present and future climate impacts. The plan will include strategies such as improved energy efficiency in buildings, increasing the use of renewable energy, planting trees, and green infrastructure.

The city has undertaken extensive research to explore and locate additional strategies.

One approach the research has taken is to aggregate climate challenges and solutions from residents. This approach expands the resources available in unexpected forms, engages and raises awareness for climate action and preparedness.

The city implemented several creative and well-executed initiatives for this purpose:  

  • A climate change survey that gathers information on climate change impacts on residents.
  • Share your climate story initiative, in which residents share their experiences and ideas on climate adaptation solutions. Quite a few residents participated and shared their notions that included: adding tree canopy for shading and heat reduction; walkable communities to reduce transportation; native plants gardens and permeable surfaces to help with stormwater runoff; providing adaptation tools to low-income families; increasing electrification; promoting water conservation, and more stringent and improved building codes.
  • An interactive map of the city allows residents to pinpoint a location, state a weather extreme or climate issue, and suggest solutions.
  • In October of 2021, the city initiated workshops and meetings with residents to discuss and explore mitigation and adaptation strategies and special needs with a focus on equity. 
  • To help motivate and inspire ideas, the Office of Environmental Quality refers residents to the Climate Action Playbook, supported by the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC).

 

Once aggregation and analysis of strategies and solutions are finalized, the city plans to prioritize the strategies with the help of a climate consultant. Only the most impactful solutions to help meet the climate goals will be implemented, due to budget constraints. The plan is projected to be released in January of 2022.

The climate assessment concluded that near-term climate adaptation should focus on water systems rather than heat adaptation. This conclusion is based on changes in rainfall that are already present and expected to continue, whereas an increase in temperatures is an emergent change. 

 

In the meantime, KC Water is working diligently on upgrading their water, wastewater, and stormwater systems:

  • In parts of the city, the water department manages a separated sewer system, in which wastewater and stormwater are collected in different pipes, allowing the stormwater to go back to nature without unnecessary treatment. This helps prevent sewer overflow in flood events and contamination of the city’s streams and rivers.
    Building Climate Resilience
  • KC water manages 230 green infrastructure sites around the city to help manage stormwater. Green infrastructure uses natural materials, like soil or vegetation to mimic the processes as they occur in nature. It is an effective method to discharge stormwater, find future uses, and avoid water source contamination.
    In 2021, Kansas City and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized an amendment to the Consent Decree, to implement an additional 480 green acres by 2040, aiming to capture stormwater before it enters the combined sewer system.  

 

Kansas City pursues the implementation of two notable initiatives:

  • Install a massive 2000 acre solar array in Kansas City International Airport (KCI). The blackouts in February of 2020, proved the need to increase the city’s power resilience. The city studies the feasibility of the project with the help of consultants and will announce details accordingly.
  • A project to replace about 90,000 of the 100,000 streetlights the city owns and operates, with energy-efficient LEDs. The project is expected to be completed in three years. 


Promoted Residential Resilient Strategies

The Missouri River runs down the middle of Kansas City, dividing it into two parts: north and south. However, in terms of adaptation strategies, Savastino believes there should be different solutions for three separate parts of the city: the cooler north, the center of the city which experiences the heat island effect, and the south.

Climate Resilience and Adaptation

Energy

Savastino mentioned several key strategies the city recommends for homeowners to increase energy efficiency. Improved energy efficiency strategies help reduce the energy cost and mitigate further global warming. These strategies also help preserve indoor temperatures for longer, better withstand severe cold and heat waves, thus making homes more climate-resilient:

  • Improving the airtightness of the property envelope by sealing it and adding proper insulation. 
  • Improving the energy efficiency of the equipment and appliances at home. 
  • Installing renewable energy sources. 
  • Energy use reduction: lowers the energy load and the burden on the utility company. Most homes in the city need either cooling or heating almost year-round. 

 

Tree Canopies

Another recommended strategy is planting trees as the city is seeing a loss of its tree canopy. A larger tree canopy will help reduce the urban heat island effect, provide shade and increase biodiversity, among other benefits. 

