Linking Water Research to Climate Change Decision-Making: New Study Unpacks Lessons Learned from Four Water Utilities

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Study shows how water utilities in New York, Florida, Oregon and Washington are generating useful models for climate change response

A new journal article from Abt Associates and partners offers key lessons for making research on climate change meet the specific needs of water utilities. The article, “Co-producing actionable science for water utilities,” is available online ahead of print from the peer-reviewed journal, Climate Services, and highlights four water utilities in New York, Oregon, Washington and Florida that are planning for the potential impacts of climate change and how they will respond.

Jason Vogel, PhD, Abt Environment and Natural Resources Associate, along with Elizabeth McNie of the University of Colorado-Boulder and David Behar of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, led the evaluation of the Piloting Utility Modeling Applications (PUMA) project. Under PUMA, research universities and four utilities--New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Portland Water Bureau, Seattle Public Utilities and Tampa Bay Water--worked together to define research questions and devise methods for generating practical data that could inform their real-world needs.

“Water managers need useful and actionable science to make decisions,” Vogel said. “Some climate change models’ outputs aren’t very useful for those who plan and manage water resources at the local level. This study gave us great insights on how utilities can and should help drive the research process and where they might take the information from here.”

In New York, water administrators focused on water quality and created a new technique that delivers insight on extreme weather events. Portland developed a model that would help them understand its primary surface water supply and future streamflow projections. Seattle needed to understand how climate change events--including forest fires and fall rains--would affect the reliability and quality of their water services. Tampa studied changes in seasonal rainfall patterns to help plan for impacts on their drinking water supply.

Among the study’s key findings were:

  • Context matters and end-users should help define it. Each of the four utilities in the study had differing goals and objectives that they needed to address. By examining the needs of the end-users of the data, the PUMA project could define and collect practical data for water utilities.
  • Building and leveraging knowledge networks benefits utilities now and in the future. A cross-disciplinary network of stakeholders can improve data quality and generate long- term institutional support and in-house research capacity.
  • An entrepreneurial approach can drive scientific problem solving. Involving the people who will ultimately use the information to inform their decisions can result in nimble, entrepreneurial problem solving. In the PUMA project, water utility personnel devised new scientific modeling techniques that solved specific problems.

“Ultimately this project was important because it showed we can build and leverage our collective knowledge to help decision makers adapt and respond to climate change,” Vogel said.

A project of the Water Utility Climate Alliance, PUMA is designed to explore the co-production of scientific information that water utilities can act upon and use in preparation for and in response to climate change. The Alliance consists of 10 of the largest water utility providers in the country.

Read the article.

About Abt Associates
Abt Associates is a mission-driven, global leader in research, evaluation and program implementation in the fields of health, social and environmental policy, and international development. Known for its rigorous approach to solving complex challenges, Abt Associates is regularly ranked as one of the top 20 global research firms and one of the top 40 international development innovators. The company has multiple offices in the U.S. and program offices in more than 40 countries. http://www.abtassociates.com

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Amy Dunaway
(301) 347-5056
Amy_Dunaway(at)abtassoc(dot)com

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