Water Infrastructure: Technical Assistance and Climate Resilience Planning Could Help Utilities Prepare for Potential Climate Change Impacts

GAO-20-24 Published: Jan 16, 2020. Publicly Released: Feb 13, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Extreme weather related to climate change potentially threatens utilities that produce drinking water and treat wastewater.

We examined federal technical and financial assistance to make such infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather and asked experts about additional options.

For example, EPA provides technical assistance to utilities to improve resilience. However, EPA’s program is small and can’t help nationwide. Experts told us a network of technical advisors could be organized to assist nationally.

We recommended, among other things, that EPA help organize such a network.

Iowa City’s North Wastewater Treatment Facility was moved after it flooded in 2008.

Aerial view of a flooded wastewater treatment facility

Aerial view of a flooded wastewater treatment facility

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Four federal agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Agriculture (USDA)—provide technical and financial assistance (e.g., loans and grants), to drinking and wastewater utilities.

Technical assistance. EPA provides technical assistance to drinking water and wastewater utilities to enhance their infrastructure's resilience to climate change. However, according to EPA officials, EPA's program is small and cannot assist utilities nationwide. All of the selected experts GAO interviewed stated that utilities need additional technical assistance on an ongoing basis to manage climate risks, and most experts said that organizing a network of existing technical assistance providers, including federal and state agencies, universities, and industry groups, would be needed to provide such assistance. Under a presidential policy directive, EPA is to work to enable efficient information exchanges among federal agencies and to help inform planning and operational decisions for water and wastewater infrastructure. By identifying existing technical assistance providers and engaging them in a network to help utilities incorporate climate resilience into their infrastructure projects on an ongoing basis, EPA would have better assurance that climate information was effectively exchanged among federal agencies and utilities.

Financial assistance. Federal agencies have taken some actions to promote climate resilience when providing financial assistance for water infrastructure projects, but agencies do not consistently include the consideration of climate resilience when funding such projects. Most selected experts suggested that federal agencies should require that climate information be considered in the planning of water infrastructure projects as a condition of providing financial assistance. Moreover, representatives from several utilities said that such a requirement could be an effective and feasible way to help enhance utilities' climate resilience. A requirement would ensure that utilities consider climate resilience in planning for water infrastructure projects and potentially limit future fiscal exposures. For example, from fiscal years 2011 through 2018, the federal government provided at least $3.6 billion in disaster recovery financial assistance for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure related projects (see figure).

Relocation of Iowa City's North Wastewater Treatment Facility Because of 2008 Flooding

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Why GAO Did This Study

Human health and well-being require clean and safe water, according to the Water Research Foundation. The Fourth National Climate Assessment states that the potential impacts of extreme weather events from climate change will vary in severity and type and can have a negative effect on drinking water and wastewater utilities. GAO's previous work on climate change and resilience to extreme weather and disasters has shown how the federal government can provide information and technical and financial assistance to promote and enhance climate resilience. In 2015, GAO reported that enhancing climate resilience means taking action to reduce potential future losses by planning and preparing for climate-related impacts, such as extreme rainfall.

This report examines federal technical and financial assistance to utilities for enhancing climate resilience, and options experts identified for providing additional assistance, among other things. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance from four federal agencies—EPA, FEMA, HUD, and USDA—and interviewed federal officials, representatives from 15 water utilities selected for diversity of size and geography, and 10 experts selected to represent different views.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that EPA identify technical assistance providers and engage them in a network to help water utilities incorporate climate resilience into infrastructure projects. Also, Congress should consider requiring that climate resilience be considered in planning for federally funded water infrastructure projects. EPA neither agreed nor disagreed. GAO believes the recommendation is still warranted.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider requiring that climate resilience be incorporated in the planning of all drinking water and wastewater projects that receive federal financial assistance from programs that EPA, FEMA, HUD, and USDA administer. (Matter for Consideration 1)
Open
As of April 2022, Congress has not required that climate resilience be incorporated in the planning of all drinking water and wastewater projects that receive federal financial assistance from programs that EPA, FEMA, HUD, and USDA administer. Congress has authorized some funding of infrastructure resilience. For example, in November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Pub. L. No. 117-58) called for EPA to establish a clean water infrastructure resilience and sustainability grant program that provides funding to eligible municipalities for increasing the resilience of publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities to natural hazards and cybersecurity vulnerabilities. That act also called for the establishment of a drinking water system infrastructure resilience and sustainability grant program to provide funding to midsize and large public water systems for increasing resilience to natural hazards and extreme weather events and reducing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. However, like other existing federal programs that offer financial assistance to drinking water and wastewater projects, these programs are voluntary in that recipients can decide whether to apply for grants under them (and therefore decide whether to develop projects that prioritize resilience). To fully implement our matter, Congress should consider requiring that climate resilience be incorporated in the planning of all drinking water and wastewater projects that receive federal financial assistance from programs that EPA, FEMA, HUD, and USDA administer.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Director of Water Security of EPA, as Chair of the Water Sector Government Coordinating Council, should work with the council to identify existing technical assistance providers and engage these providers in a network to help drinking water and wastewater utilities incorporate climate resilience into their projects and planning on an ongoing basis. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In December 2021, EPA officials said the agency continues to work with its wide-ranging, existing technical assistance providers and coordinates with its stakeholders including the Water Sector Coordinating Council (WSCC) to improve and build drinking water and wastewater utility resilience. Specific activities the agency conducted included: (1) monthly WSCC coordination meetings, (2) quarterly Water Sector Partners meetings, (3) monthly Water Sector Partners email newsletters, (4) quarterly Water Sector email newsletters (to over 29,500 water sector contacts) highlighting EPA resilience tools and trainings, and (5) numerous all-hazard (natural disasters, climate, cybersecurity, other) virtual webinars, workshops, and technical assistance sessions that reached over 16,500 water and wastewater systems in fiscal year 2021. While GAO agrees that EPA should continue to work with its providers to improve technical assistance to utilities, our recommendation was for EPA to work with stakeholders to develop a network to help the many drinking water and wastewater utilities across the country incorporate climate information into their resilience planning. In March 2022, EPA stated that participation of the water sector and of other federal agencies in helping these utilities is voluntary and not something the agency can enforce. To fully implement our recommendation, EPA can work with the sector and federal agencies to integrate all technical assistance providers in a network, which would help more utilities incorporate climate resilience into their projects and planning on an ongoing basis. However, EPA has not indicated how it will work with agencies and the water sector to organize a network of technical assistance, as we recommended, to reach the many more water and wastewater utilities across the United States.

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