Why Water Utilities Should Conduct Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments

Written by: Brandy Espinola

Brandy Espinola is the Resilience and Sustainability Program Manager for the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland.

Aging infrastructure, terrorist attacks, and climate change, oh my! As utility operators, these are just a few of the uncertainties that need to be managed in order to prevent massive water service disruptions. And let’s be honest, it isn’t a matter of if but rather when uncertainty will exploit your system’s weaknesses. So, it is important that water utilities routinely examine the vulnerability of their systems, take steps to avoid what can be prevented, and be prepared to respond to potential failures.

In Safe & Sure, Exploring a New Approach to Resilient Systems, the Environmental Finance Center Network shared a general framework for resilience planning that could help water systems operators map out the connections between threats, systems failures, service impacts, and eventually larger social, economic, and environmental consequences. In this blog post, we take a deeper look at the importance of conducting a vulnerability assessment as part of the resilience planning process, and we explore the Environmental Protection Agency’s free Vulnerability Self-Assessment Tool.

A vulnerability assessment is the process of reviewing assets within a system to determine the degree to which those individual assets may be physically or functionally impacted by a threat, such as a climate hazard. When conducting a vulnerability assessment, you want to identify, quantify, and prioritize the vulnerabilities so that you can develop a plan for action. The vulnerability for each asset is calculated based on your understanding of its exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity.

For the purpose of climate change resilience planning, the exposure of an asset can be determined by where an asset is located in relation to a climate change threat, such as storm surge or sea-level rise. The sensitivity of an asset is determined by the existing condition of an asset and how it will respond to potential impacts, such as a hurricane or tornado. And that adaptive capacity is the ability for an asset or system to adapt to or compensate for an impact without causing disruption.

While the vulnerability assessment process will range in complexity based on the design and operation of the water system itself, at a minimum you will want to include specific portions of the system in your assessment including: pipes and constructed conveyances; physical barriers; water collection; pretreatment; treatment; storage and distribution facilities; electronic, computer or other automated systems which are utilized by the public water system; the use, storage, or handling of various chemicals; and the operation and maintenance of such system. For more information on identifying assets, check out Critical Assets – What are they and where are they?

Whether you manage a utility that is big or small, conducting a vulnerability assessment and understanding your system’s vulnerability is a key first step in resilience planning, which makes sense because you can’t possibly prepare for what you don’t see coming. Conducting a vulnerability assessment provides you the opportunity to identify the existence of critical holes and weaknesses in your system that have the potential to cause failures, it allows you to understand what assets need to be addressed in order to protect your system, and it can help inform investment decision making. Ultimately, vulnerability assessments provide utilities the information necessary to strategically invest in ongoing maintenance rather than deal with the much larger cost associated with a catastrophic failure. And who doesn’t like saving money?

If your utility has not completed a vulnerability assessment and you are looking for a good place to start, you should check out VSAT. VSAT is a free and easy to use web-tool developed by the EPA to help water utilities conduct vulnerability assessments. This tool offers a streamlined risk assessment process where users can analyze the risk of one threat to one asset at a time and then evaluate costs and benefits of potential countermeasures. The VSAT program will produce a detailed report that identifies the highest risks to mission-critical operations and recommends cost-effective measure to reduce those risks.

Have you conducted a vulnerability assessment? What tools did you use during the process and what lessons learned can you share with us?