Changing climate has far-reaching impacts, and is testing parts of society’s ability to continue doing business-as-usual.  Among these are water utilities, the entities responsible for delivering clean, fresh water to our nation’s households and managing wastewater and stormwater. Climate change affects not only rainfall and annual precipitation patterns—which has implications on the availability of freshwater—but can also stress the infrastructure and systems used to treat, deliver and manage water resources. Thankfully, water managers and engineers within many of these utilities are beginning to examine society’s connection to and use of this critical resource.

kayaker in Seattle's Ship Canal
A kayaker moves down Seattle’s Ship Canal, a location where CIG and WUCA developed one of their case studies.

Yet rethinking the complexities associated with managing the water systems that millions rely on daily is a huge undertaking. The UW Climate Impacts Group (CIG) in partnership with the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA) is currently helping meet that need by assisting water managers and water utilities understand how climate change will impact their systems and what measures they can adopt now to be proactive in preparing for the future.

“People often ask, “what can I do to prepare for climate change?” says Heidi Roop of CIG, who is the lead investigator working with WUCA*. CIG has long been a champion of getting user-friendly climate change data into the hands of the people who need it to make climate-related decisions. In this project, CIG is playing that role with utilities.

Roop and a team from WUCA began by developing a survey to understand where water engineers get their climate change information and where it intersects with their needs on the job. “We learned that folks are not frequently accessing resources provided by entities like NOAA and EPA but rely mostly on peers and colleagues within or from professional organizations in the water sector,” she said.

Roop also learned that engineers are looking for concrete examples of what their peers are doing, including how they are designing differently and how they garner support from leadership and ratepayers to build climate change into their planning and asset management. Massive public works projects are often feats of enormously complicated engineering, costing millions if not billions of public dollars to build and maintain. In order to ensure these investments live up to their design lifetimes and meet future water demands, infrastructure also needs to be resilient to numerous expected future stressors, like heat and extreme precipitation.

Based on the feedback and information of what engineers wanted, Roop and her team scoured the country and world looking for examples of how the water sector is applying climate information to engineering design and water delivery. They developed case studies that specifically focused on how facilities and associated assets were redesigned, climate resilience was increased and risks to infrastructure reduced. Each study was done in collaboration with the entity profiled, along with information on how to contact each organization and learn more about the project. “We heard loud and clear that the most useful resource we could provide was examples of engineers designing for climate change. They also wanted to be able to connect with their peers who were doing the work. These case studies aimed to help meet that need.”

“We have a growing number of examples of where dirt was moved differently due to the use of climate change science,” Roop said. “These are good news stories where organizations have moved the dial and are actively working to plan and prepare for climate change. These stories create a positive feedback loop and can help to motivate change in other places. By showing these champions of change, others can see that it can be done.”

The role of WUCA within the US water industry provided CIG with a platform to collaborate on this work. Consisting of the 12 largest water utilities across the nation—collectively serving 50 million people—WUCA was formed to provide leadership and collaboration on climate change issues affecting the country’s water agencies. WUCA is sharing these case studies through various trusted channels used by water engineers for information, including professional organizations like the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, informational fact sheets, meeting presentations and direct connections to the projects that are profiled through WUCA’s work.

Beyond providing concrete examples of what’s possible, Roop notes that part of the project’s success was surfacing the idea that climate change conversations are important. “There were multiple utilities that said this was the first time they had a cross-institution discussion about climate change and its implications for their operations. Even if this process achieves nothing else, just having these conversations can be transformative for an organization, and eventually the community it serves.”

This work is now being expanded with the support of the Water Research Foundation. CIG and the University of Minnesota are conducting similar surveys and focus groups, as well as hosting a series of webinars intended to support water managers across the Pacific Northwest to prepare for climate change.

*Heidi Roop has recently moved to the University of Minnesota, where she is continuing with this work.