America’s infrastructure is failing to make the grade—the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave it a D+ in its most recent Infrastructure Report Card. In fact, ASCE estimates that the United States requires $2.0 trillion in infrastructure investment. Vulnerable to climate change conditions and extreme weather events, our nation’s aging water infrastructure desperately needs attention. This need is spurring high-level discussions in our industry about how to best improve and safeguard our infrastructure for the future, such as those that took place at the recent Resilient Utility Coalition Summit in Miami. The conference brought the global utility community together to identify solutions and corresponding actions that address resiliency challenges.
I was invited to speak at the Summit, and it got me thinking about some of the industry “buzzwords” that we often use —words such as resiliency, sustainability and Envision, and acronyms like UOTF. All of the these represent important components for building better utilities, and I believe that projects focused on these can provide exponential benefit. But in order to better apply the high-level discussions to actual projects, let’s unpack these buzzwords and outline some key ingredients for successful design and implementation of sustainable and resilient projects.
What Are We Talking About?
Resiliency is a utility’s ability to withstand or reduce the effect and duration of a disruptive event. According to Johns Hopkins University, sustainability is the collection of smart and responsible actions that prioritize people, natural resources and finances to safeguard the health of future generations. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) all define a UOTF (Utility of the Future) as a utility using innovative technologies and cutting-edge practices, with a focus on resource recovery, efficiency and sustainability to support more resilient infrastructure. These groups define UOTF in terms of sustainability and argue the UOTF is the way we will drive more resilient infrastructure. In other words, they see sustainability as one of the underpinnings of resiliency.
Envision is a rating system from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure that provides a holistic framework for evaluating and rating the community, environmental and economic benefits of infrastructure projects. Envision features five categories of sustainability criteria: Quality of Life; Leadership; Resource Allocation; Natural World (the use of renewable and non-renewable resources for a project); and Climate and Risk (minimizing emissions and making sure that infrastructure projects are resilient to both short- and long-term hazards). While Envision focuses on sustainability, it’s clear there is also a link to resiliency. Resource Allocation, the Natural World and Climate and Risk all speak to environmental impacts or risks, as well as responsible management of resources. Reducing risks and more effectively managing resources builds more resilient utilities.
Operationalizing Sustainability and Resilience
Faced with the everyday operational challenges that aging facilities and systems present, sustainability and resiliency may seem out of reach. These high-level discussions may remain only as ‘good ideas’, rather than initiatives we can implement. However, many metropolitan areas are realizing just how critical sustainability and resiliency are, including Dallas, Atlanta and Miami. As GS&P partners with these municipalities to meet their sustainability and resiliency goals, we have identified a “recipe for success.” In our recipe, there are four key components to operationalizing sustainability and resilience: public outreach and understanding, identifying risk and vulnerability, planning and preparedness, and identifying available resources and money.
When people turn on the water or drive across a bridge, there’s often very little thought about how those things work. But there are risks to this infrastructure. Public understanding and outreach is critical because the public and staff at utilities must grasp the potential effects of climate change and how infrastructure improvements help safeguard against potential risks. Understanding the importance of the infrastructure and the risks makes the public more willing to pay for these projects. Educating internal stakeholders is also imperative to put these initiatives into, and keep them, in practice. For employees, it is often helpful to illustrate how resiliency and sustainability work together to provide operational and maintenance benefits – which directly and immediately benefit them – as well as larger future benefits. If internal stakeholders don’t buy in the initiatives will never work.
Identifying risk and vulnerability is critical in order to prioritize projects for subsequent funding and regulation. Each infrastructure or utility project faces different issues based on type, size, geographic region and more. As part of an organization’s risk management, it should be identifying the specific present and future risks and compiling a vulnerability assessment. For example, utilities on the West Coast are more prone to fires, mudslides and drought, while those in the Southeast are more susceptible to flooding. Miami has identified risk as a result of sea level rise. The designs for improvements include specific criteria that go above and beyond compliance – they require that resiliency criteria are built in.
Planning and preparedness by addressing risks through the lens of sustainability and resiliency is another key ingredient in the recipe for success. Leveraging the vulnerability assessment, determine what is critical and what is not. After identifying critical infrastructure and what’s at risk, develop a plan to protect it. A capital improvements plan (CIP) can help identify and prioritize specific projects to make that infrastructure more resilient.
Project funding can be a hurdle to operationalizing sustainability and resilience. Our infrastructure needs immense work and the dollar figure can seem daunting. However, if we delay taking action we run the risk of exacerbating infrastructure issues and further increasing these costs, especially given more extreme weather and climate-related threats. We have to make improvements, so why wouldn’t those improvements include sustainability and resiliency? Not only do sustainability and resiliency position us for the future, they can provide immediate operational benefits. For instance, energy management and resource recovery can reduce energy costs while enhancing sustainability and resiliency. Honing in on these benefits help make the case for sustainability and resiliency project funding. Prioritization is also key to securing funding. Revisiting a CIP and evaluating available resources will affect what projects can be implemented. It’s important to review priorities frequently, as we often need to align with governing bodies, economic shifts or even recent severe weather events that will shift emphasis.
Connecting the Dots for Exponential Impact
While there are differences between sustainability, resiliency, UOTF and Envision, these interrelated concepts have similar intent to better our infrastructure. Practically, that means that when we place a focus on these within our projects, they can be incredibly impactful. While improvements may be expensive, by implementing projects focused on resiliency and sustainability, we can begin to address not only critical short term infrastructure issues, but also secure our water infrastructure for the future.