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Water, Climate Crisis, and Future of Philadelphia

By Swati Hegde, Ph.D.

The Water Center, University of Pennsylvania

Schuylkill River, one of the drinking water sources for Philadelphia has historically been a river of industrial, environmental and political revolutions (Picture by Dr. Swati Hegde)

A clean and safe water supply along with effectively managed wastewater and stormwater are the cornerstones of a healthy community. Climate change, however, has presented the water sector with a new set of challenges to provide these fundamental services. Climate change has threatened both water quality and quantity in Philadelphia and elsewhere. This is the peak time we need to treat climate change as not only environmental issue but also political, social and ethical issue. Philadelphia’s drinking water sources are at threat due to flooding, increased precipitation and salt intrusion in Delaware river as a result of sea level rise. On top of these challenges, it is predicted that climate refugees will increasingly flock into Philadelphia from New York and other cities that are at threat of overwhelming population density and increased air temperatures. These are the crucial climate challenges affecting Philadelphia in addition to increased air temperature from global warming.

Apart from climate change, Philadelphia’s aging water infrastructure poses additional challenges. Philadelphia has combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that are designed to overflow when there is increased storm. The combined sewers carry wastewater (sewage) and stormwater together. In the event of an extreme storm, the wastewater treatment plants exceed their capacity and hence overflow from CSO is released into local creeks and rivers. This overflow pollutes the water with fecal pathogens and other organic pollutants. Aging infrastructure on the other hand is energy inefficient, contains leaky water pipes and needs an eventual replacement with green infrastructure, which could take decades. One cannot deny that climate events such as flooding will impose additional stress on the already aging infrastructure.

How will Philadelphia look in 2050?

With all these challenges identified, the right question to ask ourselves is how life in Philadelphia will look in 2050. Obviously, the Philadelphians must prepare for a much hotter and wetter weather. Increased rain and extreme storm events lead to increased stormwater runoffs, which negatively stress drainage systems, pollutes source waters and can lead to increased flooding. All these events threaten the aging infrastructure, as well as private properties. As the sea level rises, the salt line where freshwater and Atlantic Ocean meet seeps increasingly into freshwater sources such as Delaware River. Salt intrusion creates additional risks to ensuring drinking water quality as well as increases the cost of water purification let alone challenges posed by pollution. On top of these, increased air temperature in Philadelphia is leading to increased water evaporation substantially reducing river flows and causing seasonal draughts.

Inevitably, the climate change will hit Philadelphia and other similar cities with infrastructure challenges such as reducing the volume of CSOs, roadway maintenance and repairs, and increased electricity usage with increasing temperature. All of these might mean that every Philadelphian’s wallet might take a hit in the form of tax increase to maintain all the infrastructure needed to adapt to climate change. The city of Philadelphia has previously predicted that climate refugees from coastal regions and living in places with threat of hurricanes and natural disasters might take shelter in Philadelphia. However, Philadelphia could easily take another 1 million people who might flee as climate refugees[1], and over the long run this can pose additional challenges.

How City of Philadelphia is adapting to changing climate?

Despite all these concerns, the City of Philadelphia is taking several measures to adapt to the hotter and wetter future. The city has come up with a plan called Growing Stronger to adapt to the climate change. In 2012, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability (MOS) convened the Climate Adaptation Working Group (CAWG). The CWAG contained a group of 10 agencies and departments committed to guiding the city’s work to prepare for climate change. They are working to ensure that the we are prepared for a better future without having to compromise on the economy. The change must come from somewhere and individual cities have the potential to influence entire nation through their innovative approaches.

How we can influence the future?

Even though Philadelphia is not at as high risk as Boston or New York City as it applies to sea level rise, other impacts of climate change cannot be denied. It is also crucial to understand that, we as citizens take utmost responsibility of our climate and do every bit possible to (i) mitigate, (ii) study and (iii) adapt to the impacts of climate change. Influencing politics on the issue of climate change can encompass many different forms of individual and collective actions targeted to affect governmental policies. At the most basic level, individuals directly influence governmental actors or policies on climate change—most notably by voting, but also through donating money and communicating with public officials. Voting is how we choose between competing priorities and policy decisions and is how we govern the institutions that govern us. One of the many ways to build a future that we want is to ensure that voters understand the stakes around climate change and vote. More importantly, it is how we hold our leaders accountable when they fail to serve the public interest.

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