In March, we held our second Regional Convening of 2023 in Philadelphia, PA, uniting Water Equity Network cities located in the Delaware River Basin. We were joined by five City Teams—Trenton, NJ; Allentown, PA; Reading, PA; Camden, NJ; and Philadelphia, PA—who gathered to discuss challenges and identify shared priorities with an emphasis on climate resiliency.
The Regional Cohort was posed with the question: “What is the relationship between climate resiliency and water equity?” The group shared that low-income and Communities of Color consistently carry the greatest burden and that water equity is needed to achieve climate resiliency. City leaders also shared that as climate change poses more threats to communities, those most impacted by climate change are also those with fewer resources to adapt.
As the convening progressed, the facilitators transitioned from talking about challenges to identifying possible solutions. Acknowledging that some cities in the group are farther along in their planning and implementation processes related to climate resiliency, Paula Connolly, Director of Local Engagement and Senior Advisor for Distributed Infrastructure at the Alliance was joined by Marc Cammarata, Deputy Water Commissioner; Planning at Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), to discuss insights from Philadelphia’s progress and offer lessons learned to peer utilities and City Teams within the region.
Paula: Can you tell us about the Climate Adaptation Program and what spurred its inception?
Marc: I’ve been in public service, specifically with the water department, for 25 years. I’m not sure I fully understand equity in action yet, but I’ve gotten a solid glimpse into the inequities in Philadelphia based on the stark neighborhood-based differences surrounding things like the impacts of flooding on residents, the cleanliness and tidiness of construction sites, and tree cover. Another major indicator of persisting inequities is reflected in the results of a 2016 Philadelphia-based study, which indicated that babies born in neighborhoods just five miles apart face up to a 20-year difference in life expectancy. Additionally, a study conducted in 2020 revealed that 40% of Philadelphians chose to primarily drink bottled water over tap water in their homes, and out of that 40%, individuals were more likely to be female, People of Color, lower income, and have lower levels of formal education.
We care about climate change in Philadelphia because we are directly impacted by it. The increasing frequency of intense precipitation events, storm surges, and sea level rise are stressing our aging infrastructure, seen through the flooding of both surface and below-grade assets such as treatment plants, pump stations, and storm and sanitary sewers. There’s also an increased energy demand for pumping and treatment, and seasonal drought conditions may also affect source water quantity and quality. Something else we’re noticing is greater precipitation risks that manifest in frequent combined sewer overflows and occasional basement and sewer backups. Increases in air temperature may lead to an increase in water treatment chemical application rates and supply costs, risks to maintaining safe working conditions for our field employees, and dissolved oxygen impacts in rivers and streams. Stream channels are further degraded due to increased erosion, sediment transport, and riverine flooding.
Across the country, we are seeing the disproportionate impacts of climate change on disadvantaged communities. To move forward, we need to accept and own this. PWD is an integrated utility that provides drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater services. We do our best to educate, include, and engage our stakeholders and recognize our role as more than a core service provider, but as water resource managers. Components of PWD’s core mission include meeting the requirements of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act while considering safe, just, affordable, accessible, and aesthetic outcomes when providing our services.
In 2015, PWD formulated the Climate Change Adaptation Program
to better understand the impacts of climate change and ask, “How do we plan for and invest in a future that will look quite different than our past?” We wanted to promote internal awareness and urgency and ensure we were addressing the risks in long-term investment strategies. Our program utilizes the latest climate science to understand the projected near and long-term climate change impacts on Philadelphia, analyze how the functioning of our water systems will be affected by a changing climate, plan for projects that increase the climate resiliency of our utility, and implement actions and strategies into our planning, design, and operational efforts.
Paula: Within your organization, what elements of culture had to change and/or still need changing?
Marc: Our history of data collection and using technological tools did not change. PWD typically gathers and processes chemical, physical, and biological data and information, and we realized that the climate dataset was something else we needed to add to our planning tools. Relying on climate projection data allows us to add some degree of certainty to an uncertain future. From here, we’ve gotten individuals comfortable utilizing new data based on projections and depending less on historic or stationary data for planning purposes.
