Securing Clean Drinking Water in an Uncertain Future

Floods, droughts, and now cholera? While we know that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather, scientists report that this increase in extreme stormwater could “set the stage for a return of cholera to North America.”  Drinking water and sewage treatment plants are often the ones to bear the brunt of climate change as increased flooding overwhelms treatment plants and causes sewer overflows.

That’s why I was pleased to participate as a member of the Climate Ready Water Utilities workgroup, a group convened by the Environmental Protection Agency consisting of utilities, state regulators and academics, to recommend how water utilities can better prepare for a changing climate to ensure a safe, reliable and environmentally sound water supply into the future. The final report (PDF) makes a series of recommendations for how utilities can take steps in this direction.

One important theme running through the report is the concept of “no regrets” solutions – that means choosing the course of action that produces multiple benefits under a range of climate scenarios. In plain talk – if you don’t know how much drought or flooding is coming your way, protecting forests along streams and rivers, for example, will help mitigate flooding and filter water while also ensuring more steady water levels during dry times too. Or choosing water efficiency as the first source of new supply (see our report Natural Security for more examples).

Importantly, no regrets means not only doing the right thing, but also avoiding the wrong thing – the report specifically recommends to “[a]void making large, long-term investments that do not consider and reflect the potential need to adapt to or minimize climate impacts.” No more drinking water lines to nowhere, please!

Finally, the report gets right the need to emphasize sustainable solutions:

Green infrastructure and low impact development can provide no regrets solutions that can benefit water utilities and surrounding communities by helping reduce vulnerability to climate-induced changes regardless of exactly what changes occur… Similarly, distributed technologies such as advanced decentralized sewage treatment, gray water reuse systems, and cisterns, are important to consider as part of the planning process… [these] Distributed systems, where they can be cost-effectively and sustainably operated and managed at smaller scales, may provide more flexibility than centralized systems that have large fixed capital investments that are potentially more vulnerable to a changing climate.”

Preparing for climate change is a critical step for the future of clean and safe water – let’s hope that utilities and water managers will help move the recommendations into reality. Cholera not wanted here…