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Living With Climate Change: Yes, it could happen to you. Like the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., other U.S. cities are vulnerable to climate-change disaster

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Most Americans easily flip on the water tap to wash their hands or quench their thirst. If they pay their monthly bill, which ranks comfortably low when compared to much of the world, vital water simply flows.

Yet in Jackson, Miss., this week, and for the second time in a year, a weather-related disaster has shut off the water taps for much of its population of 150,000, before some improvement was reported Thursday.

Jackson is emblematic of a swelling water infrastructure crisis that many U.S. cities, suburbs and rural areas must prepare for, experts told MarketWatch.

“‘In the past, it might have made sense to consider a flood a rare and random event — communities could just build back. But the statistical distribution of weather events and natural disasters is shifting.’”

— Richard Rood, a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan

That’s especially true as climate change, owed to global warming, increases and intensifies the frequency and severity of floods, droughts, and hot and cold extremes that further threaten underinvested infrastructure. Even cities with deep pockets can’t ignore the costly devastation that could come with unchecked climate change, observers say.

“In the past, it might have made sense to consider a flood a rare and random event — communities could just build back. But the statistical distribution of weather events and natural disasters is shifting,” says Richard Rood, a professor of climate, space sciences and engineering in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, and a participant in the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment. “What might have been a 1-in-500-year event may become a 1-in-100-year event, on the way to becoming a 1-in-50-year event.”

Could water scarcity happen to you?

For Americans, water shortages may seem like an issue the developed world doesn’t have to think about. Not true. Last year’s Hurricane Ida, for instance, put suburban Philadelphia’s water treatment facilities at risk.

And now, “Jackson is a highly visible recent example, but it’s emblematic of a much broader pattern of municipal water infrastructure deterioration in the United States,”  said Travis Korte, associate director of sustainability research and data, at investment firm Ethic.

Federal funding for water infrastructure has been in decline since the 1970s, and while state and local funding has largely taken over, even that has decreased since 2010, Korte stressed.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2018 that $472.6 billion in investments would be needed over the next 20 years to maintain and improve the nation’s drinking water infrastructure alone, not even counting investments needed for wastewater.

“‘I have said on multiple occasions that it’s not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail.’”

— Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, speaking last week

The federal government in its infrastructure-improvement law last year set aside what is seen as the largest investment ever in restoring the U.S. water system, at $50 billion. But for many observers it is catch-up money that may fund overdue repairs, yet may not still go far enough to modernize and reinvent how Americans source and access water.

At times, would-be fixes have been shouldered by both the public and private sectors. And figuring out who is most responsible for water and sewer upgrades — cities, states or Washington, D.C. — adds to the burden on officials and homeowners.

Jackson, as one example, could only brace for the worst.

“I have said on multiple occasions that it’s not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said during a news conference this week.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has raised serious concerns about the nation’s drinking water infrastructure, giving it a C-minus on its latest, closely followed, report card. Citing aging and underfunding, the group said there is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in the U.S. That’s enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.

U.S. storm water infrastructure received an even lower mark, with the engineer group warning that few systems could afford the high cost of retrofits to address flooding linked to climate change.

Even with budget constraints, government officials may no longer be able to simply respond to the emergencies. Rather, they must do more to head off damage. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden declared an emergency for the Jackson area after heavy rains overwhelmed the Pearl River and risked flooding the state’s capital. But flooding only worsened the strain on an already troubled water-treatment plant and created a drinking-water crisis.

“U.S. storm water infrastructure received an even lower mark than the nation’s drinking water infrastructure, with the engineer group warning that few systems could afford the high cost of retrofits.”

The plant had operated on backup pumps after its main pumps were damaged last month, the Wall Street Journal reported. A boil order has been in place for weeks simply based on poor quality. Now, supplies of bottled water risk running out.

Restaurant owner Derek Emerson told The Associated Press that water problems “are making it impossible for us to do business in Jackson.” Emerson owns the upscale Walker’s Drive-In, and he said they have been spending $300 a day for ice and bottled water in the past month.

Jackson isn’t the only locale increasingly relying on aging plants and pipes and yet wondering if severe weather will automatically mean assured catastrophe. Floods this summer have upended life in and around Dallas, California’s Death Valley, St. Louis, Yellowstone National Park and Appalachia — Kentucky in particular — leaving cities and rural areas dotted across the U.S. questioning their own safety and the function of basic services in a warming climate. Flooded water can contaminate safe water, and when drought sharply lowers water reservoirs, not only are supplies limited, but remaining low water can invite more bacteria or other risks.