Our biggest culture change was our mentality. We needed to shift our reactive approach to be reactive and proactive, addressing today’s problems while identifying the risks of what’s ahead. This mindset change is gaining traction at the department, and to fully get there, we need to constantly remind ourselves of who we serve—our ratepayers are our neighbors. And we at the utility live in this city, too. We need to wholly embrace the efforts of PWD’s community engagement, public relations, and public affairs teams.
Paula: What have been the impacts of partnerships?
Marc: A lot has happened in the last few years. To see the City pull together an Urban Agriculture Plan, Hazard Mitigation Plan, Climate Action Plan, and Philly Tree Plan with the community at the center is truly inspiring. Through a city charter change focused on environmental justice, infrastructure and floodplain resilience, food policy, and urban heat island stress reduction, we’ve seen the Office of Sustainability become a dedicated city office. We’re attempting to mainstream our climate approach into regulatory obligation and are seeing a lot of attention and city governance that was not previously present.
Paula: What work has had the biggest dividends?
Marc: At the onset of the program, we dedicated substantial resources to make climate science actionable for our risk assessment purposes by following an understand-analyze-plan-implement process, which serves as the general framework of our approach. This process led to the development of the first version of PWD’s Climate-Resilient Planning and Design Guidance document, with the Commissioner announcing its establishment as a policy in January 2022. This document incorporates climate information into the planning and decision-making processes for long-term infrastructure plans and individual projects (water, wastewater, and stormwater), integrates climate information into the capital planning process, updates PWD design manuals and standards, informs risk-based approaches for identifying strategies, and prioritizes investments for effective adaptation. This guidance document is integral to an effective planning approach that considers useful service life, criticality of infrastructure, risk tolerance, and adaptive capacity.
Paula: In what ways did this plan impact equity and community engagement?
Marc: We are centering equity and community engagement in our infrastructure solutions in two of the most climate-impacted communities in our service area: Germantown and Eastwick. In the Eastwick community, the City has explored various mitigation actions including managed retreat, relocation, levees, and cloudburst stormwater management—but the final approach will involve the community. We’re currently investigating building a lengthy, large-diameter tunnel in the Germantown community, and how we plan, design, construct, and operate this tunnel will put our ability to engage communities throughout the process to the test. We aim to lead with problem identification, getting the community active in what’s happening, and empowering the community to become strong voices in guiding what’s going to be built within and under their community.
Paula: What are you still struggling with?
Marc: The biggest challenge is competing priorities and costs. We do our best to limit rate increases; however, like many communities, we are witnessing rising costs related to materials and labor for infrastructure improvements, aging assets, and regulations for water, wastewater, and stormwater—which are straining both our operating and capital budgets. And over the last decade or so, we’ve continued to see more extreme weather events, further stressing our infrastructure and impacting our communities. Now more than ever, we must plan and design projects that are in line with future climate projections. For example, we can design a tunnel for a 25-year storm, but if we are seeing an intensification of short-duration, high-frequency storms, will the water make it into the tunnel regardless of this increased capacity?
Paula: What are you most hopeful for?
I am most hopeful about the way the City has organized around equity. Equity is doing more for people—with these people—who have either not had enough done for them or have had too much done to them. I am hopeful for our continued partnership with the US Water Alliance and grateful for its support, especially through the publication of the Racial Equity Toolkit
. I am hopeful that we will have additional resources to achieve equity, and I look forward to continuing to see the City embrace these tools. We have talked with other departments in the City about equity for a while, and while we are still grasping what it truly means, we are already seeing committees and cohorts develop.
The words are out there, and if you can’t talk about them, you can’t do anything about them. In other words, if you don’t identify the problems, you can’t uncover solutions. We’re looking to address the complex issue of equity in small bites, finding and celebrating the small wins.