Water Resiliency: Is It ‘Tomorrow’s Crisis’?

By: Bill Eller

Water utilities, harried by aging infrastructure and a historic lack of federal infrastructure investment, may see climate change – and the needed infrastructure hardening for water resiliency – as “tomorrow’s crisis,” or something that can be addressed once what to do with our aging infrastructure and how to pay for it is figured out.

Yet, the decade between 2000 to 2010 was the warmest on record and extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts have increased during the past 40 to 50 years. Additionally, coastal and riverine flooding, dwindling lake and reservoir levels, reduced snowpacks, earlier spring snowmelts and ice break ups, cold season storms and wildfires all can pose issues for water utilities.

These extreme weather events can impact water quality, supply management and maintenance of service levels. Addressing climate change as a water utility can also positively impact supply and demand planning, conservation and infrastructure planning and maintenance. However, many utilities operators are more concerned with the potential for aging infrastructure to fail or a natural or human-created disaster, according to Black and Veatch’s 2021 Strategic Directions: Water Report.

The University of California, Davis, found that water operators generally fell in two camps on the climate change issue – those who were including it in their long term plans, mostly larger cities, and those who were not, mostly in rural areas. Not including climate change in their planning puts their water supplies and customers at risk, especially those in marginalized communities, the report claimed.

Water operators indicated that their highest priority is ensuring or enhancing water quality, followed by repair or replacement of assets in the Black and Veatch report. Climate change came in a distant fifth in water operator’s concerns, although increasing extreme weather events can have an adverse impact on aging infrastructure and can increase the occurrence of many natural disasters, such as floods and storms.

For example, in 2020, there were 30 named storms, millions of acres burned in wildfires and major flooding, all of which are impacted by climate change and will affect water quality and supply and demand. In the past decade, there have been more than 130 climate change related events that have cost billions of dollars in damages. This month, it was reported that the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica may collapse into the ocean by 2031, resulting in a two-foot rise in the world’s oceans.

Even if communities and utilities aren’t looking at the impact of climate change, businesses are – for those businesses entering or relocating to a new location, many are considering whether climate change with have an impact – whether there are plans to continue water and sewer service, among other things, in the case of climate change impact. Other businesses are considering relocating away from communities where there are no plans to mitigate the impact of climate change on businesses and residents and harden utilities to withstand it. If they leave, their taxes go with them, making the pool of money to address the lengthy list of issues water operators face even smaller.

Infrastructure designed to withstand historical climate conditions will be vulnerable as climate change exposes that infrastructure to more extreme weather events, and those utilities not investing in climate change adaption expose themselves to lower efficiency and higher expenses, a McKinsey and Company assessment concluded.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a much-needed shot in the arm, with $55 billion earmarked for replacing lead pipes; addressing PFAS, the “forever chemical,” and other contaminants; and directing money toward small, rural and disadvantaged communities, among other priorities. The bill sets aside $925 million for resiliency programs, making right now an excellent time to address “tomorrow’s crisis” – after all, water resiliency measures can double up in improving water supply and quality and service delivery. Ensuring that the plan includes resilience and infrastructure planning, and maintenance concerns can open another source of funding for cash-stressed utilities.

Since every dollar counts, especially as we consider the looming problems of aging infrastructure and climate change, consider a partnership with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program. The Program provides royalties to participating municipalities, while educating residents about their responsibilities to maintain their water and sewer service lines at no cost to the partner.

The Program also provides an emergency home repair plan that can shield your residents against the unexpected cost of a service line repair. For more information on how you can secure this alternate revenue stream, contact us.