Access to clean water remains a critical component of any community, but unfortunately, water stresses are a reality for far too many, particularly those in the arid West and Southwest. Concerns over funding, aging infrastructure and resilience are not new, echoing the worries and priorities of years past.
The reach and scope of resilience continues to evolve. The Global Water Forum defines infrastructure resilience as “the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events” and measures effectiveness by the ability to recover rapidly from such an event. But while the basic concept of resilience remains the same, global events continue to shift and evolve, introducing newer and bigger threats.
Twenty years ago, the events of 9/11 caused regulators to focus on bioterrorism and cybersecurity. Then the focus shifted to climate change, which science suggests is driving a variety of conditions including: more frequent arid conditions, drought cycles, higher rainfall intensity events, sea-level rise and lateral or upward migration of higher salinity water into aquifers used for groundwater supply, and other conditions that will challenge water systems.
This shift helped drive utilities and municipalities in water-stressed areas to get more aggressive on reuse, collection and storage. But now the world is grappling with an unprecedented situation — a global health crisis brought about by COVID-19, which is driving new concerns around health and safety planning, workforce continuity planning, financial and capital reprioritization, as well as reassessing vulnerability planning. Aside from concerns about sourcing and securing appropriate water supplies, does resilience in the time of COVID-19 mean that utilities should now incorporate pandemics into their resilience planning?
Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report survey of qualified utility, municipal, commercial and community stakeholders looks at how today’s water industry has been addressing resilience to date and introduces new insight into how the industry can move forward.
2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report
With its survey of nearly 300 water industry stakeholders as its backbone, Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report comprehensively analyzes the sector’s complex landscape of challenges and opportunities. The leveraging of data in driving decision-making and optimizing efficiencies in water and wastewater systems is widening even as infrastructure continues to age, climate change strains assets, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial havoc pressures the bottom lines of many utilities through lost revenues. We look at all of that and more.
Supply Remains Top Concern
Survey data shows that water utilities consider their water treatment plants to be the most resilient of their three main systems — treatment, distribution and supply. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of respondents see their treatment systems as “highly or moderately resilient” to adverse events.
When it comes to distribution, respondents were slightly less certain, with 56 percent considering these systems resilient and 44 percent considering them susceptible. Responses around supply were even closer, with 53 percent reporting confidence and 47 percent considering this the weakest link, and “highly or moderately susceptible” to adverse events.
When it comes to bolstering water supply, 43 percent of respondents are seeking groundwater resources and 27 percent are seeking new surface water sources. These answers are most likely regional in nature, but it does reinforce that utilities desire to diversify their supplies for greater resilience and are more broadly looking for sustainable groundwater sources to do so.
Meanwhile, 39 percent are looking to reuse, which is more common in water-stressed areas — in fact, Arizona, California, Florida and Texas are all leading the charge in treating wastewater for beneficial uses, including looking increasingly at potable reuse opportunities to address water supply resilience needs. A small number (12 percent) of respondents said they are seeking new desalination/brackish sources, a solution that is more common in coastal states that are dealing with saltwater intrusion into their groundwater supplies.
In the arid West and Southwest, the simpler solutions for supply have been exhausted, requiring utilities to reach deeper into their pockets to consider more substantial projects such as water reuse and desalination/brackish solutions.
Embracing New Models of Collaboration
A trend across the industry — no matter where the utility is located — is to become more proactive when it comes to sourcing and building resilient water supplies, and to invest in a future need that has not been entirely realized yet. Many of these efforts are regional in nature, and organizations are coming together and embracing collaboration as they work to address water scarcity, thereby sharing the proverbial burden. For example, the Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) program in central Colorado demonstrates the strides that can be made when different communities partner together to solve their problems.
WISE is a regional partnership that provides new supply by combining unused capacities from Aurora Water’s Prairie Waters Project and Denver Water. When Denver and Aurora have excess supply, 10 entities in nearby Douglas County can buy the extra water. WISE involves a total of 12 entities working together to supply customers with water while minimizing the expenses required to develop new infrastructure and water rights. Similar programs also are happening in southern Colorado, Arizona and California.
