Impacts of Climate Extremes on U.S. Drinking Water Vulnerability and Preparedness

Current events in the U.S. demonstrate the effect that climate change related hazards (floods, droughts, and cyclones) can have on drinking water systems. Flood waters can physically damage drinking water infrastructure and contaminate drinking water sources, droughts can lead to water shortages and deterioration of the water quality through the concentration of contaminants, and cyclones can damage infrastructure and contaminate water sources through an increase in turbidity and sediment load. All three hazards may lead to a loss of drinking water access.

Funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation, Water Institute researchers assessed the relative vulnerability of drinking water systems to loss of access due to floods, droughts, and cyclones for all counties in the United States. The vulnerability of all U.S. states was ranked relative to one another to produce three data sets, one for each climate-related hazard. A state-by-state ranking system enables at-risk areas to be identified, so that adaptations and potential innovations can be suggested for these areas most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The Institute expands on population-based vulnerability assessments to incorporate future projections and a component specific to coastal areas, where 40% of the U.S. population reside, develop a method to assess the vulnerability of water utilities. The method includes adaptation measures that can be implemented by individual utilities, provide adaptation solutions that can be used to decrease a utility’s vulnerability to droughts, floods, or cyclones, impact practice. The ultimate goal of this research is to facilitate efforts of investors, insurers and governments to mitigate risks and more effectively target future investments in U.S. water and sanitation infrastructure at national, state and local levels.

Water Institute Researchers

  • Jamie Bartram– Principal Investigator
  • Jeanne Luh– Lead Researcher
  • David Fuente– Researcher

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