Feds Advised to Incorporate Climate Resilience into Water/Wastewater Facilities

Tom Johnson | February 18, 2020 | Energy & Environment, Water
After Sandy, New Jersey addressed climate change but has only recently looked beyond it, making ability to bounce back after extreme weather equally important
Credit: Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay
Flooding can overwhelm water/wastewater facilities; climate resilience can be key to recovery.

Congress should consider requiring that climate resilience be incorporated in planning for federally funded water infrastructure projects, a new study from the U.S. General Accountability Office concludes.

The 91-page study made public last week found federal agencies do not consistently include the consideration of climate resiliency when handing out billions of dollars in funds to drinking-water projects and wastewater treatment projects.

Extreme weather related to climate change threatens utilities and other facilities that produce drinking water and treat wastewater, the report found. In 2017 alone, it cost the federal government over $300 billion to repair damage resulting from climate- and weather-related events, according to the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Sandy gives NJ a taste for tomorrow

New Jersey already has experienced widespread outages of key water facilities during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Outages at nearly 100 wastewater plants led to billions of gallons of raw sewage flowing into New Jersey’s waterways. More than three dozen boil-water advisories were issued, after drinking water facilities lost power in the storm.

“The likelihood of these events will increase over time as U.S. climate continues to change, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment,’’ the GAO report warned.

After Sandy, the Christie administration ordered utilities to take more than 100 steps to increase the resiliency of their facilities, but incorporating the ability to adapt to climate change was not among those mandated actions, much to the distress of some environmentalists.

In January, however, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order directing the state Department of Environmental Protection to integrate climate-change considerations, such as sea-level rise, into its regulatory and permitting programs, including water supply and wastewater permitting and planning.

In signing the order, the governor cited a study released last fall by Rutgers University and the DEP that found sea-level-rise projections in New Jersey are more than two times the global average. Another study by the Rhodium Group projects annual potential loss to New Jersey from hurricane-related wind and flooding has increased between $670 million and $1.3 billion, according to the executive order.

High cost of resiliency

The GAO study warned that any efforts to make drinking water and other infrastructure more resilient to climate change will not be cheap. The study projected the cost could run anywhere from $448 billion to $944 billion through 2050, including operation and maintenance expenses.

Those costs also do not include the estimated $744 billion for replacing and repairing existing water infrastructure over the next 20 years, according to the study. While the federal Environmental Protection Agency funds clean-water initiatives through grants, it does not have the authority to require states to prioritize projects that incorporate climate resiliency, the study said.

Previously, reports from the GAO suggested that enhancing climate resilience means taking action to reduce future potential losses by planning and preparing for climate-related impacts, such as extreme rainfall.

Beyond incorporating climate resilience into funding efforts, the report also recommended the EPA establish a network of technical assistance providers to help water utilities incorporate climate resilience into their infrastructure projects.