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Climate Responsiveness at a Local Scale

We often focus on the international level when discussing responses to climate change—for example, the just-concluded 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ongoing struggle to operationalize the Paris Agreement, or even the war of words between President Trump and young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

A photo of Earth, taken from space.But a much wider spectrum of entities and organizations will have to conduct adaptation and mitigation measures to respond to the intensely local impacts of a changing climate. Among these are what used to be known as wastewater treatment utilities—now often called water reclamation facilities—that may have to deal with (among other things) predicted widespread flooding dangers caused by an increase in larger, more intense precipitation events.

For years, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has been recognized as a “green leader” on a number of fronts, including climate change preparedness. The Marquette University Water Law and Policy Initiative received funding through the MMSD-Marquette WaterCARE grant program to examine and benchmark the District’s considerable climate progress against federal guidance, against actions taken by six peer utilities, and against the ambitious goals it has set for itself (the District seeks, by 2035, to meet 100% of the District’s energy needs with renewable sources, including 80% from internally generated sources, and to reduce its carbon footprint by 90% from its 2005 baseline). Earlier this month, the Initiative completed its work and issued a final report to the District.

First, some history. The District adopted a “Climate Change Adaptation” policy (Commission policy 1-11.06) in July 2019, that directs the District to undertake “continuous reassessment of strategies to adapt to and mitigate the immediate and long-term deleterious effects resulting from climate change.” This echoes language in the District’s 2035 Vision statement that the District should “anticipate, to the greatest extent practicable, and respond to a range of climate change impacts when considering surface water, groundwater, and the management of stormwater and floodwater.”

In 2014 the District commissioned a Climate Change Vulnerability Analysis to outline actions the District can take in response to identified risks associated with the impacts of climate change.  The District has also developed several innovative projects and programs outside of the recommendations in the 2014 analysis, including green infrastructure funding and an internal energy generation project involving landfill gas reuse.

The first objective of the Marquette report was to evaluate the District’s progress in implementing the recommendations in the 2014 Climate Change Vulnerability Analysis. The report provided a status update on each of the recommended activities responding to high-risk and moderate-risk climate impacts, determined if the recommendations that have not been addressed are still a priority, and identified new opportunities based on practices at comparable utilities.

Second, the Marquette report assessed the District’s climate change readiness as compared to six utility peers: Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. Based on publicly available information on climate mitigation and adaptation activities implemented by the six peers, as well as national frameworks and guidance documents for water and wastewater utility climate readiness, overall best management practices were identified and reviewed. The review confirmed that the District is perceived as a national “green leader” and has implemented successful climate readiness projects, but a high-level review of publicly available policies, practices, and reports showed that the peer utilities may lead the District in some areas such as carbon emissions measurement and reduction and energy efficiency improvements.

Third, the Marquette report proposed several recommendations for the District to strengthen its leadership position on climate readiness, and to operationalize its powerful statements of intent. Specifically, the report recommended that the District should:

  • Evaluate its energy usage and carbon emissions, and develop strategies to incorporate energy efficiency into operational, planning, and procurement decisions;
  • Implement selected projects recommended in the 2014 analysis that have not yet been started, but that directly align with the District’s mission, national standards, and/or peer utility actions;
  • Continue its existing initiatives in green infrastructure and methane-to-energy programs;
  • Implement and integrate the climate-related recommendations in the District’s 2019 Resilience Plan; and
  • Conduct periodic reviews of its climate policies and associated activities and projects, potentially aligning the review period with the quadrennial time cycle for the federal government’s National Climate Assessment reporting process.

It is hoped that the data and findings will be useful beyond the District to other utilities that are engaged in similar evaluations. Any person interested in learning more about the Marquette report can contact David Strifling at Marquette or Nadia Vogt at the District.

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