Amid Climate Change Worries, the Question: What to do With Too Much Water?

Three-quarters of the water industry finds aging infrastructure to be top concern, even as floodwaters continue to rise
Jun 17, 2019 9:00 AM ET
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If ever communities and regions needed to rethink their defenses against too much water, the footage of an inundated Upper Midwest offered the latest reminder in early 2019.

Not yet two years since Hurricane Harvey inflicted more than $100 billion of damage from catastrophic flooding in Houston and southeast Texas, record snowfall followed by a quick melt-off in America’s midsection proved ruinous. Unprecedented floodwaters submerged farmlands, wastewater plants and federal Superfund cleanup sites, and more than a million private wells from the Canadian border south to Kentucky were threatened with chemicals, sewage and pathogens.

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Water, water everywhere. And with the troubling prospect of more of it in coming years, concerns over climate change and its effects are deepening, from more frequent extreme events in the Midwest to rising sea levels affecting low-lying areas vulnerable to coastal flooding.

Some communities are taking action, making the needed holistic investments, with Charleston, Fort Wayne and Dallas as high-profile examples of cities turning to massive, deep large-diameter tunnels that divert and contain excess stormwater. It’s a matter of resilience, and hundreds of water industry representatives surveyed for Black & Veatch’s 2019 Strategic Directions: Water Report say they’re paying heed.

Aging infrastructure still dominates the discussion, yet a pressing question lingers: How can water utilities and those entrusted to oversee them do more, sometimes with less, to mitigate against mega-storms already proven to outmatch legacy conveyance and storage strategies?

The short answer is that it’s a mixed bag.

Consistent with past years, concerns over aging assets continue to command the conversation, with three- quarters of respondents naming aging water and wastewater infrastructure as the most challenging issue facing the industry today.

Diving deeper, two-thirds report preparing for physical security threats — everything from vandalism, and theft, to wildfires, storms, flooding and landslides. When asked separately to identify their most significant resilience concern, roughly six of every 10 respondents cited natural or manmade disaster — virtually tied atop the list with catastrophic failure of infrastructure. One-third chose impacts from climate change, in fourth just behind extended drought and supply restrictions (44 percent).

Getting to the core of resilience requires serious evaluation, and that appears to be happening. A little more than seven of every 10 respondents say they do infrastructure risk assessments, the lion’s share annually or every few years. Yet 15 percent said they don’t do such analyses. Separately, half of respondents deem their organization’s resilience as critical enough to already having developed an approach.

Unsurprisingly, funding — or relative lack thereof — remains troublesome. More than six of every 10 respondents say they get no outside sourcing for resilience-related efforts. Just 29 percent report that their resilience pursuits are covered by general funds and some matching state and federal funds.

Even then, as a reflection of concern over aging assets, 42 percent responded separately that they typically budget more toward maintenance of existing infrastructure instead of building new.

Simply put, it’s a balancing act of pressures between when to simply repair existing infrastructure or take the plunge and modernize — and, of course, where to find the money for it. Resolving that may require something paramount: viewing and resolving this dilemma more as a regional one than that of a single community, understanding that the broader approach brings economy of scale, enhanced influence with federal decision-makers about funding mechanisms and simply the societal value of having wider peace of mind.

On the funding front, the federal government has opened some of its purse strings, lately through the bipartisan America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. That law authorizes billions of dollars to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build, expedite, modify or study several megaprojects in coastal communities and more than 100 water resource projects around the nation. There also are significant measures that will increase water conveyance and storage in the West, replenish shorelines in the East, build new dams in the Front Range and manage flood risk across the country.

But many flood-prone communities still face the prospect of going it alone, often turning to increasingly popular tunneling-based solutions that, after the significant up-front costs, generally require the least maintenance. Tunneling-based solutions — described by Black & Veatch as a $6-billion-a-year business in North America and at “critical mass” — also don’t require significant land or urban disruptions to build. Tunneling is environment and ecosystem friendly and adds significant community economic and social benefits, especially when coupled with green infrastructure projects.

Near Houston, which before Hurricane Harvey had what had widely been considered an already robust regional flood-management system, Harris County’s flood-control district is getting an approximately $400,000 federal grant for a four-month study of the feasibility of tunnels to whisk stormwater to Houston’s shipping channel. That’s in addition to the district’s work on projects underwritten by a $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters last summer.

In Charleston, crews are in the homestretch of a nearly $200 million quest to finish work on massive drainage tunnels capable of moving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a minute off a swath of the city’s peninsula, where other such projects are planned. That’s part of a regional discussion about transformative infrastructure — and the virtues of being proactive.

Tunneling projects also are forging ahead from Fort Wayne in Indiana — at a price tag of $188 million — to Dallas, where that flood risk mitigation and management effort is expected to cost $207 million.

Solving it all will take a holistic view of how budgets for operations and maintenance and for capital improvements like “future-ready systems” are prioritized, viewing everything through a prism of risk. Wisdom also shows in building to meet the hydrologic needs of tomorrow — not the historical record — while appreciative that climate change means the next half century isn’t likely to look like the past century.

“This is something that has to be done,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared to reporters and members of the state’s Floodwater Commission during their tour of the Charleston tunnel system in February 2019. “The cost of not doing it is astronomical.”

Therein lies the quandary for water utilities grappling with resiliency amid expectations of brutal, repetitive weather and coastal catastrophes tied to climate change on the horizon.