Drought, wildfires and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy are pushing water utilities to find ways to cope with the effects of climate change, industry sources say.
"We can argue about whether or not [these events] are actually being caused by climate change, but the fact of the matter is, we have some extreme events happening to our water environment," says Matt Ries, chief technical officer at the Water Environment Federation in Alexandria, Va.
As a result, more water utilities are looking at ways to adapt. A few years ago, long-term mitigation drew attention, but now utilities are focusing on adaptation, Ries says.
"We've probably seen a five-fold increase" in efforts to incorporate climate change into planning for projects, says Armin Munevar, global technology lead for climate risk and resilience at Englewood, Colo.-based CH2M Hill.
Treatment plants in low-lying areas along both coasts and in the Midwest along major rivers "are going to see impacts as their water starts to rise up," Ries says. Utilities can seek to address the risk of flooding by installing floodwalls or dikes or by rebuilding new facilities on higher ground, Ries adds.
On the drinking-water side, utilities are looking more seriously at desalination and water re-use as well as additional water reservoirs and storage programs as possible solutions. On the wastewater side, concerns about sea-level rise have some utilities, such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, considering installing backflow prevention systems into their infrastructure. Other cities, such as Philadelphia and New York City, are studying incorporating green infrastructure into their long-range stormwater plans.
"As they understand that man-made structures cannot accommodate all the potential change [caused by] extreme events, you're looking at more dispersed and natural storm retention and expansion of green infrastructure," says Munevar.