Should Coastal Utility Master Plans Include Sea Level Rise?


Planning is a process utilized by utilities in order to reach a vision of the utility as defined by the customers or the governing board, or to meet certain demands for service projected to be required in the future.  Understanding and managing the utility’s assets provides important information related to the ongoing future direction of the utility system.  However, the only method to develop that future direction is through the planning process.  Planning should be undertaken on a regular basis by all enterprises in an effort to anticipate in to anticipate needs, clarify organizational goals, provide direction for the organization to pursue and to communicate each of these to the public.  With water and wastewater utility systems, it is imperative to have ongoing planning activities, as many necessary improvements and programs take months or years to implement and/or complete.  Without a short and long-term plan to accomplish future needs, the utility will suffer errors in direction, build unnecessary or inadequate infrastructure and pursue programs that later are found to provide the wrong information, level of service or type of treatment.

Planning can provide for a number of long-term benefits – improvements in ISO ratings to lower fire insurance rates, renewal of improvements as monies become available, rate stability and most importantly – a “vision” for the utility.  In creating any plan for a utility system, efforts to understand the operating environment in which the utility operates must be undertaken.  Second, the needs of the utility must be defined – generally from growth projections and analyses of current infrastructure condition from repair records or specific investigations.  By funneling this information into the planning process, the result of the effort should be a set of clear goals and objectives needs to be defined (Figure 8.1).  However, the types of goals and objectives may vary depending on the type of plan developed.  There are 4 types of plans that may result from the planning process.

  • Strategic Plans – action oriented for management level decision-making and direction
  • Integrated Resource Plans – Actions for utility management to tie all parts of the system together
  • Facilities Plans – for SRF loans support
  • Master Plans – to support capital improvement programs

Any utility planning effort should start with a description (and understanding) of the local environment (built and otherwise).  An understanding of the environment from which water is drawn or to be discharged is important.  Both water quality and available quantity, whether surface or ground water, are profoundly affected by demand.  A reduced demand for surface water helps prevent degradation of the quality of the resource in times of low precipitation.  Reduction in the pumping of ground water improves the aquifer’s ability to withstand salt water infiltration, potential surface contamination, upconing of poorer quality water, contamination by septic tank leachate, underground storage tank leakage, and leaching hazardous wastes and other pollutants from the surface.  Over-pumping ground water leads denuding the aquifer or to contamination of large sections of the aquifer.  Planning for is necessary for surface water systems.  Therefore, source water protection must be a part of any water planning efforts, including the appropriate application sites and treatment needs for reuse and residuals.

So let’s toss sea level rise into the mix.  What happens when sea level rise inundates coastal areas with saltwater and increase freshwater heads inland?  How do we fix that problem and should be plan for it.  Clearly master planning should include this threat (as applicable), just as any regulatory issue, water limitation, disposal limit or change in business practices should be considered.  One means to reduce the impact of sea level induced groundwater levels is infiltration galleries that may operate 24/7.  These systems are commonly used to dispose of storm water (french drains or exfiltration trenches) but what happens if the flow is reversed?  Water will flow easily into the system, just as it does for riverbank filtration. The water must be disposed of, with limited options, but let’s toss a crazy idea out there – could it be your new water supply?  Just asking, but such a system would not be unprecedented worldwide, only in the coastal communities of the US.

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