Becoming Resilient, Episode 6: Water Utility Resiliency
About This Episode
Host Derek Roessler talks with Chris Igo, P.E., Chris Niforatos, P.E., and Chip Votava, P.E., ENV SP—three Kimley-Horn water resource engineers—about how resiliency plays into the water/wastewater utilities market. In this episode, our panel discusses what resiliency means to them based on their professional backgrounds; what the history of risk and resiliency management in the water utilities market has been and where the market is going; what regulations are currently in place that public agencies should be aware of; and what steps public agencies can take next.
Derek Roessler: Hello, and welcome back to our Becoming Resilient podcast, focused on Kimley-Horn’s approach to community readiness and resiliency. On today’s episode, we expand on our conversation from Episode Five, by discussing how resiliency plays into the water and wastewater utilities market. We are joined by three water resources engineers who collectively have more than 60 years of experience: Chip Votava from our Virginia Beach office, Chris Igo from our Fort Worth office, and Chris Niforatos from our St. Petersburg office. Happy to have you all here and let’s get started. Chris N. I’d like to start with you.
Could you talk a little bit about your professional background and what resiliency means to you when talking about water and wastewater utilities?
Chris Niforatos: My professional background is working both nationally and internationally in the field of resilience. And that is quite a broad topic, depending upon where you are can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people even geography. That could be coastal flooding, it could be impacts of fires out west, it could be a wet weather in the Northeast looking at droughts and how all that impacts the utility. Simply put, resilience is really what you want it to be, and we can think of it as resilience means planning for an uncertain future, with respect at looking at critical infrastructure at water and wastewater utilities, and understanding how resilient we can make those utilities to shocks, which are sharp sudden events that impact us such as hurricanes or floods and stresses. These affect us on a chronic or daily basis, such as sea level rise, heat droughts, and inadequately sized infrastructure. And these are systematic throughout the U.S.
Derek: Chip, how about for you in up in Virginia Beach?
Chip Votava: Sure. Well, I do planning and design for water and wastewater systems collection and distribution systems. We’re here located along the coast and in fairly urban and suburban areas with centralized water and sewer systems. So of course, I’ve been through design work, you incorporate things such as pumping redundancy or power redundancy and some of our design plans. But early on in my career, I got involved in dealing with after action reporting for a hurricane that came by and really created some damage to this area and wiped out power for large portions. And in the city of Virginia Beach here, they lost power to close to 90% of their water wastewater pump stations, which equated to over 350 pumping facilities. And so, understanding what challenges the utilities had to respond to those outages really had an impact on my career. I looked at not only how is power restored, but how are operators getting to these facilities with downed trees or flooded roads or downed power lines. And so, it gave me a great understanding of how we might improve some of the designs that we’re working on and also how we might work with utilities to establish planning for response plans for dealing with various types of emergency situations that they might be faced with.
Derek: And Chris Igo, how about for you?
Chris Igo: Yeah, thanks Derek. Yeah, for me, I’ve mostly worked here in the North Texas region for area municipalities and water providers mostly in the water and wastewater pipeline, transmission, and conveyance distribution systems. I have done some lift stations and pumping water pump stations but have also been in some staff augmentation roles and working closely with city staff and operations staff, and so I really have appreciated the ability to think like an owner. So that’s been a good experience for me to kind of think about resilience from an owner’s utility perspective. When I hear the word resilience and what does that mean to a drinking water system or to a wastewater provider? I like to think of it as: how does the utility continue to provide their mission statement to their customers?
That’s a little bit of an odd phrase, but for example, here in Fort Worth, their mission statement is the Fort Worth water department is responsible for providing safe and reliable water and wastewater service with environmental integrity. When I hear those words safe and reliable, that’s resilience to me. It’s how does Fort Worth water department continue to provide that safe and reliable water service to their customers on good days and on bad days when unforeseen events can, and often do, happen. Here in the North Texas region, kind of a local perspective is there was big concern for water shortages in the 2010-2011 timeframe with some pretty severe droughts and some dry seasons that we’d been experiencing. So, this of course kicked off lots of planning efforts and emergency projects and unique delivery methods, reuse water projects. And then of course we hit some record rainfalls in 2014 and in 2015. And some of those concerns maybe faded to the background a little bit, maybe not amongst utility owners themselves, but maybe their cities and councils and other players who help in that round. With that being said, resiliency means to continue on in that planning, thinking, engaging about that looming crisis, adopting a preparedness culture as a utility as a city, so that you’re able to weather that emergency. No pun intended there.
Derek: Thank you for that one. So, I’d like to take a step back here, and Chris N., I’ll go to you first.
Could you provide a brief history of what risk and resiliency management has looked like in the water utilities market?