Responding to Mandated Assessments
After 9/11, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (Bioterrorism Act of 2002) was passed, requiring some 8,400 community water systems to assess vulnerabilities and prepare emergency response plans. Originally, the act was designed to address vulnerabilities due to bioterrorism, but today, utilities recognize that vulnerability is more than bioterrorism or cybersecurity and must address internal threats and climate change.
Survey data shows that water and wastewater utilities are actively responding to the mandates by conducting resilience and vulnerability assessments, with a combined 54 percent having done so within the past year, and 22 percent having done so within the last two to three years. This shows that utilities are taking threats seriously and addressing vulnerabilities to become more resilient.
Another piece of legislation — America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA), signed into law in October 2018 — requires all community water systems and utilities that serve more than 3,300 people to conduct risk and resilience assessments and develop or update their emergency response plans. AWIA and market conditions are driving utilities to assess and implement strategies that mitigate vulnerabilities.
Survey results show that the AWIA mandate has led to at least one-third of survey respondents to make system changes to address identified vulnerabilities — 22 percent reported that they had to expedite plans, and 8 percent had to make even more substantial changes, as they were not planning to conduct vulnerability assessments before AWIA. A combined half said the mandate had “little to no” or “minimal” impact on their plans, as they had already planned to conduct assessments, while 20 percent anticipated no impact at all.
Addressing Public Health
When it comes to the status of system improvements projects, three-quarters of survey respondents said they have either completed or are working on system improvement recommendations from previous vulnerability assessments. An additional 17 percent are planning and scoping projects now, while 8 percent said they have no projects underway.
Looking at combined No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, which denote the highest priority as assigned by the question, results show that utilities prioritize projects that have the most significant impact on public health — water/quality, condition/replacement and operations/efficiency ranked most important, followed by capacity/growth and then resilience.
Condition/replacement remains a top concern as aging infrastructure starts to require more maintenance and upkeep, spurring increased involvement in rehab and replacement programs. Operations/efficiency was the third-highest priority, as that keeps systems running — a particularly important concern during this time of COVID-19 disruption. Capacity/growth was more evenly split.
Of the five areas, resilience ranked last, which was unsurprising, given that the first four areas all are driven by regulatory requirements and are fundamental to the mission of a utility. Unlike water quality and public health, resilience is not mandated besides the studies recently required by AWIA. Although critical and necessary, resilience shores up the other systems, but as a result, often ends up taking a backseat to these higher priorities and may be perceived as an added expense to those associated with basic operations.
The data shown here — where 27 percent said they have no formal process to prioritize projects but defer to those that are required for health and safety reasons and regulatory requirements — validates this conclusion.
The reach and scope of resilience continues to evolve as communities pursue access to clean and sustainable water, particularly for those in water-stressed areas. Concerns over aging infrastructure, funding and resilience are deeply familiar, but today we see new threats, such as COVID-19, that are challenging water systems in new ways.
About the Authors
Karen Burgi is a regional planning lead for Black & Veatch’s water business. Over the past 27 years, she has worked with communities throughout the central and western United States on water distribution and wastewater collection system master planning, helping communities evaluate trends, prepare for growth, prioritize needs and consider long-term sustainability and reliability.
Jo Ann Jackson leads Black & Veatch’s national “One Water” planning practice. She brings more than 35 years of experience developing integrated solutions to wastewater, stormwater and water supply projects across the United States. Her experience includes six years in the public sector, where she helped implement Florida’s first direct potable reuse pilot and served as a utility representative on Florida’s Potable Reuse Commission.
Kevin Laptos is the national distribution and collection system planning practice leader for Black & Veatch’s water business. For 30 years, he has specialized in planning and modeling of water distribution and wastewater collection systems, including rehabilitation, resilience, design and operations studies.
Ed Rectenwald is a hydrogeology national practice lead for Black & Veatch’s water business. With 24 years of technical and management experience, he successfully has managed projects and teams across the globe related to design, permitting, construction, expansion and operation for wellfields, Class V aquifer storage and recovery (ASR), aquifer recharge and Class I injection well systems.
Jim Schlaman is the director of planning and water resources for Black & Veatch’s water business and serves on the One Water Council for the U.S. Water Alliance. Over the past 19 years, he has worked across the country on all types of planning and water resources projects including water supply and reuse/alternative water supply evaluations, integrated planning and water quality studies, and stormwater/flood control planning and design projects.