From The Editor | July 15, 2022

Water Utilities vs. Climate Change: A Plan For Securing Our Future


By Kevin Westerling,

Dr. Stephanie A. Smith

A Q&A with Dr. Stephanie A. Smith

The U.N.’s Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is widely considered to be the world’s foremost authority on what may be humankind’s most existential threat, and this year The Working Group II of the IPCC released its Sixth Assessment Report on the state of the crisis. It reviewed not only the impacts of climate change throughout ecosystems and communities, but also the “capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt.”

It is that ability to adapt — to understand what we in the water industry can do to effect change and protect our future — that drew me to a conversation with Dr. Stephanie A. Smith, an experienced manager, scientist, and entrepreneur whose professional training in microbiology and biochemistry has been the foundation for a career that has spanned academia, contract research, and industry. With the IPCC’s report serving as the backdrop, Dr. Smith, who earned her doctorate in microbiology from The Ohio State University and currently serves as product segment manager for Laboratory Sciences at Xylem, speaks to the urgency of the situation, the points of impact to consider, the role of utilities, and why investing in sustainable infrastructure now is the key to ensuring a resilient and equitable supply of clean water for every household moving forward.

The IPCC recently came out with a summary for policymakers, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.1 What is the significance of the report?

There’s a sense of urgency that makes this report so significant — a report, I would argue, that is the most inclusive and unbiased assessment of climate change that is obtainable today. Over 230 scientists from 65 countries reviewed over 14,000 scientific publications for this sixth assessment report (AR6, as it is called). They have concluded that not only have we run out of time to restore the climate to its preindustrial-revolution state, but also the effects will be felt for centuries or millennia, even if all carbon emissions stopped today. The IPCC had actually concluded that in the prior report (AR5) in 2013, but the AR6 report shows some trends happening faster than predicted in 2013. This pace, if not slowed, will have catastrophic effects for a child you probably know today.

Yet, just as significant is the conclusion that if we take decisive action now, there is still time to prevent the existential threats that models predict.

Are utilities proactively addressing climate change in ways that the report endorses? Do you think the threat is being treated with adequate urgency?

First, what does the report endorse? The IPCC identifies “adaptation options” that include water use efficiency, water resource management, and sustainable management of urban water (which includes, for instance, stormwater management).

Utilities quite naturally strive for operational efficiencies that align with these adaptation options. For instance, some have rate structures that incentivize consumers to use less water at certain times of the day or year. This makes it easier for the utility to predict usage and manage the source with less waste and less energy expenditure. Less energy expenditure will further translate to a reduced carbon footprint.

However, you will rarely hear “climate change” cited directly as a motivation. Rather, these programs are a practical, financial, and political necessity. The targets set by utilities thus fall short of the targets required to reach sustainable development goals outlined in the IPCC report.

Utilities are directly or indirectly an extension of governments, and the climate threat is not met with sufficient urgency by the world’s governments. Governments simply don’t move fast enough. Thus, most utilities are not proactive on climate change adaptation — yet.

What steps need to be taken to understand risk and begin down the path to resiliency?

As illuminating as the IPCC report is, it can be difficult to distill its findings down to a program for an individual utility, because any such program must be rooted in local risks. So where does one begin?

Start with a trade organization and/or regional consortium where you can engage with industry professionals, citizen scientists, and consumers who have the collective power to gather data, assess risk, and educate. Every water professional should belong to one or more of these groups. This is the invaluable layer between policymakers and individual operators — it’s where work gets done at the intersection of operations and policy.

Ask organizational leaders to provide more climate change programs. Better yet, become one of those leaders! Participate in generating data-based risk assessments that the entire community can use — most of our trade groups already have risk assessments you can start with.

The credibility of reports from a trade organization can give utilities the backing to approach both government sponsors and customers with recommendations that will conserve water resources and contribute to infrastructure resilience.

Funding is always a key component to infrastructure improvements. How would you counsel the utility or municipality that claims future proofing is too expensive?

First, it’s a mistake to view climate change preparation as future proofing. Climate change impacts are already here — weather events, stormwater management, combined sewer overflows (CSOs), dangerously depleted reservoirs, and increased risks of contamination. It’s a lot easier to seek funding to solve a problem you have now, rather than a problem in the future, even if that future is highly certain.

