Senior Airman John McGovney and Airman 1st Class Christopher Watts, 36th Civil Engineer Squadron water and fuel system maintainers assigned to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, connect a hose to the water purification system Nov. 8, 2018, in Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ruano)

GAO: Resilience Planning Could Help Utilities Prepare for Potential Climate Change Impacts

Extreme weather related to climate change potentially threatens utilities that produce drinking water and treat wastewater.

The Government Accountability Office examined federal technical and financial assistance to make such infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather and asked experts about additional options.

For example, EPA provides technical assistance to utilities to improve resilience. However, EPA’s program is small and can’t help nationwide. Experts told us a network of technical advisors could be organized to assist nationally.

GAO recommended, among other things, that EPA help organize such a network.

Four federal agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Agriculture (USDA)—provide technical and financial assistance (e.g., loans and grants), to drinking and wastewater utilities.

Technical assistance. EPA provides technical assistance to drinking water and wastewater utilities to enhance their infrastructure’s resilience to climate change. However, according to EPA officials, EPA’s program is small and cannot assist utilities nationwide. All of the selected experts GAO interviewed stated that utilities need additional technical assistance on an ongoing basis to manage climate risks, and most experts said that organizing a network of existing technical assistance providers, including federal and state agencies, universities, and industry groups, would be needed to provide such assistance. Under a presidential policy directive, EPA is to work to enable efficient information exchanges among federal agencies and to help inform planning and operational decisions for water and wastewater infrastructure. By identifying existing technical assistance providers and engaging them in a network to help utilities incorporate climate resilience into their infrastructure projects on an ongoing basis, EPA would have better assurance that climate information was effectively exchanged among federal agencies and utilities.

Financial assistance. Federal agencies have taken some actions to promote climate resilience when providing financial assistance for water infrastructure projects, but agencies do not consistently include the consideration of climate resilience when funding such projects. Most selected experts suggested that federal agencies should require that climate information be considered in the planning of water infrastructure projects as a condition of providing financial assistance. Moreover, representatives from several utilities said that such a requirement could be an effective and feasible way to help enhance utilities’ climate resilience. A requirement would ensure that utilities consider climate resilience in planning for water infrastructure projects and potentially limit future fiscal exposures. For example, from fiscal years 2011 through 2018, the federal government provided at least $3.6 billion in disaster recovery financial assistance for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure related projects (see figure).

GAO recommends that EPA identify technical assistance providers and engage them in a network to help water utilities incorporate climate resilience into infrastructure projects. Also, Congress should consider requiring that climate resilience be considered in planning for federally funded water infrastructure projects. EPA neither agreed nor disagreed. GAO believes the recommendation is still warranted.

Read the full report at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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