Many challenges triggered by the climate crisis hinge on the same element: water. Climate change is exacerbating water issues through increased pollution, floods, storms, and droughts, while aging infrastructure around the country is making it harder for communities to deal with these issues.
On September 20, leading stakeholders from federal agencies, academia, private industry, nongovernmental organizations and philanthropies will convene at Columbia University to discuss the future of water in the United States. The event, Ensuring America’s Water Security: Designing, Financing and Managing Infrastructure for Climate Adaptation, will foster discussions about water, climate, and infrastructure issues and explore action-oriented, achievable solutions to address these issues. Register here.
The Columbia Water Center hosted a similar conference in 2019, which looked at the need for federal investments in water infrastructure. Since then, the federal government has designated $50 billion for upgrades to America’s water infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but this investment is only a small step toward addressing the larger issue, according to the event organizers.
The upcoming conference will explore novel strategies for the design of water and wastewater infrastructure that address the technical and affordability challenges, where the investments could come from, and identify opportunities for collective action that can better address the increasing threats of climate change and provide safe water for societal needs.
We checked in with Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center and the Alan & Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, to learn more about the event and what it will entail. Lall’s work sits at the intersection of hydrology, climate dynamics, and water resource systems. In this conversation, he shares why this event is so important and offers some insights into what he hopes it will cover and achieve.
Why is this event so important?
If you look at any of the major climate disasters, in terms of financial losses, or loss of life, they are all related to water, including floods, droughts, or storms. Water is also essential for manufacturing, agriculture, human health, and the environment.
But, most of the water infrastructure in the United States is 50 to 80 years old and decaying. Many communities are dealing with environmental hazards from the aging and failing infrastructure and local communities don’t have the finances to redo this infrastructure or even maintain it. While federal investments in energy and transportation have gone up, the water investment is basically stuck at levels seen in 1980. So, we are in this perfect storm situation where the climate conditions are becoming more extreme and our infrastructure is not in the shape that it needs to be in because the US hasn’t invested in it since the time of Ronald Reagan.
Surprisingly, no one has been looking at how to invest in better infrastructure that would address the issues well into the future. So, that’s become our focus. There are groups that are talking about specific problems with water, like lead, but the conversations are mostly about a singular issue that needs to be solved. We want to think about what we need to do on a grander, more holistic scale so that we can solve multiple problems with the same money, because we don’t have the money to solve these problems on a piecemeal basis.
What do you hope this event accomplishes?
We are trying to bring together experts and leaders from across tech companies, the Biden administration, consultants and implementers, community groups, ecological research and academia, and the financial industry to develop a comprehensive blueprint for water architecture and water services in this country.
The discussion will start with the current state of U.S. infrastructure, the future of water in America, and climate change and resiliency in the context of the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Key players from industry, government, philanthropy, and the private sector will be able to share their expertise and perspectives to talk through possible goals and solutions.
We will review practical ideas for synergistic financing of large infrastructure projects such as dams, as well as point-of-use or neighborhood-scale solutions. On the technology front, we will seek to identify solutions such as low cost monitoring of water quantity and quality to ensure water system performance.
The West faces perhaps the worst drought in a millennia. In many places, groundwater is being depleted. Agriculture and urban areas are looking at major cuts in water availability as the large reservoirs in the West dry up. How to anticipate and address these challenges is an open question, and we will explore some of the ideas that are emerging from data scientists who are trying to dramatically increase the data available and predict what the availability will be, so that management and financial risk mitigation strategies can be improved.
We want to integrate all of these perspectives to change the dynamic, so that the next opportunity to invest federal, state and private money is strategically going towards developing something new and future-looking.
What would it look like for the US to be more future-oriented with water infrastructure?
One example would be if we’re doing climate forecasts, and we anticipate that there’s going to be extreme rainfall and flooding in some areas, we would already taking defensive measures rather than waiting for people to be wiped out and then spending money on fixing them up.
An example of that the latter is last October, when we had a huge rainstorm in New York, and there was widespread basement flooding and 13 people died. It turns out that a lot of people’s basements got flooded because the sewers were blocked. So, some questions to ask are: Did somebody check whether the sewers were okay? How often is it checked? Who’s responsible for this? And, it turns out that New York City used to have a policy that they would inspect sewers every six months, but, Mayor DeBlasio decided this was a waste of money and made it every two years.
But, in China, they have installed sensors in all the city sewers, so that during a rainstorm they know where the water level is rising, how much it is raining, where it is raining, and if needed, they can immediately start telling people that they need to evacuate a certain area because they can see where they’re likely to overflow.
Why don’t we have it something like that in the United States? Because we are not thinking about designing the infrastructure in a modern context. We are not thinking about the climate problem and the aging infrastructure problem together.
We understand there will be a white paper published after the event. Can you share more about that?
We have a preliminary version of a background paper that identifies the challenges being faced. The plan is to work with the panelists to co-author a thoughtful extension to this that lays out a strategy for solutions to these challenges. We hope to be able to release this by the end of this year, and to use it as a basis for discussions with the federal agencies, other universities, community groups, the private sector and philanthropy, to continue to build a strategic initiative.
The Columbia Water Center’s existing work with other universities to address aging dams and water infrastructure challenges for disadvantaged communities is providing rich analytical tools that will help identify where the needs are, and what are the appropriate solutions at the community and larger scales. Together with our partners, we plan to make these tools publicly available to support the initiative.