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Utilities Acting on Climate Change

Monday, December 4, 2017   (0 Comments)
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By Beth Conway and Amy Kathman


Earth’s land, oceans, and troposphere have been warming for many years. Projections for the U.S. from the 2014 National Climate Assessment include not only an increase in temperatures, but also other climate changes, such as an increased intensity of droughts in the Southwest and of heat waves and precipitation events throughout the U.S. Precipitation events also are projected to become more frequent.


Climate change risks are not limited to the U.S. Among the many risks projected globally by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are “drought, water scarcity, sea level rise and storm surges” for urban communities and “water availability and supply” for rural communities, according to IPCC’s Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. The full report can be obtained at


Water is likely to be further affected by climate change as precipitation patterns change, sea levels rise, and water quality degrades. In the U.S., the drinking water and wastewater infrastructure already requires significant investment to maintain current levels of service over the coming decades. The effects of climate change may significantly stress critical infrastructure further.


However, climate adaptation strategies can help mitigate climate change effects. Many municipalities already are assessing and implementing measures to build resilience to climate change. Their work provides examples of what adaptation measures can achieve.


Declining water resources due to drought

In the Southwest, Albuquerque, N.M.; Bernalillo County, N.M.; and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority (ABCWUA) have demonstrated that relatively low-cost measures can be effective in adapting to drought conditions. Albuquerque and Bernalillo County began a conservation program in 1995to deal with drought issues. In 1997, they developed a Water Resources Management Strategy that they update every 10 years.


The programs and ordinances undertaken at ABCWUA focused on residential areas and public buildings. They encouraged water-conserving landscaping and water-efficient appliances in new development. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, Smart Growth Fixes for Climate Adaptation and Resilience: Changing Land Use and Building Codes and Policies to Prepare for Climate Change (EPA 231-R-17-001), ABCWUA gives rebates on the purchase of high-efficiency toilets, encourages xeriscaping (a type of landscape design for areas susceptible to drought), and touts compact development as examples of the measures instituted. As a result, residential customers achieved great reductions in water usage


In 2014, ABCWUA programs shifted more of the focus to non-residential customers. The water authority adopted four programs, according to their document, 2024 Water Conservation Plan Goal and Program Update. ABCWUA updated building codes, modified the xeriscape program in several ways to include a larger rebate to some non-residential customers, created a cooling tower rebate program, and offered assistance to new low-income customers with water auditing and water-conserving fixture installation.


Minimizing potential flood effects

Parts of Kansas City, Mo., are at risk of flooding from rivers and streams. As of early 2017, more than two thousand structures sit in Kansas City’s 100-year floodplain.


Enter, the Wet Weather Solutions Program, which provides for street and sewer infrastructure upgrades, as well as an increase in green infrastructure use. Two of this program’s goals are to reduce flooding and increase in water quality. The shorter-term projects of the program’s overflow control plan will be completed between 2010 and 2020. Major changes will be finished by 2035. For example, the Middle Blue River Basin pilot project, which improved streetscapes through the inclusion of green infrastructure solutions was completed in 2012.


By its end, the overflow control program seeks to reduce the estimated sewer overflow by approximately 15 billion L (4 billion gal) per year, thereby reducing cleanup, damage, and grey infrastructure costs, according to Kansas City Water Services.


Looking internationally, in Tokyo, Japan, heavy rains often lead to flooding, and increased urbanization has decreased the amount of permeable ground. In 2015, Tokyo completed an upgrade to the Tokyo Amesh, its rainfall information system. As described in the article, “Reconstructed Tokyo Amesh system crucial to flood prevention” in the Spring 2017 issue of WorldWater: Stormwater Management, rainfall radars were improved by upgrading to X-band multiparameter radars. These radar systems offer improved collection of rainfall data due to wave polarization. Information gathered from both radar and rain gauges is used by centrally located operators in determining pumping requirements for individual pumping stations. The Tokyo Bureau of Sewerage plans to continue improving radar capabilities and to increase the capacity of sewer facilities to handle up to 60 mm of rain per hour.