Thus, frame climate-related proposals by looking backward, instead of trying to convince sponsors that a problem is looming but not quite here yet. Clarify that these are no longer isolated events, but likely the “new normal.” How much are CSOs costing not just your utility but your city, in the most recent events? What would be the return on investment on an upgrade in some component of the system, when weighed against those costs? Look not only at financial, but also human — and therefore political — impacts.

Is it only certain areas at risk — e.g., water scarcity in the U.S. West — or do climate impacts run broader and deeper? Please explain.

One of the challenges of the climate impact message is that most people associate it with big events, like wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the Southeastern U.S., and “superstorms” in the Northeast.

But we are all experiencing climate-related effects, and there is a direct link between climate change and some of the most insidious problems faced by water resource and utility managers, such as:

  • Harmful algal blooms.
  • Erosion and sedimentation.
  • Stormwater (and all the problems it brings, like CSOs).

This short list of interrelated issues brings with it a whole host of additional issues. Erosion and sedimentation, for example, facilitate the introduction and transport of contaminants like coliform bacteria and heavy metals from industrial pollution.

Such impacts disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and underrepresented populations. One needs to look no further than the dangerous lead and bacterial exposures of Black families in Flint, MI, from 2014-15 as evidence of what is sometimes termed “environmental injustice.”

Thus, in addition to engaging with trade organizations, water resource managers need to understand their communities at home and make sure that the entire population they serve will be considered when decisions are made.

How can cities and utilities plan for climate change without knowing exactly how their region will be affected?

One doesn’t need to be very exact. A manager likely already has clues as to how their service will be affected. That’s because, as mentioned above, climate change is a now problem, not a future problem.

I would advise utilities look at their top three challenges today, and simply evaluate if those problems are likely to get bigger, smaller, or stay the same as climate change marches on. Did you have a threatening storm event in the last 10 years? Do you think that is more likely or less likely to happen, based on climate models? How will that affect your operation and stakeholders if it happens every five years?

How does climate change impact “upstream” facilities and services you depend upon? This is an often-overlooked part of planning. COVID-19 has given us a bit of primer on this. I don’t think any of us foresaw the effects of a compromised supply chain, for instance. Those logistical networks are an example of something that likely will be affected by climate change, too. How will this affect you and your customers?

What is needed to get to the root of the problem?

It cannot be said enough: we must reduce carbon emissions. Please identify every opportunity your utility has to do so. The good news is that virtually every municipality has built-in financial incentives to reduce energy consumption and fix leaks, which are one of the biggest contributors to waste. Less waste will translate into less energy use, which reduces emissions.

A lot of the technology we need is already available. Wind, solar, and other alternative energies are becoming more affordable, and many utilities are using hybrid or electric vehicles. But there is always more that can be done on the technology front, and utility and academic collaborators must not only drive the next generation of solutions, but also figure out how to make solutions affordable and widely accessible.

Regarding regulations, we of course need climate-aware policies and incentives, and it’s likely we’ll see more unpopular actions like increased rates for water usage. However, I part ways a bit with many other professionals who are promoting new regulations to address climate change.

That’s because a lot of the regulations we need are already in place. The real challenge is threefold: lack of enforcement, carte blanche exemptions for powerful companies and industries, and the ever-increasing demand for resources due to massive population growth. Why have more regulations if you can’t put any teeth behind them, or even assure that they are consistently applied?

Are there any examples you can point to of who is getting it right?

There is collective action being taken by water professionals in some regions, and I think the entire world will benefit from what is learned and invented in those cases. My favorite example is the “Net Zero Routemap”2 produced by Water UK. They have laid out a comprehensive, aggressive plan for reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, 20 years ahead of the commitment of the governments of the U.K. The published report is a primer for the types of actions that can be taken. I encourage all water professionals to take a look at it.

The One Water initiative of the US Water Alliance has a Net Zero Plus3 report that sets targets for 2050, so it is not as aggressive as Water UK’s approach. In spite of this, something the US Water Alliance is doing very well is promotion of equitable policies and practices, which is a cornerstone of their approach. Their Imagination Challenge is a great program to get the generation that will deal with the consequences involved in finding technology solutions for climate change. The Imagination Challenge is also an opportunity for water utilities to collaborate and participate!

Finally, I commend some specific regions like Southern California, where water restrictions are being enforced in the face of water scarcity. While such programs and their implementation surely have room for improvement, what I admire is the boldness of the action itself, in the face of enormous political backlash. How these programs play out in cities like San Diego is something that all utilities need to pay attention to.