Chris N.: When we think of risk and resiliency management in our utilities market, some of our most progressive utilities have been doing this for some period of time, perhaps some of them are within a decade’s worth of planning and conducting these evaluations and management and managing their assets. But a lot of what we’ve learned in our sector has come across from overseas where the industry is privatized in some countries. Where the water is privatized, looking at things like the whole enterprise of the portfolio of the utility, looking at the impacts of sea level rise, storm intensification, and building that in with damage curves to understand what assets will be at risk and when should they be replaced or hardened. So, some great opportunities, some great things that we’ve leveraged from overseas looking at things from a Monte Carlo analysis and really just informed decision making for our utilities.
And of course, international solutions are great. Some good things, some key points, but not all of them translate to our areas in our geographies here in the States. Being able to pick and choose from that and leveraging our own utilities to help us optimize our investments is really getting some really good groundswell. It’s no longer the days of “whoa, I just do water and wastewater and that’s it.” Those days are over. It’s more of a total one water approach, looking at the impacts of things such as resilience, such as floods shocks and stresses, and really helping them to survive, helping our communities to survive, adapt, and grow when these shocks and stresses occur. That’s good.
Derek: And Chris I., you have some historical perspective you wanted to share on this as well.
Chris I.: Yeah. Just kind of taking a high level 30,000-foot view of just here in America, where, how did we get to where we are today and just kind of fly through a few decades of history. So, hope you hope you enjoy history as much as I do.
I’ll just start with at a very high level, water security has especially been on the radar really since the beginning of the beginning stages of World War II. When you have a J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, saying water supply facilities offer a particularly vulnerable point of attack to the foreign agent. Taking that kind of mindset and really developing it and hardening it, especially during the Cold War years of protecting ourselves and our critical infrastructure from an enemy attack, it really was an important point in history and it allowed us to harden a lot of our pieces of infrastructure that we had. Fast forward a few decades, you come in contact with several large pieces of legislation. I’m thinking specifically the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1960s and ‘70s, and other really broad, sweeping, really good legislation to protect our water resources.
Moving into the ‘70s, one of the first comprehensive standards in regard to water resiliency was the development of the AWWA M19 Emergency Planning for Water and Wastewater utilities. That came out in 1973, and it’s since been updated, and its fifth edition today just came out a few years ago. Going from the ‘70s kind of fast forwarding again a few decades, even though I was pretty young in 2001, I knew that there would be broad changes in the way society thinks and operates. With the attacks that occurred on September 11th, 2001, it did change the way many drinking water utilities think about resiliency and redundancy to their systems. You had legislation passed in 2002, the Bioterrorism Act, which required utilities to perform vulnerability assessments in emergency response plans, but they were kind of a one and done you perform, or you submit it to the EPA and kind of leave it there.
You may update it if there are major changes, but that was what it was intended for. Again, fast forwarding a few years, you’ve got Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in 2005. It really was eye opening with the amount of damage that it had not only on the State of Louisiana and surrounding areas, but specifically to drinking water systems and wastewater providers. Utilities continue to see a greater need to protect against these natural hazards and some of them increasingly so that it seemed to come around more often. And then in 2010, again, some more advances in the standards with AWWA’s J100 Risk Assessment. That allows for utilities to take a straightforward approach. It’s a seven-step process to analyze their systems for risks from both malevolent terroristic type attacks, as well as natural or even accidental hazards that could occur to your system. That kind of flies through decades of history there, but it gets us to where we are, or even were in 2018.
Derek: I think that’s a great history lesson and thank you for that. Let me stick with you, cause I’m sure you haven’t talked enough in the past few minutes.
Is there a certain regulatory framework that clients need to work within currently?
Chris I.: Oh, I’m glad you asked Derek, because there is. And it’s something that’s been on people’s radar again, like I said, since 2018. There was federal legislation passed in October of 2018, America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA). And along with that, there were other updates to the Safe Drinking Water Act, very important pieces of legislation that got passed. But one of the main pieces of legislation in the AWIA was that all drinking water systems that serve a population greater than 3,300 people shall conduct an assessment to the risks and resilience of its system. Really that’s what has kicked off this kind of current legislative framework that we find ourselves in. So, not only are our drinking water utilities, again there’s, there’s over 8,000 drinking water utilities that serve populations of 3,300 and up are required to perform a risk and resilience assessment to their systems.
