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Water Infrastructure Planning in an Era of Climate Change

Brett Walton from Circle of Blue writes a compelling story about the importance of infrastructure planning in an era of climate change. His article gets at the heart of climate adaptation in raising questions about the benefits of experimenting with adaptation now, as opposed to acting in an uncertain future.

With a focus on the U.S., the article summarizes some of the major impending climate threats to urban water utilities and infrastructure. While adaptation planning is only beginning to surface, some utilities like the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant were thinking about this challenge in the 1980s.

Deer Island was one of the first places to incorporate climate change projections into its sewage plant’s design. Many utilities in the U.S. are currently operating on tight budgets largely concerned about today’s issues. Some recognize the long- term challenges associated with changes in rainfall patterns and river flow and how this will require modifications to current practices. However, without sufficient funds to design and account for these changes, the focus remains on immediate concerns.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has collected data from states on capital needs for water and sewer infrastructure. Their most recent figures as of 2007-2008 estimate that utilities would need to spend “$US 298 billion on wastewater and $US 335 billion on drinking water over the next two decades”, not accounting for the potential impacts of climate change.

The essence of the article centres on building climate resiliency in water utilities. Such resiliency may be achieved through a number of projects including green infrastructure investments, expanded stormwater retention and desalination plants. Despite tight budgets, several utilities across U.S. cities are beginning to experiment with some of these adaptation actions.

Seattle has developed a climate assessment program that has identified various climate risks to the city. Collaborating with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, the city released a climate plan in 2006. Among its objectives, Seattle intends to buffer itself from long-term changes in water availability through reducing consumption by nearly 8% of peak summer use by 2030. New York City has been another model of good adaptation planning. Its green infrastructure program is just one example of the city’s commitment to addressing this challenge.

Walton’s article also contains an interactive map profiling U.S. cities; their risks to climate change and their plans for action. It highlights the importance of experimenting with non-conventional adaptation measures — such as green infrastructure –to address short-term and long-term risks around climate change as opposed to strictly resorting to hard infrastructure such as levees and dikes.

ACT released its Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance report in October 2011, authored by eminent Canadian water expert, Bob Sandford. The report calls for the design and sustainability of water infrastructure based on ecological principles and adaptation. For instance, integrating rainwater management with wastewater management to reduce costs of treatment and energy required to transport water and treat sewage.

There are many promising ideas in adaptation planning and countless cities that are beginning to experiment with cost-effective strategies in spite of constrained budgets. Water will be subject to increasing demands and pressure for ecological services in the coming 100 years. Small changes and innovation in water utilities can go a long way in fostering resilience to and leadership around climate change adaptation planning.

article written by ACT researcher Timothy Shah

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