Preparing for Impact: The Need for More Resilient Water Infrastructure

By Jordanna Rubin

Evidence highlighting the effects of climate change – and its increasing impact on our societies – is indisputable. 2023 saw a flurry of extreme weather events across the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded 28 weather and climate disasters in the United States alone, topping the previous high of 22 events during 2020; these disasters also left a huge economic toll – to the tune of at least $92.9 billion spent on disaster recovery.

As scientists predict a potentially even warmer climate in 2024 (and beyond), we face an imperative to make significant investments in disaster resilience projects and planning to protect the people living in these vulnerable communities and the infrastructure they rely upon.

Disaster resilience encompasses much more than building flood walls in coastal cities or thinning dense forests in California. It requires a holistic planning and vulnerability assessment process that considers social and economic factors to prepare communities to mitigate impacts from storm events and other disasters. This diligence is critical due to the unpredictability of extreme weather and the urgency to prevent irrevocable marks from climate change. These efforts are swiftly needed in many places, including essential water and wastewater infrastructure.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) identifies water systems as a “community lifeline,” meaning a “fundamental service that enables all other aspects of society to function.” Because of the criticality of water and wastewater assets, it’s doubly important to properly plan for potential risks and impacts. In the event of a disaster, water infrastructure has two resiliency considerations: obviously the first goal is to keep the assets operational, but the second is to maintain continuity of service in times of emergency, when increased demand is likely. Even if a water treatment facility isn’t harmed directly or indirectly, the increased need for the resource can place stress on the operations and infrastructure.

Take California, where on top of planning for seismic and wildfire events, water resiliency is a key consideration. In January, San Diego experienced over a month’s worth of rain in the span of three hours, causing Southern California to brace for even more rain stemming from the El Niño climate pattern. These intense rain events increase the likelihood of flash flooding, which poses severe risk to existing infrastructure, while the extreme heat and drought that also often hits the region brings its own concerns. This variance often leaves cities and asset managers in a difficult position, trying to predict the unpredictable.

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So, how should water and wastewater decision makers build resiliency into their systems and infrastructure?

First, create a full risk profile. This means not only understanding potential hazards, but also potential community fallout and the needed response. Then, ensure your response design is based on community need, particularly considering those who are the most vulnerable or disadvantaged. For example, securing emergency water supply – by storing water reserves, identifying alternative sources of water in the event of infrastructure damage, or investing in mobile water purification systems – ensures that a community lifeline stays online.

Second, facilitate strong engagement across public and private sectors. Without this open dialogue, decision makers lack the inputs to adequately fulfill the needs of the community and draw on the appropriate technical expertise. Multiple government agencies deal with and are impacted by water and wastewater risks, so inter-agency and inter-stakeholder collaboration is key.

Finally, strengthen and build energy resiliency. In California, for instance, AECOM is designing a microgrid system for the City of Rialto’s wastewater treatment plant outside of Los Angeles. Once completed, the microgrid will allow the plant to be entirely self-sufficient from an energy perspective, resilient to disasters and efficient in service delivery. Projects like this one ensure the plant can run amid power outages, avoiding negative community outcomes such as damaging leaks or releases that impact natural habitats and human health.

These three considerations and actions will help prepare water and wastewater decision makers for the moments when communities need them most. If assets are built thoughtfully with intelligent resiliency planning in mind, projects have staying power. With an increasingly volatile climate that disproportionately hits the underserved and disadvantaged, thoughtful water infrastructure planning has the opportunity to impact lives and make a real difference.

Jordanna Rubin is vice president, disaster resilience and equity at AECOM. Rubin has more than 20 years of experience implementing resilient and equitable disaster recovery programs in both the private and public sectors, supporting the most vulnerable and underserved communities.

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