 

Stormwater management

KC Water promotes strategies for residents to help manage stormwater. Such strategies can help protect the city’s potable water in flood events and reduce flood damage: 

  • KC Water asks residents to minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides and to keep their landscapes clean from chemicals and other waste. It will help maintain stormwater clean as it returns to nature.
  • A Rain Barrel is a container that holds rainwater from downspouts and rooftops and stores it for future use. The rainwater can be used for watering outdoor and indoor plants, lawns, trees, shrubs, or gardens, washing landscapes, and cars. The department provides a guide to building and installing a rain barrel. 
  • Rain Gardens are shallow depressions with native plants designed to catch and absorb stormwater runoff. Water caught in a rain garden infiltrates into the ground, is taken up by plant roots, or evaporates into the air, instead of ending up in the sewer system. Here are the instructions for building a rain garden. 
  • Another solution to reduce the burden on the sewer system is to make sure downspouts or sump pumps are disconnected from the sewer. Downspouts should be directed away from paved surfaces into permeable surfaces. 
  • Permeable surfaces are an environmentally friendly option for patios and walkways around your home. A permeable surface, such as porous pavement, allows stormwater to infiltrate the ground. Here are various types of permeable surfaces and instructions for installation. 

Kansas City is a member of the Mid-America Regional Council. MARC serves Kansas City along with the nine-county Kansas City metropolitan area. Among other services, it shares information on stormwater management strategies for residents’ backyards. 

 

Insurance

Finally, KC Water recommends that residents consider purchasing flood insurance. It includes information and directs to where it can be purchased. 

  

Incentives

  • Evergy, Kansas City’s power company, offers assistance to reduce energy usage and costs through the Income-Eligible Weatherization program. Eligible households can get free in-home upgrades, financial and expert assistance to weatherize their home and make it more energy-efficient.
  • Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is available in Kansas City. It is affordable financing that allows eligible property owners to pay for upgrades that increase energy efficiency, harness renewable energy, conserve water, and protect against storms.
  • KC Water collaborates with the Bridging The Gap organization to offer a free water-saving kit. The kit includes devices that can help conserve water such as high-efficiency faucets and showerheads. The program offers free installation as well. Eligible homeowners can also replace old toilets with new water-efficient toilets at no charge. 
  • Bridging The Gap offers recycled 55-gallon rain barrels, pre-assembled in kits for a reduced price.
  • Homeowners in Kansas City pay a monthly stormwater fee in their water bills. The fee is based on the impervious surfaces on the property (such as roofs and driveways). KC Water offers two types of stormwater fee credits
    • A ratio credit for properties that have a minimum of a 30:1 ratio between the total property area to the impervious area (paved or roofed). This credit aims to incentivize increasing pervious area on the property so stormwater can penetrate the ground. Properties that qualify are granted a 50% stormwater fee credit. 
    • Stormwater fee credit for installing stormwater detention structures/ basins that hold stormwater on the property and reduce flooding. 
  • KC Water initiated the Keep Out the Rain Program to help residents comply with the requirement to disconnect downspouts from the sewer system. The program was put on hold due to COVID but resumed in the fall of 2021. Eligible homes may receive a free 15-minute visit by a professional team to detect unwanted sewer connections that allow rainwater into the sanitary sewer system. KC Water pays licensed pre-qualified professionals to remove such connections.

Climate change resilience for sustainable development

  • KC Water participates in FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS) Program. The program recognizes and encourages community floodplain management practices that exceed the minimum requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). CRS communities receive discounted flood insurance premium rates. The CRS also incentivizes communities to initiate new flood mitigation activities.

 

Resilient Communities

In our Better Together blog about resilient communities, we state that actions that bring the community closer together, are actions that also strengthen it and build its resilience. 