Sea level rise

A report by The Union of Concerned Scientists, When Rising Seas Hit Home Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities, estimates approximately 85 coastal communities in the U.S. are at risk from chronic inundation, and the number of at-risk communities is expected to roughly double by 2035. Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco are among municipalities implementing adaptation plans for sea level rise (SLR).


The City of Miami has monitored the risks of flood and saltwater intrusion for years. SLR affects flooding and saltwater intrusion risks. Among many projects underway to aid in adapting to climate change is the construction of a chlorine facility at the Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant. This facility will be elevated 4.9 m (16 ft) above ground-level to accommodate SLR and storm surges, according to the April 2017 BBC article, “Miami’s fight against rising seas.” The City of Miami Beach is installing pumps, improving drainage systems, and raising roads as part of their approach to address rising sea levels.


San Francisco, under immediate and long- term threat from SLR, has developed the Sea Level Rise Action Plan, which will have an SLR adaptation plan by 2018. Combined sewer discharge (CSD) outfall structures with low-elevation weirs present immediate threats from SLR to the wastewater treatment process. In 2014, a device to prevent the inflow of seawater into the sewer system was installed in a CSD outfall structure. Data gathered from this installation will provide information useful for the installation of future devices.


New Orleans faces risks from SLR from loss of coastal land. As noted in the report, Resilient New Orleans: Strategic actions to shape our future city,” Greater New Orleans has invested $14.5 billion in such infrastructure as pump stations, levees, and floodwalls. The City of New Orleans also will leverage financial resources available through several sources to support the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Adaptation approaches may, in many cases, require additional resources.


Resources available to utilities

Localities can access many resources to help develop climate change adaptation strategies. WEF offers the book, Emergency Planning, Response, and Recovery as well as the upcoming manual, Sustainability and Energy Management for Water Resource Recovery Facilities.


EPA’s Creating Resilient Water Utilities (CRWU) initiative also can be a resource. Through CRWU utilities can access tools, training, and assistance. The Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT) provides climate change threat identification, consequence assessment, and adaptation evaluation options for water and wastewater utilities. The table below shows threats listed in CREAT for use in preparing assessments in the tool. These resources can be found at


CRWU also offers a basic guide to the effect of climate change on water and wastewater utilities. This guide is titled Adaptation Strategies Guide for Water Utilities.


For European cities, the European Union’s Climate-Adapt program can be found at It provides information on several areas, including projected climate change, adaptation case studies, options, and planning tools. It also enables users to share data.


For resources spanning both U.S. and international interests, resources from 100 Resilient Cities can be found at and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities provides “resources necessary to develop a roadmap to resilience.”


Action today pays off in the long run

The work needed to adapt to climate change and handle extreme weather events can be expensive; however, the do-nothing option can be even costlier.


For example, New York City has an estimated $1.1 billion of vital infrastructure at risk. To mitigate the risk, New York is investing in protective measures for facilities and structures and is developing the city’s green infrastructure. Construction investments between $315 million and $426 million in the city can save potentially more than $2 billion in cumulative emergency response costs by 2065 according to Workshop W13: Vulnerability & Risk Response to Climate Change from WEFTEC® 2015.


Two principal goals for water and wastewater utilities regarding climate change effects are

·      to assess risk and uncertainty due to climate change and

·      to develop and take actions to improve resilience and sustainability in utility facilities and overall utility management.


Federal, state, and local funding is needed to adapt infrastructure and water supplies to climate change. As part of an ongoing effort to encourage funding for critical water infrastructure, WEF’s government affairs team developed talking points on climate change related infrastructure investment. Access these talking points at


Beth Conway is an engineer in the Water Science & Engineering Center and Amy Kathman is a Government Affairs specialist at the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.).



Threats listed by the Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool

Threat group


Altered service demand and competing use

Changes in agricultural practices & outdoor use

Changes in energy sector water needs

Changes in influent flow & temperature

Changes in residential use

Altered or loss of ecosystem services

Altered vegetation / wildfire risk

Loss of coastal landforms

Loss of wetlands

Degraded water quality

Altered surface water quality

Saline intrusion into aquifers

Increased flood frequency & extent

Coastal storm surges

High flow events

Increased incidence of droughts

Lower lake and reservoir levels

Reduced groundwater recharge

Reduced snowpack

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