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Water utilities adapt to climate change

July 16, 2018

Nation’s largest water providers and their integrated water data systems are taking into account climate science, better positioning both residents and businesses in resilient cities.

Under 21st Century water security initiatives, water managers across the U.S. who represent cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia and New York City face a greater urgency to better protect water supplies and improve water management decision-making than their predecessors.

The need to construct new infrastructure that would increase water storage capacity is an obvious lesson learned from California’s five-year drought, but hydromet managers at Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) will affirm it’s not enough.

During the 2008-2016 drought, the absence of rain and the significant number of 100-degree days caused key reservoirs for the City of Austin to lose more water each year due to evaporation than actual use by Austin Water customers. Accurate monitoring data and analysis of gridded evaporation data aided in short-term responses to the drought in addition to the formation of a long-term framework to incorporate climate information into water planning.


historical context of data is critical to understanding risk and deviations from normal


The impacts of climate charge aren’t limited to drier, hotter weather. Climate-related extremes are also occurring as more frequent and bigger rainstorms over the Midwest region and in particular, the Minneapolis – St. Paul area. In addition to heavier rainfall, accelerated rates of snowmelt make springtime flooding more unpredictable. Twin Cities water districts, state agencies in Minnesota and Missouri, and soil researchers in Iowa have intensified their analyses with the same powerful analytics platform for greater computing, statistical and graphing options.


COTUS map of estimated average yearly change in peak flow of water measured by USGS stream gauges from 1917 to 2017


From a statistical perspective, frequent reports of “500-year” flood events remind us how little data are available. Flood control professionals cite the oldest rainfall measurements roughly cover the past 150 years. Systematic record-keeping began after notably destructive floods. Long-term data management and efficient value-added data processing executed within well-developed water information systems are now more critical to identifying vulnerabilities, reducing risk and adapting effectively.

Resilience has multidisciplinary factors, such that today’s water utilities are assessing challenges and finding solutions to known and unknown problems in a holistic way. Water districts are better coordinating data to inform the use of reservoirs for supply, flood control, power generation and public recreation. Furthermore, several clients have established water quality surveillance and response systems to protect clean, safe water supplies.


Under routine conditions, eliminating duplicate data entry and manual processing improves operational efficiency… but stakes are higher. How reliably can my utility indicate a contamination incident with a number of false positives?

Early and quick detection of water supply contamination events are accomplished through the integration of multiple data streams as well as the automation of quality assurance / quality control and alerting protocols. Response to a broad spectrum of contaminant classes throughout the distribution system is achieved with additional integration of GIS applications, laboratory information management systems (LIMS), and consumer complaint systems which are synthesized behind streamlined monitoring dashboards that support decisive action.

As populations continue to grow, contaminants of emerging concern increase, and more volume and new formats of data are collected, water utilities rely on a flexible system architecture which expands to changing storage and processing demands. Rapid query options of both measured data and meta data enhance abilities to investigate and respond to waterborne contamination, while web services improve cross-jurisdictional coordination during response.

Concurrent to the use of these advanced water information systems, resilient water utilities are increasing investments in human capital and in-house analytical capabilities. Professional development of technical and managerial expertise among staff and within the industry builds capacity to identify and assess climate risks to water systems. In addition, comprehensive exercises are used to practice and continually evaluate consequence management plans.

No single approach to best prepare water systems to adapt to the critical effects of climate change presently exists. Water utilities will continue to work closely with engineering firms as well as state and national experts to understand, model and monitor potential changes to water quantity and quality. To support the ongoing exploration of innovative approaches that sustain future supply, KISTERS is committed to developing open standard IT solutions that keep water data open and transparent.