PUMA Helps Water Utilities Innovate and Adapt

Putting climate science into action at the local level isn’t easy. That’s because when it comes to climate adaptation, climate scientists and resource managers aren’t always on the same page. Putting the results of global climate models to work for local watersheds and reservoirs can also be challenging.

These are some of the conclusions from a white paper on a project called PUMA, Piloting Utility Modeling Applications. A potentially far-reaching climate adaptation effort, PUMA is a project of the Water Utility Climate Alliance, a coalition of 10 of the nation’s largest water providers. PUMA had two goals: (1) help water providers plan for climate change by putting the best science into action at the local level; and (2) critique the process to learn what worked.

Four municipal water providers participated in PUMA, including the Northwest’s two largest, the Portland Water Bureau and Seattle Public Utilities. Both utilities worked closely with CIRC researchers. (See this month’s “Featured Partner,” Kavita Heyn.) The other participating utilities were the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and Tampa Bay Water.

To put climate science to work for them, each utility initially followed the same path. First, they looked at results of global climate simulations and then downscaled the models to represent local weather variability. They took into account factors such as the availability or absence of local climate records and the elevation of utilities’ watersheds and reservoirs. But that’s where the commonalities between the methods stopped.

For instance, the Portland Water Bureau simulated its Bull Run watershed, enlisting CIRC researchers at the University of Washington to implement and test several hydrologic models in order to pick the best one. They downscaled the models (using methods developed by CIRC researchers at the University of Idaho) and applied them specifically to this watershed. In contrast, New York used a different set of climate models and methods to put the climate model data to work for its utility.

The differences stemmed from operational differences among the four utilities, according to the authors. Because each utility operates as differently as the climates they work in, “one size didn’t fit all” — not an expected outcome for the scientists and utility managers involved in the project however obvious in hindsight.

As with other climate adaptation efforts, the authors of the PUMA white paper are clear: Getting climate scientists and resources managers (both of whom speak very different but equally specialized languages) on the same page isn’t an easy task. Still, the PUMA project’s results are heartening. Not only are future adaptation efforts likely to learn from the project, but also all four utilities plan to employ project data in their management work. The result, in our editorial opinion, is a much-needed approach to resource management when it comes to climate change — one that, in the authors’ words, doesn’t “hesitate to innovate.”

Citation: Vogel, J.M., Water Utility Alliance (2015), Actionable Science in Practice: Co-Producing Climate Change Information for Water Utility Vulnerability Assessments.  Final Report of the Piloting Utility Modeling Applications (PUMA) Project.
For more information on PUMA and the Water Utility Climate Alliance, visit: http://www.wucaonline.org.
Photo Caption: The 102 square-mile protected Bull Run watershed is located 26 miles from downtown Portland in the Sandy River basin in the Mount Hood National Forest. It holds more than 17 billion gallons of water and serves nearly a million Portland-area residents. (Photo Credit: College Outdoors, Some Rights Reserved.)

Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. 




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