News | October 30, 2009

Report Estimates Climate Change Adaptation Costs, Impacts To Utilities

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and the Association of the Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) released a report recently detailing the impacts climate change can have on wastewater and drinking water utilities and estimating the adaptation costs for these critical facilities to be between $448B and $944B through 2050. The associations, which represent the nation's public wastewater and drinking water agencies, urged Congress and the Obama administration to recognize that climate change is fundamentally about water and to implement policies that will help utilities take timely actions to adapt.

"Now is the time to establish policies, invest in research, and provide support so that water and wastewater utilities can begin to plan the necessary adaptation strategies needed to confront the inevitable impacts of climate change. Timely action is critical — water and wastewater infrastructure planning and implementation operates within a 20 to 40 year timeline," the report said. "Failure to provide a timely response to needed climate change adaptation will have serious consequences for the nation."

Climate change impacts to wastewater and drinking water utilities, which provide critical economic, public health, and environmental benefits, include sea level rise and extreme flooding that can inundate and incapacitate treatment facilities; water quality degradation and increased treatment requirements; water scarcity and the need to develop new drinking water supplies; and lower flows in drought conditions that can affect the operation of treatment facilities.

Adaptation strategies involve integrating aspects of the constructed and natural water cycle through "water portfolio management" that provides utilities flexibility to craft sustainable approaches to suit their specific needs. Water conservation, new water conveyance and storage, desalination, and wastewater reuse are options to help utilities adapt. In addition, green infrastructure solutions that mimic the natural environment can be used to address stormwater flows at a lower cost while providing the ancillary benefits of providing habitat, recharging aquifers, and enhancing water quality.

"This report should motivate policy-makers to think broadly about how climate change will affect the management of our vital water resources," Ken Kirk, NACWA's executive director, said. "If we wait too long, the cost of adapting will only go up, both in terms of the money we will need to spend on physical changes to our facilities and in terms of the impacts to our economy, public health, and the environment."

"This report makes clear that global climate change will not only lead to a host of challenges for American water systems, but also that necessary adaptation measures will stretch the budgets of water utilities to the limit," said AMWA Executive Director Diane VanDe Hei. "In order to maintain water supplies and protect public health, Congress must include adaptation assistance for water systems within any comprehensive climate change legislation it considers."

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NACWA represents more than 300 public agencies and organizations that serve the majority of the sewered population in the United States and collectively treat and reclaim about 18 billion gallons of wastewater daily. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies is an organization of the largest publicly owned drinking water suppliers in the United States.