Climate Preparedness Task Force Should Use Water Infrastructure Funding to Protect Communities from Climate Risks

Recent disasters in communities throughout the U.S. vividly illustrate that we’re increasingly at risk from flooding and drought events. Torrential downpours swept across the South earlier this week, causing at least one death and flooding numerous homes, streets, and businesses. More than 60 percent of the West, including greater than 99 percent of California, now is facing drought conditions. In response, several communities in California have enacted mandatory water restrictions and some farmers have had to fallow land.      

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Uvas Reservoir, Santa Clara, CA | Don DeBold

These types of events are likely to only grow more dangerous and more costly as climate change drives temperatures higher, makes precipitation more extreme, raises sea levels, and increases the power of storms. These escalating climate risks threaten public health, affect water availability and quality, and put homes and infrastructure at risk. Fortunately, there are solutions we can put into place to better protect our communities and critical infrastructure systems from these threats.

President Obama’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness is in the process of compiling recommendations from its members on how the federal government can remove barriers, modernize grant and loan programs, and develop tools to help communities deal with the impacts of climate change. To aid this effort, we provided recommendations to task force members on how EPA’s State Revolving Funds (SRFs), which have enabled states to provide more than $109 billion dollars in low-interest loans and grants to communities to maintain and upgrade critical water infrastructure, can better incorporate water efficiency, green infrastructure, and flood risk reduction policies to help build climate-resilient communities. Included below are highlights from our recommendations, which we’ll be releasing officially in an NRDC issue paper in the months ahead.   

These sustainable solutions will better enable local communities to address issues such as flooding, water scarcity, and infrastructure resiliency. Yet, there are no current federal requirements regarding the use of SRF financing to support local climate resiliency, and many states do not require project applicants to proactively consider climate change risks. Together, these solutions will not only help communities meet their water infrastructure needs now but also better equip them to handle storms, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events in the years ahead.                     


Water Conservation

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Water-efficient Landscaping | Jose Kevo

Water conservation and efficiency are effective in increasing resilience to climate impacts such as increased drought, decreased precipitation, and declining snowpack. These measures lower demand for water, improve the reliability of existing water supplies, reduce capital expenditures for new water infrastructure, and decrease energy demands associated with the treatment and delivery of water and wastewater. Water-efficient landscapes, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, water rate mechanisms, and the detection and repair of leaks in water distribution systems are a few examples of ways to reduce urban water demand. 

Making SRF financing contingent upon the implementation of water conservation policies and programs ensures that project applicants are considering measures to reduce inefficient water use. A number of states are already using these approaches or similar ones; and there are many examples of water and wastewater utilities that have successfully used (or are currently using) water conservation strategies to reduce water demand and the costs of water and wastewater infrastructure.


Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure techniques, such as green roofs, rain gardens, roadside plantings, porous pavement, and rainwater harvesting, can be utilized to reduce the flooding risks associated with more frequent and intense rainfall events. These techniques use soils and vegetation in the built environment to absorb runoff close to where it falls, limiting flooding and sewer backups. Green infrastructure  techniques not only reduce flooding and protect water quality, they also transform rainwater from a source of pollution into a valuable resource that helps to literally green the urban landscape, cool and cleanse the air, enhance water supplies, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, cut heating and cooling energy costs, create urban oases of open space, and enhance property values.

Prioritizing projects that incorporate green infrastructure measures and ensuring that sufficient funding is available for green infrastructure projects and programs will help to expand the implementation of these cost-effective and sustainable solutions. Maryland is an example of a state that is promoting green infrastructure through its SRF program.


Reducing Flood Risks

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Storm Surge on Lake Michigan | Chris Bentley

Water infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to increasing flood risks. Heavy rainfall events and coastal storm surges present challenges for water management and flood control infrastructure; increase flooding risks for treatment plants and other facilities; and jeopardize service reliability. Ensuring that SRF loan recipients adequately consider existing and future flood risks in the design and construction of projects will help to reduce damages associated with future storms and flood events, and thereby decrease service interruptions, reduce threats to public health and safety, and build climate resiliency. New York and New Jersey are examples of states that are requiring SRF projects applying for post-Sandy funding to protect against flood risks by either relocating outside of vulnerable areas or elevating above expected flood levels.