Water Utilities Are Helping Each Other Prepare for Climate Change

As part of our effort to help water utilities build resilience in the face of increasing climate and population pressures, the Texas Living Waters Project is featuring the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA) this September. WUCA is comprised of the nation’s largest water utilities working together to provide leadership and collaboration on climate change issues affecting the country’s water agencies. These utilities have hands on experience planning for and managing water supplies in the face of a changing climate. Heather Dalrymple, climate consultant for WUCA-member Austin Water, discusses below the alliance’s new guide for utilities to integrate climate adaptation into planning efforts.  

Record droughts, floods, heatwaves, and fires have grabbed headlines across the country in recent months. With climate change, extreme events are anticipated to occur more frequently over time, increasing the likelihood that Texas will be impacted.

While water utilities are already skilled at understanding and mitigating uncertainty, climate change adds new risks to already complex practices. As winter storm Uri emphatically demonstrated, water providers now need to be prepared for a broad range of weather events and long-term climate trends.  

Leading Practices in Climate Adaptation

To help guide utilities through this process, the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA), a climate adaptation leader for over a decade, recently released Leading Practices in Climate Adaptation. The guide offers a suite of actions to help utilities in developing and implementing their own climate plans, including:

  • Building institutional capacity,
  • Assessing climate vulnerability & risks,
  • Planning for multiple futures,
  • Communicating effectively,
  • Making investments,
  • Financing & sustaining new organizational initiatives or programs, and more.

While targeted to water utilities, the concepts also apply to other sectors interested in climate adaptation. Since learning from each other can be a powerful tool, each practice is supported by real-world examples from WUCA’s 12 member utilities, including Austin Water.

Located across the country, these utilities have used a variety of regionally appropriate approaches to enhance their adaptive capacity and integrate new climate science into water management and planning.

The Leading Practices Wheel

The guide recommends 43 leading practices, organized into five essential climate adaptation action areas arranged in a circle to emphasize that there is no beginning or end point in climate planning and that all actions are interconnected. The practices are also not prioritized since what is considered most useful and relevant will depend on an organization’s needs and priorities.

While the process typically follows a clockwise pattern, WUCA encourages thinking about all five areas simultaneously. This can help utilities navigate to practices most relevant to where they are in their own process and prioritize their next steps. If progress slows in one area, it may be useful to think more broadly and find support and potential for progress elsewhere, which may break gridlock in unexpected ways.

Where to Begin if You’re Starting Out

While the practices can be addressed in any order, some sequencing is important in beginning the process. Consider starting with the following three steps:

  1. Focus on UNDERSTAND practices since that is the foundation of climate adaptation work, specifically:
    • Know your water system,
    • Foster sustained relationships with the climate science community, and
    • Know your past climate conditions.
  2. Explore your system’s vulnerability to a warming climate by asking, “What does this mean to supply, demand, quality, assets, and key utility functions?” This simple, yet robust question begins a dialogue, creates a critical understanding of system vulnerabilities, helps prioritize initial work, and avoids often expensive and debilitating assessment rabbit holes.
  3. Develop and document a common understanding of your organization’s needs, priorities, and vision regarding climate adaptation, which can then be connected to strategic goals and plans.

These can help with laying the foundation for an effective planning process.

Lessons Learned in Developing the Leading Practices

WUCA also identifies several key points to keep in mind to avoid becoming bogged down and overwhelmed:

  • The process is often more important than the resulting plan. Having an opportunity to encourage conversations about climate adaptation within and across utilities is valuable.
  • Identifying climate champions from across the organization is integral to success. They can contribute diverse expertise & help preserve institutional memory.
  • The science will never be perfect, so learning strategies for making decisions in the face of considerable uncertainty is key to taking climate adaptation action.
  • The perfect can be the enemy of the good. Trying to develop perfect climate adaptation actions may slow progress and prevent necessary learning.
  • Adaptation is an iterative process. Essential actions and practices need to be re-visited over time as they continue to inform and support each other.

More details and the full collection of leading practices are available here.

WUCA also offers a complementary report with guidance on better incorporating climate adaptation into day-to-day utility business operations.

Julie Vano, Research Director at the Aspen Global Change Institute, walked through the WUCA report’s leading practices in her presentation at the 2021 Central Texas Water Conservation Symposium.

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