A WARN-ing for Water Utilities

By John Whitler

For me, severe weather really hits home, particularly this week, which is Severe Weather Preparedness Week.  Growing up in the Midwest, I was always aware of the threat of severe weather. Tornado drills at school and emergency alerts on my home television instilled in me a profound respect for the power of severe weather.  Just as my school and parents took preparedness measures to help us be ready should something occur, I now work with drinking water and wastewater utilities to help them prepare and respond to severe weather.

When a severe weather event like a hurricane or flood happens, your water utility may not be able to provide you with clean and safe water—or any water at all—which is why it’s important that everyone be prepared for a disaster before it strikes. But today, water utilities are better able to help one another restore service to the public after a severe weather event through water and wastewater agency response networks, or WARNs. EPA helps support the establishment of WARNs, which are developed and implemented at the local level with the concept of utilities helping utilities.

WARNs enable a faster response and restoration of service than can otherwise be obtained through state or federal emergency response mechanisms.  This reduces the time that a system may be out of service and minimizes disruptions in providing clean and safe potable water to customers.

WARNs have responded to over 25 major incidents at water systems since 2005.  In 2011, the WARN in Alabama provided generators to a water utility in order to restore power and system operations following devastating tornados in Tuscaloosa.  Last year, the WARN in Minnesota provided critical staff and equipment to restore normal operations at several utilities impacted by the epic flooding in Duluth.

Severe weather events can inhibit your utility’s ability to deliver clean water, but a response network allows water utilities across the country to help one another restore service after an event like a hurricane or a flood. Photo credit: Eric Vance, U.S. EPA

Climate change impacts, such as increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, have become a source of growing concern across the U.S.  EPA’s Climate Ready Water Utilities initiative provides utilities with practical and easy-to-use tools to promote a clear understanding of climate science and adaptation options.  These adaption measures will help to reduce impacts to utility operations and ensure that customers will see fewer disruptions to their service.

Severe weather is a potential threat no matter where you live, so being prepared at home is very important. Through WARNs and our Climate Ready Water Utility initiative, we’re making sure water utilities are prepared, too.

About the author: John has been an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Office of Water since 2004.  John has participated in EPA’s response to severe weather events including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.