Urban water and sewage systems will need an overhaul to cope with climate change -- study

Urban water and sewage systems will need an overhaul to cope with climate change -- study
By Daniel Cusick
ClimateWire by E&E

Already besieged by stormwater pollution and crumbling infrastructure, the nation'swater systems are also at risk from operational and financial systems developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They fail to address today's greatest challenges, including population growth, rising demand by the energy sector and more climate extremes, according to a new report.

The report, issued by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, American Rivers and Ceres, concludes that municipalities andprivate water systems will need new strategies to cope with emerging problems and threats, such as persistent drought, shifting precipitation patterns, declining snowpack in the West, and peak rain events that can overwhelm water and sewer systems.

"While the deteriorating state of the nation's water infrastructure is not a secret, we have lacked workable strategies and policies to finance the changes needed," said Lynn Broaddus, director of environmental programs at the Racine, Wis.,-based foundation, funded by SC Johnson, the home cleaning andstorage products giant.

"Right now, the very nature of the water industry -- both the wastewater side and the supply side -- is very risk-averse. They very much want to stay with the status quo and pursue water solutions that they understand," like building new reservoirs and pipelines, Broaddus said. "What we need are new mechanisms that better understand the real costs of what we're currently doing and theeven higher costs of not changing our approach."

Such approaches include new engineering, design and construction of water systems that incorporate "green" infrastructure, adoption of closed-loop systems that recycle water, and perhaps most importantly, the abandonment of traditional "siloed" water systems where drinking water, storm water and wastewater are managed independently.

"We have to integrate all water systems to use the 'right water for the right need,'" the report states. "We must start extracting the significant resources (nutrients and energy) found in wastewater rather than discardingthem as waste. And finally, every dollar spent on water infrastructure mustprovide multiple benefits, such as lowering urban temperatures, increasing green space and parks, or creating local jobs."

Inflexible pricing systems

Another major problem, the report concludes, is the "myopic, inflexible water pricing systems that fail to distinguish between various water uses and generally undervalue water."

For example, most water utilities charge a single rate for potable water, but these pricing systems fail to consider that millions of gallons of water consumed by households and businesses is not for drinking, but rather for watering lawns, flushing toilets and showering. As a result, water consumers may be overpaying for certain water uses while underpaying for other uses.

The groups also fault water managers for not recognizing the "unconventional assets" of water systems, including natural features such as wetlands, forests and other landscapes that capture, absorb and filter rainwater.

Sharlene Leurig, senior manager of water and insurance programs for Ceres, said the inclusion of such assets into a utility's planning and financing frameworkswill go a long way toward mitigating the risk of climate change. Thus, floods, droughts and other severe weather events may become less disruptive to water utilities as watersheds are considered as part of the water delivery and collection system.

"We know that that is what climate change is going to look like," Leurig said, noting the rising frequency and intensity of severe weather events both in the United States and globally. "One of the real benefits of lower-impact development and other green approaches is it saves a lot of money. While werecognize that green infrastructure isn't going to be able to handle a 5-inch rainfall on its own, you're definitely better able to cope with these events and with less costs."

Click here to read the report.

Reproduced with permission. Copyright 2012, E&E Publishing, LLC.