Remarks on Climate Change Adaptation

On July 15th, 2010 I had the opportunity to address the White House’s Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force during their meeting in Chicago. Here are my remarks, based entirely on the input we’ve heard through The Johnson Foundation Freshwater Forum:

Good afternoon, and thank you Chair Sutley and members of the task force for the opportunity to speak to you. I’d like to first commend you for taking on this critical issue of climate change adaptation, and leading our federal agencies to ensure we get out in front of this challenge.
The Johnson Foundation recognizes that water – in all its shapes and forms – is absolutely fundamental to the security and wellbeing of our nation. To some extent, water has become invisible to us – especially when, compared historically or to developing nations, ours is relatively clean, safe, plentiful and cheap. Hence we take it for granted, ignore the warning signs, and assume it will always be there for us.
Beginning in 2008, The Johnson Foundation began its Freshwater Forum, convening nearly 200 individuals with varying expertise and experience, to explore the challenges our nation faces with freshwater, with the specific goal of determining what needs to be done to achieve resilience in our freshwater systems and services by the year 2025. This process led to a series of five white papers on the topic, which are now being developed into a National Freshwater Call to Action which will be issued in September.
My comments today are drawn primarily from the sessions we held in 2009, and hence reflect the broad expertise of the scientists, activists, engineers, entrepreneurs, public servants, healthcare professionals and more who put their minds to work on this issue.
First and foremost, let me state what is by now quite obvious to the Task Force. Water and climate change are joined at the hip. They are integrally linked. Climate change will be experienced primarily through water – drought, flooding, earlier snow melt, increased erosion and subsequent pollution, higher demand for water and so on. Conversely, addressing water challenges is key to both climate change mitigation and adaptation.
While this is a deep topic, I will focus my comments on highlighting four specific areas that relate to urban water and climate change adaptation:
  1. Water-energy interface
  2. Water infrastructure
  3. Connection to other infrastructure, namely transportation
  4. Water pricing and economic drivers

Water-energy interface

In most urban areas, water and wastewater treatment operations are by far the single largest energy users. Energy consumption frequently makes up as much as 50% of a water utility’s budget. This is just on the municipal side – point of use water heating uses one third of the natural gas consumed in California. What this means is that our ability to deliver clean water and pump and treat our sewage is extremely vulnerable to disruptions (short or long-term) in energy supply. This makes us unnecessarily vulnerable.
At the other end of the spectrum, our energy supply (including extraction and refinement, as well as cooling for power plants) is enormously dependent on water and hence our energy supply is vulnerable to disruptions in water supply. We’re already seeing problems in some parts of the country (e.g. Georgia, Nevada) where water-cooled power plants are threatened with being shut down during drought.    Additionally, carbon-capture technologies frequently require increased water demand, thus exacerbating one problem while solving another. These are but a few examples, but the recommendations from our convenings boil down to three straightforward points which each tie to urban strategies. We need to:
a.       Reduce our nation’s energy demand
b.      Reduce our nation’s water demand
c.       Plan for and make financing and permitting decisions, for water and energy together
Water infrastructure
Water infrastructure is one of the most pressing challenges relative to climate change adaptation and also one of the biggest opportunities. Water infrastructure includes pipes and treatment plants, but recently the definition has grown to recognize the role of upstream watersheds and green infrastructure (both created and natural), as well as toilets, faucets, etc. The pipes and plumbing of many cities around the country are degraded, resulting in both the wasting of freshwater and contamination of clean water supplies. Combined sanitary and stormwater sewer systems are a particularly egregious problem with implications for human health and the health of aquatic ecosystems.
But there is a silver lining. To quote Chicagoan Rahm Emmanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” While our water infrastructure is limping along beneath our cities, we have an opportunity to do it differently. The current system was built during a time when energy was believed to be in endless supply, and many iterations of technological advances ago. We have a strong bias toward large, centralized systems that use large amounts of energy and frequently dislocate water from its original source. Meanwhile there are now growing opportunities to consider decentralized treatment, on-site rainwater harvest, and even water re-use, as well as much greater achievements in water conservation and efficiency. Our forum participants were clear that one of the barriers to change is the extreme institutional resistance to innovation that exists in the water sector. To the extent that federal progress and incentives can work to change this, that would be great. But the participants felt strongly that the federal government has a tremendous opportunity, perhaps even a duty, to shift the huge federal investments in water infrastructure made through the State Revolving Fund and the Save Drinking Water Act, away from status quo, deep tunnel, big pipe, centralized systems to systems that help us meet multiple adaptation goals. We are pouring vast amounts of money into rehabilitation and expansion of our systems every year, yet not targeting these dollars toward adaptation and resilience goals.
Transportation infrastructure
Anyone who has studied even the basics of ecology has to understand that everything is connected. That carries over to the various pieces of urban infrastructure – they are all connected to climate strategy and to water quality and quantity. In particular I’d like to highlight transportation. The surfaces of roads and parking lots contribute disproportionately to both stormwater pollution and increased flashiness of our rivers and streams. For instance, in the Upper Charles River Watershed outside of Boston, transportation surfaces contribute three times more phosphorus per acre than agricultural or residential areas.
Federal policies and investments can lead the way not only in ensuring we move to more sustainable modes of transportation, but also in ensuring traditional roadways are built and rebuilt to neutralize their impact on water quality and flow regimes.
Water pricing
How we pay, and who pays, for water may not seem like an infrastructure issue, but in actuality it is one of the key underlying drivers we need to reshape. In every area our convenings explored, water pricing came up as one of, if not the key issue at stake. There are many pieces to this, but at its simplest, water services generally don’t account for depreciation or replacement costs, or capture federal subsidies. Many areas actually give financial incentives to use more water. Our participants uniformly lifted up the issue of misplaced price signals, subsidies that undermine our ability to drive conservation, efficiency and adaptation in the water sector. In particular, they are a heavy anchor, holding back our native strengths to allow innovation and entrepreneurship to be the wind behind the sails of climate change solutions.
I have to say this with the very important footnote that pricing reform must be done in a way that is mindful of social equity issues – there are excellent examples of how to do this, but they need to become the norm.
Thank you again for the opportunity to be part of this discussion. As you continue this important work, please know The Johnson Foundation is anxious to do its part. As you see needs for convenings, by all means please let us know how we can be of help. Thank you.
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