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Water and sewer utilities are on the front lines as local governments grapple with severe weather, natural disasters and other climate-related fallout.
Water utilities in cities around the U.S. are taking steps both expected and unusual to adapt to climate change, from buying up land to prevent development to having truck drivers take rescue swim classes so they’ll be better prepared to carry out their duties during floods.
The measures underscore the costs and complications some local government agencies are confronting as they prepare for rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather.
“We’re approaching climate resilience as really the next hurdle that we all need to face,” Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, said during an online seminar that the U.S. Water Alliance held on Tuesday.
Shafer noted that 2019 was on track to be one of the wettest years on record in the Milwaukee area. The sewage district serves about 1.1 million people across 28 municipalities, managing both sanitary sewer flows and stormwater runoff.
A network of huge, 17- to 32-foot-diameter tunnels that came online in the 1990s helped the agency reduce annual sewer overflows from an average of 50 to 60 to around two.
But Shafer explained that the district, which has flood management authority in Milwaukee, is still looking for ways to cut down on the amount of water that gets into the system.
The agency has torn out the concrete lining some local riverbeds. Installed in the 1960s to channel water, the concrete was meant to help with flood control. But it actually increased flood risks and other hazards. It’s been replaced with natural materials, like rocks and vegetation, which allow for more water to be absorbed. Sections of river also have been widened to slow flows.
Removing the concrete promises to cut down on the water that might spill from the river and into the sewer during wet weather events, while also improving wildlife habitat.
Shafer also described how the district has acquired upwards of 4,000 acres of land to put into conservation easements, turning it over to others to manage. “We keep this land from being developed in the future,” he said. “This is floodplain property, wetlands.”
Related to these land conservation efforts, the district has planted over 100,000 trees.
John Sullivan, chief engineer for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, said precipitation, coastal storms, and sea level rise are among the chief climate-related concerns for his agency and the city. “We have been experiencing extreme tides,” Sullivan said.
“We’ve had water come up on the streets,” he added, noting that flooding has occurred in places where models predicted that it would. Parts of Boston are built on filled-in wetlands and coastal areas. “Nature is going to come and take back its land,” Sullivan said.
Working with the city, Sullivan says that the Commission envisions seawalls and other infrastructure that will protect the city at times when the water gets high, but otherwise won’t impede how people now enjoy and use areas in Boston that are near the water.
Getting buy-in for these sorts of projects is important, Sullivan said. “We're going to be using public money to build all this,” he added.
With this in mind, the Commission has turned to mocked-up photo images of what actual scenes on Boston streets would look like under projected flooding scenarios. One image he shared showed cars and the lowest floors of buildings near Boston’s famous aquarium submerged.
“We’re trying to show them that you’re not gonna go home tonight when this happens,” he said.
Voters in Harris County, Texas where Houston is located, last August approved a $2.5 billion bond package to help pay for flood mitigation infrastructure. The vote occurred about one year after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in the area.
On this year’s ballot, Texas voters statewide overwhelming backed a constitutional amendment to create a state flood infrastructure fund to help finance projects.
"I think the state has recognized that some municipalities can’t do it on their own," said Yvonne Forrest, deputy director of Houston Water, as she discussed funding issues.
Forrest in her remarks during Tuesday’s event also highlighted some of the more practical issues her agency can have to deal with when flooding and other natural disasters strike.
For instance, she noted the benefits of having a complete asset list for the agency’s facilities and equipment to help with insurance claims, and when getting assistance with equipment during emergencies.
“I can't overemphasize how important it is to have your assets listed,” she said.
Each public works employee, meanwhile, has been assigned an “emergency response tier designation” that guides what protocols they should follow in the event of a natural disaster, like whether they should leave the area or report to a certain location.
During flood rescue events in the Houston area, the fire department provides the front line response to help assist people. But public works departments can be called on to provide support with dump trucks. “We have many employees go out and respond,” Forrest said.
Recently, though, she said agency leaders realized that some truck drivers may not know how to swim or may not be prepared to do so while wearing steel toe work boots and their uniforms.
Houston public works, Forrest said, has been working with the local parks department and the YMCA to put on water rescue swim classes for the agency’s dump truck drivers and other staff.
Only a few months ago, in September, Tropical Storm Imelda rolled into the Houston area. In the run up to the storm, the region had been in the early stages of a moderate drought.
“Not a week later, we had the fourth-wettest storm in the state and the fifth-wettest storm for the United States, hit us with virtually no notice,” Forrest said. “My team and I were preparing for a drought and got hit with a record-setting storm.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.