Water Utilities Must Assess Climate Risks

By Carolyn Whetzel

Dec. 8 — Water and wastewater utilities must assess the operational and business risks of climate change impacts to guide investments and guard against long-term outages, a risk management researcher said at a water and climate conference.

The uncertainties about the scope of climate change impacts pose new challenges for water utilities, but “uncertainty ought not to be the basis for delayed decisions,” Simon Pollard, a risk management researcher at Cranfield University's School of Energy, Environment and Agrifood in the U.K., said Dec. 7. “Let's be bolder about what we know instead of being paralyzed about what we don’t know.”

Climate change should be viewed as a “disruptive opportunity” and integrated into long-term, strategic planning, he said at the International Water & Climate Forum in San Diego.

Even without a clear baseline understanding of how climate affects their operations, water utilities can assess “measured risks” using plausible scenarios for a wide range of situations to adapt their facilities and build more resilient organizations, Pollard said.

Resilience in the water sector will come from a fusion of innovation, risk management and foresight, he said.

“Those that are the most resilient will have an implicit lead over their competitors,” Pollard said.

Extreme Events 

Droughts followed by flooding have forced the water utility in the Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia, to adapt its operations and build more resilience infrastructure.

Yarra Valley Water's Managing Director Pat McCafferty said the 11-year drought triggered conservation measures, but rather than impose a blanket ban on outdoor water use, the utility set targets for customers, offered appliance retrofit programs and switched to drought tolerant turf for sports field.

A smarter water bill was instrumental in curbing use, McCafferty said.

“Large water users didn't know they were large water users,” he said.

Yarra Valley also deployed a leak detection program to reduce the loss of non-revenue water and built a desalination plant, although it is not currently operating. Other efforts under way include integrated water management programs, stormwater capture and reuse and a project to modernize an irrigation district.

Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego Water Authority, said her agency has the support of the community to implement a capital improvement program designed to reduce reliance on imported water and reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts like drought.

Conservation programs, a water transfer project with the Imperial Irrigation District, a soon-to-open desalination facility in Carlsbad, infrastructure improvements, adaptative management strategies and water reuse projects are among the agency's ongoing efforts.

“We use less water today than in 1990, but we've doubled our population,” Stapleton said.

Customer Engagement Is Crucial 

Water utilities must engage their customers, the ratepayers, to communicate the need to adapt their facilities to respond to climate change, Edward Maibach, a professor and director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Virginia, said.

Adaptation means higher water bills, or in some cases, taxes. Customers need to know that climate change “is happening here today,” it's not a distant threat, Maibach said.

“Show them the kind of challenges you're dealing with in your water system,” he said. “And make it vivid.”

Utilities must talk about the climate change impacts in their communities, Maibech said. The message needs to be that climate change “is real, it's human caused, it's harmful and it's solvable,” he said.

“Water utilities are uniquely positioned to address this issue,” Maibech said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carolyn Whetzel in Los Angeles cwhetzel@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com