During the spring of 2019, record-breaking floods inundated the Midwest, causing some of the biggest inland waterways — the Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers — to overflow their banks, disrupting lives and submerging farms, businesses and homes across more than a dozen states, from North Dakota and Minnesota to Mississippi and Louisiana. In at least 400 counties across 11 states, the floods overwhelmed the water and wastewater treatment facilities.
That searing experience, coupled with increased recognition of the vulnerability of low-lying coastal areas to seawater surges, has spurred concerns about the resilience of our nation’s water infrastructure, according to industry stakeholders surveyed for Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report.
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.
In the survey of nearly 300 respondents, natural or man-made disasters (nearly 84 percent) and catastrophic failure of infrastructure (56 percent) were the two most significant resilience concerns they cited. An interesting finding also is that respondents appear to rank the impacts of climate change much lower, and they do not necessarily correlate changes in climate with natural or man-made disasters.
Concurrent with resilience concerns, respondents indicated that all aspects of their systems — from stormwater to water supply and water distribution, and water and wastewater treatment systems — are susceptible to adverse events. More than half of respondents — 55 percent — reported their stormwater systems to be highly or moderately susceptible to adverse events. In contrast, more than 60 percent of respondents considered their treatment systems to be highly or moderately resilient.
Utility leaders express significant concerns over resilience, and they understand which of their systems are most susceptible. Yet the planning and execution of initiatives doesn’t align with these perspectives. With respect to the timing of executing infrastructure improvements, the respondents indicate that execution is primarily driven by an impending failure, a regulatory driver and/or customer demand — in other words, largely reactive rather than proactive resilience building measures.
However, the tide of reactive management may be changing as a more proactive programmatic approach to planning and building resilience is gaining ground consistent with the concept of “One Water.” This concept means water planning with a view of the complete water cycle, often watershed-based, and recognizing the interconnections between various uses — both human and ecological.
Utilities are embracing programmatic ways to be more resilient through features such as integrated planning and community-based partnerships. The survey indicates that nearly half of the respondents — 49 percent — are “actively trying” to evolve toward such an approach. More than one in five said they already have a programmatic approach that enables a holistic planning and effective leveraging of resources. While 20 percent said they would like to follow this approach but haven’t prioritized it, 9 percent declared that they do not yet see a value in a programmatic approach.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey shows, utilities serving populations of more than 500,000 have been more proactive in adopting programmatic approaches to resilience planning.
Practitioners at utilities serving more than 500,000 customers were more than twice as likely as smaller utilities (32 percent vs. 14 percent) to have already implemented a programmatic approach to resilience. Although these larger utilities are evolving toward a defined approach, mid-size and smaller utilities — those that serve fewer than 500,000 customers — tended to respond that either they didn’t see the value of a programmatic approach to resilience planning, or that while they would like to implement such an approach, they don’t consider it a priority.
In the United States, there are tens of thousands of water and wastewater systems, and similarly numerous municipalities managing stormwater programs. Such a highly fragmented system constrains organizational capacity and makes proactive resilience planning, execution of initiatives and adequate funding an ongoing challenge, especially for many small and mid-size utilities.
Digital transformation and multi-agency collaborations are valuable tools that utilities can leverage to enhance organization capacity and build resilience.
Two-thirds of respondents said they would definitely or probably be open to cooperative agreements with peer organizations to collaborate on digital information processes, plans and standards. About 30 percent were ambivalent, responding they “might or might not” be interested in such a collaboration.
In our experience, available resources and organizational culture are two chief reasons for the gap between respondents’ openness to multi-agency resilience planning and the actual implementation of collaborative initiatives to mitigate vulnerabilities of their systems. It’s a troubling disconnect, but not one limited to the water industry.
Despite the broad openness to collaboration on digital transformation, the realities of organizational culture and “who pays for what?” too often impede making multi-agency agreements a reality. Barriers such as limited trust, diverse demographics, local politics and attitudes on ownership and control, along with the ever-present pressure on funding, impede effective collaboration, leaving communities even more exposed to the next disaster or infrastructure failure.
