Resilient Path Toward an Uncertain Future: Lessons Learned from America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018
Our communities are faced with increasing threats to our natural resources and infrastructure systems due to a myriad of hazards, both old and new. Risks such as cyberattacks, malevolent acts, pandemics and epidemics, extreme storm events, climate change and variability, and seismic activity challenge our livelihoods. With these threats in mind, there has never been a greater need for long-term resiliency and reliability of essential community services.
America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which became federal law in October 2018, requires community water systems to conduct Risk and Resilience Assessments of their systems, develop Emergency Response Plans, and update these documents every five years.
The RRA evaluates threats, vulnerabilities and consequences of potential hazards for a utility’s infrastructure, monitoring practices, financial systems, chemical handling, and operations and maintenance.
The ERP includes plans and procedures for responding to assessed threats to safe drinking water and identifying strategies to detect threats and reduce the vulnerability of the system.
Since AWIA’s passage, HDR has helped facilitate this process for over 40 utilities across the country. By working in conjunction with these utilities, we have gathered a body of experience and perspectives that reflect the diversity of sizes, geographies and climates of our country’s water systems.
It is evident that the assessment process provides an opportunity to recognize and promote the intangible qualities that make for a resilient water system. In addition to important elements such as built infrastructure and operational procedures, this all-hazards assessment is an opportunity to fortify trust and cohesion among the utility members and other public service departments and agencies. Not only is excellent communication among staff an asset for facilitating the assessment, but the series of workshops and assessment steps can improve those connections when ran strategically.
One example of this impact on utility cohesion involves the utility’s mission. Many utilities do not have a water-specific mission statement outside of the broader mission of the city or public works agency. To fill this gap, we convened a diverse group of utility staff representing a range of roles and tenures as well as city-employee stakeholders to collectively develop a drinking water mission. While the driving mission to supply safe, potable water to their customers was obvious, once this main component was established, conversations began to expand to other key goals and objectives.
Some utilities focused on supply reliability and/or a desire to be sustainable and supportive of regional water availability in their mission. Others focused on cost and affordability. The benefit of this activity was to help focus the RRA with a mission that all consequences could be measured against. A cohesive system of employees united in mitigating threats to their water service mission builds resiliency without a single dollar invested in new capital projects.
In another example of increased utility cohesion, staff external to the water system, such as fire, law enforcement or information technology, were observed to gain a greater understanding of their role building resilience in the water system. For some, IT support is outside of water-specific operations, and so IT staff discovered the real consequences of a loss of network connectivity within treatment plants or between remote distribution system sites. For others, the important role fire departments play in preventing distribution system contamination and impacts on pressure zones was fully realized.
By facilitating an environment where the water system staff and their dependent partners realize their collaborative role, these conversations encouraged full usage of the information derived from the risk and resilience assessments. In most cases, we witnessed an increase in the staff and dependent organizations’ buy-in and commitment, an integral element needed to develop and implement the next steps to long-term resilience and promote a collaborative ERP.
The importance of assessing utility risk and resilience and developing well-defined ERPs is exemplified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. The health crisis gripping our world has impacted daily lives and offered new challenges to our nation’s water utilities. As part of HDR’s AWIA services for our clients, we helped them identify impacts to worker availability amid a variety of threats, often including epidemics/pandemics, and worked with them to develop response procedures. Critical staffing plans and procedures during a pandemic were low on the risk register this time last year but will now have a higher priority in future resilience planning.
Now, in several cases, we are adding services to our AWIA compliance and helping our clients develop pandemic response plans and business continuity plans. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mulls potential shifts in compliance deadlines for water utilities as a result of the pandemic, we continue to march onward, leading our clients to develop a resilient path toward an uncertain future.