Green Steps – Climate Resiliency in Water Resource Planning

Jake Cantor – Hazen and Sawyer
NEWEA Sustainability Committee Contributor

A changing climate presents challenges for utilities to provide clean drinking water, treat wastewater and mitigate stormwater impacts. Infrastructure damage resulting from extreme weather and flooding associated with climate change may be costly and can even displace communities, particularly in underserved areas that are more vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change. To better prepare for future climate conditions, community stakeholders, planners, and engineers should consider climate adaptivity among other design priorities. Climate resilient design should include, as a minimum:

  • Assessing the risks and vulnerabilities associated with predicted weather patterns and scenarios.
  • Working with stakeholders to manage associated risks.
  • Developing and executing an implementation plan that reflects and addresses these risks.

As climate change continues to affect our industry, it will be important to understand the value of climate resilient design, know how to incorporate it into the planning process, and take advantage of the resources offered by global, federal, state, and local authorities.

Assessing the Risk of Climate Uncertainties – Available Resources

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To design for resilience, communities must first quantify and assess risks related to the changing climate to determine how to prioritize resilient design considerations. Climate Ready Boston publishes a report that projects climate scenarios for the communities within Boston and the predicted impacts of coastal flooding, extreme precipitation and heat waves depending on different greenhouse gas (GHG) emission scenarios. Using projections such as these, community stakeholders can better understand where the most severe vulnerabilities lie and when they could be at greatest risk. There are many other similar resources to guide communities and utilities through this process. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations that reports the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts on a global scale, and guidelines for climate adaptation. EPA also provides a workbook for developing risk-based adaptive plans that guide users through assessing and responding to vulnerabilities on a watershed scale.

Implementing Resilient Design

Communities and utilities can use their vulnerability and risk assessments as a basis for resilient design. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) performed an assessment of its facilities using results of the Sea, Lakes, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes model, a computerized numerical model developed by the National Weather Service to estimate storm surge heights resulting from hurricanes.  MWRA now requires resilient design considerations in all long-term rehabilitation contracts for operation and accessibility of its facilities. Climate resiliency is also often considered in community planning where projects may focus on improving and maintaining public space. The City of Boston worked to improve public space and protect property in areas of South Boston based on a future climate scenario (9 inches of sea level rise), while engaging residents of the area as a critical part of the planning process. Some government agencies provide specific guidelines for design projects. As an example, the City of Boston developed design guidelines for the protection of public right-of-ways from predicted climate change impacts.

Where to Begin?

Competition for where and how communities invest their limited resources is intense. However, as climate-related risks increase, so should resilient planning and design. Incentives, mandates, and legislation may also change to put further emphasis on this type of work. Massachusetts lawmakers, recognizing a need for more climate-ready planning and design, rolled out the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program that assists cities and towns in Massachusetts with planning and building resilient infrastructure. At the national level, America’s Water Infrastructure Act requires certain utilities to assess the overall resilience of infrastructure.

Times are slowly changing to provide the incentive and legislation necessary to bring climate-ready planning and design to the forefront. As water professionals, it is our responsibility to advocate for the stability of water infrastructure and guide communities to a resilient future based on practical, risk-based measures.

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