Create Opportunities to Thrive: Water & Infrastructure

Regardless of its cause, climate change is widely recognized to pose significant environmental, economic, and social risks, both locally and globally. The monetary cost will be enormous, eclipsing the GDP of many developed countries for decades to come. We are now challenged to find new ways to live, ways that are more resilient and sustainable and that find equilibrium within our world.

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With a temperature increase of only 1.5ᵒC (this is a low-end estimate), the world could see more than $54 Trillion in impacts from climate change-induced market and non-market impacts, sea level rise, and associated large-scale discontinuities. 

Let’s break down that $54 trillion, head to the United States, and look at how much of it is from water ($132 billion) and stormwater ($7.9 billion). No matter which part of the water sector you look – impacts are in the billions of dollars nationally. But then, of course, stormwater affects every other part of the water cycle as well. From flood insurance, to coastal properties, ocean environments, urban drainage, and inland flooding: the combined impacts are potentially quite massive.

According to a new report by The Value of Water campaign, this doesn’t even include the investment gap of $123 billion per year required to achieve even a “good” state of repair of our water infrastructure.

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By closing the annual investment gap in water infrastructure, the national economy would stand to gain over $220 billion in annual economic activity and approximately 1.3 million jobs per year. Keeping our water infrastructure working well creates $94 billion in annual productivity savings.

So between climate impacts, aging infrastructure, a funding gap, and massive losses in productivity, we have an incredible challenge facing us today. However, like many of us, I believe that every challenge is an opportunity. Not only do we have one hell of a problem to solve, but the solutions are clearly wide-reaching and provide benefits far beyond “stormwater management.” 

The first part to tackling any challenge is to understand it. And the only way to understand stormwater and coastal impacts, really, is to obtain data about how water behaves in these systems – data that we, as the stormwater industry, have mostly gone without for decades. (Yes, we have models; but models are a tool, and they don’t—and can’t—reflect the reality of highly variable systems.)

To get started, we need to understand the following issues:

(1) In order to properly implement flood control, we need to understand the locations, frequency, causes, and sources of urban flooding, storm surges, and surface water flooding (including sea-level and water-level rise).

(2) The bulk of our sewer and stormwater infrastructure far exceeds its useful age, as well as the capacity that it was built to handle. Measuring how mater moves through the system, where it comes from, where it goes, how much can be moved, and what’s causing the backups helps prioritize fixes and retrofits.

(3) Validating stormwater models with real data, because even when the infrastructure meets the modeled requirement, cities often experience massive flooding well within design storm standards.

This sounds expensive (but then again, consider what we’re already spending NOT to fix it). 

So a critical part of our mission at StormSensor is to make data accessible, so data related to stormwater and flooding is readily available to any city, large or small. Cost is a major part of availability. 

Stormwater is the last unmetered utility – why can’t we have meters everywhere like water, gas, and electric utilities do? We think we can: we started by creating our own flow monitoring sensor networks, and we designed them to be both affordable AND scalable. 

But sensors are just the beginning. Once the data is collected, it needs to be accessible via API or a dashboard. And dashboards are handy because just having a bunch of data is overwhelming, exhausting, and often useless. 

So the point really is to develop simple, practical insights that give communities the information they need to measure, monitor, and manage the risks they face from flooding, tidal surges, and overflows. These insights give cities the opportunity to streamline their operations, receive real-time storm system diagnostics, validate their models based on empirical data, and guide future investments in capital improvements based on trends, while proving the value of previous investments.

Use cases are pretty well boundless: communities can keep citizens informed of upcoming and current flood and overflow risk, optimize emergency response times, improve infrastructure performance, and reduce the frequency of adverse events. And we can help ensure that city code requirements reflect changing climate conditions. 

The beauty of a real-time monitoring network is that you do not have to apply each use case separately. Once your region is equipped with a well-planned sensor network and you have a constant stream of real-time data flowing in, then all of these features can be simultaneously applied. And there is no limit to the number of insights that can be developed on top of this data. 

Cities must balance infrastructure spending with reduced revenues and other critical city services. Data as a solution has an incredibly high return on investment, ranging from 4x to 12x if the information is used to its greatest potential. And don’t forget that $94 billion in annual productivity gains, as well as the 1.3 million new jobs created, if we fully invested in our water infrastructure.

It’s becoming very clear: none of us can afford to work blind today.

 

About the author

Erin Rothman

Stormwater Scientist

Talk stormwater with erin@stormsensor.io With more than 15 years of environmental consulting experience, Erin observed so many opportunities for innovation in the stormwater industry. With those in mind, she founded StormSensor to enthusiastically embrace new technology to help solve the problems of an age-old industry.