Water is essential for life. We don’t always think of the indirect uses of water but energy and food account for roughly 20 times more than direct consumption. Climate change is affecting surface water conditions, resulting in higher temperatures and poorer water quality that can harm the natural environment and the infrastructure we rely on. Power plants are particularly vulnerable to flooding and droughts, which can affect operations, including the ability to generate electricity. Poor water quality and increased stream instability can affect transmission networks and power plant intake. Supply chains can be affected due to damage and closures, plus environmental stewardship and social demands must be accounted for. That’s a lot to consider when thinking about watershed risks.

Researchers wanted to take a holistic approach focusing on watershed-scale restoration strategies. In “Watershed-Scale Strategies to Increase Resilience to Climate-Driven Changes to Surface Waters: North American Electric Power Sector Case Study” in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, authors Robert J. Hawley, Jeffrey A. Thomas, and Shelby N. Acosta identify four strategies that can be applied economically at scale and impact flow across a large watershed. The strategies they present do not apply to every setting but will help electric utility managers consider unconventional cost-effective solutions, including detention pond retrofits, beaver reintroduction, wood and riparian reforestation, and floodplain wetlands. The watershed-scale management efforts presented here can have an impact with limited investment and will appeal to a wide range of stakeholders. Learn more about this research and its contribution to water resilience at https://doi.org/10.1061/JWRMD5.WRENG-5768. The abstract is below. 


This case study synthesizes strategies that electric power utilities can implement to reduce surface water risks to infrastructure, operations, and regulatory compliance as climate change impacts hydrologic regimes over the next century. The strategies range from the reach scale to watershed scale. A reach-scale example would be evaluating relocation alternatives for a transmission tower along an eroding streambank versus a streambank stabilization strategy. A watershed-scale strategy would involve the value engineering of stormwater management strategies that could be implemented across a catchment that is restorative of a more natural flow regime such as prolonged baseflows and reduced flooding and erosion. The cost-effective watershed-scale strategies highlighted herein include retrofits of existing detention ponds, beaver reintroductions (or discontinued extirpation), riparian reforestation, adding wood to headwater streams, and the removal of postsettlement alluvium from floodplains coinciding with restoration of floodplain wetlands. Many of these strategies are management approaches that could be implemented on utilities’ own property for relatively little cost while appealing to broader societal goals such as environmental restoration. Although costs will vary by setting and program goals, we hope that this article is a launching point for infrastructure managers to consider holistic, watershed-scale approaches to provide durable infrastructure resilience in the face of increased extreme events while contributing to long-term economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Get details on the four strategies to address electric utilities’ future water needs and their effects on the environment in the ASCE Library: https://doi.org/10.1061/JWRMD5.WRENG-5768.