Risky Business

Sept. 16, 2014

Preparing utilities for the effects of climate change

About the author:

Dr. John C. Matthews is principal research scientist and the water infrastructure lead at Battelle Memorial Institute. Matthews can be reached at [email protected].

Mary Beth Nevulis is managing editor of SWS. Nevulis can be reached at [email protected].Climate change recently has assumed greater importance for water utilities as more frequent extreme weather events tax infrastructure sooner than expected. SWS Managing Editor Mary Beth Nevulis spoke with Dr. John C. Matthews, principal research scientist and the water infrastructure lead at Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research and development organization, to find out how risk management strategies can help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Mary Beth Nevulis: Why is climate change a risk management issue?

Dr. John C. Matthews: Climate change is a risk management issue for water utility managers because climate change impacts many facets of utility management, from extreme increases in storm water peak flows to the effects of drought on storm water infrastructure. It is important for utility managers to consider these factors in these impacts to their risk management plans, so that they are prepared for the impacts of climate change and their systems are resilient.

Nevulis: How can utilities manage and mitigate the risk and effects of severe weather on infrastructure?

Matthews: Some key actions that can be taken include proactive condition assessment of critical infrastructure assets and the use of green infrastructure storm water management practices.  Proactive condition assessment provides utility managers with an accurate status of assets and can provide warning before critical assets fail, as severe weather (both extreme drought and rain) can increase the burden on infrastructure assets. Green infrastructure has been shown to reduce the burden to buried assets by using natural hydrologic features to manage storm water rather than collecting and piping the water. Other steps that can be taken include allowing for excessive flows during extreme
weather events and ensuring water management facilities are equipped with backup power.

Nevulis: What steps are utilities taking so far?

Matthews: Many utilities across the country now are implementing green infrastructure projects to manage storm water, including many major cities on the East Coast (including Washington, D.C.; New York; and Philadelphia). Other utilities also have long used condition assessment to determine infrastructure condition, but typically in a more reactionary approach due to the lack of information about cost-benefit. Being proactive can help prevent catastrophic failures before they occur.

Nevulis: What are other considerations when preparing systems to withstand the stresses of extreme weather?

Matthews: A key component of system resiliency, in addition to ensuring backup power to water management facilities, is system redundancy to ensure critical assets are backed up in the case of emergencies. Extreme weather events can cause damage to structures and people, and it is critical that water systems continue to function properly, both during the event and after the event during recovery. No matter which region [of the world], a solution will be available if a utility is willing to invest in and plan for it.    

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