Existing environmental regulations hamper the ability of water utilities to adapt to climate change, says a leading research foundation in a new report. But, it adds, policymakers have a window of opportunity over the next two decades to aid the sector in preparing for more severe and frequent extreme weather events while also ensuring the delivery of reliable and safe drinking water to customers.
The report, released by the Water Research Foundation (WaterRF), a nonprofit organization that provides research to utilities and public agencies, adds to the growing volume of literature that demonstrates the water sector's attentiveness to climate change, said Rob Renner, executive director of the organization.
"These types of climate issues are important to water utilities because their planning horizons are so long," Renner said. "Because of the length of time it takes to determine future water needs, they identified climate issues a relatively long time ago as something they need to adapt to."
For at least the last decade, Renner explained, water providers have grown increasingly aware that the hydrological data they have long used for water supply projections are being cast into doubt as precipitation and temperature patterns shift due to climate change.
Concern, he said, is greatest in the Southwest, in Florida, and along the East and West coasts, where storage capacity is lowest and water quality sometimes remains low. In addition to raising the specter of diminishing supplies, the report presents several overlapping problems that affect the costs of providing drinking water and the sector's ability to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The pace of climate change and federal regulation may be "out of synch," says the report. Climate change occurs on one time scale, while legislators and regulators set policy on another.
In other words, utilities are looking ahead at the impacts of climate change, while remaining beholden to existing environmental regulations that do not address changing energy and water quality conditions.
Stricter water treatment means more emissions
Producing high-quality drinking water often requires several types of filtration systems, each of which increases the amount of energy a utility consumes, said Renner.
The foundation projects the cost per unit of energy to rise by an average of 10 percent for water utilities due to new U.S. EPA regulations of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, coupled with other rules for the electricity sector.
Those increased electricity costs are significant because energy typically accounts for the second- or third-greatest expense for a water utility. "Greater and greater water treatment uses greater amounts of energy," Renner said. "Generally, more strict treatment leads to greater greenhouse gases emissions."
Improvements in energy efficiencies and increasing availability of renewable sources will help to offset some of the increased energy cost and reduce the carbon footprints of utility companies, says the report. "We're looking for a more holistic approach, greater flexibility," Renner added.
Greater flexibility for the water utility sector means "balancing" carbon reduction efforts with drinking water standards, he said. Existing environmental regulations require utilities to purify water at levels below certain thresholds for the maximum amount of contaminants in a volume of water.
The foundation suggests that those regulations, primarily the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, should be reconciled with other laws aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, so that utilities can reduce their environmental impact in a cost-effective manner, while maintaining water quality standards.
What that means, in some cases, is loosening restrictions on the amount of contaminants, while remaining within clean water standards, argues WaterRF. Allowing for less filtration of water would mean lower energy consumption and, in turn, lower greenhouse gas emissions.
"It's the triple bottom line," said Renner, referring to lowering economic costs, as well as providing environmental and social benefits.
Higher electricity prices in the offing
WaterRF projects that congressional action on climate change is unlikely to occur before 2014 "at the earliest" and that regulation of greenhouse gases will continue to be accomplished sector by sector through U.S. EPA enforcement.
EPA has thus far targeted power plants and oil refineries for new performance standards due to the large levels of greenhouse gases that those facilities emit. The foundation forecasts that water utilities will continue to avoid greenhouse gas emission controls until after 2020, due to the low level of pollutants that they directly pump into the atmosphere.
WaterRF surveyed several European countries, Canada, China, Australia and New Zealand to determine what the combination of greenhouse gas emissions controls and drinking water regulations meant for water utilities. The organization says that when water utilities in the United States hear talk of climate change legislation, they should think of "higher electricity prices."
Renner and his organization see opportunity as well as challenges in adapting to climate change, though. Policymakers might "invigorate" existing climate and energy regulation, putting them in sync with the threats posed by climate change and the needs of the utility sector.
The foundation is aware of the perception that calls for greater flexibility might be perceived as a Trojan horse, unleashing an erosion of the environmental protections most beloved by conservationists and consumers, and it aims to work with utilities to counter those concerns.
The need for reuse of wastewater
Ben Grumbles, president of the U.S. Water Alliance, said, "Climate change is water change, and it's proving true from coast to coast. It's taken several years for water to get the attention it deserves, but this report focuses on one of most important issues, and that is adaptation."
A former assistant administrator for water at EPA, Grumbles said the nexus of water and energy is a primary concern due to climate change and will force policymakers and consumers to consider new approaches to meeting water demand and reducing environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions.
Among the new approaches is the reuse of wastewater, either for replenishing below-ground aquifers or as a source for drinking water (ClimateWire, Aug. 10).
Grumbles echoed the recommendations of WaterRF for greater flexibility in how regulations are enforced.
"We need to follow up with rich research," he said. "Water utilities have to make difficult choices in meeting Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. There's a lot of energy that goes into reverse osmosis or other high-energy technologies. Flexibility doesn't have to be a rollback in public health protections."
"There shouldn't be a wholehearted acceptance or a wholehearted rejection of these proposals without looking into the specifics," he added.