Sustainability and Resiliency Planning for Water Utilities

An unprecedented year of natural disasters has brought the need for long-term planning into focus

By Gary Naumick, Vice President, Engineering

From hurricanes to flooding, earthquakes to wildfires, 2017 has seen some deadly natural disasters. This year, devastating hurricanes wrought havoc across the Caribbean islands, the Florida peninsula and the Texas coastline, while tragic fires swept through Sonoma County, Calif. These events have created a renewed focus on business continuity planning and emergency response for utilities.

During a significant natural disaster event, a water utility’s level of preparedness can mean the difference between temporary inconveniences and serious health and environmental consequences. Water utility preparedness can greatly impact how quickly communities can recover from an emergency.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, the U.S. has sustained 218 weather disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. As of October 2017, there were 15 weather disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States, tying the record year of 2011 for the most (15) billion-dollar disasters for the year to date.

We are experiencing greater climate variability now than in the past. Expertise in managing past variability can prepare a utility to manage future changes, which is particularly important since climate change impacts are expected to increase in the future.  Managing physical climate change risk means incorporating projections about future water availability and impacts on infrastructure, under anticipated but uncertain changes in climatic conditions.

One of the major challenges facing the water and wastewater industry in the United States is the age of its infrastructure. With the latest results from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, it’s clear the nation cannot ignore our deteriorating drinking water/wastewater infrastructure. ASCE recently gave the grades of D for water systems and D+ for wastewater systems. This remains in line with the last few reports, and heightens the sense of urgency to take actions that will turn around the condition of this often-overlooked category of infrastructure.

The price tag for the critical upkeep and replacement of the nation’s outdated water systems is at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years, per American Water Works Association estimates. While this financial challenge is significant, there are solutions, including public/private collaboration. American Water has put plans into action to upgrade our systems and infrastructure, investing more than $1 billion annually to ensure continued reliability.

The challenge is not only to renew this infrastructure but to do it in a way that will make it more resilient to future impacts from climate change.

For example, early morning on Oct. 9, California American Water’s Larkfield water system near Santa Rosa in Sonoma County was severely impacted by the Tubbs Fire. Over 600 customers lost their home and businesses in the 2400 customer system.  Most of the district was evacuated and the entire areas was without electrical power. The fire also damaged storage tanks and a pumping station. Because of this damage and uncertainty about damaged services in the heart of the devastation, the company advised remaining customers in this service area to stop all consumption of tap water. The Larkfield team spent the day ensuring water was available for firefighting needs and then began to assess damage and restore the system integrity with the help of California American Water employees from other areas of the state.  As customers were allowed to return into the evacuation zones our team was able to complete a full spectrum of water quality tests and lift the Do Not Consume order as test results came back showing good water quality.  We are now moving forward with the community we serve to rebuild the community and its infrastructure in a sustainable manner.   

Capital investment to harden key facilities can help utilities minimize the impact of extreme events.  However, having up to date operational response plans and procedures is also a key part of a utility”s “toolkit” for maintaining or restoring service to its customers. .  It is also very important to have a network of resources to help improve resiliency. Just as power utilities have learned the benefit of bringing resources from outside the state during emergencies, so have water utilities. Building a network allows you to tap into a large number of qualified staff, vendor relationships, materials, equipment and contractors.

Resiliency needs to be a high priority for water utilities. Whether the new normal is from changing weather patterns and global warming or just cyclic variability, experience in extreme weather events has proven that we all need to do more to educate the public that to maintain their quality of life requires continued capital investment and constant planning.

A water utility’s goals are to protect public health and ensure service continuity for the customers and communities we serve. Service reliability has been and will always continue to be a key parameter in the planning and design of all water and wastewater systems. The bottom line is, the better prepared you are, the better the outcome.

Gary A. Naumick is Vice President of Engineering for American Water, the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company. In this capacity, he is responsible for the strategic planning, management, and delivery of American Water’s capital program of over $1 billion annually.  Mr. Naumick and his team are also responsible for the development of comprehensive asset plans for American Water’s 200+ water and wastewater systems. He may be reached at

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