Trust-building, due diligence in working out the details of collaborative approaches and defining other strategies for multi-agency agreements all are actions critical to enhancing organization capacity and developing resilience to tackle adverse events. The time to engage in these actions is before the river starts rising — or ahead of the time a major distribution system failure occurs. Agency and utility leaders must engage during periods of non emergency to prepare and upgrade with efforts that benefit their customers and communities.
Strategically investing in multi-agency resilience planning will be repaid several times over the next time a city or county avoids disruption by natural or man-made disasters or a catastrophic failure of infrastructure.
When asked to rate their organizational capacity to deliver stormwater management services, more than four out of 10 respondents — 44 percent — said they had “adequate” capacity to plan, design, deliver and maintain such offerings to their communities. An additional one-third said they had “some” organizational capacity to address the range of responsibilities from planning and design to delivery of services.
Today, there are just over 1,700 user-fee-funded stormwater utilities nationwide. As the 2018 Black & Veatch Stormwater Report indicated, even those municipalities that have established a dedicated stormwater user-fee-funding mechanism indicated inadequacy of funding. A combination of factors that include lack of political will; lack of robust stakeholder education on stormwater issues and risks of inaction; inadequate enabling legislation in some states; and the risk of legal challenges impede a broader adoption of user-fee-funding for stormwater management.
At the core, the services that public utilities provide — whether it’s water, wastewater or stormwater — are customer-centric, meaning initiatives to build infrastructure, operations, financial resilience and organizational capacity can succeed only if there is buy-in from customers and support from decision-makers.
Utilities are deploying stakeholder education and engagement in their resilience planning in hopes of proactively staying ahead of frequent and more intense wet weather events. Yet, the question lingers whether they’re doing enough outreach and garnering engagement — and with the right people. The survey indicates that six in 10 respondents were engaging with decision-makers, who likely would be responsible for green-lighting the development of a resilience plan. Only half of respondents even indicated that they were engaging with their communities. Fewer are working at the
city and regional level.
Utility leaders typically demonstrate a higher level of stakeholder engagement when there is a significant change such as a stormwater user fee or a customer assistance program. Similarly, engaging in holistic resilience planning and successful execution of initiatives, robust and consistent stakeholder engagement is critical. There is an opportunity to engage local business groups, neighborhood associations, community organizations, regional partners and other diverse stakeholders to ensure that plans are holistic and provide maximum benefit to the community.
Through the formal recognition of climate change and the mounting worries it evokes, complacent or slow responding water utilities need to identify new mechanisms to bolster their systems’ resilience. Such utilities should step off the sidelines, investigate proactive strategies and seek to implement thoughtful investments to mitigate the potential havoc of future extreme weather events and potential environmental shocks. Driven collaboration may hold the key, recognizing the significant influence of stakeholders and their role in defining a community’s vision toward achieving tomorrow’s sustainable water infrastructure.
About the Authors
Laura Adams is Black & Veatch’s green infrastructure practice lead. A 14-year veteran of the company, Adams leads a multi-disciplinary team with deep experience in program development and planning, design and construction, and the maintenance of green infrastructure. The team is creating innovative solutions to revitalize communities, restore natural resources, and address climate resilience.
Mark Fountain is a Black & Veatch water resources practice leader. He provides the expertise and leadership to guide diverse project teams as they engage with technical leadership, directors and marketing managers at client companies. A registered civil engineer in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, Fountain has more than 15 years of professional experience in civil engineering.
Prabha Kumar is a director in Black & Veatch’s Management Consulting Group and assists utilities nationwide with water, sewer and stormwater financial consulting and business advisory services. She also is a national practice lead for stormwater utility consulting and specializes in stormwater utility feasibility studies, utility development and implementation. With her expertise in stakeholder facilitation, she helps utilities with both internal stakeholder education and engagement and external public education and outreach.
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.
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 modeling and design. He is a recognized leader in the fields of strategic program development and asset management for stormwater.