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The times they are a-changin'...

The impacts of global climate change are becoming increasingly significant and increasingly common. The United States is of course not immune to these changes – as communities across the country are beginning to observe – and the extent of future impacts are only expected to increase. The effect that these impacts will have however, will be a function of not only our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but just as importantly – how we are able to prepare for these changes. On the front lines of this effort to adapt to and mitigate for this looming threat are our nation’s often unsung heroes: Water and Energy Utilities. Throughout the U.S., utilities are taking steps to guard against the danger that climate-related changes pose to the physical, social, and economic welfare of their communities. The recent Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) – a product of the U.S. Global Change Research Program established in 1989 – explores the degree of climate change impacts in the United States currently, the potential future risks, and the work being done to prepare for them now.

No region of the United States is unaffected by “water sector sensitivities to weather -and climate- related events” and according to the NCA, much of the responsibility will fall on communities and their water utilities to get ready for greater “climate variability and change”. Two significant risks facing these communities and utilities and highlighted by the NCA are: one, changes in water quantity and quality and two, deteriorating water infrastructure that is already at risk.

Changes in Water Quantity and Quality

Climate extremes and greater variability will further stress the ability to time water supply and demand while also ensuring water quality. As the NCA notes, “variable precipitation and rising temperature are intensifying droughts, increasing heavy downpours, and reducing snowpack” while groundwater depletion and declining surface water quality (due to increases in water temperature and greater stormwater runoff) will compound these concerns. The following presents a quick glimpse into one of these dramatic changes since just the year 2000:

Depletion of Groundwater in Major U.S Regional Aquifers

Deteriorating Water Infrastructure at Risk

The greater frequency and degree of climate extremes as compared to the 20th century will have an exacerbating effect on our already over-stressed water infrastructure. Generally, risk management has not taken into account these “compound extremes… and the risk of cascading infrastructure failure.” These graphs below from the NCA report demonstrate well -and just in economic terms in this case- these challenges that water utilities will face in the future:

Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disaster Events in the United States

Just as in the water sector, the reliability and security of the nation's energy system hangs in the balance as we confront more frequent and severe weather events associated with climate change. Every component of the energy system -from production, to generation, to transmission, to distribution- will become more vulnerable to these climate-related events, whether that be from flooding, heat waves, drought, or sea level rise. The NCA report highlights these risks, their aggregating effects, and the opportunities to plan for these impacts.

Impacts of climate change on the energy supply, delivery, & demand

Projections indicate that the nation's energy system will be increasingly threatened "by more frequent and longer-lasting power outages affecting critical energy infrastructure and creating fuel availability and demand imbalances." For instance, utilities along the coast are likely to encounter sea level rise and higher intensity hurricanes, threatening the disruption of operations and asset damage. Meanwhile, utilities in the Northwest and Southwest are likely to see changes in water availability due to decreased mountain snowpack and snowmelt timing, threatening reductions in hydropower generation. Indeed, climate impacts will be felt across the U.S. and will vary greatly and in unique ways, largely depending on geographic location. The graphic below illustrates the greatest risks for the different aspects of energy supply, delivery, and demand:

Potential impacts from Extreme Weather and Climate Change

What perhaps is even more concerning, is that when one considers that the nation's energy system is a lifeline for nearly every sector of the US economy, these effects will ripple and extend even beyond just the energy industry. The following diagram shows just how interdependent -and therefore potentially vulnerable- our infrastructure and systems are across the US:

Examples of Critical Infrastructure Interdependencies

Solutions for enhancing the energy sector's resiliency

In response to the risks associated with climate change, the NCA Report identifies a number of mitigation strategies and investment opportunities aimed at strengthening the resiliency and reliability of the U.S. energy system. These resiliency solutions - as they relate to different energy generation technologies, infrastructure, and fuel types- are highlighted below:

Energy Sector Resilience Solutions

The influence and impact of climate-related changes will not only become an ever present reality for many of us, but will also contribute to additional and often unforeseen challenges for Energy and Water Utilities. How climate related events such as floods, heat-waves, or droughts will influence "population movements", "economic fluctuations", or "urban expansions" for example, are additional layers of planning and unpredictability that utilities will now have to contend with. Though they are on the front lines however, utilities should not be solely tasked with taking on these challenges alone. It is in the end, a responsibility that is great, but one that must be shared. As Bob Dylan once said (but perhaps didn't meant so literally):

"Come gather 'round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you

Is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin'

Or you'll sink like a stone"

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