Climate mitigation and adaptation strategies best align when they come to strengthen resilience in communities. Here are a few illuminating examples in Kansas City:

  • Neighborhoods in Kansas City can submit an application to be recognized for implementing sustainable practices within their community through the Neighborhood Recognition Program. Neighborhoods that meet the minimum qualifications are featured on the city’s website and a local TV channel, receive street sign toppers, free access to clinics and workshops, and can choose an eco-gift that benefits its residents such as rain barrels, recycle bins, an electric lawnmower and garden tools. As of October 2021, six neighborhoods received recognition.
    This program promotes sustainable practices and, equally important, enhances community resilience by bringing neighborhoods together to work on a mutually beneficial goal.  
  • Kansas City promotes an organization called Habitat KC, a non-profit organization that helps build affordable housing for low and medium-income families. Residents are encouraged to recycle their used building materials to be reused by the organization. This initiative engages communities to collaborate for an important purpose and reduces waste generated by used building materials.  
  • The Water Bar is a unique initiative that reminds residents to appreciate the accessibility of potable water. It is available for large public events of at least 1,000 attendees. KC Water employees connect the Water Bar to a fire hydrant, the water runs through a filter and chiller to provide safe, clean, and tasty tap water. It is an outreach tool that allows the public to interact with KC Water employees. 


Building Codes 

Kansas City generally adopts new building codes every 6 years.  

In June of 2020, the city adopted the 2018 International Building Codes without the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Instead, the city plans to adopt the updated IECC 2021. 

Local compliance for the Energy Empowerment Ordinance requires owners of buildings 50,000 SQ FT, or greater, to submit their energy and water consumption to the city.

Kansas City Water Service (KC Water) manages a set of local rules and regulations. A requirement that addresses residential customers aims to protect the public drinking water supply: properties with a sprinkler system, a fire protection line, or other water service lines that are connected to the cities distribution system, in addition to their main service line, are required to install a backflow device. The backflow device must be registered with the KC Water Backflow Division and tested annually. 

Education

  • Kansas City’s Emergency Management Office hosts emergency preparation information on the city website. The office built a Local Emergency Operations Plan in January 2021 that is supposed to be updated annually. In addition, the office offers free emergency preparedness presentations to groups.
  • Kansas City manages a tornado warning system for severe storms that threaten the city. To ensure the system works properly, on the second Wednesday of every month, the tornado siren goes off. This system also works as a monthly reminder to residents of the risk of extreme weather events. It may also prompt them to take action and prepare ahead of time. 
  • MARC holds information, resources, programs, including climate action. It also shares recommendations for preparing and recovering from climate extremes and other disasters.
  • KC Water contributes to educating Kansas City’s residents. It offers water quality and stormwater education to students. One can choose from a list of lessons available. Each has a description and age recommendation but can be customized. The lessons generally take 45-60 and are offered for free.
  • KC Water put together a booklet that includes a thorough explanation of potential individual contributions to stormwater management, the importance to the city as a whole, the benefits for the residents, and simple strategies that can be implemented, some only with an insignificant change of behavior. 

 

Final Thoughts

Kansas City has begun its challenging journey to increase its climate resilience and is off to a good start. The Office of Environmental Quality has been addressing climate mitigation strategies and is now entering an uncharted territory of climate adaptation. 

The city turns to climate experts, local and governmental organizations to expand knowledge and search for solutions.

The city recognizes that solutions can emerge from the bottom up and engages its residents in the processes of strategies exploration and climate action planning.  

The open channel of communication allows information to flow from residents to city experts, yet there is still work to be done to improve the opposite direction of this channel. Residents need access to information on climate adaptation strategies and incentives through the city’s website and other platforms to help them prepare for extreme climate events. 

As the city obtains information and resources on climate adaptation, I trust it will share it with residents, as they do with mitigation strategies. Check out these informative and easy-to-do Steps to Help the Environment.

In the meantime, residents of Kansas City need to go the extra mile to find information on climate resilient strategies for residential properties and locate knowledgeable and certified service providers to help implement those strategies. 

For example, Kansas City has high risks of flooding and strong storms such as tornadoes, but Savastino says that safe rooms are rarely seen in residential properties. Residents may take cover from storms in basements or other low-lying structures. Yet, low-lying structures are the first to flood in extreme precipitation events. This is a challenge residents will have to overcome while preparing for climate extremes. 

The city’s promising initial phases of its plan toward resilience consist of creative and engaging initiatives. They build a solid foundation for a robust climate resilience plan and a successful implementation.

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