Drought, flood and fire: planning for a changing climate


Drought, flood and fire: the effects of extreme weather events associated with climate change are leading water utilities to reassess assumptions about system resilience and water security.

According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, there were 14 $1 billion weather and climate change disasters in 2019. Flooding impacted 14 million people, with 200 million deemed “at risk.” 2018 was the US’ most devastating wildfire season ever, with six states breaking wildfire records.

The US Environmental Protection Agency warns that global warming increases of 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 – as modeled by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and based on current temperature increases – are likely to affect the hydrologic cycle, impacting the flow of water in watersheds, and the quality of aquatic and marine environments.

Where are the risks?

Data from Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report – a survey of qualified utility, municipal, commercial and community stakeholders – shows that natural or man-made disasters and catastrophic failure of infrastructure were the two most significant resilience concerns cited by respondents. Extended drought and/or supply restrictions ranked third.

Respondents indicated that all aspects of their systems are susceptible to adverse events. More than half of respondents — 55% — reported their stormwater systems to be highly or moderately susceptible to adverse events. In contrast, more than 60% of respondents considered their treatment systems to be highly or moderately resilient.

While utility leaders express concerns over resilience and understand which of their systems are most susceptible, the planning and execution of investments in those systems don’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. They are, in other words, largely reactive rather than proactive resilience-building measures.

So, although utilities recognise that investment in infrastructure resilience is critical, limited resources require striking the right balance between addressing future needs and their systems’ ability to deliver in the near-term.

Funding resilience

Having well-defined asset management programmes allows utilities to enhance resilience by analysing system vulnerabilities and potential for catastrophic failures; and then proactively mitigating those risks. When it comes to funding resilience and hardening measures, three-quarters of respondents look to the tried-and-true method of using rate increases to generate revenue, 55% consider federal grants, 53% look to state revolving funds, 40% plan to pursue loans, and one-quarter are interested in public-private partnerships.

When looking at the results parsed by population served, larger utilities are more likely to seek assistance from the federal government than smaller utilities — 66% versus 48%. Larger utilities are also more interested in public-private partnerships (PPP) – 37% compared to 17%. This is because larger utilities – which often execute large, disruptive infrastructure projects – have more resources to investigate PPPs and face significant public pressure to reduce the rate impacts. Consequently, they must build stakeholder buy-in through creative partnerships to execute these projects.

New resource scenarios

Climate change is having a growing influence on water supply planning, with 55% of respondents including it in their future forecasting. This shows a shift in thinking over the years past. Water conservation and/or drought management — which can be influenced by climate change — ranked No. 1, followed by scenario planning and climate change variability, with new surface water supplies and new reservoir storage tied for fourth.

Related articles;
US utilities to intensify digital water programmes – here’s why
Digital transformation reframes Asia Pacific’s water industry
New report highlights strategic directions for smart utilities

In terms of timing, 43% of respondents are looking 11 to 20 years out, 24% are looking at the next six to 10 years, and 38% the next five years. Longer-term planning horizons are particularly important for stressed regions where a supply/demand imbalance is already a reality or likely in the near or medium term. For example, in large urban water-stressed areas such as Denver, Colorado — where water rights limitations and water system limitations are the norms — utilities are looking 50 years out; otherwise, their growth could be restricted by supply or inability to secure adequate water rights. In arid areas in the West and Southwest, longer-term planning horizons will be critical to maintaining development and community growth. Data also shows that the industry has been busy scenario planning for the future. Confidence in recent water planning and forecasting efforts is growing, with 60% of respondents more confident today than in recent years that their water supply plan is robust enough to meet upcoming challenges. These responses indicate that investments in planning technology are paying off. Survey data also shows utilities are beginning to favor the sensitivity/vulnerability (S/V) analysis approach, which lets them play out scenarios to identify vulnerabilities and possible points of failure that can then be mitigated to reduce risk and increase reliability.

For example, Colorado Springs, Colorado, recently completed such an analysis as part of its Integrated Water Resources Plan. The city relies on multiple reservoirs along the Continental Divide and a complex network of pipelines, tunnels and pumping stations to deliver water to the population hub of the Front Range.

An S/V analysis examines the “what if” scenarios. If a catastrophic wildfire destroyed a watershed and the water quality of a reservoir, could the utility still supply water to the necessary levels of service? If a major pump station failed, could the utility reroute water through its system to continue to meet demand even as it works to repair the asset? A combined 40% of respondents are “definitely” or “probably” pursuing the S/V analysis approach, while 26% are considering it.

A supplemental approach also could be a ‘digital twin,’ an integrated digital representation of physical assets that provides historical, current and predictive analysis in near real-time. By combining information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT), users can simulate scenario options before actioning them in the real world, helping enhance customer experience by optimizing performance of existing assets.

Integrated water resources planning methodologies can guide utilities in the development of resilient water supplies and realise multiple benefits to ratepayers, citizens and stakeholders. Winter Haven, Florida, for example, is developing a “One Water Master Plan” for a 50-year planning horizon. For its medium-sized utility serving approximately 80,000 customers, Winter Haven’s planning is watershed scale and considers all water, regardless of form, to be a valuable resource to be managed sustainably, allowing planners to think holistically and work to optimize management of water resources to satisfy multiple objectives, some of which may conflict.

Winter Haven is driving resilience in its solutions by developing optimization tools to manage water across a spectrum of hydrologic conditions, from drought to flood and all points in between. In addition, the One Water planning approach in Winter Haven is evaluating the full scope of benefits provided by nature-based solutions. Working to restore the natural hydrology of the watershed will provide benefits for water supply, flood control, water quality, natural systems, recreation and even improved quality of future development.

The topic of climate change may be highly politicized, but the effects are being felt today, and without action, we expect to feel them even more tomorrow. The world is also now grappling with the impact of COVID-19, which may affect how water utilities prioritize their infrastructure improvement projects going forward. A sudden shift in environmental and climate change regulations would have a long- term impact on how utilities approach projects.

Black & Veatch survey data shows that events associated with climate change are driving significant concern around resilience; additionally, climate change is playing an increasingly important role when it comes to water supply planning. Innovative new planning and resilience approaches such as integrated water resources planning methodologies can offer a path forward for utilities, helping them to develop new water supplies while benefiting ratepayers, citizens and stakeholders.

No matter which route they choose, utilities must act now to recognize and address climate change as they work to mitigate an increasingly uncertain future.

About the authors

Jim Schlaman is the Director of Planning and Water Resources for Black & Veatch’s water business and serves on the One Water Council for the U.S. Water Alliance.  Over the past 19 years, he has worked across the country on all types of planning and water resources projects. including water supply and reuse/alternative water supply evaluations, integrated planning and water quality studies, and stormwater/flood control planning and design projects.

Jon Dinges is Senior Water Resources Planning Leader for Black & Veatch’s water business. With 25 years of experience in civil and environmental engineering, Dinges focuses on water resource management. He is skilled in water supply assessment and integrated planning, watershed assessment and restoration, and resource management planning, among other critical areas.