On Climate Change, Hurricanes, and the Need for Resiliency

In October 2009, NACWA and the Association of the Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) released a report detailing the effects climate change will have on wastewater and drinking water utilities. The adaptation costs for these critical facilities were estimated at between $448 billion and $944 billion through 2050.  Hurricane Sandy reminded us all that climate change is happening now and that drinking water and wastewater utilities are on the front lines in coping with its effects. The municipal water and wastewater sector no longer has the luxury of ignoring the warning signs and must begin putting in place resiliency measures to guard against these types of extreme weather events.

As Hurricane Sandy starkly illustrated, climate change affects wastewater utilities in several ways: 

  • rising sea levels increases storm surges and extreme flooding that can inundate and incapacitate treatment facilities in low-lying areas;  
  • extreme precipitation events can cripple treatment plants located inland and cause the release of millions of gallons of untreated sewage leading to water quality degradation for extended periods of time;
  • increasing surface water temperatures can exacerbate pollutant loadings and further degrade water quality; and
  • in many regions, drought conditions can lead to water scarcity and the need to develop new drinking water supplies.

Adaptation strategies are not without cost for the wastewater treatment sector. Vulnerable wastewater utilities may need to raise pumping stations, build levees and, in some circumstances, relocate treatment plants to avoid rising sea levels from rendering plants inoperable. Others may need to deploy treatment technologies specifically designed to treat greater volumes of rapidly moving wet weather flows, incorporate green technologies to help manage wet weather, construct more storage capacity for greater volumes of flow, or increase treatment of pollutants to ensure water quality doesn’t suffer. Finally, water recycling technologies and systems may need to be adopted to provide water supply in regions that need it.

As the 2009 report suggests, the municipal water and wastewater sectors could be facing as much as $1 trillion worth of adaptation costs over the next four decades.    

Washington may be finally acknowledging the challenge our sector is up against and be willing to provide financial assistance to confront these challenges. In its Hurricane Sandy relief package, the Administration requested $600 million to help municipal water and wastewater utilities in affected States build resiliency to deal with weather-related natural disasters. The Senate just released its supplemental appropriations bill for Hurricane Sandy and has actually increased the amount of money over the Administration’s request for water/wastewater resiliency to $810 million.

This is the good news. The bad news is that the task of building resiliency against a changing climate will cost far more, and utilities must begin to plan now for a future guaranteed to involve many more Hurricane Sandys.

Note: On December 13, NACWA sent a letter to Congress urging them to prepare an emergency appropriations package to assist recovery efforts in states impacted by Hurricane Sandy and ensure that sufficient money is available to help repair the affected region’s municipal wastewater treatment plants. The letter supports the President’s request of $60.4 billion in emergency aid, $600 million of which would go towards the affected region’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds to help utilities build resiliency to confront future extreme weather events.

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