by Carol Collier, AWRA President
There is a lot of work to do in order to be better prepared for an uncertain future. It takes time to change land use policies or build a new reservoir. The time to get started is now.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about water resource priorities for the near term future. This is driven by three events in my life. I have decided to retire from DRBC next March. Fifteen years in the executive director position is enough for the person and the position! Wanting to stay involved in water resources, I have been developing a list of the greatest water resource needs in my area. The second event was my attendance at the AWRA co-hosted conference on Water for Mega Cities, held in Beijing, which included some staggering facts on the numbers of persons who will be living in cities and the dire situation of water supply and infrastructure in many of them. Lastly, the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force recently released their report on recommendations on how to rebuild the Mid-Atlantic area that was devastated by the storm. Their basic recommendation was to plan for future storms in an age of climate change and rising sea levels.
The emphasis needs to be placed on the word PLAN. For the most part, we have not done a good job recently in planning for our future and that of our water resources. Whether the lack of planning is due to the recession, politics or just being overwhelmed by the problems; the nation as a whole needs to step up our planning for sustainable water resources. Integrated plans that view groundwater and surface water conjunctively and address water quantity and quality should be prepared on a watershed basis at a fine enough scale (HUC 12?) to consider localized impacts. These plans should include assessment of needs (water supply for humans and the environment as well as virtual water needs), (raw and consumptive) over a number of time frames – 2025, 2040, 2060. An assessment of potential water supplies and conservation measures should be completed.
Planners have a pretty good handle on population growth projections, (albeit, less defined the further out one goes), but the tricky part is to include other less well defined drivers of change. How much water should be left in the streams and rivers for aquatic communities, and, of course, the big elephant in the room – climate change. I am a true believer that climate change is and will continue to be a driving force in our management of water resources and glad to see the results of the newest IPCC report. We know that the drought and flood of record for a particular area are likely less severe than we will see in the future. How do we decide what bar to set for our planning process? We need to look at a range of potential scenarios and make changes to develop more resilient systems. What can be accomplished in the short term? What should be done for a “no regrets” policy? Climate change affects both water quantity and quality so potential solutions need to address both aspects.
Lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy also addressed the need for resilient electricity power grids. Water and wastewater plants cannot function when the power is out. The report also cited the need for multiple communication channels and clarifying up front which agency does what. Rebuilding communities after disasters provides opportunity to test long standing hypotheses and make changes to planning assumptions. To increase resiliency, we will be forced to ask difficult questions. Is the existing infrastructure in optimal locations? What is the right mix of green and grey infrastructure projects in an uncertain world? Is there a better way – small wastewater facilities instead of massive regional treatment plants that can dewater watersheds? Are there new manufacturing or power generation technologies that will tax our water resources? Do agricultural crop selection or irrigation practices need to change in drought or flood prone areas?
There is a lot of work to do in order to be better prepared for an uncertain future. It takes time to change land use policies or build a new reservoir. The time to get started is now. My hope is that there will be a national push for water planning and action and AWRA will be there to help you find your way.
AWRA member Carol Collier is AWRA president and executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org