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June 2006

New book helps water utility managers grapple with climate change


Kathy Miller and David Yates
Kathy Miller and David Yates. (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.)

Water utility managers now have a primer to help them learn about how climate change may affect the resource they manage.

In a new book titled "Climate Change and Water Resources: A Primer for Municipal Water Providers," Kathy Miller (ISSE) and David Yates (RAL) describe the science of climate change, suggest how it might affect water resources, and offer advice on planning and adaptation.

The book is one of the first to address climate change and urban water utilities together. "The focus is on usable information," Kathy says. "We wanted to make the book very accessible to people from the industry, and to involve them directly in identifying vulnerabilities and options for adaptation."

Kathy and David summarize the best available information about climate change and its implications for the water cycle and availability of water resources. They explain how a warmer climate has the potential to intensify the global hydrologic cycle, leading to an increase in average global precipitation, heavier rainfall events, possibly longer dry spells, earlier snowpack melt, altered storm tracks, and changes in water quality. These changes have important implications for water utilities, which must balance the needs of different consumers, ensure ample supplies in case of drought, and possibly look for new sources of water to serve growing populations.

Some of the questions Kathy and David address are: Will climate change have significant impacts in the near future on water resources and the ability of utilities to meet customer demand? What should utilities do to prepare for risks and opportunities? Do these issues need attention now, or will climate change occur so far in the future that utilities should concentrate on more urgent concerns instead?

The book includes case studies that cover climate change and earlier snowmelt in the Pacific Northwest; shrinking glaciers in Canada; saltwater intrusion into the coastal aquifers of Miami and the Netherlands; water quality in the supply areas for New York City; the vulnerability of Denver's water supplies to the effects of wildfire; and the experiences of water utilities in southern California.

Kathy and David stress that climate change is neither an impending catastrophe nor a myth to be ignored. "Neither of those extreme views provides useful guidance to anyone attempting to make informed decisions about the management of climate-sensitive resources," they write.

Rather, managers must understand how and why climate will change in the future, and how that can affect water resources.

"Utilities shouldn't use the climate of the recent past to plan for the future," David says, pointing out that most utilities only look back 50 years for climate data. "But they also shouldn't use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction."

He adds that water utilities may find themselves under increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions (of which the industry accounts for a large share) while simultaneously adhering to stricter drinking water standards.

The idea for the book began when the American Water Works Association (Awwa) Research Foundation approached NCAR about writing a book addressing climate change and water utilities. An economist and a hydrologist, respectively, Kathy and David are ideally suited to address the cross-disciplinary subject of how a major industrial sector and climate intersect. "It fits with NCAR's mission of science in service to society," David says.

The next step for Kathy and David is to present the water utility industry with approaches and techniques for incorporating climate change into planning processes. "We're trying to come up with a structured process that utilities can use to assess their vulnerabilities and explore options," Kathy says.

Their proposal includes working with specific utilities to implement climate change assessments, developing Web-based resources for generating climate change scenarios for utilities, and holding workshops at NCAR.

by Nicole Gordon

In this issue...

The long wait

New book helps water utility managers grapple with climate change

Katy Schmoll, COMET win awards in May

Climate change meets the arts

Random Profile: Meral Demirtas

UCAR Child Care Center accreditation

Delphi Question: Protecting polyamorous individuals

Just One Look


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