Sustainability And Resiliency Planning For Water Utilities
By Dr. Mark LeChevallier, American Water
Most of our West Virginia American Water team had never even heard the term “derecho” before the summer of 2012. But on the evening of June 29, a 600-mile super storm devastated the state and presented West Virginia American Water with probably the biggest test of disaster preparedness and emergency response in its 126-year existence. The storm left 672,000 homes and businesses in West Virginia (more than half of the state) without power — some for up to two weeks. All but two of the state’s 55 counties sustained some storm damage or power outages, causing the governor to declare a state of emergency.
During a significant weather event, a water utility’s level of preparedness can mean the difference between temporary inconveniences and serious health and environmental consequences. Since many Americans rely on water utilities to provide drinking water and sanitation, water utility preparedness can greatly impact how quickly communities can recover from an emergency.
A distribution crew works in Boone County to replace a 20-foot stretch of 8-inch water main near Racine, WV. The break was likely caused by pressure fluctuations due to the power outage.
During my 28-career with American Water, I’ve witnessed a lot of weather patterns. But, in recent years, American Water has faced extreme weather and climate events, which had significant impacts on our water and wastewater systems. From the 1993 Mississippi River flood, to the 2011 tornado in Missouri and the two 2012 super storms that impacted West Virginia and New Jersey, these experiences have created a renewed focus on business continuity planning and emergency response. When events that were historically considered to be “100-year” events happen more and more frequently, utilities must prepare for a new “normal.”
So obviously, managing water and weather risks are not new to us but we are experiencing greater climate variability now than in the past. However, expertise in managing past variability prepared us to manage expected future change, particularly as climate change impacts are expected to increase over a long period of time. Managing water risk is largely considered “business as usual;” but managing physical climate change risk means incorporating projections about future water availability and impacts on infrastructure, under anticipated but uncertain changes in climatic conditions.
Water variability and climate change have the potential to expose water utilities to operational interruptions and property damage, with implications for the ability to meet the needs of its customers. As a result, systems work to mitigate these risks in a variety of ways. As President Harry S. Truman said, “I believe in plans big enough to meet a situation we cannot possibly foresee now.”
Within the space of a few years, the mid-Atlantic states experienced multiple significant weather events: a December 2010 snowstorm that shut down New York City and coastal New Jersey for five days; Hurricane Irene in 2011; Tropical Storm Lee, an October 2011 blizzard in the Northeast; a June 2012 derecho bringing devastation and power outages from Indiana to New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and D.C.; and “Superstorm” Sandy in October 2012. American Water’s experience of these events created a renewed focus on business continuity planning and emergency response.
First, it’s very important to have a large network of resources to help improve resiliency. Just as power utilities have learned the benefit of bringing resources from outside the state during emergencies, so have water utilities. Through our network, we are able to tap into a large number of qualified staff, vendor relationships, materials, equipment and contractors. No matter what their day job is, our employees volunteered to help in any way necessary; to hand out bottled water, be liaisons with county Office of Emergency Management, or backfill roles for 24/7 events.
For example, after the 1993 Mississippi River flood, American Water was able to bring in personnel from around the country to dry pumps, airlift them to the manufacturer to be rapidly retrofitted, and then re-install them. American Water’s plant was running again in five days, while a neighboring plant was not operational for 30 days. More recently, American Water has implemented an emergency response process in accordance with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) framework. This comprehensive process facilitates better coordination with federal, state and local emergency management agencies.
A generator arrives at a booster station in Hinton, WV. While this particular site is located close to the road, many of West Virginia American Water’s remote sites are much more difficult to access, which was further complicated by downed trees and utility poles and lines.
Second, Hurricane Sandy taught us that we need to build redundancies into our telecommunications systems — something we have never before had to do. We started to use geographic information system (GIS) maps and global positioning system (GPS) technologies in some areas to better position valves and meter boxes out of harm’s way. These systems provide us with information at our fingertips instead of having to hunt for records in file drawers or remote storage. This is becoming more critical as our workforce ages (the knowledge goes with them) and any knowledge not written down can be lost.
Third, planning and risk assessment are very critical for preparedness. A systematic approach to assessing vulnerability of water supply to climate variability is embedded into our engineering planning studies and operational business continuity planning. Our engineering and operations team examines every facility and its regional water availability to develop a capital plan — how much investment is needed, based on a five-year planning cycle, to meet future infrastructure needs — as well as create a 20-year outlook that incorporates estimates of population growth, urbanization rates, and other factors. Business continuity and emergency response plans are also developed or updated to increase the company’s preparedness for addressing climate-related scenarios. Practice pays off for emergency management plans. Plans should identify roles, command protocol, and emergency contact lists.
Fourth, with an expectation of a changing climate, part of American Water’s management strategy requires making projections about future water availability under uncertain and changing climatic conditions. We expect changes in climate and rainfall to exacerbate the effects of existing restrictions on the total available water supply in a region, such as government mandates to maintain minimum stream flows. Anticipating these challenges, American Water is adopting a more integrated management approach to water resources that will expand available water supply options through additional water conservation, water re-use, and wastewater treatment capabilities — an approach that has been implemented by the company only on a sporadic basis in the past. American Water’s integrated water resource management plans look more holistically at the water cycle.
Fifth, support from state and federal regulators is critical for the company to achieve these objectives for water risk management. For many state regulators, especially in water-stressed states such as Texas, California, and Arizona, water conservation is a way of life. Regulators in California, for example, have implemented water “conservation pricing” that decouples the price of water from the amount of water that customers use. Regulators in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, and Illinois are beginning to explore the costs and benefits of water conservation tariffs. For American Water, these policies help achieve our water risk management objectives and help the company communicate with customers about the interaction between conservation measures and water prices.
Lastly, communications are critical for all stakeholders. Because so many customers can be without power for long periods of time during a significant weather event, relying on traditional news media outlets to communicate information at times can be insufficient. Instead, many people today — including emergency responders — turn to social media to communicate with the public through personal smart phones. During the derecho in West Virginia, between June 29 and July 11, West Virginia American Water posted 39 Facebook updates, 41 Twitter messages, and responded to dozens of customer questions and comments via social media. These accounts were highly utilized during this time to communicate updates, dispel rumors, answer customer inquiries and highlight photos of the company’s post-storm efforts.
Resiliency needs to be a high priority for water utilities. Whether the new normal is from changing weather patterns and global warming or some just cyclic variability, our experience in extreme weather events has proved to us we all need to do more to educate the public that their quality of life is not automatic and requires investment and constant planning.
As Mark Twain once said, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” What are some of the ways your utility is trying to change that?