Climate change is impacting coastal communities in the United States and around the globe. Adam Sharpe addresses rising sea levels in the nation’s coastal communities during his presentation at ACE14.

By: Adam Sharpe, CH2M HILL project manager

Adam Sharpe will present his paper, “Confronting Climate Change with Vulnerability Assessments and Asset Management,” on Tuesday, June 10 at 10 a.m., during the AWWA ACE. Get a complete list of CH2M HILL’s participation in ACE14.

Coastal communities in the U.S. and across the globe are facing increasing uncertainty from the impacts of climate change. One of the impacts of most concern is sea level rise. Combined with storm surges from extreme weather events, sea level rise is forcing coastal communities to adopt approaches to protect critical water and wastewater infrastructure.

CH2M HILL has been working with one such community, Wilmington, North Carolina, in partnership with New Hanover County and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), to identify adaptation strategies that could reduce the vulnerability of water and wastewater infrastructure to potential sea level rise and extreme storm events. This work comes under the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Sustainable Communities; in particular, the EPA has set long-term goals to support national efforts to build resilience to climate change, and provided funding for this pilot project in Wilmington.

Working with Wilmington, New Hanover County, and the CFPUA, CH2M HILL developed a six-step process to guide the development of sea level rise approaches. This process follows the path of an adaptive management framework: frame the problem and identify sea level rise scenarios; identify vulnerabilities and risk; develop potential adaptation strategies; link adaptation strategies to any existing processes; implement adaptation strategies; and finally, monitor reassess, and make any needed changes.

The State of North Carolina is already at the forefront of planning for sea level rise through the North Carolina Sea Level Rise Impact Study. This separate study, conducted by the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, provided an excellent starting point for Wilmington’s sea level rise planning process.

At the end of the six-step process, the team identified a number of water and wastewater facilities that were especially vulnerable to sea level rise and/or severe storm events, including treatment facilities, pump stations, and inundation of manholes. Not only are these facilities especially vulnerable, but they are also especially critical to the health and safety of the area’s residents and businesses, and identifying strategies for their protection is crucial.

A suite of 54 adaptation strategies (infrastructure and land use/planning) were identified for Wilmington, New Hanover County, and CFPUA to select from to increase resilience; each organization will ultimately choose how it will adapt based on its individual needs, governance, and authority.

Coastal communities will continue, for the foreseeable future, to face an increasing degree of uncertainty related to the impacts future sea level rise may have on their areas. The use of high-quality information, such as the data from the North Carolina Sea Level Rise Impact Study leveraged in this pilot project, to derive an understanding of the potential risks to sea level rise and identify adaptation strategies to increase resilience, provides a foundation by which decision makers can start to adaptively plan for the future under altered sea level conditions. The monitoring of tidal and sea level trends over time will provide additional insight for decisions related to adaptation strategy implementation, including strategy selection, scale, and timing.

This pilot project will serve as a long-term guide and reference for the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, CFPUA, and other coastal communities for building resilience to future changes in sea level.

This pilot project is also envisioned to serve as a template for other coastal communities in the U.S. to assess the vulnerability of their systems, identify and plan for adaptation strategies specific to their unique risks. With this pilot project template, local communities will be better able to decide how to allocate resources to meet challenges posed by sea level rise and extreme storm events.

Adam Sharpe is a project manager at CH2M HILL with experience in integrated master planning, water supply/water resources planning, asset management, decision support, financial/ business case evaluations, and capital improvement program prioritization. He specializes in applying a range of decision support techniques for major capital infrastructure projects.