This guest column originally appeared in WWD May 2021 issue as "The Value of Preparedness is Resilience"
The principle of resilience reminds me of Aesop’s fable about the ants and the grasshopper. In the story, the ants diligently worked all summer to gather and store grain. The ants advised the grasshopper to prepare for the coming winter, but the grasshopper was too busy making music. Come fall, the starving grasshopper was begging the ants for a bite to eat. The ants were not impressed and showed little sympathy for the grasshopper. The lesson here is this: there’s a time for work and a time for play. In the story, the ants are resilient, and the grasshopper, not so much.
Preparedness is a process in building resilience that requires strategic actions to mitigate reasonably foreseeable events. The challenge is looking beyond tomorrow based on knowledge of the past and understanding what could be possible in the future.
We are in midst of the 2021 hurricane season, which comes on the heels of a tough series of winter storms, a record breaking 2020 hurricane season, all while dealing with a global pandemic, likes of which have not been observed for a century. The major difference with prior incidents has been the scale of the consequence, but even that is not completely unprecedented or unforeseeable.
In February, Winter Storm Uri impacted a large area of the south, including Texas, which took an incredible hit due to a series of cascading consequences. The region had not experienced freezing temperatures like what the storm caused since the mid-1980s, so not unprecedented. The critical difference was that multiple elements of the independent Texas power grid had not been winterized, which resulted in massive power outages. Since there was no heat, many homeowners ran their water in attempts to stop lines from freezing. It is notable that building code only requires 18 inches of cover for service lines making them susceptible to freezing due to below freezing temps for several days.
This increased demand resulted in many water systems doubling or tripling production levels to summertime-like levels. That spike in demand meant that consumables were being used at rates higher than typical for this period. However, given hazardous road conditions, suppliers were having difficulties making deliveries. And that pesky loss of power was also impacting the facilities that create the treatment chemicals that are essential to producing safe water. The latter also being the result of limited winterization.
Indeed, a series of unfortunate events unfolded courtesy of Winter Storm Uri. The damages are estimated to range between $195-295 billion from this one incident across several states.
Congress recognized the value and importance of preparedness when drafting the provision of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. More specifically, section 2013 mandates utilities to take action to assess threats to their resilience and to implement “strategies and resources to improve the resilience of the system.” This includes preparing “actions, procedures, and equipment which can obviate or significantly lessen the impact of a malevolent act or natural hazard on the public health and the safety and supply of drinking water provided to communities and individuals…” So, what options does a water system have to comply with those requirements and enhance its resilience?
First, it is essential to take inventory of what is already in place using a resource like the Utility Resilience Index (URI). The URI is a set of indicators that a utility can quickly assess where potential gaps or opportunities exist to improve a systems capacity to respond and recover from an incident.
Second, a utility should participate in its state’s Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN) for mutual aid and assistance. The WARN’s “utilities helping utilities” framework has been extremely effective on numerous occasions in providing rapid response to fellow systems overcome by difficult circumstances.
Third, and perhaps most critical, is understanding the tipping point for power and key supplies. Power is often the single limiting factor in recovery and emergency power options often have complex regulatory and economic constraints. Develop a working relationship with your power provider and seek priority for restoration. If the drinking water and wastewater systems are functional in a community, it takes enormous pressure off emergency responders since it enables a shelter-in-place capability, eliminates the need to evacuate patients from hospitals and maintains fire protection.
Preparedness is not free, resilience is achievable. In hindsight, many, including the grasshopper, would say it is invaluable.