Managing Climate Risk in Water Utility Planning

Sound, practical research is critical to water utility planning for climate impacts. For many years, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) has worked with water executives to identify their climate change information needs and to design and conduct the studies required to gather and analyze this essential data. As one of the key organizers of the International Water & Climate Forum, WRF is drawing on this experience to help craft an agenda that ensures decision-relevant climate research is highlighted during the forum and discussions will constructively consider future research needs.

Rob Renner-squareClimate change has always been an interest to water managers because decisions made in the near term affect system reliability well into the future. For example, utilities build costly water infrastructure with the expectation that investments will meet future requirements for decades to come. Traditional water utility planning methods are based on the assumption that future hydrologic conditions will be statistically similar to those recorded in the recent historical record; this is known as stationarity. However, the current scientific information on climate change indicates that future climate and hydrologic conditions will be significantly different than those in the past. Therefore, to plan efficiently, water managers need to understand how climate may change in the future and how that may affect the resources upon which the water utility industry depends.

Assessing and managing climate risk in water utility planning introduces several key challenges:

  • Developing projections of how the climate may change at a scale suitable for water planning
  • Developing existing planning tools to reflect and evaluate climate change impacts on water management plans
  • Accommodating the profound uncertainty that climate change introduces through the development of robust and dynamic risk management strategies

While the potential impacts and uncertainties associated with climate change will create unprecedented challenges, there are many reasons to believe that water utilities and the water supply community are up to the challenge. Water utilities are developing response strategies, forming coalitions and alliances, and raising awareness among policy makers and government officials. Additionally, federal, state, and even local governments are responding with legislation to increase funding for climate change research and solutions.

The Water Research Foundation (WRF) has been studying climate change and its impact on water supplies since 2003. In that time, WRF has funded over 30 projects valued at $12 million to research enhancing and improving water industry awareness of climate change issues and impacts, developing effective adaptation strategies, developing effective mitigation strategies, and communicating climate change impacts to internal/external stakeholders. Most of these projects are finished and reports and related resources are available for download.

When it comes to climate change, WRF recognizes that learning from each other’s experience provides water utilities a better understanding of the issues and challenges that will come. The 2015 International Water and Climate Forum will bring together water and wastewater utility leaders from around the world to discuss adaptation and mitigation strategies for water utilities, showcase case studies and lessons learned, and identify the decision-relevant research needed to incorporate climate change considerations into real-world utilities’ strategic planning operations.

Rob Renner is the Executive Director of the Water Research Foundation, 6666 W. Quincy Ave., Denver, CO 80235 USA; rrenner@WaterRF.org; @RobRennerWRF. The Water Research Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that sponsors research that supports the water community in cooperatively managing water from all sources to meet social, environmental, and economic needs. Renner was previously the executive director of the International Society of Automation and served as deputy executive director of AWWA. He has more than 20 years of experience as a consultant optimizing water treatment plant performance, and has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in sanitary engineering from South Dakota State University.