Wherefore art thou El Niño
Written by: Jeff Lipton

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So it appears that El Nino is nearly upon us. Or at least that’s what many pundits are predicting. Pacific ocean temperature levels have been rising and appear to be equivalent to those in the 1997-1998 period when we experienced the largest El Nino event on record which led to record precipitation throughout the Western United States.

While this will potentially bring much needed rain to drought stricken regions of the country, there are a number of factors that indicate both short and long-term challenges that our water delivery and treatment systems will continue to face.

In the short term, excessive precipitation will likely lead to mudslides and floods, particularly given the parched conditions that have persisted over the past four years. Extensive periods of drought and record wildfires have left charred, dry, and barren areas that make mudslides more likely. In addition, storm water overflows will impact wastewater treatment facilities where combined sewer overflow systems exist. This can lead to boil notices from contamination of raw water sources that feed our drinking water systems, and increase the chances of illness from water borne disease.

Mudslides and floods can also lead to significant property damage and loss of life. During the 1997-1998 El Nino event it is estimated that property and other losses exceeded $1 billion and more than 100 people lost their lives. With a longer period of drought preceding this year’s El Nino along with an increase in population over the past 18 years, the chances are good that we will see even greater destruction from powerful winter storms.

So if predictions of a ‘Godzilla El Nino’ come to pass, what does that mean for water utilities? First, when it comes to weather on planet earth, it’s a zero-sum game. If there is more rain or snow in one part of the globe, there’s sure to be less in another because we live in a closed system and the amount of water on the planet is essentially fixed. This will probably mean dramatic floods in southern California, but worsening drought conditions throughout the pacific north west as that region sees below average levels of rain and snow.

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Another critical factor will be temperature levels and how that impacts snow pack. Much of California’s water is stored as snow pack which gradually melts throughout the spring and early summer, metering out water gradually as precipitation abates. If warming trends and decreased snowpack levels continue as forecast, larger volumes of rain will cause significant problems in the short-term but still leave the region thirsting for water as the summer irrigation season of 2016 reaches a peak.

Finally, what would a powerful El Nino mean for the drought and for conservation efforts throughout the region? A consensus exists that even if the coming winter brought up to 200% of normal precipitation, this would not be enough to relieve the region from the gripping drought conditions of the past four years. What’s worse is that a long winter of rain will leave residents with the impression that conservation efforts are no longer needed. Combined with lower forecasted snow pack levels, next summer may find us in a position very similar to what we’ve experienced in recent years.

So with all this gloom-and-doom, what can water utilities across the country do about these challenges, regardless of whether they are located in wet or dry regions? We have a few prescriptions that we believe can mitigate some of the negative impacts of El Nino while anticipating the likely long-term needs for continued water efficiency:

  • Recognize that excess water is going to cause problems and begin proactive engagement with customers on mitigation programs. Many states have grant programs or other incentives for storm barrel, permeable surface and cistern installation programs to help address potential storm water overflows.
  • Build a database of email and phone numbers for rapid response communications. In the event that there is a need to warn customers on storm system overflows, treatment system failures, boil notices, or emergency maintenance needs, the ability to easily and quickly deploy mass personalized notifications can go a long way to reducing harm and building trust.
  • Continue to educate consumers on both the value of water, the efforts your utility is going through to ensure high quality and reliable service, and the long-term need to continue to improve water-use efficiency. This will lead to more resilient systems, reduce costs for customer and utilities, while simultaneously building the political capital needed to make future infrastructure investments.

While El Nino may bring some much-needed rain to certain areas of the country, it’s also going to bring excessive, unneeded precipitation to other areas. Regions that are used to a given amount of water will receive less and be faced with mounting water stress in the future. But in the face of an increasingly unpredictable wet-dry continuum that we continue to face, the partnership between utilities and end-users can be strengthened. We all need to acknowledge the short-term and long run reality and engage in an honest conversation on how to work together to address it. In this possible crisis comes an opportunity. Let’s not miss the chance to take advantage of it.

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