Climate perils rise for U.S. water utilities

Drinking water disasters across the United States in recent weeks magnify vulnerabilities in the nation’s water supply network as operators grapple with record droughts and floods that can knock out aging systems for weeks.

From Jackson, Mississippi, to Puerto Rico and beyond, a former senior federal official who oversaw the nation’s emergency response says America’s water systems are using outdated flood data and are not preparing for a more dangerous future.

During a House hearing earlier this week, Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2009 to 2017, recalled how he responded to flood-related drinking water crises in Nashville, Tennessee. , and Columbia, SC, during his tenure at the agency. And he warned that more communities are on the brink of disaster.

“These are just the tips of the iceberg,” Fugate told the House Homeland Security Committee.

Most drinking water systems that rely on surface water, he said, were built on the basis of a so-called 100-year floodplain, which he says is an “abuse of language” which comes from the National Flood Insurance Rate Maps of Special Risk Areas. The terminology, he said, is misleading because the risk was based on historical averages looking back 100 years, rather than looking forward to account for increasingly dangerous and record-breaking storms and floods.

Fugate’s comments echo a report from the Government Accountability Office last year which found that federal maps showing the areas of the country most at risk of flooding were misleading and did not reflect hazards such as heavy rains. and climate change (climate wireOctober 26, 2021).

“We had five 1000-year events in five weeks,” Fugate said. “Not only do we have aging infrastructure, which the EPA estimates has about $750 billion worth of repairs, but many of our water treatment plants across the country are increasingly exposed to these floods. extreme rainfall, as they were built within the last 100 years.”

Fugate pointed to the disaster that struck Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, last month after its water system was submerged by floodwaters from the Pearl River. City officials attributed the plant’s problems to a combination of overdue maintenance, insufficient staff, a change in chemistry as the facility was submerged in floodwaters, and infrastructure issues. for a long time linked to the demography and political power of the city (green wire, September 7). Jackson, a Democratic-run city, is nearly 82% black, with a poverty rate of nearly 27%, slightly higher than the rest of Mississippi, according to the Census Bureau.

Another disaster is unfolding in Puerto Rico, where authorities are struggling to restore power following Hurricane Fiona, which left more than 3 million people without power to run filtration systems or electric pumps. necessary to provide potable water for drinking, bathing and flushing the toilet. (thread of energy, September 21). Five years ago, a hurricane devastated American territory and killed just under 3,000 people.

Fugate said threats are increasing to water systems and small communities and communities of color lack the resources to maintain operations while grappling with threats of flooding in some places and drought in others.

“It’s only a matter of time before they fail or we have another disaster,” he said.

A “resilience divide”

As the hearing earlier this week focused on Jackson, members repeatedly asked what other cities or communities might be in a similar position, pointing to lead crises in Flint, Michigan and Chicago, and contamination in Baltimore.

Fugate, who now lives in Florida, said there are a plethora of at-risk communities that haven’t had the necessary investment or upkeep, and the people there don’t have the resources or the know-how to navigate the process of applying for and securing federal grants, calling it a “resilience gap.”

“Where I am in North Florida, the larger communities will likely get the grants,” Fugate said. “Vulnerable communities that are sitting on rivers and streams that will impact their systems, as we saw in 1998 when we had statewide flooding…the ones that were wiped out were the smaller jurisdictions who didn’t have the resources to build higher, and they had a total failure.

Rep. Val Demings of Florida responded by wondering aloud whether Congress was going to be proactive or sit back and wait for the next disaster to strike, likely in an underserved community. “We know that communities of color and rural and small communities have been left behind and excluded from the process,” Demings said. “The question today…is how to solve this problem.”

The threat has long been simmering under the watch of the federal government. In 2020, the GAO released a report urging the EPA to identify technical assistance providers and create a network to help water utilities build climate resilience into infrastructure projects. The federal watchdog also called on Congress to consider requiring that climate resilience be integrated into the planning of all drinking water and wastewater projects that receive federal financial assistance.

Fugate echoed those recommendations and called on the House committee to ask agencies like the EPA and FEMA to conduct a risk assessment of existing drinking water facilities based on increased risk. flooding and aging infrastructure to identify vulnerable communities. He also said these reviews must take into account past actions that have resulted in a lack of investment or barriers to federal funding at the local level for repairing and upgrading drinking water systems.

Federal regulators, Fugate added, need to focus on how much water it will take before a water treatment facility fails, whether in inches or feet. This, he said, will help populate a “triage list.”

“I would start with a triage list, bring all the agencies together and say, ‘Can we find a yardstick to measure against water systems?’ “, did he declare. “If the water goes out in the town of La Crosse [Wis.]not only do they have no drinking water, but they also have no firefighting water.

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