As Jackson struggles, more Americans are wondering if water troubles could hit their own communities: Google
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data reveals that Americans are searching for the term “water scarcity” 30% more in 2022 than in 2021.

The crisis in Jackson also highlights that it’s not just hot or cold, floods or droughts that are singularly worrisome. Each poses its own risks. Some Jackson residents went weeks without running water after winter storms last year impacted municipal facilities.

Injustice for the ‘plumbing poor’?

Jackson’s situation is an important climate-change test for demographic reasons. A majority Black city, its crisis swings attention to how environmental strains disproportionately impact the health, safety and monetary costs to people of color in the U.S. A 2019 study in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers found that Black, Latino, Native American and Alaska Native households are disproportionately likely to be “plumbing poor” with considerably less upgraded pipes or even water access than white households.

Like many cities, Jackson, faces water-system problems it can’t afford to fix. Its tax base has eroded the past few decades as the population decreased — the result of mostly white flight to suburbs that began after public schools integrated in 1970. The city’s population is now more than 80% Black, with about 25% of its residents living in poverty, the Associated Press reports.

“Underserved communities are taking the brunt of the effects of climate change.  We’ve seen widespread suffering from flooding, heat, cold, and fires.  Add-on effects from a vulnerable water system or other infrastructure are readily apparent too.  Pile on that, the underserved areas have low local revenue from which to draw and often stressed management resources,” said Brian Svendahl, senior portfolio manager, U.S. Fixed Income at RBC GAM, adding that Mississippi’s drinking water state revolving fund is a relatively small $11 billion, looks complicated, and the need no doubt exceeds this number.

Svendahl agreed that lack of cohesiveness in financing and boosting infrastructure hurts those who need it most.

“The best market solutions are where risk is shared, funding is broad and solutions are uniform, much like the U.S. mortgage market, the world’s biggest and best functioning housing market,” he said. “Imagine if each state ran the mortgage market, and each local community had to fight for funding — that’s very much what we have in how infrastructure is financed with the most vulnerable boxed out altogether.”

For sure, some observers are quick to tie Jackson to the cost-cutting water scandal and legal fallout that hobbled Flint, Mich., some eight years ago. Residents there have received some restitution but stress that a settlement isn’t “justice.”

Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside more than $50 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency to improve our nation’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure — the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made. Mississippi, for one, is receiving $75 million to address water problems.

But for some, the catch-up spending feels late, and may still fall short. What’s more, the relatively cheap access to water may be vulnerable.

An average U.S. family of four pays about $72.93 for water every month as of 2019, if each person used about 100 gallons for drinking, washing and bathroom use per day. The price index of water and sewage maintenance has increased in recent years as infrastructure continues to age across the U.S., Commerce Department and EPA data show. By one measure, U.S. residential-water prices have grown an average of 5.5% per year since 2012 — faster than broader inflation until just recently. (Read more about EPA water data here.)

“The ‘Inflation Reduction Act of 2022’ provides $369 billion  for climate and clean energy provisions, the most aggressive climate investment ever taken by Congress. ”

Tackling environmental injustice extends from air pollution to reliable water, and more. It’s an issue that many have made a priority, including in the just-passed congressional spending law, which is in addition to last year’s infrastructure law. All told, the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022″ provides $369 billion for climate and clean energy provisions, the most aggressive climate investment ever taken by Congress. Environmental justice initiatives within the law, such as making grants conditional to use in underserved neighborhoods, amount to more than $60 billion, but mostly are earmarked to address the unequal effects of pollution on low-income communities and communities of color.

Previously, in Alabama, the Biden administration had tagged Lowndes County as a test case in environmental justice. As residents there struggle with antiquated waste removal and sewer drainage, sometimes relying on their own makeshift answers to municipal shortcomings, the federal government applied a never-before-used provision from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s an effort that advocates say could lay the groundwork for how the federal government addresses some of the worst problems plaguing communities of color around the country, as MarketWatch previously reported.

What can we do about climate change?

How does climate change impact the water we use for drinking and washing?

Generations-old sewers are routinely overwhelmed by bigger storms. Algae blooms and excess sediment may contaminate reservoirs amid high temperatures and prolonged drought. Rising sea levels also risk interfering with septic systems, and cause saltwater to leach into wells. Even fire poses risk. When wildfires destroy water mains and spread chemical contamination, it may take months for drinking water to become safe again.

