Climate Change and the Water Industry
Climate change is affecting weather patterns and the world’s ecosystem and, in particular, posing serious challenges to the world’s water supply. Climate change is having a profound effect on how communities can reliably access clean water, causing poor water quality and scarcity and putting significant stress on the water infrastructure,
For US water providers, addressing the impact of climate change will require: finding solutions to maintain adequate levels of water supply to communities; ensuring high standards of water quality in the face of droughts or flooding; and balancing the need for infrastructure improvements while keeping this vital resource as affordable as possible.
Climate change generally refers to changes in average temperature, precipitation, and weather intensity. Climate experts agree that the main cause of global warming is the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While a certain level of greenhouse gases are essential to maintaining the temperature of the earth, higher levels raise the earth’s temperature causing climate change.
Global warming affects water sources in three general ways: changes in annual rainfall; increases in sea levels; and increased runoff which results in decreased raw water quality. Climate change can alsocan affect the nation’s already compromised water infrastructure. Specifically, buried pipes become more prone to cracking as a result of greater soil movement due to flooding and droughts. This results in leaking pipes, which causes unnecessary water loss while compromising water quality.
The United States is already seeing changes in the frequency of severe weather conditions, such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes, which have adverse impacts on the nation’s water supply. The disruption caused by hurricane Sandy on water and power systems along the East Coast only serves to heighten the concerns about climate change. This water-energy nexus means that both the electrical and water infrastructure must be protected to maintain adequate service.
Each weather event raises the question…is it “climate change”, or is it just freak weather? There is, in fact, a difference between climate variability and weather, and according to NASA, that difference is time. Weather is short-term, and climate “change” is a long-term, typically 30 year, span. There are two approaches that can be used to address climate change: 1. Utilities can adapt and plan for the effects of long-term climate variability, and 2. Utilities can work to mitigate current contributing factors where possible.
Sandy gave us a hard reminder of the immense power of water. There are many uncertainties associated with changing climate patterns and its impact on water, but there is little doubt that climate variability could seriously disrupt water quality and supply unless we respond with adequate planning and risk assessment. The bottom line is that communities, no matter how large or small, need to come together to better plan around both climate variability and weather.
One of the most basic ways to offset the effects of climate change on the nation’s water supply is to continue to conserve water and develop new water conservation strategies. Among the most basic, but fundamental, solutions are improved leak detection & repair and investment in infrastructure.
Climate change will result in some areas of the country receiving less water in the future. These areas will need to find new water supplies when conservation alone cannot bring supply and demand into balance. Two rapidly developing solutions for alternative supply include desalination and water reuse.
Utilities also contribute to the global warming problem through their energy use. The technology used for advanced water treatment processes is energy intensive, meaning treatment plants contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, creating an unfortunate link between improved water quality and climate change. Impaired water quality due to climate change, reuse or desalination will require the increased use of advanced water treatment processes that will increase the energy intensity of potable water systems.
As the accumulation of greenhouse gases leads to global warming, water utilities must continue to assess their own contributions and track greenhouse gas emissions to find ways to reduce their impact on the environment. There are a number of strategies for energy efficiency starting with regular energy audits, implementation of renewable solar, wind and bioenergy; use of high efficiency pumps and electrical systems; and application of low energy technologies. .
Global climate change will have widespread implications for water utilities. An important step in addressing the challenges of climate change is identifying ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions and educating customers about these measures. While the water utility industry must demonstrate leadership here, it cannot succeed alone. A unified effort between government, businesses, and consumers is needed to implement near-term solutions and develop broad strategies to address the adverse impacts of global warming on the water industry and the global water supply.
Dr. Mark LeChevallier is director of Innovation & Environmental Stewardship for American Water. Founded in 1886, American Water is the largest publicly traded US water and wastewater utility company. With headquarters in Voorhees, N.J., the company employs more than 6,700 dedicated professionals who provide drinking water, wastewater and other related services to an estimated 14 million people in more than 30 states as well as parts of Canada. More information can be found at www.amwater.com.
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