Written by: Natalia Sanchez, Program Manager at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland

South Cross Bayou Water Reclamation Facility (Florida). Image courtesy of joni m palmer.

The Challenge

Small communities that manage their own wastewater systems face significant barriers to building and maintaining effective treatment services. They are more likely to be economically disadvantaged than their larger, more urban counterparts and may lack the staff and expertise to address aging infrastructure. While larger communities may have more resources to secure funding, regulations for nutrient removal are imposed on small systems just the same, often requiring them to scrape for funds to make improvements.

Adding to the challenges of stricter regulations are the impacts of climate change on wastewater systems. More extreme storm events increase the amount of inflow into sanitary and combined sewers. Increased temperatures may require changes to wastewater treatment systems, as microbial species used may react differently in warmer environments. Sea-level rise and coastal storm surge can cause wastewater outlets to backflow. Planning for these impacts can be overwhelming. Where should managers and operators begin?

The Process

Planning for climate change is more effective when wastewater utility staff break out of their silos and start asking questions about how the utility’s staff interacts with other members of the municipal government. This opens the door to working towards improving coordination and gaining efficiencies. Getting a better understanding of the big picture, and how staff can effectively work together across departments, will help identify more cost-effective solutions and yield a greater return on investment.

To start the conversation across multiple sectors of the local government, practitioners often introduce a One Water approach. One Water is a holistic way of viewing water resource management that considers the water cycle as a single integrated system. It recognizes all water supplies as resources; whether they be surface water, groundwater, stormwater, or wastewater, and supports management of these systems for their combined impacts on water quality. Using this approach requires thinking through various end uses with a goal of improving environmental, economic, and social impacts to the community.

Once there is an understanding of the key municipal players and the One Water concept, working through some prioritization exercises is a good next step. Luckily, many free resources exist to guide municipalities.

Recommended Resources

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has many free tools for communities on this topic. One recommended publication is called Prioritizing Wastewater and Stormwater Projects Using Stakeholder Input. This report describes how communities can use stakeholder input to select and rank criteria and apply those criteria to prioritize stormwater and wastewater projects. The report also includes case studies that illustrate this process.
  • Another valuable EPA resource is the Creating Resilient Water Utilities (CRWU) Initiative. The initiative provides drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities with the practical tools, training, and technical assistance needed to increase resilience to climate change. CRWU identifies potential long-term adaptation options for decision-making related to infrastructure financing. Utilities in the early stages of understanding potential climate risks should choose to start by using the Resilient Strategies Guide.
  • A more advanced next step that utilities can use is exporting the data and reports from the Resilient Strategies Guide into EPA’s comprehensive Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT). CREAT allows users to consider climate impacts and identify adaptation options to increase resilience. Incorporating CREAT into operations results in best management practices and capital investment decisions that build stakeholder confidence that a utility is being proactive in identifying significant climate-related risks.


Additional Resources and Assistance (Contact us!)

In addition to the EPA tools, take advantage of other FREE resources! The EFC Network has a multitude of upcoming trainings, technical assistance opportunities, and materials available to water and wastewater systems across the country.