Against the prevailing public perception — in truth, the misconception — that their water supply is bottomless, U.S. water utilities behind the scenes increasingly are grappling with a steady stream of challenges that test their resilience.
Climate change manifests itself in persistent, historic droughts amid widening, deep concerns about the health of the environment and sustainability of our livelihoods, combined with the rapidly growing urban centers, old and new. The growth of water-intensive industries such as giga-scale data centers, along with a heightening competition for resources, exacerbates these concerns.
When it comes to water supply, Black & Veatch’s 2023 Water Report suggests, the U.S. water sector figures it has it all in hand — at least for now. Among some 450 respondents to the global critical infrastructure leader’s yearly survey of the industry’s stakeholders about key water topics, roughly four in 10 — 42 percent — rated themselves as “very confident” about the resilience of their water supplies. An additional 44 percent of respondents assessed themselves as “somewhat confident,” adding to the 59 percent of respondents expressing levels of uncertainty (Figure 7).
Those numbers appear to indicate a positive outlook. But is absolute confidence in a provider’s water supplies founded in the current state today? Maybe not, and it’s not the central point anyway. More beneficial, as the survey results indicate, are the ensuing questions: What are the risks affecting provider’s confidence, and what’s being done to mitigate them?
Not One Thing
More than 200 years since Benjamin Franklin opined that nothing is certain except death and taxes, the public would have you believe that “water” should join the list. It’s expected to be available on demand anywhere, any time, and when it isn’t, for whatever reason, it’s major news. The cause as well as public health and safety implications — along with the long-term community development and economic growth ramifications — can be significant.
It’s a reminder of the value of water and the criticality of resiliency.
Supply risk has the attention of utilities and municipalities. Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents say their water utility had performed a vulnerability study, and eight in 10 say they had considered their water supplies in that assessment. Water reliability and supply resilience also top the list of major investments that survey respondents expect to make during the next decade.
The “why” is clear. Multiple factors can negatively affect supply reliability, and no single issue has primacy. Increasing urbanization, demographic changes and business growth — including businesses related to the internet of things such as data centers, or electrification such as large-scale battery production — are intensifying demand. Older, simpler water systems are open to purposeful, malicious disruptions, from supply contamination to cyberattacks potentially damaging and risking the public health of the communities. Operations can be severely tested by developments such as global market conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic that compromise supply chains.
Adding to the vulnerability are the impacts from climate change. More frequent, stronger storms are increasing devastation from flooding, which along with fires can knock out water systems in different ways. Less snowpack and shifting rainfall patterns are spreading drought and limiting supplies across regions while more intense heat waves are escalating water use.
As the saying goes, all water is local; every place has its own relationship with water. Each faces water stress in its own way, including the factors above that can hurt supply reliability in different ways. As groundwater resources become overused and surface water levels decrease, availability of freshwater resources can deteriorate. Quality can suffer from pollutants, eutrophication and saltwater intrusion. Older facilities and out-of-date technologies can’t keep pace with the evolving conditions.
The supply stress facing respondents is reflected in their survey answers, particularly in the alignment between perceived vulnerabilities and expected investment over the next decade.
Yet again, respondents cited aging infrastructure as the most challenging issue facing water, wastewater and stormwater systems. In turn, asset rehabilitation/renewal is the second highest anticipated area of investment by utilities and municipalities.
Cybersecurity was the top issue among respondents that had studied their vulnerability, and it’s the third highest area where all respondents expect to see major investment.
Of the respondents that had performed a vulnerability study, more than half pointed to regulations as a concern. Whether involving per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — commonly known as “forever chemicals” — nutrients, biosolids, or lead and copper lines, respondents expect significant investment in regulatory compliance.
Respondents also identified stormwater as an area for improved resiliency. The capture of stormwater for control of flooding, management of water quality and augmentation of supplies is viewed as another major area of investment.
Borrowing from the 2023 Oscar best picture winner at the Academy Awards, the challenges to providers’ supplies involve practically “everything everywhere all at once,” depending of course on their individual situations.
Steps Toward Water Supply Resilience
To mitigate their supply risks, utilities and municipalities are taking an array of actions. They can be organized loosely by tier.
The top tier includes “must-take” steps. Water conservation (43 percent), increasing above- or belowground water storage (38 percent), and developing groundwater supplies (38 percent) comprise the actions most respondents said they were working on or considering to improve their water supply resiliency (Figure 8).
Actions in the second tier of respondent selections include some notable results:
A quarter chose infrastructure hardening as something they were actively doing or considering, apparently motivated by the potentially catastrophic consequences of failure.
Reuse — including non-potable and direct- and indirect-potable reuse — garnered greater interest compared to survey results from previous years. Interestingly, the primary drivers that respondents selected for considering alternative water supplies were improved supply reliability, capacity and quality, much more so than effluent management and regulations.
Not One Water?
As the survey results show, more utilities than not have some level of uncertainty regarding the resiliency of their water supply. The uncertainty stems from not a single or a handful but a myriad of challenges — all of them integrated. In terms of tackling them, again, respondents are taking or considering an array of mitigation approaches.
However, in this case, their planning doesn’t seem integrated. Asked whether they have developed a “One Water” plan, integrated water supply plan or an integrated water management plan, only 18 percent answered yes. An additional 17 percent said no but saw a need to do so sometime in the future. The response could be indicative of a sector where solutions are typically or historically siloed or not holistic and well-integrated across the operational silos of the organization to drive greater synergies and quicker, efficient outcomes.
Primarily, the industry is missing an opportunity. “One Water” with integrated water solutions make sense, and they can be tailored to the unique challenges utilities and municipalities face, delivering the resource quality, efficiency and productivity they seek. It’s at that point — with thoughtful planning, flexibility and innovation pointing the way forward — that true confidence in the resilience of their water supplies would be achieved.