President Obama is reinvigorating the discussion about climate change in his recent inaugural speech and during his State of the Union speech. It’s a little hard to believe, but this is the first time that the issue of climate change has been included in an inaugural address. I thought that the President’s words were sobering in recognizing that 12 of the hottest years have come in the last 15, saying:
“But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.”
It doesn’t really matter whether you believe or not that the climate has been affected by human activities, we have to deal with realities – we’ve seen some pretty weird weather in the last 15 years! Not only 12 years of hot weather; we’ve experienced record droughts within the same 12 months of having record floods. We’ve had major metropolitan areas (Atlanta) and entire states (Texas), and regions (Southwest) have crisis levels in water supplies. This is not to mention Sandy, Katrina, and a slew of devastating tornados, haboobs, and a derecho – even to the extent that my weather vocabulary has dramatically increased!
As prudent stewards of water resources, we believe that all water companies must address the adverse impacts of climate change on their operations as the frequency and severity of the climate-related impacts grow. A water utility must have a long view. The pipe we put into the ground today will be in service 100 years from now. The treatment plant that is built today will still be in service 30 or 50 years from now. It is imperative to consider, even at least the possibility, that climate change will dramatically impact water utility operations.
For water providers, addressing these impacts will require finding solutions to maintain adequate sources of water supplies, ensuring high standards of water quality, maintaining infrastructure improvements, and promoting wise water use; all in the face of droughts and increased flooding. It means integrated water resource planning that considers not only surface and groundwater supplies, but also capturing and harvesting storm water runoff, wastewater reuse, and seawater desalination. All of this while keeping this vital resource as affordable as possible.
As large users of energy, water utilities also have a role in managing and reducing their use of energy which is a contributing factor to climate change. I am proud that American Water was first water and wastewater utilities to join the voluntary USEPA Climate Leaders program (which has been since axed by budget cuts) and routinely reports its performance on green house gas reduction through the Carbon Disclosure Project.
The US Department of Energy was created in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis. The Department of Homeland Security was created after the tragedy of 9/11. Even the USEPA was formed in the 1970s after the environmental disasters and outcries in the 1960s. What kind of disaster will be necessary for the US government to create a “Department of Water”?
The discussion of climate change in a State of the Union speech by President Obama is a good first step, but far more serious discussion about water resources and infrastructure needs to take place. You can start here by providing your thoughts and comments, and you can share them with your family and friends and, importantly, you can let your elected leaders know. We can’t wait to see what of weather the next 15 years will bring us. We need to get going now!