Water infrastructure resiliency

By Michael Deane

Executive Director, National Association of Water Companies (NAWC)

The vast unseen network of pipes, pumps, valves, tanks and water treatment facilities that comprise our nation’s water infrastructure is as essential to life as the millions of gallons of water it delivers each day. Since the turn of the century, most of America’s water systems have consistently delivered water twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—a remarkable accomplishment under normal operating conditions. But what happens when already aging water infrastructure is stressed, threatened or overcome by natural or man-made disasters? Is our water infrastructure resilient enough to respond quickly to avert a public health disaster?

One might argue that water infrastructure, perhaps as much as any other of this nation’s vast systems of infrastructure, is fundamentally necessary and, therefore, the highest priority for infrastructure resiliency. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent global community, it’s clear water infrastructure depends on other infrastructures to operate. If there is no electric power, water treatment facilities, and transmission systems can’t function. Likewise, without water for things like manufacturing, agriculture or food processing, our very way of life is severely compromised.

This complexity requires owners and operators of critical infrastructures like water and wastewater to manage operational risks based on a resilience strategy of prevention, protection, response, recovery, and reconstitution. Private water companies in America have made significant strides to improve and replace water infrastructure, but more is being done to mitigate the many potential external and internal risks facing private water companies.

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012, New Jersey’s infrastructure, and utilities were put to the infrastructure resiliency test. Most attention was directed at power outages and loss of communications, but the threat to the water supply became just as high a priority. Robert Iacullo, executive vice president of United Water (now SUEZ North America), a company that provides water and wastewater services to 1.6 million people in New Jersey, summarized the event:

“United Water, as well as the other major water utilities in New Jersey, did a great job during this event. When you look at how many residents may have been without water, it was very minimal. We had 200 residents out of the 1.6 million residents that we serve in the state with some interruption of service for a very short period.”

As Hurricane Sandy approached shore, United Water made a series of preparations. The day before the storm even hit, one of United Water’s largest water treatment facilities went off the power grid to standby generation. Due to concerns about raw sewage being swept into waterways, water facilities were ready to adjust their chemistries to ensure effective treatment of the water supply. United Water learned from Hurricane Sandy the necessity of continuing to invest strategically in water infrastructure.

Similarly, New Jersey American Water (NJAW) prepared for Hurricane Sandy and enacted emergency plans to maintain water service for customers in the path of Hurricane Sandy. New Jersey American Water closely monitored the developments of the storm. To minimize the storm’s potential impact to customers, NJAW’s facilities also prepared and activated backing up power sources to reinforce key points in the water distribution system. As Hurricane Sandy approached, NJAW encouraged customers to conserve water, fill bathtubs with water, to know where the home’s main water shut-off valve is located, and be sure to shut it off if evacuation was necessary.

In both of these cases, aggressive preparation was the difference, but this weather event also revealed some vulnerabilities, strengths and opportunity for better coordination with other public agencies. The National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) is an active member of the Water Sector Coordinating Council (WSCC) which facilitates better coordination with other industry and public agencies to promote security in the water industry.

What these and other private water companies learned during Hurricane Sandy will be instructive for the water sector in this nation. But there is significantly more ongoing work to be done in planning recovery from internal disruptions, such as human and software errors.

One thing is clear, water infrastructure resiliency in America will require continued investment and meaningful collaboration—ensuring the U.S. and its global partners work to protect the public’s health and safeguard our way of life for generations.

Biography – Michael Deane

Michael Deane has extensive experience and the unique perspective of having worked in both the public and private water sectors. Before joining the NAWC in 2009, he was Associate Assistant Administrator for Water in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where he played a key role in developing and implementing national water policy. Prior to this position, he served as Senior Policy Advisor in Infrastructure Finance for the Agency’s Office of Water. Michael began his career in water at the EPA, working on the state revolving fund and public-private partnership programs. Before returning to the EPA in 2006, he served as an executive at several water management companies, including United Water – and its parent company, Suez – and the U.S. operations of Vivendi (now Veolia).

Michael serves on the Pictet Water Fund Advisory Board, the Board of Directors of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships, the Executive Committee of AquaFed, the International Federation of Private Water Operators and is Chair of the Association for the Improvement of American Infrastructure’s water subcommittee.

Recognizing the increasing need to raise awareness of the solutions private water companies offer to U.S. cities and towns, earlier this NAWC launched www.truthfromthetap.com. This robust, fact-based website provides data, information and case studies, to help communities explore all potential options to solve today’s water challenges.