Preparing Utilities for a Changing Climate

Green roof in Philadelphia, PA | © Leonel Ponce

Green roof in Philadelphia, PA | © Leonel Ponce

In the last two years, we have seen a record number of extreme weather events including floods, heat waves, droughts, fires and snowstorms. In 2011, 14 different extreme weather events resulted in damages of more than $1 billion each. That trend has shown no signs of abating.

In 2012, scorching heat brought widespread drought to more than 65 percent of the country, contributed to raging wildfires in the West, and on top of that, the arrival of Superstorm Sandy in late October 2012 devastated communities along the northeastern seaboard with record-breaking storm surges and historic flooding.

Climate change and these extreme weather events present challenges not only to communities and ecosystems but also to our water utilities that provide drinking water and waste treatment. Superstorm Sandy, for instance, crippled wastewater treatment plants sending millions of gallons of untreated sewage into local rivers.

Some water utilities have been at the forefront of recognizing the impacts of climate change and the need to adapt, but unfortunately, many others are not planning for these and future impacts of climate change. And while it is challenging to determine what very specific impacts and risk individual utilities need to plan for and what exact strategies they can use to help minimize and adapt to the risks of our “new normal,” there are some good tools available to start the planning process.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released an updated version of their Climate Ready Water Utilities guide, which lays out a plan to help utilities around the country adapt to a changing climate. The Adaptation Strategies Guide provides utilities with the basic answers to these questions by outlining how climate change can impact utility operations and also provides specific examples and strategies that utilities can take to prepare for and mitigate these impacts.

Strategies ranging from integrated green infrastructure approaches to water efficiency and conservation strategies to more innovative and cost intensive water reuse are all presented in this report. While many utilities have yet to prepare for the impacts of climate change, it is now becoming more common for utilities and cities to begin thinking about and integrating this risk into their long-term planning and daily operations.

Philadelphia, for example has experienced an increasing number of wet-weather events which increase the volume of stormwater that their utility systems can handle, leading to releases of untreated sewage and stormwater directly into local water bodies (combined sewer overflows – CSOs).

In order to mitigate this risk and prepare for future wet-weather events, the Environmental Protection Agency approved the Green City, Clean Water plan, which requires the retrofit of impervious areas to manage runoff on-site; relies on green infrastructure to reduce CSOs; invests more public funds in green infrastructure than in traditional gray approaches; and leverages private investments for new development and redevelopment projects.

Orange County Water District, faced with declining freshwater resources, has taken an innovative approach to protect its existing supply by launching the Groundwater Replenishment System. This system maintains its water supply through wastewater reclamation and reclaims wastewater that would have otherwise been discharged into the Ocean. While the finished “product” exceeds drinking water standards it currently does not flow directly into kitchen and bathroom taps.

These are just two examples of what utilities and cities are now doing to respond to our new normal. Cities will continue to face numerous issues around the new normal, including those related to budget, aging infrastructure and other concerns, as well as increasing vulnerability from climate risks. On April 22nd, American Rivers with our partners at the Natural Resources Defense Council will release a new report highlighting climate adaptation strategies that can provide greater resilience to impacts, as well as providing additional benefits to the community, environment and economy.