Climate Change Adaptation

As a leader among water, wastewater and stormwater utilities, PWD employs innovative technologies, leading research and adaptive management strategies to ensure high levels of safety and service. It is our obligation to prepare for the impacts of climate change and we are committed to working with the Office of Sustainability, other city agencies, partners, stakeholders, climate scientists, industry experts and officials from all levels of government to address this challenge.

Impacts from climate change pose a significant challenge to water utilities across the nation. PWD created the Climate Change Adaptation Program (CCAP) to understand the impacts that climate change will have on our drinking water, waste water and stormwater systems and to develop cost-effective adaptation strategies to minimize those impacts.

The CCAP stays up to date on the latest climate science and is committed to assessing risk and planning for the future to ensure that PWD continues providing high levels of service—clean, safe drinking water and environmentally progressive wastewater and stormwater services—to our current customers and future generations.

In January 2022, PWD adopted official policy that requires use of the Department’s Climate-Resilient Planning & Design Guidance in the planning, design, and construction of all PWD projects to the extent feasible.

More information on the Guidance document can be found under Our Response.

Climate Change Impacts on PWD Systems

We are already seeing climate change impacts, and in the coming century Philadelphia is expected to have a warmer, wetter future with more extreme weather events compared to historical observations.

  • Higher air temperatures – Increased air temperatures naturally raise the temperature of our source waters, potentially impacting aquatic life and creating new challenges for the drinking water treatment process. Higher temperatures or longer, more frequent periods of heat may also impact staff health and safety.
  • Sea level rise – As sea levels rise, the mixing zone, also known as the salt line or salt front, where fresh water and saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean meet, could creep far enough upstream to reach PWD’s drinking water intake on the Delaware River, threatening to impact our drinking water quality. Sea level rise coupled with extreme storms could also increase flooding and coastal erosion.
  • Increased Rain and Extreme Storms – Increased rain and storm intensity leads to more stormwater runoff, which negatively affects the quality of our source waters, stresses drainage systems, degrades streambank stability, and could lead to more combined sewer overflows. Severe weather may also lead to increased flooding, threatening aging infrastructure, critical facilities, and private property.
  • Drought – Seasonal drought may increase in duration and frequency, which could affect source water quality and substantially reduce river flows and available water supply.

More information about the impacts of climate change can be found in the PWD Statement on Climate Change.

Our Response

The CCAP works with divisions and units across PWD to make sure that climate change is considered in long term planning efforts. While climate change presents new challenges for managing our water resources, the good news is that PWD is already working towards solutions and has many of the necessary systems and programs in place to monitor, understand, and respond to climate change impacts.

PWD has two programs dedicated to addressing climate change, one focused on mitigation (PWD’s Energy Program) and one focused on adaptation (CCAP). PWD is already building resiliency through the Green City, Clean Waters plan, long-term water and wastewater plans, and the efficient operation and management of infrastructure systems.

PWD’s part in addressing the global issue of climate change has taken a three-fold approach:

  1. Mitigate, or lessen, PWD’s contribution to climate change by saving energy and using renewable energy sources;
  2. Study climate science and perform comprehensive risk assessments to understand what impacts climate change will have on Philadelphia’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems;
  3. Adapt to the expected changes by implementing proactive, cost-effective strategies that include incorporating climate information into the planning and design of projects.

A primary goal of the CCAP is to mainstream the use of climate change information within PWD planning, design, operations, and management processes, helping to ensure that PWD’s long-lived investments remain operationally and economically viable despite the impacts of climate change.

To this end, CCAP developed Climate-Resilient Planning & Design Guidance to inform individual projects and long-term planning initiatives. The Guidance includes resilient design flood elevations and actionable information and tools that enable PWD staff and consultants to evaluate the risks associated with sea level rise, storm surge, increasing precipitation and higher air temperatures.

In 2022, PWD adopted a Department-wide policy requiring use of the Guidance, to the extent feasible, in the planning, design, and construction of all PWD projects, including the renewal and replacement of existing assets and the construction of new assets. To the extent relevant, the Guidance must also be applied to the operation and maintenance of PWD infrastructure systems and facilities.

More information about PWD efforts to address climate change can be found in the PWD statement on climate change and the CCAP overview sheet.

Frequently Asked Questions

To see all of our Frequently Asked Questions, click here to view and download our FAQ pdf.

What climate change impacts are anticipated for Philadelphia?

Anticipated impacts from climate change in Philadelphia include more rain, extreme storms, higher air temperatures, rising sea levels, and possibly increased drought. Philadelphia is already experiencing many of these impacts and scientists expect these changes to increase in severity and magnitude within the coming century.

To learn more about the specific impacts Philadelphia may see due to climate change, check out these reports from the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability:

How will rising sea levels affect Philadelphia?

Philadelphia is not as close to the Atlantic Ocean as other Northeastern US cities such as New York and Boston. However, the Schuylkill River below Fairmount Dam and the Delaware River along the Philadelphia border are tidal. Increasing sea level in the Atlantic Ocean will increase sea level in the Delaware Bay and ultimately increase the elevations of high tide and low tide in the tidal Schuylkill River and the Delaware River that borders Philadelphia.

How may anticipated climate change impacts affect the drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater services provided by the Philadelphia Water Department?

Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) provides clean, safe drinking water, wastewater treatment, and stormwater management to all residents and businesses within Philadelphia County. All of the services PWD provides have the potential to be impacted by climate change in one or more ways. Specific examples of these impacts can be found in our Statement on Climate Change, in our FAQ document and in the “Climate Change Impacts on PWD Systems” section above.

How is PWD planning for climate change impacts?

PWD created the Climate Change Adaptation Program (CCAP) in 2014 to better understand the impacts that climate change will have on the drinking water, waste water and stormwater systems. The goal of the program is to reduce the exposure to and associated expenses from climate change impacts by identifying and implementing effective, achievable adaptation strategies. The CCAP is using a risk assessment process based on the best available science to identify vulnerabilities and develop adaptation strategies that will be integrated into existing programs, inform major investments and guide operational and design standards.

How is climate change adaptation planning a function of infrastructure planning?

Providing safe drinking water, treating wastewater and managing stormwater requires a considerable amount of infrastructure. PWD has over 3,000 miles of water mains, over 3,500 miles of sewer pipes, over 75,000 stormwater inlets, over 20 pumping stations, 12 finished water reservoirs and storage facilities, three wastewater treatment plants, three drinking water treatment plants, and more.

Maintaining, upgrading, and replacing city water infrastructure is paramount to everything we do. PWD infrastructure is designed to last a long time, so considering the long-term impacts of climate change when planning and designing projects is extremely important. Within the Climate-Resilient Planning & Design Guidance, the future time periods for climate projections considered in planning and design include near-term (2030s), mid-century (2060s), and end-of-century (2100).

The CCAP is currently determining approaches to work within existing frameworks to ensure that climate change impacts are considered during the planning and design of infrastructure projects. One of these approaches includes risk-based and adaptive management strategies to build future resilience and address some of the complexities in working with climate change projections.

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