Nonprofit First Street has created a Risk Factor tool meant for real-estate professionals, but also individuals, businesses and anyone who wants granular risk data on heat, floods or wildfires. In fact, its Flood Factor site for Jackson shows the city’s critical infrastructure as being at “Major Risk” from flood. This includes services like hospitals, police stations, fire stations, airports, seaports, power stations, wastewater station plants, superfund/hazardous waste sites, and wastewater-treatment facilities.

“Increasingly, experts say, cities will have to plan for the scenarios worsened by climate change and rethink the location of vulnerable people, in vulnerable landscapes.”

Clearly, cities too often respond to flooding, drought and water impacts as an emergency, after the fact, with damage already occurring. Increasingly, experts say, cities will have to plan for the scenarios worsened by climate change and rethink the location of vulnerable people, in vulnerable landscapes.

That’s where climate science and urban planning can sync.

“We use scenario planning to help officials examine several plausible climate futures as they develop strategies to deal with specific management challenges,” says the Michigan professor, Rood.

In his teaching, Rood stresses that people, and where they can access shelter, matters.

“In most exercises I have participated in, local officials’ instinct is to protect property and persist without changing where people live,” Rood said, in a commentary. “However, in many cases, that might only buy time before people will have little option but to move. Scenario planning can bring focus to these difficult choices and help individuals and communities gain control over the effects of climate change.”

For sure, water issues challenge the Western U.S. where persistent drought conditions strain municipal water usage.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, drought has extended across over half of the U.S. this year; drought in the southwest U.S. is the most extreme in 1,200 years. The frequency, intensity, and duration of droughts are increasing, leading to a myriad of issues, including regional wildfires, and this pattern is expected to continue with climate change.

Major reservoir Lake Mead’s water levels have sunk to record lows. Nearly 6 million people in the Los Angeles area are feeling the crunch as authorities enact unprecedented restrictions on water use. 

“Major reservoir Lake Mead’s water levels have sunk to  record lows. Nearly 6 million people in the Los Angeles area are  feeling the crunch as authorities enact unprecedented restrictions on water use.”

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which is created by the Glen Canyon Dam, not only provide water and electricity to tens of millions in Nevada, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Mexico, but they also provide irrigation water for agriculture. Experts warn that as the crisis deepens, water cuts will need to be introduced, but this may not be enough.

Homeowners might think of actions such as upgrading to water-efficient appliances or growing low-water use plants. But for the Urban Land Institute, cities and developers, and ultimately the residents who buy into such plans, need to completely rethink water. ULI highlighted this research in a report out earlier this summer.

“Historically, practices that addressed drought focused on acquiring new sources of water through infrastructure like diversions and dams,” said Marianne Eppig, the lead author of the report and director of resilience at the ULI Urban Resilience Program. “Recently, there’s been a shift. Communities are recognizing that efficiency improvements and conservation are the most cost-effective and least environmentally damaging ways of meeting collective water needs.”

Eppig and her team call out specific examples that could be scalable elsewhere, such as in the “urban village” of Civita, in San Diego, Calif. It was developed with mandatory water reuse, low-flow fixtures, smart meters, native plants and water-efficient irrigation.

And, at the Denver Water headquarters, in Denver, Colo., the state’s largest water utility, efforts aim to use the most appropriate source water for each use, like rainwater for irrigation and toilet flushing, in addition to reducing as much water demand and discharge to the environment as possible through much broader recovery and reuse.

Ethic’s Korte aims to steer investments and investors toward infrastructure improvements.

“Climate models can aid in siting new reservoirs where rainfall is expected to increase, as well as making the case against new hydropower investments in areas that will suffer more drought,” he said. 

“There’s also much more room to use existing water resources more efficiently. Some municipalities, like Orange County in California, use treated wastewater to help recharge local groundwater systems; further north in California’s Salinas County, advanced treatment technologies process municipal wastewater effluent, urban and agricultural runoff, and water from food processing plants into drinking water,” he added.

These goals may feel far off in Jackson this week, as most residents just hope to stay safe.

“I love doing business in Jackson, and I like the people of Jackson,” said Emerson, the restaurant owner. “I just — I hate dealing with the problems.”

The Associated Press contributed.

Related stories:

A quarter of the U.S. will fall inside an extreme heat belt. Here are the states in the red zone.

Flash floods, like in Las Vegas, are deadlier than hurricanes, tornadoes or lightning

A retirement safe from climate change? Ask the tough questions about real estate and property insurance

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