Providers of drinking water, treated water and stormwater solutions have tended to give thoughts of climate change a relatively cold shoulder, given their other demands ranging from chronically aging infrastructure and workforces to shifting regulations. A new iceberg should give them pause.
In May 2021, a slab of ice bigger than Rhode Island — at roughly 105 miles long and 15 miles wide, covering more than 1,600 square miles — sheared off an Antarctic ice shelf, making it the world’s biggest iceberg. Such calving events aren’t uncommon, but scientists who have seen Antarctic ice shelves rapidly disintegrate in recent years suspect climate change. The suspicion of climate change induces concerns about rising sea levels and related questions about the resiliency of water utilities, particularly along low-lying coastal areas.
As impacts of climate change manifest themselves elsewhere in the form of expansive, seemingly more common droughts, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires, questions arise. Are utilities and communities doing enough to harden their water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructures and assets against such threats? Or are they at least starting to plan for such upgrades in the interest of dependable water security and supply?
The short answer is that there’s much more the industry needs to be doing to become resilient, according to a survey of more than 200 U.S. water industry stakeholders surveyed for Black & Veatch’s 2021 Strategic Directions: Water Report.
Impacts from climate change ranked fifth among respondents’ most significant perceived resilience concerns, which was outdistanced handily by potential catastrophic infrastructure failure — the top choice, at roughly two-thirds of respondents. Those results may have been influenced by the powerful mid-February winter storm that blanketed much of Texas with snow, ice and record low temperatures, knocking out power and heat to millions of homes and businesses for days and disrupting water service.
Natural or human-made disasters — some associated with climate change — came in second at nearly six in 10 respondents (57 percent), down dramatically from last year’s 84 percent. Extended drought and water supply restrictions followed at 44 percent, with climate change impacts next at 29 percent, relatively unchanged from the previous year.
The Texas deep freeze highlighted in dramatic fashion an often-overlooked fact — our energy, electricity, water, transportation and communications infrastructure systems are intertwined. When one system fails, it can create cascading catastrophes.
Increasingly extreme weather events should compel water utilities — many underfunded and starved for capital — to proactively and thoughtfully plan for ways to harden their assets as a backstop. Last year alone, a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season produced 30 named storms, including a half dozen major hurricanes. Severe wildfires burned millions of acres of land in California, Colorado and Oregon — and elsewhere around the globe — while flooding inundated portions of Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee. Midway through 2021, much of the western U.S. remained gripped by drought and wildfires.
Resiliency Remains a Lesser Priority
To little surprise, projects meant to ensure or enhance water quality — the chief mandate of water providers — held the most sway among the survey’s respondents, with roughly four in 10 casting that as the highest prioritization. Efforts to bolster the conditions of assets or to replace them altogether was the principle priority of one-quarter of respondents, followed by addressing capacity and growth (17 percent) and operations and efficiency (12 percent). Projects meant to bolster resiliency drew just 5 percent, with nearly three in 10 labelling resilience as their lowest priority.
The takeaway: Many system managers direct their energy and focus on meeting state and federal water quality standards and simply keeping the system running. For managers, any issues beyond the job’s operational requirements tend to get kicked down the road as “tomorrow’s crisis” — something to address only after today’s crises are managed.
Bigger water utilities — those serving at least 500,000 people — listed resiliency as their third-highest priority, behind water quality and matters involving asset condition or replacement. For utilities with fewer than 500,000 customers, resilience languished at the bottom of five priority choices, underscoring that resilience planning is a luxury for those smaller water systems.
A similar split between larger and smaller water utilities surfaced when respondents were asked about elements of their water plan. Three-quarters of larger systems surveyed said water conservation and/or drought management was part of their blueprint, compared to 63 percent of smaller systems. Officials at systems of various sizes had roughly the same responses about scenario planning and new reservoir storage.
But a large gap emerged when it came to climate change or variability, with half of respondents at larger utilities saying such factors were part of their water roadmap — compared to 17 percent of smaller water systems.
The Value of Water and Climate Change’s Impact
The U.S. built a lot of water and wastewater infrastructure in the 1950s and 1960s, but capital spending since has dropped off sharply. Until systems break, water and wastewater functions remain an “out of sight, out of mind” business. But breakdowns are becoming more frequent, given the prevalence of aging infrastructure stressed by population growth and migration.
As worries about climate change escalate — and citizens, regulators and other stakeholders demand greater resiliency in such critical infrastructure — utilities big and small would be well-served to strategize thoughtfully now about upgrades, knowing that such projects are years in the making.
Water and wastewater utilities should begin by having earnest, honest conversations about the value of water with their boards, critical stakeholders and customers, pressing the salient point that the environment is not static. Whether on the coast or in America’s breadbasket, it’s not about the infrastructure’s performance over past decades but what challenges the assets will have to handle sooner or later.
It’s far cheaper to repair or replace assets now, before systems weaken and fail, than playing catchup — and pointing fingers — when trouble strikes.
About the Authors
Ed Rectenwald is a hydrogeology national practice lead for Black & Veatch’s water business. With 26 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. During 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.
Andrew Smith is the national watershed, stormwater and flood management practice lead for Black & Veatch’s water business in the Americas. Based in Kansas City, Smith leads the development and delivery of a range of solutions ranging from watershed management and green infrastructure to complex hydraulic modelling and design. He is a recognized leader in the fields of strategic program development and asset management for stormwater.