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The water industry is feeling the climate change squeeze

June 22, 2021

By Arthur Umble

How the Stantec Institute for Water Technology & Policy is addressing climate change impacts within the water industry

The global climate is changing due to atmospheric warming and these changes are accelerating. Evidence continues to mount linking these changes to anthropogenic—due to human—influences. For much of the 20th century, however, consequences of a warming climate were too gradual to generate concerned awareness.

Only in the recent decade have the effects come into focus, not the least of which are the impacts on global water quantity and quality, and its equitable availability, distribution, and access for the world’s growing population. These impacts are creating significant uncertainties for all water service providers as they determine what their responses must be now to ensure a sustainable water future.

Our clients are experiencing challenges never seen before in their management of water. When I think of these challenges, I envision a pyramid. With climate change at the top. At the bottom are challenges prominent today with public and private utility service providers (depicted on the floor surface of the pyramid), each of which is influenced by the changing climate. Some of the prominent issues bubbling to this base surface include:

  • Watershed management
  • Coastal systems and estuaries
  • Urban agriculture
  • Water footprint
  • Desalination
  • Water security
  • Risk management
  • Constituents of Emerging Concern
  • Wet Weather management
  • Nutrient management
  • Biomimicry
  • Brine management
  • Renewable energy
  • Greenhouse Gas emissions and decarbonization

The planning scope and public policy influences on managing water as a primary resource lies at the interface between the challenges utility service providers face and the solutions our Water team brings. Smart planning and policy scoping promotes integrated, interdisciplinary approaches and solutions that shape the host of consultative service offerings that Stantec provides. Solutions from water resources and conveyance, to industrial and municipal water and wastewater treatment, fit-for-purpose water reuse, stormwater management, and water infrastructure all must address the influences of climate change as a primary objective both for the short term (adaptation and resiliency) and for the long-term (mitigation). 

The dynamics of a changing climate are pressing down hard on the water industry. We must think differently about pathways to real solutions.

Status quo no longer is enough

The dynamics of a changing climate are pressing down hard on the water industry. We must think differently about pathways to real solutions, the lifespan of solutions, and the resiliency of solutions. This thinking requires intensifying our efforts in applied research, in identifying and accelerating innovative water treatment and distribution and wastewater collections and treatment technologies, coupled with tactical applied research, and forging strategic relationships with organizations, including regulators, to partner with us in implementing solutions. From a practical standpoint, all solutions are, in one form or another, about resource use efficiency and recovery of resources and deepening the operational efficiencies of resource management systems. This lies at the interface of the realities of a changing climate and society’s response to it, the very framework that founds the circular economy, climate change’s “enemy number 1.”

So, what must these solutions encompass? Climate change is pushing us to put carbon management front and center of every solution approach in the water space (i.e., stepping down our carbon footprints to net-neutral and ultimately to net-zero operation). Though our clients may need solutions oriented toward adaptation for the short term to bolster resiliency, emphasis needs to always be on outcomes that result in long-term mitigation measures that ensure a sustainable future of our water environment—and the whole planet.

All this means recognizing water’s role in the management of all primary resources that support energy, agriculture, mineral mining, manufacturing, and construction economy sectors. It’s about reducing and capturing wastes for product reuse, remanufacturing and recycling, reducing operational carbon emissions and offsetting emissions through sequestration. These actions outline the circular economy, the core of a sustainable future—the yellow area of the pyramid—the sweet spot where the Stantec Institute for Water Technology & Policy resides.

Opportunity of the millennia

Climate change is presenting us with the opportunity of a millennia—build the circular economy now—reimagining our entire approach to water, the essence of life itself as we know it. This is our call to action!

Climate change takes no prisoners—the water environment being the least of its concern. From the aspirational level, the Institute is a catalyst to solving these most challenging and complex problems our clients face. We do so with an end in mind, that of a sustainable world for all, whereby the livable environment no longer shoulders the costs of economic growth, the two decoupled by a functioning circular economy. At the applied level, the Institute connects the expertise of Stantec’s practitioners and subject matter experts to the specific project needs of the client, ensuring the solutions align with the aspirational intent. 

  • Arthur Umble

    As the global lead for wastewater practice, Arthur’s position involves developing strategies and providing solutions for complex wastewater treatment challenges.

    Contact Arthur
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