Climate Change Sparks Need for Utility Resilience Planning

The history of drinking water infrastructure is a story of resilience and innovative thinking. Time after time, water professionals of the era have risen to the challenge ? from the ancient Romans who constructed stone aqueducts to carry fresh water into towns from hundreds of miles away, to the development of chlorine disinfection in the early 1900s that removed the threat of harmful pathogenic organisms in drinking water.

Today, the water sector is coming to terms with its latest challenge: adapting to the affects of global climate change. With the changing hydrologic conditions related to climate change expected to vary by region ? from prolonged severe drought in the West to more frequent intense storms in the Northeast ? water managers are already at work studying the implications for their own utilities, taking steps to build resilience and working to ensure uninterrupted, high quality water service for years to come.

While every region will face a different adaptation challenge, this does not mean each water system must tackle the problem on its own. Instead, utilities and their customers will benefit from collaboration that combines federal research and resources with cutting-edge thinking and innovations from other utilities. And while there is still much work to do to achieve this outcome, there are several indications of movement in the right direction.

Adaptation & Resiliency Legislation

Despite the highly charged atmosphere on Capitol Hill, all parties should agree that communities must adapt to changes in water availability and quality ? regardless of why these changes may be occurring.? A small step of progress emerged earlier this year when the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 to recognize ?that climate change is real and not a hoax.? This near-unanimous acknowledgement of the reality of climate change should lead responsible policymakers to ask the next question: what can be done to minimize the negative affects of these changes on communities and their water systems?

One answer has emerged in the form of legislation reintroduced in Congress earlier this year. Sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) in the House and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in the Senate, the ?Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act? proposes federal competitive matching funds to help communities adapt their infrastructure to extreme weather events and the long term impacts of climate change. The program would support projects that conserve water or increase efficiency, protect water quality, rebuild or relocate threatened infrastructure, shield source waters and ecosystems, and implement advanced treatment technologies such as water reuse and recycling.

The legislation encourages water systems to utilize innovative infrastructure approaches that could serve as models for other communities struggling with similar water management challenges. Local water utilities could also use funding assistance to increase their use of renewable energy or to conduct local-level analyses of future water resource challenges they will face. In sum, the bill would prod communities to build resiliency into their infrastructure today, while helping ensure uninterrupted water and wastewater service for decades to come.

While the bill faces a long road to enactment, additional members of the House and Senate are signing up to support the legislation. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and other national organizations hope this enthusiasm will spur more lawmakers to consider how climate change will affect their own communities, and how these affects can be minimized through advance planning.

Strategic Thinking in the Water Sector

Away from Washington, members of the water utility community are stepping up to define the best options for building resilience to the risks of a changing climate, and they will come together later this year to continue this conversation.

This December, utility officials and policy thought leaders from around the globe will convene in San Diego for the 2015 International Water and Climate Forum (waterclimateforum.org). Building on the success of a similar 2010 event, the forum promises to bring the discussion about water sector adaptation and resiliency to the next level by taking a deep dive into what utilities are doing in their communities in the face of climate change.

Through this collaboration, utility managers will learn from their colleagues and bring new ideas back to their own communities ? ideas that could make the difference in determining whether a utility will be prepared when its water sources and facilities are adversely affected by sea level rise or the next drought or extreme storm.

Both the 2015 forum and ongoing attention on Capitol Hill represent signs of progress, but simply recognizing the risks and discussing solutions is only part of the solution. Utility officials will?have to develop detailed, localized plans to increase climate resilience, and lawmakers and governing boards ? not to mention the public ? will have to support investments?necessary to put these plans into action. While several utilities have already made great strides, many more have a long road ahead of them. But as long as the nation maintains a commitment to act, these efforts will pay?off with solutions that keep our water flowing ? just as it did for the Romans centuries ago.

Diane VanDe Hei is executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), an organization of the nation?s largest publicly-owned drinking water systems.?Before joining AMWA in the early 1990s, VanDe Hei worked for a consulting firm specializing in state and local drinking water, wastewater and stormwater issues. She earned her?bachelor?s and master?s degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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