There are a lot of tools and resources out there to help utilities think about these things and methodologies and processes to go through a risk and resilience assessment to their system. Once you get through that process and analyze the risks not only again, natural hazards, but terroristic, malevolent events as well as even accidental hazards, a comprehensive review of your system, you’re then, six months later required to perform an emergency response plan. It’s not something that’s new and cities and utilities have been required to have emergency response plans since 2002, but this emergency response plan now has to speak to that risk and resilience assessment and education efforts that your utility will enact and how you can respond and react to some sort of malevolent attack on your system. Most of the larger utilities have already completed their risk and resilience assessments. Then you’ve got your mid-size, that’s 50,000 people to 100,000 people served. For mid-range cities, their risk assessments are due at the end of this year. Then, you’ve got the largest amount of drinking water utilities where their risk and resilience assessment is due in June of 2021. So, you still have thousands of utilities who need to know about this legislation and need to respond to it because it is something that the EPA has stressed that, there are fines for not completing this. They really want to see, these drinking water systems become more resilient in how they provide safe and reliable water to their customers.
Derek Roessler: Sounds good. Chris N., I know you have some state level legislation experience you’d like to share with us.
Chris N.: With respect to Florida, our geographic location and our exposure to extreme heat and humidity present challenges for us, certainly in our coastal communities. We have legislation within the state that’s going to require cooperators on cost-share projects in vulnerable areas to conduct sea level impact projection, really just helping those communities that are at risk to understand what would be required and what strategies would need to be in place such that we can sustain and maintain the utility. The rulemaking for that is yet to start, but will be coming into play here as we move into 2021, and really just helping us, as a utility, have some really good stewardship of our assets and how they’re managed looking towards the future with those shocks and stresses that occur.
Derek: Looking towards the future, like you just said, Chris, and I’ll stick with you here for the last question that we have.
What next steps would you recommend to clients who have already gone through the AWIA process?
Chris N.: Yeah, the AWIA process is a great tool. It really gives a great benchmark of where the utility is and where it should go. It provides opportunities to go a little bit more granular and look at those assets and identify those through vulnerability assessments, the develop of parent asset threats, focusing on those assets that are the most at risk because of their criticality. Defining that criticality is certainly a way for utilities to further develop capital improvement plans. Looking at things could be cost-shared as appropriate and really blending strategies that integrate a hardening or gray infrastructure and coupling that with green infrastructure as opportunities present themselves. I know I said earlier in the podcast, it’s not your father’s water and wastewater utility. It’s not just “that’s all we do.” It’s looking at a one water approach and helping set yourself up for success in the future.
Derek: That sounds good. Chris I., how about for you?
Chris I.: I would just add now that the federal legislation has required you to go through this process of performing a risk and resilience assessment, I don’t always like being told what to do, but it really is a good piece of legislation for utilities to just take a step back and see what are our biggest risks and where can we add resilience to our system. Now that you’ve gone through that process, where do you go from here? We’ve done the planning, you assign some dollars to it, now start to budget for it, try to integrate and implement those steps and tools and mitigation steps, put it in your CIP plan, and get funding for it. There is some funding available for certain hardening of your systems through federal legislation. It’s often applied for through grants.
There is legislation available to make your systems more resilient. Look for those opportunities and budget for them. The other thing I would say is to really develop key partnerships. Talk just within your own community across the city with your public works groups and your transportation agency and really think about it as partnering. Everybody is in this together due to some event that’s occurred in our community; how do we come together so that we can all be resilient through this together? And then I would say training is a key step for the next few years. Train your staff. There are opportunities for people to come in and train for different incident-specific scenarios, but just make sure that your staff knows what has to happen in the event of a specific incident. All that being said is that this is now something that’s required to be submitted on every five years. Utilities are going to be having to think about this on a every five-year basis. During those five years, the planning, budgeting, partnering, and training is going to be key to sustaining those five years.
Derek: Excellent. Chip, you get the last word on next steps that you’d recommend for clients.
Chip: Once you have the response plans, and as Chris I. was talking about training, your staff becomes important. Make sure that you have realistic approaches so that you can respond to issues that arise in your system. A lot of the response planning actions are at the individual utility level, but again, I want to emphasize, a lot of these types of situations when they do occur, will occur at more of a regional level. And so, making sure that that network is established as well, not only with other nearby water wastewater utilities, but also knowing how your power and gas utilities are going to be responding to them. They are dealing with some of the same issues that you may have to be dealing with as a utility. Same with departments of transportation, or certainly in our area of the country here in Virginia, military bases and such. They all have a role to play in this. You’ll be much more successful by making sure that you reach out and are able to establish that communication network so that you can more effectively respond to emergency actions and have an overall better resiliency plan mitigation plan to put into place.
Derek: Excellent. Thank you, Chip, Chris, and Chris for being with us today, and thank you all for listening. We hope you’ll join us next time as we continue our conversations on resiliency.
About the Panelists