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Climate Change

Water Resources

Adaptation Examples: Water Resources

Faucet with running water

Adaptation Examples in Water

Key Points
  • Cities and states are encouraging homeowners to take actions that protect the existing water supply and limit water demand to prepare for anticipated water shortages.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers is building and reinforcing water maintenance structures, such as pumps and levees to protect communities from flooding arising from heavy rain and storm surge.
  • Federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, have developed programs that promote water conservation by upgrading aging pipes and educating consumers about water efficient products.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is providing resources to help water and wastewater utility operators better understand and adapt to climate change.

As climate change causes heavy precipitation events to become more frequent, flooding will likely increase in some areas of the country. At the same time, droughts are likely to become more common, especially in arid regions. Both flooding and droughts can degrade water quality. To learn more about how climate change can impact water supply and quality, visit the Water Impacts section.

In areas that will likely see more concentrated rain and flooding, land managers are taking steps to minimize flood hazards. Likewise, in areas where shortages are projected, water utility providers and resource managers are working to increase and protect the water supply. Although not all efforts are designed with adaptation as a primary goal, such actions increase resilience to expected changes in climate. Water management adaptation efforts include a wide variety of activities based on current and anticipated climate change impacts. Specific adaptation approaches include:

  • Conserving water and minimizing runoff with climate-appropriate landscaping, such as xeriscaping
  • Using water barrels that capture excess rainfall to minimize flooding and maintain a constant supply of water through dry spells
  • Protecting valuable resources and infrastructure from flood damage
  • Managing rainfall on-site to limit contamination and protect water quality
  • Limiting development within vulnerable watersheds
Photograph of a garden with cactus and other desert plants.

Xeriscape demonstration garden in Chandler, AZ. Source: City of Chandler, Arizona, Water Conservation Office Exit EPA Disclaimer

The following case studies, examples, and related links are illustrative of water resource management adaptation and are not intended to be comprehensive. To learn about the role of water in adaptation efforts in other sectors visit the Coastal Impacts & Adaptation page, Energy Impacts & Adaptation page, or Agriculture and Food Supply Impacts & Adaptation page.

Local governments plan for water shortages

Photograph of a brown rain barrel under a rainspout attached to a house.

Household rain barrel collects water during storms. Source: King County, WA, Department of Natural Resources and Parks (2012)

Changes in rain and snow patterns will likely alter the timing and the amount of water available in watersheds and existing reservoirs, especially during the summer months. The West, particularly the Southwest, is projected to have more frequent and severe droughts. [1] There are a variety of ways that water utilities and cities can encourage homeowners to protect existing supply, expand future supply, and limit demand.

  • Local governments in drought-prone regions promote climate-appropriate landscaping to minimize the demand for water. In the City of Peoria, Arizona, the Public Works and Utilities Department Exit EPA Disclaimer provides technical assistance and offers rebates for "dry landscaping" or xeriscapes. In the Southwest, xeriscapes include desert plants that thrive in dry conditions.
  • In cases of severe water shortage and rapid population growth, new water supply strategies such as water reuse, aquifer storage and recovery, and desalination may help meet demand.
  • Water efficient appliances use less water than older models. The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, Exit EPA Disclaimer for example, offers incentives for individuals and businesses that switch to low-flow toilets, showerheads, and faucets.
  • Rain barrels are an effective, low-tech way to reuse water on-site. Cities like Chicago, Illinois Exit EPA Disclaimer and Gaithersburg, Maryland offer rebates for residents who purchase rain barrels. These barrels are set up below rain spouts to collect excess runoff from roofs. The benefit is twofold—reducing localized flooding and providing water for landscaping.

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Parts of the U.S. Prepare for More Flooding

Photograph of a vegetated, green roof.

The Chicago, Illinois City Hall was retrofitted with a "green roof" in 2001. Source: U.S. Department of Energy (2006)

Parts of the United States, (for example the Northwest, Midwest and Northeast) are projected to experience more frequent and severe heavy rains. [1] Cities and counties are strengthening flood protection infrastructure and encouraging development that minimizes runoff.

  • Green stormwater infrastructure uses landscape design and technologies to manage stormwater on-site and restore the natural hydrology of the land. Cities like Philadelphia Exit EPA Disclaimer are exploring how to integrate rain gardens, stormwater planters, and green roofs into the urban design.
  • Flood prone cities and counties are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to identify and build infrastructure to protect people and property impacted by flooding events. The Army Corps of Engineers has several priority projects to protect the New Orleans area from flooding caused by heavy rain and storm surge.

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Cities, the EPA, and local partners protect water quality

As discussed in the Water Resources Impacts section, climate change can affect water quality in a variety of ways. Water utility and infrastructure managers can take a variety of steps to prevent contamination of water supplies, and to protect the ecosystems that help to maintain water quality.

  • In some cities, combined sewer systems collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in one pipe that are typically transported to a sewage facility for treatment. However, during heavy rain events, these systems can overflow directly into a water body, potentially contaminating water supplies or recreational areas. Limiting rainwater runoff during rainstorms can help avoid overburdening a combined sewer system. For example, increasing the amount of permeable surfaces, such as permeable pavement, can allow water to infiltrate the ground. By using porous materials, builders can reduce localized flooding and the amount of water that runs into sewers. Chicago has incorporated permeable pavements in its Green Alley program. Exit EPA Disclaimer
  • Pollutants that enter waterways can quickly disperse and degrade water quality. Increasing the distance between hazardous materials and areas that are likely to flood can prevent contaminants from polluting the water supply.
  • Limiting development within a watershed protects the natural ecosystems that often contribute to water quality and regulate flows. For example, the City of Seattle restricts development on land in the Cedar River watershed Exit EPA Disclaimer that feeds water into its reservoir.
  • EPA's National Water Program Climate Change Strategy provides an overview of the likely impacts of climate change on the nation's clean and safe drinking water programs. It also identifies goals and strategic actions being implemented by the National Water Program to adapt to those changes. Specific adaptation strategies include improving assessment methods to detect hydrologic changes, incorporating climate change considerations into Clean Water Act programs to protect watersheds, wetlands, oceans and coastal waters, and promoting the development of "green infrastructure" that reduces water contamination and conserve water and energy. [2]
  • EPA's Climate Ready Water Utilities initiative provides practical tools and resources for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities to better understand and adapt to climate change impacts.

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Federal Agencies make it easier to protect local water supplies

Several government projects were developed to make it easier for local utilities to manage water resources in a changing climate.

  • WaterSense is an EPA partnership program, through which organizations, businesses, and governments work together to promote water conservation through the use of efficient appliances. The WaterSense label helps consumers identify products and services that are at least 20% more efficient than average products without sacrificing performance.
  • The U.S. Department of the Interior runs WaterSMART, a program that focuses on improving water conservation and helping water-resource managers make sound decisions about water use. The program also identifies adaptive measures to address climate change and its impact on future water demands. In addition to providing grants for local conservation projects, the Department manages a website where water managers can share ideas and learn from colleagues.
  • The Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force developed the National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate (PDF) to help freshwater resource managers plan for climate change. The report provides six recommendations to help ensure an adequate clean water supply.

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1. USGCRP (2009). Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Karl, T.R. J.M. Melillo, and T.C. Peterson (eds.). United States Global Change Research Program. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, USA.

2. U.S. EPA (2012). 2012 National Water Program Strategy: Response to Climate Change.

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