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Community-Based Water Resilience: Keep Vital Services Flowing

As all state drinking water regulatory agencies know, communities rely on the availability of clean and safe drinking water. Water infrastructure is typically hidden from view, buried underground, or tucked away down little-traveled roads or in less-visited parts of town. For many, fire hydrants, utility holes, and the occasional water tower with the school mascot painted on the side might be all that the public sees of the vast network of assets that comprise water infrastructure. Most people in the community have no reason to give these services a second thought.

Drinking water systems are vulnerable to various threats and challenges, from contamination and natural disasters to aging infrastructure. Even a water main break can result in pressure loss and a boil water advisory. Such a situation negatively impacts a community in multiple ways, including temporary business closures (e.g., restaurants) and operational problems for healthcare facilities (e.g., dialysis clinics). It takes time for both the state and utility to “clear” the system for normal operations after making repairs. Incidents like this can make a community painfully aware of its reliance on drinking water services and remind the community that they need contingency plans in place. This is where state resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (US EPA) Community-Based Water Resiliency resources and tools can help.

What is Community-Based Water Resiliency (CBWR)? CBWR helps identify the critical interdependencies between water utilities and other sectors within a community and promotes cross-sector relationships essential to create and maintain resiliency. For example, the healthcare and public health sector relies on water extensively. Hospital surgeons must scrub before procedures, and autoclaves need water to sterilize medical instruments. If drinking water services are interrupted, what is the hospital’s contingency plan? Are facility managers in contact with their local water utility to understand when service interruptions are likely to occur? Do they know who to contact at the utility if they have questions about service interruptions? The water sector also relies on the healthcare and public health sector. Hospitals and healthcare providers may be the first to detect a potential drinking water contamination problem within a community if patients arriving at hospitals and clinics complain of similar symptoms that suggest a water-borne cause. A water utility would want to know that information as soon as possible to begin water quality investigations and initiate appropriate operational response actions.

Another example of a critical interdependency is with the emergency services sector, whose role is to save lives, protect property and the environment, assist communities impacted by disasters, and aid recovery during emergencies. This sector includes law enforcement, fire and rescue services, emergency medical services, emergency management agencies, and public works. Emergency services rely on water services for fire protection, shelter operations, and hazardous materials response. At the same time, water utilities rely on emergency services for incident response support, such as providing alternate drinking water and helping to alert the public regarding water use advisories. A resilient community will ensure that both the water and emergency services sectors coordinate plans and procedures regularly to protect residents and businesses.

The healthcare and public health and emergency services sectors are not the only sectors interdependent on water. Others include the energy, food and agriculture, chemical, and transportation system and communication sectors. Water utilities need energy to operate, food and agriculture need water for food processing, water utilities need treatment chemicals, transportation needs water to clean vehicles between shipments, and the communication sector needs water for cooling equipment. But how can states help promote working relationships between all these critical sectors and ensure that information is exchanged between water utilities and others?

One step the state, water utilities and communities can take together is to host a water emergency workshop. CBWR includes a Water Resiliency Action Plan Kit, which can be found inside EPA’s Community-Based Water Resiliency Guide. This kit guides a workshop sponsor (e.g., state and a utility) and its partners in establishing a multi-discipline workshop planning team to develop and host a community workshop. It includes resources that can be used to prepare for and conduct the workshop: a planning checklist, sample agendas, an invitation list and invitation template, and other useful documents. A workshop brings together stakeholders to discuss goals, challenges, and roles and responsibilities in water emergency preparedness. The event’s purpose is to provide a highly interactive forum to discuss how to improve overall community resiliency to water service interruptions. By working together before an emergency, the state, drinking water utility, interdependent sectors, and community can be better prepared.

A workshop participant, Perry Dahlstrom of Golden State Water Company, underscored the importance of interdependent sectors coming together: “During my 40-year career in the utility sector, I have found that there is great value from collaborating with others. When we work with others, knowledge and past experiences are exchanged and that is where the added value comes from. Additionally, we can establish new contacts so you have somebody you can connect with later, during an emergency or not. All who participate in emergency response and service restoration play a vital role in our societal community needs. The end goal is to provide the best service at all times. Any time we can leverage our learning and knowledge gain, we should take advantage of the opportunity. Please take the opportunity to participate in a Community-Based Water Resiliency workshop and you will be better prepared and be able to provide a higher level of service to the community that you serve.”

To learn more about CBWR, take the Water Sector Interdependencies and Community-Based Water Resiliency Training available from EPA at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j305S431Y5E&feature=youtu.be. This 30-minute online training covers the topics of water and wastewater systems interdependencies, scenarios, and EPA’s Community-Based Water Resiliency Guide. The training will increase awareness of interdependencies and promote proactive community-level preparedness for water-related emergencies. With an increased understanding of relationships between the water sector and other critical infrastructure sectors, state drinking water regulatory staff can help utilities and their communities to prepare for water service interruptions successfully.