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Climate change climbs as water management priority

December 5, 2018

Rising temperatures, snowpack loss, and wildfires are becoming more common. However, individual communities and local water utilities are impacted differently. Heavy rainfall over burnscars may increase sediment suspended in water. The turbidity may exceed drinking water treatment plant capabilities, posing little threat to updated pre-treatment filtration systems. But turbid water could shutdown older facilities.

EPA strongly encourages water utilities to assess vulnerability to climate change. More importantly, evaluations can strengthen the abilities to anticipate, respond to and recover from multi-hazard threats with minimal harm to people, environment and the economy.

In contrast, a 2017 Water Research Foundation (WRF) study, Insights into the Use of Uncertain Information in the Water Utility Sector, found that more than half of the 250 professionals surveyed don’t believe they have the understanding they need to gather, use, and share uncertain information (Raucher and Raucher).

State governments can contribute to local understanding, preparation for the effects of, and resiliency to climate change.

A more recent WRF study, 2018 State Survey of Climate Change Resiliency Efforts, reports that states may provide funding and/or technical assistance to water utilities. State governments can promote sustainable management of water resources. In particular, state climate adaptation / mitigation / resiliency plans can provide a comprehensive strategy for better understanding and preparation for more specific impacts of climate change on water resources.

Moreover, commercial software is supporting state and local interagency cooperation and knowledge sharing. The new or integrated data systems can show the bigger picture. Beyond the challenges of one local water utility, this view is necessary to address the true scope of the water resources challenge. Technology like Water Information Systems KISTERS (WISKI) not only consolidates data collected over various county and local agencies. It also standardizes the confidence in the quality of information. The state can also make the analytical tools available to small water systems who lack the resources to modernize their IT.

States leading by example

Leading states have a formal, stand-alone climate action, adaptation, or resiliency plan that features water resource management. And some states have documents such as water supply and/or drought plans.

  • Oregon has multiple state-level plans related to climate change. Its 2017 Integrated Water Resources Strategy takes into account climate change, as required by Oregon Revised Statute 536.220.
    The same policy requires the strategy to be updated every five years. On the other hand, the Oregon Global Warming Commission issues a report every two years to the state legislature.
  • California has a particularly robust plan with a large focus on water resources. Several water agencies are involved. The Natural Resources Agency is required to track progress toward action items in a climate adaptation plan. AB1482 requires an annual report to the Legislature on actions taken to implement the Safeguarding California Plan, which lists next steps, ongoing actions, and initiated or completed programs. More than 60 action items fall under 10 overarching water resource management goals.
  • Minnesota first released The Adapting to Climate Change plan in 2010. Updates were published in 2013 and again in 2017. Additional water resource management goals include groundwater sustainability while additional water supply-related impacts include reduced lake ice cover during winter, more intense rain events with flooding and greater sediment and nutrient loads.
  • Idaho does not have a stand‐alone climate action, adaptation, or resiliency plan. However, its 2012 State Water Plan has a section on climate variability.

No state tracks progress related to specific water resource resiliency benchmarks, but state‐level climate change resiliency efforts will likely increase and improve over time.

Of note, no state has specific requirements of water or wastewater utilities connected to its climate adaptation plan. No statue mandates vulnerability assessments, submission of climate change adaptation plans, or implementation of adaptation strategies.

KISTERS software supports water resource management in the states of Oregon, California, Minnesota, and Idaho. At the time of the survey, Missouri had neither a climate plan nor other water-related plan. But the Show-Me State had recently implemented KISTERS environmental data platform to move toward a more integrated water resources strategy. The Department of Natural Resources is seeking more efficient management and in-depth analysis of information pertaining to hydrology, water quality, and biology.