By Kevin Wilcox
Twenty communities will assess their water utility's vulnerability to climate and develop adaptation options to enhance resilience.
Water utilities in 20 communities—including Nome, Alaska, where permafrost is melting—are participating in a pilot program conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify the specific risks posed to their operations from climate change and develop plans to manage those risks. Wikimedia Commons/ra64
December 23, 2014—Water utilities in 20 communities facing a wide range of potential climate-change impacts are participating in a $600,000 pilot program conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify these risks and develop adaptation plans.
"Climate change impacts could jeopardize the ability of the water sector to continue to fulfill its public health and environmental mission. We obviously care deeply about their ability to fulfill their mission in that respect," says David Travers, Ph.D., the director of the Water Security Division of the EPA's Office of Water.
"Utilities will experience greater variability and less predictability in the meteorological and hydrological conditions that currently inform their planning operations," Travers says. "The operations of these water systems are predicated on these historically projected meteorological and hydrological conditions-conditions which no longer define or circumscribe the future."
The program, which will last approximately three years, focuses on the Climate Resilience Evaluation & Awareness Tool(CREAT), a risk-assessment tool developed by the EPA. CREAT downscales global climate change projection data to a 32 mi square grid surrounding each participating water utility.
"The tool is very much a tool on the vanguard," Travers says. "A utility will identify its assets, identify the climate change impacts and threats for each of those assets, figure out the consequences of [those] vulnerabilities, and then essentially conduct a risk-management exercise in which the utility identifies adaptation options and figures out which adaptations offer the ability to reduce the risk."
The communities face a broad range of potential climate change impacts, from the melting permafrost of Nome, Alaska, to sea level rise in Houston. The EPA worked through its 10 regions to identify the communities, which include Auburn, Alabama; Austin, Texas; Bozeman, Montana; Hillsboro, Kansas; Norfolk, Virginia; Redwood Valley, California; and Sandpoint, Idaho.
The EPA asked the regions to provide a diverse list of water systems encompassing large, small, urban, and rural systems in geographically diverse areas experiencing different climate-change impacts, Travers says. "We wanted to make sure that our final pool of pilots represented a broad swath of that diversity," he explains.
For the first six months of the program, EPA personnel will conduct webinars and other training to help the communities' water utility personnel become familiar with CREAT and the process of conducting the risk assessment.
"Going into the second and third years, we expect them to update their risk assessment and update the specific adaptation options. We basically want to assess how viable and sustainable our approach is by seeing whether these utilities can undertake the analysis by themselves," Travers says. "We will still be engaged in lending assistance. But at that point they take the lead."
CREAT provides both descriptive and quantitative climate-change information drawn from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The utilities will have projections of temperature, precipitation, extreme precipitation events, and sea level rise.
"Part of the challenge of dealing with climate change is that there is just a wealth of information that in its sophistication is inaccessible to a lot of water utilities because they don't have climate scientists and geophysicists on staff," Travers says. "So what we are trying to do is to render this information into a form that is accessible."
To address the variance among climate-change projections based on emissions scenarios and other variables, the EPA is encouraging robust adaptations that perform acceptably across a broad spectrum of scenarios. The EPA has developed three of its own scenarios—a hot, dry climate; a warm, wet climate; and a scenario that is in the middle of these two extremes.
"Nobody is claiming that you can project with extreme accuracy and precision how much rain you will have in the month of January in the year 2059." Travers says. "What we encourage the [utilities] to do is identify adaptation plans that perform well across those different scenarios."
The CREAT tool is available for free now to all water utilities and the EPA is working on a new version of the tool based on lessons learned through an earlier, much smaller pilot program. The agency hopes that this larger pilot program will create a peer network within the industry that could expand beyond the 20 communities currently involved.
"It's important first of all for a utility to understand what the impacts are. These challenges are not unusual for the water sector, because these systems have been dealing with floods, [droughts], and other natural hazards since their inception," Travers notes. "It is the severity and frequency that may change. And that's the challenge."